This is the latest post in our series Responses and Retrospectives, which features archivists’ personal responses and perspectives concerning current or historical events/subjects with significant implications for the archives profession. Interested in contributing to Responses and Retrospectives? Please email the editor at email@example.com with your ideas!
Geof Huth is the Chief Records Officer and Chief Law Librarian at New York State Unified Court System. He’s a co-host of An Archivists’s Tale, a poet, the editor of the nanopress dbqp, and an honored member and former Council member of the Society of American Archivists.
Rachael Woody, a member of SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness reached out to Geof Huth and invited him to write this post. She did so because (at the time of the invitation) Huth was the only publicly known person to have signed the SAA 2020 election petition to add a third Vice President/President candidate to the ballot and also contribute to the #52Fund—a fund created in direct response to the petition. Through this post COPA hopes to offer membership insight into this issue via a member who has experienced a portion of it. For complete transparency, Woody is identifying herself. She provided some content suggestions and editorial challenges, some of which Huth accepted to incorporate. As this is a longer post she provided suggestion of headers to indicate intent of the sections and she chose to bold some of the sentences throughout.
Woody extended an invitation to Nominating Committee Chair Lae’l Hughes-Watkins who later published a post via the SAA Leaders List and SAA’s Off the Record blog. Additionally, an invitation was sent to Samantha Winn, creator of the #52Fund. Her post can be found here. For related reading, please see Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s post from January 16 (soon after the petition was released) that helps to contextualize some of the reaction to the petition. Membership and related organizations have also published posts including: VP candidate Courtney Chartier, SAA Fellow Terry Baxter, and the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia blog. On February 5, 2020 SAA Council released their statement on the petition.
I have been walking the earth long enough to realize that we humans never fully understand each other, that we think we agree (or disagree) only to discover the opposite is true. To be sure, we don’t even understand our own motivations as well as we must.
That prolog will guide my explanation of why I signed on to the petition to add another candidate to the SAA 2020 slate of candidates. Please note that I do not assume any of the other signers agree with anything I am writing here, and note that I will not allow anyone to read or comment on my words here before I send this off to SAA. I write this sprawling and personal essay because I was asked to and because I believe in dialog. I believe in addressing disagreements directly and respectfully. I do not expect or even hope to change minds. I am not asking anyone to reverse their decision about the petition, though I will (eventually) be asking us all to consider ways to improve how we disagree. I may unintentionally anger people during this discussion, but my goal here is to be honest and respectful.
First, a few words about where my thinking comes from—words that will seem weirdly personal, and that is because it is the individual who thinks and feels inside their head, and I will reflect the individual I am.
I come from a violent family, one that was often filled with eruptions of anger wrought upon the small children that we were. (I have written about my childhood before, so this will not be news to many.) Because of that, I try to quell anger in myself, though I am less and less able to do that on the streets of New York these days—something I’m working on. I am flawed, and I make new mistakes every day.
A friend of mine asked me why I had signed this petition and asked about the request for signers, so I sent them a copy of the note I had received. As I have said to a few people, I did not consider that email privileged information, and I’ve been a government archivist and records manager most of my life, so I always default to access. I explained to my friend, though only vaguely, why I signed the petition. I also noted that I did not understand, at the time, why this was a controversial act. My thoughts on this are complex (at least to me), and they have changed, to a degree, with the addition of new information.
I also told that friend of mine I could handle the fireworks, but I turned out to be wrong. The fireworks came, and they were often in the form of anger, a human response I can understand and accept. But my childhood has made me feel anger too hard, meaning I felt the drawdown of depression dull my senses, which has been my only (and unsuccessful) protective response to anger since childhood. I did not expect to feel this soporific pull, this partial shutdown, but I did, and I feel it again now as I write about it (as I have every time I reread this paragraph).
I hate hate. Hate is a poor replacement for humanity, but it is one we employ quite often. If someone thinks differently from us, or acts differently, or is in any way different, we often lean into hate. And the sibling of hate is anger. I can accept righteous anger as a valuable currency in human relations, but anger can also blind us to the humanity of the people we disagree with.
Some of the responses to the petition were built on anger, which surprised me, partly because I did not understand the context of their thoughts, because I had thought too shallowly about this. For reasons I’ve noted, I could not read much of the commentary, but I identified three reasons people used to explain the decision of the petitioners: racism, elderliness, and privilege. I would claim I’m guilty of all of those, but this requires some clarification.
