On March 25, 1911, an inferno engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York’s Greenwich Village. Most of the 146 people who perished in the flames or on the concrete outside after jumping from the eighth and ninth floors trying to escape death that day were young, immigrant women working for people who ignored safety hazards and underpaid them. In 2004, Ruth Sergel launched Chalk, an annual memorial based on the premise of “active collective memory,” to make the lives of the Triangle workers and the history of the labor movement visible. Using pieces of chalk, volunteers inscribe the deceased workers’ name, age, address, and place of death on the sidewalks outside the buildings where they used to live. In 2008, Sergel and a broad mix of people passionate about the Triangle fire founded the Remember the Triangle Coalition to plan for the centennial. Today, the Coalition is a non-profit organization that educates the public about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire through its on-going projects and spearheads the building of a public art memorial to honor the legacy of the Triangle factory workers.
Sergel’s first book, See You in the Streets: Art, Action and Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (University of Iowa Press: 2016), recounts “the unexpected partnerships, false steps, joyous collective actions, and sustainability” of large-scale public commemorations. The book “offers an exuberant perspective on building a social art practice and doing public history through argument and agitation, creativity and celebration with an engaged public” and is an empowering and enlightening text for public humanities professionals and professionals-in-training.
The following interview took place between Ruth Sergel and MARCH Digital Writer/Editor Mariam Williams on February 15, 2017, via Skype. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with See You in the Streets, or about writing it. What was your reaction when editors at University of Iowa Press contacted you about writing a book?
I was horrified. I had just moved to Berlin and walked away from the [Triangle] Coalition. I was nervous because I was trying move forward, and I didn’t really see the rationale of writing a book. In retrospect, I’m extremely glad that I did. But it was daunting. Thankfully, I had completely unrealistic expectations of how much work it would be, and that helped me to say yes.
What did you think the process would be like versus what it was really like?
I just thought it would be shorter. I think I promised them something totally unrealistic, like something in a year, and they just smiled and nodded and didn’t try to open my eyes to the horror that was about the befall me. But I have to also say, I was touched to be recognized because so much of the work we do is unrecognized or it’s appreciated in these very fleeting ways, especially in this sort of work which has moments and then dissipates. And because I was not in the academic world, to feel that this group of people saw me, and saw my work and considered it of value, that’s a great gift that I’m extremely appreciative of. It helps to build the confidence to keep going. For all of us self-generating the work, that takes an enormous amount of energy.
This is published by a university press, and people who probably are not independent artists but who are in universities being trained to pursue public humanities, probably within institutionalized settings, are reading this book and taking lessons from it. What is it like to know that?
For me it’s fantastic, because in my experience, there’s a very difficult problem of communication between artists and academics. We really speak absolutely different languages and work in very different processes. It’s a very difficult cultural gap to overcome. I’ve had the experience where everyone goes in with really good intentions, and things just collapse. I’m so glad [University of Iowa Press] asked me and that they were willing to try things outside of what they were used to—even little things like in the [print version of the] book, having the names [of Triangle fire victims] on the side of each page. With all the conversations about the book, I feel like we’re all trying to reach over and hear each other. That’s a great exercise and one I hope to continue, because we do need to be working together in coalition.
You’ve been able to do public history without being a historian and by working independently, but collaborations between artists and public history institutions have become more common over the past several years. What should historians at those institutions know before collaborating with an artist?
It’s helpful if they can be open. It’s a different work process. If an artist is going to make a project that’s truly responsive to the community, there needs to be a bit of time for mucking around and just being engaged, hanging out, things that seem wasteful but are critical for making a project that’s truly responsive. If you try to design too much ahead of time, then it’s something that’s imposed on the community, and it’s disempowering to that community. It’s difficult because funding is for very limited amounts of time, and people’s time to work on projects is much more limited than what’s actually required for a project to be successfully responsive. There needs to be a willingness to go into an abyss of not knowing, of not having answers. To me, that’s a critical part of the process. Otherwise, you’re just part of the cacophony of telling people what to do, what to think. You are imposing if you don’t take the time to be in the tension of not knowing. Which maybe academics do and I just don’t know.
We [academics] do a lot on the front end of designing, and thinking, ‘This is what this project is going to look like.’ Then we run into those things we didn’t know and have to figure out how to work through them with the goal of getting back to what we first envisioned rather than changing what we envisioned. As someone pursuing an MFA in creative writing and a certificate in public history and whose formal training is scholarly, that’s the difference I see. It can be difficult to be open and let the artistic work be whatever it needs to be.
I should say I’m not against having a plan to start. You need something solid. It gives you a backup. But it’s just so painful to release it and let it go. You usually do come back to [the plan] in a different way, but you really have to release it and let it go at some point. I think that’s something artists are really skilled at because we have to do it so often. We’re used to being very brutal with our work. That’s when you get to a certain masterfulness in your craft.
You were able to do something public historians and other public humanities professionals long to do with their projects: make it relevant to a broad spectrum of people. Do you have any thoughts as to why institutions aren’t as successful at doing that?
