PubComm Raises Questions of Race and Activism

On Thursday, April 5, graduate students from MARCH collaborated with the Center for Public History at Temple University and the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University to host the Public History Community Forum (PubComm). The annual event is a dialogue-based symposium that encourages audience members to interact directly with panel discussions. This year’s theme was “Racism & Resistance,” focusing on the issues non-white scholars and community members face in the public history field. PubComm 2018 was held at the William Way LGBT Community Center in Philadelphia, a venue chosen because of the organization’s commitment to serving marginalized communities since its founding in 1974. 

 The day was broken into three discussion panels on different facets of public engagement, aimed at targeting the hurdles people of color face in the field at their roots: Education, Activism, and Preservation. Each was presented by a team of individuals whose professional backgrounds ranged from college professors to poets to public policy consultants. 

The first panel tackled the problems of education, including how schools teach black history – or don’t. Black history is now a mandatory subject in Philadelphia public high schools, but  Panelist Kimberly McCleary of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania made an impression on the audience when she recounted a young girl telling her that “George Washington was a bad guy,” a reaction to learning that he had held slaves before, during, and after his presidency. Panelists spoke of a need to move past the standard narrative and text books to engage students and the public in active discussions of race.

Activism, the polarizing second panel, was dominated by controversial figure Sharron Cooks, owner of the consulting firm Making Our Lives Easier, LLC. Other panelists were poet David Acosta, art director and founder of Casa de Duende, and Tyrone Smith, a community organizer who helped bring gay black men into HIV/AIDS activism at the height of the AIDS crisis. Attendees were urged to start conversations with people who “don’t look like you, don’t live in the same zip code as you” and to listen to marginalized communities in order to build trust and understanding.

The day concluded with a panel on historic preservation of Black history sites and the way developers target them for demolition. Faye Anderson of All That Philly Jazz led a spirited discussion on the preservation and documentation of Philadelphia’s former jazz clubs. Cynthia Barnes spoke about the ongoing changes in the densely African American Nicetown-Tioga neighborhood of North Philadelphia and the pressure gentrification puts on Nicetown and other older industrial neighborhoods of the city. 

Each panel was followed by spirited by small group work and civil discussion between attendees and panelists. Many audience members were keen to speak of things they had learned during the proceedings or to ask how they could become more involved in the issues discussed.