As I’ve often noted to friends of mine of diverse backgrounds, I believe everyone is racist or biased in some way, every one of us of every race, of every background. This is not to say I believe everyone practices the kind of institutional racism that has plagued the United States since before its founding. It means that, in some ways, often unconsciously, we all will have at least the slightest notion that a person different in any way from us is somehow not as good as one more like us. I realize this point of view of mine is an outlier opinion, but I believe it’s true, even as I personally try to treat everyone fairly and equally in my human interactions.
As an example of how we can all struggle with biases: I spent a few weeks once trying to convince a close friend that it was irrational for them to think that a transgender female friend of ours was somehow strange, that there was something weird in not always identifying as cis. This friend was gay and shared a community with our transgender friend. Even in the face of the prejudices and disbelief my gay friend had faced from people they knew, they fell into the same trap of thinking as society had long taught us to think. I don’t consider myself a person who works hard to make people more accepting of others, but I do work at it.
I recently experienced an example where I had to evaluate whether unconscious racism was in play: In responding to this second friend who had asked me about my decision to sign on to the petition, I wrote the following paragraph. At the time, I was working in one of my literally filthy archives, one filled with dust, dirt, and trash, and I wrote this on my phone:
My staff is extremely diverse: black, white, Asian, Hispanic. It does not look anything like the extremely white SAA. When this controversy erupted (which eruption I was not smart enough to foresee), I was literally working on proposal to upgrade staff in my records center, where from the manager on down everyone is Hispanic, black, or Asian. My goal was to raise the grade and the pay of our two lowest graded staff so they’d be paid commensurate with their work. Yesterday, I responded to notes from HR questioning the grade I’d chosen, and I noted it was commensurate with other staff doing similar work in our main facility, that the grade was merely fair. I wondered for a second if race was an issue in their question, but I realized there was also a mix of races in the other group. I think the bias was against the idea that someone working in a records center could be of high enough status for such a grade. Another kind of bias. But I also decided all I can do is argue the point to convince HR to grade these people for their work. So I have to understand their thinking. I have to ask them what they think.
Given this story of mine, I will note that I understand how some archivists concluded the petition had racist underpinnings. Even if totally unconscious, such racism is something we should fight against, and so people did. However, just as I considered unconscious racism as a possible motive but dispensed with that idea after some consideration, I believe racism is not the source of this disagreement among us.
I will admit I am at least approaching being old. I’ll turn 60 this year. I am technically a baby boomer, but I came at the tail end of that generation and I have almost no connection to their lives and the cultural touchstones therein. I was a child during the Vietnam War, for instance, so I had no chance of being conscripted. I will push back on our tendency to define people by their age and generation, however, because that is an ism we do not seem to want to shake. My children are Millennials, and I’m constantly arguing with people near my age about the characteristics they assign to that generation, noting that my children do not act almost in any of the ways the caricature of Millennials suggests. And I would claim that caricatures of my generation, or sub-generation, are no better. I don’t believe people are merely automatons created within a single monolithic “generation,” trapped entirely by their random year of birth. Certainly, the petitioners (not all of whom I know) appear to be around my age, so people reacted to that fact, but at the same time they did not consider those of that same age group who certainly must have declined to sign the petition. We are not our generation. We are individuals.
Finally, I will admit I am a person of a great privilege. Even though my childhood was sometimes chaotic, I grew up the son of a diplomat. I have lived on most continents on earth, I have had the benefit of a good education, and I am well paid. Being white didn’t hurt—I realize I had an unfair advantage over many people since we live in a society that continues to be inhabited by racism. Yet in my early adulthood, married with one child, I was extremely poor for four years. Those years were hard, but they gave me perspective. When people speaking to me denigrate the poor, claiming they just need to run their lives differently to succeed, I explain to them what being poor is like, how actions people believe are easy to implement are often impossible for a person living on the edge.
Privilege, however, can be used for good, for evil, for the mundane, and for the important. There are good people with privilege and bad people without it. The signers, it appears, have some level of privilege, yet that may have nothing to do with their personal decisions, although the whole of our experiences and personalities always affects our decisions.
Why I Signed
So why did I sign on to the petition? Note that I can give my reasons, but I cannot and am not giving the reasons the other petitioners signed. I assume their reasons varied.