I was fortunate that the Triangle fire is important to a wide variety of communities already. Part of why I did the project is because that was appealing to me. One reason I think institutions sometimes are not skilled at that is that you have to bring people in on day one if you want diversity because [a project] has to organically develop in a diverse way. If you try to bring communities in later, it’s too late. I succeeded and failed with the coalition. I succeeded in bringing in communities that were historically related to the Triangle fire, but I didn’t succeed in bringing in diverse communities of today. I scrambled to try to repair it, but it was too late. I should’ve thought of that from day one. When I called the first meeting of the Triangle Coalition, I was in historic mode, and that was silly.
You say there was no reason not to engage with contemporary diverse communities, but really, how do you know who to engage with from the start?
I think there’s something really powerful about inviting everybody in, everyone from every community. And then they may stay, or they may not stay, and that’s fine. You’ve made it safe and open. I think it’s important to make a warm and inviting invitation as broadly as you can, even to communities that don’t off the top of your head seem connected. What do I know if someone might feel something strong for whatever reason? We’re always trying to build the web between us that our issues are not in competition with one another. Maybe you connect to my issue, maybe you don’t, but we show up for each other. That’s the world we want.
In the foreword to your book, the editors wrote, “Dedication mattered more than historical expertise” when it came to Chalk and the coalition, but did you ever feel like, “Man, having an expert would be really helpful right now?”
I think I was trying to say there was … that if you put the care of the organization in the hands of people doing the work, it becomes a very strong organization. We do need experts in every area. There’s always a tension about which is the right way to go: do you want the expert to do it [quickly], or do you want to teach everyone? The people doing the work deserve value, and deserve pay.
The projects you’ve worked on have been based in communities in which you are rooted. You’re sort of an insider. How might you operate differently if you were a humanities professional called in as a consultant or if you, say, won a Fulbright to do something in another country?
My rule of thumb is you have to listen more than you talk. There’s a lot of wisdom out there. You really have to start with listening, because if you don’t you’ll always be the idiot outsider trying to tell [communities] about themselves. Also, really basic things like breaking bread with people.
You say in the welcome chapter of your book that you are “driven by an exploration of what makes it possible for us to move from the inner realm of thought, dream, or feeling to the exterior world of public action.” What makes people make that move?
I think it’s practice. For people who are treated as if their voices and actions are of no value to the world, it takes an enormous amount of energy to make that leap. A lot of my work is to provide the experience of taking that step. I believe if you practice it, you build the muscles. It’s hard to take action in the public world, and if you’re not a person of privilege, you will be punished when you do it, in all kinds of explicit and subtle ways. We learn not to [speak out], or to do it in odd, distorted ways because we have so many painful experiences; we’ve all experienced being punished for it. We censor ourselves in subtle and not so subtle ways. … If you have practice in a safe space and some ideas fly and some don’t, you can be more flexible to be more truthful to your inner voice.
Also in the welcome, you mention the necessity of civic engagement. What does civic engagement look like to you as a citizen, and what does it look like to you as an artist?
I define civic engagement very broadly. It could be voting, demonstrating in the streets, acts of kindness to a stranger, how you bring up your children, how you treat your coworkers. Civic engagement is how you operate in the world as a member of all the communities we are members of.
Chalk is based on the premise of “active collective memory.” That implies that there’s such a thing as passive collective memory. Assuming that’s true, can you give an example of passive collective memory?
Through doing Chalk, I realized all these people are incredibly passionate about the Triangle fire. They held the story. Many had read Leon Stein’s book when they were young, and it really resonated with them. So when that was tapped, they were able to take public action based on that feeling. If there wasn’t Chalk, that feeling might have stayed submerged. I feel that’s true with many things we feel passionate about. It stays submerged unless there’s an avenue for acting on it. I think you see that now, in response to the election. When the Muslim ban happened, thousands of people just went to the airport [in protest]. That was a feeling they had about what the United States is and should be that was there all along. Because of this event, they took action on it.
If people aren’t allowed to act on what they’re passionate about, what happens?
I think it can become toxic. I’m thinking about Langston Hughes’ poem, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Part of our dream is to be people engaged in the world. I think the essay that’s impacted me more than anything in the world is Audre Lorde’s essay from The Cancer Journals on silence and what happens to us if we don’t speak our truth. It’s not that if you participate, you suddenly won’t be hurt by the world. That I cannot offer. What I can offer is, if you try to hide your light, you’re still going to get the [mess] kicked out of you. But if you step up to it and into it, you will find communion with other people, and you’ll find greater strength within yourself. When you are kicked, you’ll still be standing, and you’ll be someone you’re proud to be in the world.
[As part of this question, I read a lengthy passage from page 23 of See You in the Streets that describes the physical act of Chalk.] What’s lost when the public doesn’t participate in the commemoration? What’s lost in terms of remembering the people and the historical event? What’s lost to the general public when no one physically participates?
The point of the project was to create a memorial that wouldn’t exist if people didn’t participate. … We used to make stone monuments. This was at a time when most peoples’ houses were wood, so it might’ve seemed like a forever statement to make things in stone. At this point, that kind of memorialization doesn’t … mean anything the way it probably did when people first started doing it. Now we have to find ways that have meaning. I think part of the power of Chalk is that you’re given permission to just do your part. You don’t have to do the whole thing. You can do your part and that’s enough. For people who don’t participate and see it, I think it’s a nudge that it’s right there. You an always make the move if you want.
