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A Success Story in Strengthening Communities

October 25, 2010

Graduate Assistant LaKenya Smith at the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit

The Strengthening Communities Grant (SCG) Summit took place this past Friday in Memphis.  Dedra Macklin of the Westwood Indian Hill Development (WIND) and I were the fortunate recipients of an SCG in 2009 for the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis Project at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  At the summit, we participated in a workshop that considered the “How To” points in developing successful community partnerships.  We addressed three basic themes:

It’s a Process not an Event – Successful community engagement is not something that is built overnight, or stops after submitting the final project report.  Prior to receiving the SCG, the C.H. Nash Museum and WIND developed a relationship over the preceding two-year period.  Joint projects during that time included film showings, exhibit work, and the opening of community youth photographic banners at the Museum.  For academics, in a world governed by publication and other deadlines, such an intentionally casual partnership development is not the norm.  We viewed the SCG project as a single step in a continuum of interactions that will continue after we submit the final project report.

Collaboration – As the academic in a partnership, I know I must guard against speaking with elevated authority in determining what is best for the project.  Here is an excellent example of this tendency –  As we neared completion of the exhibit, I more announced, rather than suggested, that we should approach Memphis City Schools and others for the next phase to do x, y, and z.  As an alternative, the Project Coordinator, Sam Gibbs, commented that the general direction of my proposal seemed about right and involved the community, perhaps we should first call a meeting of all our partners, including the new partners engaged during the project, the community at large, and of course the student participants, and see what the combined group thought were the next best steps.  A perfect understanding of true collaboration!

You Can Make Plans, But Don’t Plan the Results – The project did not go the way we planned.  We intended to recruit students by January of 2010.  We did not complete the recruitment process until April but had an incredible pool of applicants that was four times the maximum number we could involve.  We intended to create a single exhibit on the excavation of a 1920s era farmstead.  We ended up with that exhibit, plus two walls of banner posters, a resource center, and a 20-minute documentary edited from over 30 hours of oral histories – all created by the student participants. In his comments at the exhibit opening, one of the students, Davarius Burton noted “It was all on us.  There were no limits to what we could do.”  But we remained true to creating a cultural heritage exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage of Southwest Memphis, the basis for our grant proposal.  At the same time, and in the same way that now when creating exhibits on Native American tribal groups we ask “What do you want the people who visit the C.H. Nash Museum to know about your culture?” we allowed the students to make the same decision about presenting their cultural heritage.

For me, the Strengthening Communities Grant Project is one of the most rewarding examples in the intersection of Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.

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