First, I signed because I’m always in favor of more choices, so I saw the petition as a way to allow for more options. I’m generally in favor of competition. Second, I almost never think anyone is ready to lead SAA, not because they aren’t great people or great archivists, but because leading the Society is a huge challenge that must be operated over the course of a brief amount of time. To be a great president of SAA, you need to know the Society deeply (more so than I do) and you must be a manager of time, people, and work who is also extremely skilled at making a difference in the space of a single year. And you must have the time available for the job. It is a rare individual who will have those skills (though I can think of a couple who have). This is not to say that the two candidates chosen for this position were lacking; it’s just that I did not have information demonstrating they did.
Argument Against Signing
Eventually, while thinking about the petition, two notions came into my head. The first is that the #52 (to use that hashtag used by others to refer to the petitioners) had decided the slate should be amended in regard to the most important choice on the ballot, and they implemented a change legal in the rules that govern our association. But, more importantly, I also realized that I had not considered the human element of such a change: I never considered the slap in the face even one modification to the ballot would represent to the committee. Even worse, I did not consider the pain this would cause the candidates. I did not consider the human pain, something I try to address in my personal interactions but one I often fail to meet given my propensity for constant humor and occasional cluelessness. By overlooking human feeling, I forgot about people’s humanity, I forgot the heart they bear in their chests, I dehumanized them by not considering this most basic fact of all of us. Despite this point, I will argue here both for and against the petition.
Defining a set of candidates as inadequate to the jobs they were selected for, without considering how they would experience that decision, is a dehumanizing act. I say this even though it is too late to make a difference—I do not believe in penance. But assuming the reasons why people signed the petition, as others have done, is not much better. We cannot know what guides another. In this case, maybe all three of the reasons (racism, elderliness, and privilege) explained above are true, in each one of us signers, to some extent, but that is a broad conclusion to base on supposition alone.
I will note, however, that when friends of mine came to these conclusions and made public statements to that effect, I was not aggrieved by their opinions. Instead, I was pleased they forthrightly stated their convictions. Maybe they even knew I would not mind they disagreed with me. I see disagreement as a positive (unless the disagreement is constant and unbending). Different points of view help us see the world more clearly, as responses to the petition by my friends and others have helped me see better what I should have seen without help.
Friends of mine also served on this Nominating Committee. I had dinner with one of them soon after the submission of the petition, and I briefly explained myself (after first confirming they were indeed on the committee). When making the decision to sign the petition, I had forgotten who was on the committee, so I could not have made the decision based on the makeup of the committee, and I would not have decided differently if I’d known their makeup. We don’t really know what others know, but we often assume they know what we know, even when we don’t think they think as we think. I did not see adding an additional white woman to the ballot as a sign of racism, so I couldn’t understand, at first, why a friend of mine told me people would see this petition as a racist act because the chair was African American. I see it now, but I also doubt racism affected any petitioners’ decision in the first place. I have served on the SAA Nominating Committee as a Council member, as well as on nominating committees for other organizations, so I know decisions are almost always made by the body as a whole, no one person being responsible for any decision and everyone supporting each candidates though possibly to varying degrees.
The Role of Petitions in SAA
When I wrote back to the second friend who reached out to ask me to explain my motives as a petitioner, I wrote saying essentially what I have written here, but I also said that the petition resembled many actions SAA has seen over the years. When I served on SAA Council, members submitted quasi-petitions to us. People asked SAA to diversify the venues for our conferences, to respond to controversies in the archival world (sometimes in cases where the issue was more political than archival), and to develop a code of conduct for SAA events. Individual members also speak at our annual business meetings to ask for change. The most important instance of these, from my point of view, was when a member noted that the cost of the lowest paid membership tier represented slightly more than the percentage for the highest tier, which led to a rejiggering of our tiers and the addition of an additional highest one. While on Council, I argued incessantly in favor of adding that higher tier (in favor, I’ll note, of an increase in my own dues), but I was told it would be impossible to implement. Yet this one member convinced Council after talking for five minutes, and that made my day. I told that person they were my hero. Because of these situations, I see petitions as a way of possibly improving things. Note, however, the “possibly.”
Certainly, these other ways of petitioning SAA differ from the petition in question, but these show that petitioning, in various forms, is something we do. Some members, likely a majority, see the petition changing the ballot as something that is wrong or bad, because it is something they oppose. But other members have also opposed various other petitions, including most of those above. And the petition process we employed in the case before us is codified in our rules. That formal process, however, includes a very big difference: the petitioners alone, without the intercession of Council or anyone else in SAA, can absolutely ensure the change is made. However, most petitions SAA members make do end up succeeding even in the absence that guarantee.