What are some other historical events that you think need to be remembered and why?
I think as a country we really need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both about the genocide of Native Americans and about slavery. It’s my personal opinion that we’re never going to fully move forward as a country until we explicitly have that conversation. That conversation has to include a conversation about reparations. Even people who one might think are bigoted or racist, it would be helpful to them to have the conversation. They feel like it’s a never-ending thing, and in a sense they’re right because the conversation’s never happening, so we can’t find a way to push forward. I know truth and reconciliation has been very imperfect in South Africa and Rwanda, but at least it’s something.
I think we also need to seriously consider—Labor Day around the world is May 1. For political reasons the U.S. made it in September. [Labor Day] needs to go back to May 1, and we need to build something worldwide. We have globalization, and everyone is trying to deal with that.
Public history projects are, ideally, designed to explore complexity as well as educate and entertain. How do you think complexity can be explored without getting lost?
I think you’re lost unless you have complexity. With Triangle, there’s a lot of complexity. There were struggles within the union between women of the union and men of the union. That’s something we continue to deal with to this day, so it’s really helpful if we can place it in this historical context where we can talk about it in a different way and bring it back to the contemporary conversation. The fact that the owners of the factory were Jewish like many of their workers is really important; members of the same community can betray each other. We all juggle multiple identities in our daily lives, based on gender, race, class—all these things. We’re always juggling between our different identities and our need to be in community with all of them. It’s a relief when you can have a conversation that has space for that complexity. It’s very discomfiting when you’re putting forth a false narrative. That’s a lie we all sense and recognize when we’re in that situation. As soon as you participate in that lie, there’s an ugliness because you know there is no space for truth. There’s a box you’re supposed to fit in, and that’s not good for anybody.
Moving to a different subject, some humanities professionals have been lucky enough to receive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Let’s say the Trump administration and a GOP-controlled Congress don’t gut those funds. Should artists and other humanities professionals accept funds from an administration that’s positioned itself as an enemy to progress?
Everybody has to make their own decisions for themselves. I wouldn’t tell anyone what to do or what’s right. We need money to make these projects. The flip side of that question is, if you don’t have money and you expect people to work for free, then who gets to work on these projects? It’s only young people, or a lot of different people for very short amounts of time. As you get older, have a family, you need to pay the rent, have health insurance. I tend to be of the mind, get money wherever you can get it. You just can’t be constrained by who gave you the money, and you have to be willing to walk away if [the funders] do try to exert control.
So often, women especially don’t get paid what they’re worth. Tech people get paid, but not the people who do the day-to-day work that keeps all of our communities going. I’m a big supporter of the Clara Lemlich Awards. They give awards to women in their 80s, 90s, and beyond who are doing community work. Almost all those women are living in incredibly modest circumstances because they dedicate their life to community. They should be comfortable and safe in their golden years. I think I learned that from the labor movement. People doing community projects should be paid living wages and health insurance and pensions we expect all workers should have.
I attended the Association for Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conference last week, and even though the panels were proposed and selected one year ago, there were several on the relationship between art and activism, including one that asked, “Am I an artist first or an activist first?” What is your responsibility, as an artist, to social justice?
None. I have a social responsibility as a human being, and I can express it in a variety of ways. For me, there’s a very clear line between art and propaganda. If we want [artists] to make something for a political cause, that is often propaganda. That is not art to me. You don’t make [art] to make a point; you make it to reveal something about our humanity, which I think is more politically effective. It’s very separate for me. I think when people start to get them confused, it gets into something I’m actually very uncomfortable with. Art is when I go into the unknown, what I don’t know, and I’m trying to feel something as truthful as it can be, and I’m unpacking and unpacking. Everything has a political outcome, but it’s very separate from … trying to make people aware of climate change. I believe as citizens, we have to stand for what is right and be engaged. The art and propaganda are separate boxes for me—even though I do believe art does change us.
What’s your relationship to the Triangle Coalition now?
I’m a cheerleader. I support any way I can, but I’m not part of the decision-making process. It’s like sending your kid to college. You have to let them be; they are their own person. The Coalition is its own thing.
Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
I would say, just because of the times we’re living in, that being kind to oneself and one’s community is very important. I want people to be safe. There’s going to be violence. It’s going to be a really hard fight. We have to remember our history with COINTELPRO. There’s going to be fear, frustration, and anger within our own communities. I think the most radical thing we can do is insist on staying connected to each other and insist on moving forward in a positive way. … We have to remember the history of the way [division] has always been done. As long as we stay united, we win.
This interview is part of the new direction for MARCH’s Insights Blog. We hope to bring you many more interviews with and/or posts by authors and curators in the public humanities. Want to suggest an author or curator? Please contact us.
 See Sergel, p. 47.
 See Sergel, p. 116.
 Stein’s book was originally published in 1962.
 Refers to Donald Trump’s first executive order on immigration, barring people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S.
 Langston Hughes’s poem is entitled, “Harlem.” The first line is, ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’