Many have argued that the petitioners did not accept the decision of the Nominating Committee, which is true, and they also argue that the petitioners should have accepted the full decision of the committee. I don’t see these as strong arguments since we have a long tradition of members disagreeing with SAA Council decisions, even though SAA Council is also elected to make decisions for us. In my view, we (as members, as individuals, and simple human beings living on the same planet) always have a right to question. Just as we have a right to be wrong.
Amending the Petition Signature Threshold
I cannot verify the motives of the others who signed the petition, but I believe the petitioners came to their personal conclusions absent any assertion of white privilege, unconscious or otherwise, which I say even as I realize that we often make decisions on the basis of unconscious biases. Part of the petition process, as codified, did worry me, and that was that we needed merely 50 members to sign on to make this change. I’ll note that associations often have rather low thresholds to reach to add a candidate to a ballot, but 50 is terribly low for an association of our size. Although I signed the petition, we must reconsider this part of our by-laws, and at the very least the numbers needed to file such a petition must be changed to a significant percentage of the membership. That change will ensure the number of signers always represents a certain portion of the total membership. The current low threshold is anti-democratic, because it allows too low an unelected portion of the membership to change the slate for the whole.
Arguments Posited about the Petitioners
People have argued that the petitioners should not have used the option of petition because doing so undermined the Nominating Committee’s judgment. I understand this point, but there are a couple of reasons I don’t agree with this. First, the petition does not undermine the original decision; it modifies it by adding to it, just as we individually can add in a write-in candidate. The difference here is that this option gives members a third choice to check off on the ballot and gives the added person a chance of winning (unlike a write-in candidate). Despite the petition, the two candidates nominated by the committee remain on the ballot and, I believe, will be the candidates most likely to succeed.
Another argument against this petition is that it nullifies the will of members to have the committee they voted for make the decisions. This argument assumes the petitioners did not also vote for the members on the committee. For instance, I know (after reviewing the membership of the committee) that I voted for three of its members. It is important to remember that the right to petition remains in the bylaws, and members also voted for that provision.
I did not sign the petition because I was opposed to the members on the committee or because I considered them incompetent. I just had a desire for more choices. At this point, this certainly sounds like a strangely small reason to have made that decision, but that’s merely the reality of it.
I am always in favor of dialog, so the idea of setting up a conversation to discuss the slate might have appealed to me. It’s possible someone would have made a point during such a discussion that would have dissuaded me from my decision. But I never imagined dialog as an option. Since we had a slate before us, I reacted to that reality. I still don’t know if we have enough candidates to ensure at least one will have the skills I think a person needs to be successful in such a position. But we only rarely have enough information about candidates to know how good they will be at leading SAA. Even when I think I do, I find out later I was wrong, that I’d based a decision on faulty information or assumptions.
Seeking Out the Humanity in Others
During my career, I have tried to find ways to make SAA more diverse and more inclusive. I am certain I have failed on both counts. I fear diversity overall is probably degrading in our profession. We are beginning to attract more people of color to our ranks, but at a slow rate. At the same time, the male population has declined steeply since I joined SAA. If we look at diversity holistically, as I do, both these tendencies are holding us back. I think we are better at inclusivity, because we believe in it. But we are still human, so we unintentionally act in ways that make people feel unwelcome. We know we need to do better.
I am white, but I’ve lived in majority non-white parts of the world much of my life and in multi-racial neighborhoods most of my life. I’ve lived in Africa (east, west, and north), the Caribbean, South America, and elsewhere. I expect people to look different than I do. I can’t say that this life has made me more accepting of others, but I hope it has.
As a high school senior, I had a choice of taking a class in Christology or working with handicapped children, some severely so. I chose the latter, which gave me the opportunity to help children via occupational therapy. I would teach them how to move a peg from one hole to another, how to learn to conduct repetitive tasks that could find them a small job sometimes in the future. It was a difficult position to hold, but not because it was difficult working with the children. I loved working with them, and they loved me back—because I was kind, I paid attention to them, I cared for them. They would smile when we worked together, because I always reflected back to them their humanity, their physical and emotional reality, their value. I remember one little girl’s smile from that time, how alive she was before me. It was a hard semester because so many of them were so physically unwell they would not live long, and some would never think or know or see in the full way that most of us do. Yet I was sorry to leave them, to abandon them.
None of this is meant to exonerate me for what I failed to consider in my decision. I present this information because I hope it represents the core of myself, a core that might not always be apparent, but also evidence of something worth considering about others. It is also a note to remind myself how I am not now always as good as I should be about avoiding the provision of hurt against another human soul. I write these words to remind us how we never know enough about a person—and that includes all the Nominating Committee members, the candidates, and even the petitioners. We can try and we can fail, and it is always in the trying that we allow ourselves the possibility to be redeemed.
To Amend and Heal
I am not even vaguely conservative, but I have a few close conservative friends, and I’m always willing to talk to them about politics and to disagree with them gracefully. After years of careful conversation, one of these people became a liberal, but we also found bases for agreement over the course of that time, those long conversations. We discovered how we were alike and forgot how were different. Dialog is always better. Kindness is preferred. Compassion is mandatory. I’ll try to reach these goals myself.
Even though I believe in the inherent racism of everyone, I also believe in our ability to fight that tendency, to talk to each other, to accept the humanity of others, and to strive towards a kindness that brings us together even when we face stark disagreement. I remain hopeful for humanity, even if tentatively so. Still, I do feel a little defensive at the suggestion that I am possibly intentionally racist, a defensiveness built on the fact that I had no intent to hurt anyone—I merely succeeded and continue to succeed in doing so.
All I’m doing here is telling you what I think, noting how I did not try at all hard enough to understand how others thought, and suggesting that the other petitioners have other complex reasons for their own decisions. If you know any of them, reach out and explain your concern, your disagreement, your pain. Regardless, please do not hold against them anything I have said here. Hold it against me.
Once our petition became a controversy, people banded together to create a positive out of this rupture in the profession. A call went out asking people to donate to a fund supporting Society of American Archivists’ travel costs and membership fees for LGBT people and people of color. I donated to the fund as soon as I found out about it. I did so for a few reasons, one being that I always donate substantially to archival associations and causes. Another was merely to show support to members of SAA who have interpreted this act of mine as an indirect attack on them. It was not a way to ask for forgiveness. As I’ve noted, I do not believe in penance.
Humanity and Civility
I do not write this to change minds, and I write this even though I’m sure there is a good chance these many words might divide us even further. But I feel a responsibility to write and to say this:
We archivists sometimes argue angrily and quickly, without allowing time for reflection to reveal the complexities of the issue before us. I also believe we exaggerate the importance of some disagreements, we see divisions as greater than they are, but we also help to make that gulf between us wider. So I’m asking us to be better than I have been, to think about the human on the other side of a thought, to talk to each other before we talk about each other, to allow disagreement to exist as a way to find agreement.
This request requires something else of us, something we are less likely to embrace in our partisan present. We need to allow people with points of view differing from ours, whether personal or political, the right to air their views civilly and to receive civil responses. We need to see the flowering of humanity stuck between our differing beliefs. Societies that function well—and we are a society—have this level of respect and don’t require everyone to believe as one.
I say this without hope for success, but I light, or try to light, a small candle in the darkness so we can see where we are and can travel faster to our destination.
This post was written by Geof Huth. The opinions and assertions stated within this piece are the author’s alone, and do not represent the official stance of the Society of American Archivists. COPA publishes response posts with the sole aim of providing additional perspectives, context, and information on current events and subjects that directly impact archives and archivists.
 Here is the text of that email:
Dear SAA colleagues,
Sorry for the impersonal email blast, but I’m trying to be as efficient as I can about distributing this.
I am unsatisfied with the lack of a choice of two candidates with significant (from my perspective) organizational experience posed by the slate recently put forward for the office of SAA Vice President/President-Elect by the Nominating Committee for the 2020 election (https://www2.archivists.org/news/2019/update-2020-saa-election). I feel strongly that SAA members need a choice of candidates for Vice President/President-Elect who have deep, varied experience working for our profession within our national organization, and multi-faceted connections to the concerns of SAA’s membership. As such, I have worked with a small group of SAA colleagues to draft Kris Kiesling, a long-time SAA member and professional educator, to be a candidate for this office in the 2020 SAA election under SAA Bylaw 5C, which states the following:
“An eligible member may also be placed on the ballot by submission of a petition signed by fifty (50) individual members. Such petitions must be received in the executive office by February 10.”
I am emailing you to solicit your signature on the this petition before the end of January 2020.
To be clear, this petition, if successful, will simply add a third candidate to the 2020 election ballot for the office of Vice President/President-Elect. The successful candidate will be determined by the results of the 2020 election to be held in March.
If you aren’t familiar with Kris, she recently completed a three-year term (2015-2018) as a member of SAA’s Council, and you’ll find additional information about her professional and SAA background in her SAA Continuing Education faculty profile (https://www2.archivists.org/prof-education/faculty/kris-kiesling).