Queer Newark Oral History Project is a community-based and community-directed initiative supported by Rutgers University-Newark. I discovered this project in Spring 2020, at the CUNY event The Social Backend: Community-Driven Digital Archives and Exhibits. Prof. Mary Rizzo of Rutgers University talked about the way she mobilized her students in creating community-based archival projects, including Queer Newark.
Founded in the summer of 2011, the project preserves the histories of LGBTQ people and communities in Newark, NJ through oral history. The team of Queer Newark Oral History Project records interviews, transcribes them, and makes them available online. The project also has an analog component, which involves archiving documents and artifacts about Queer Newark in a permanent archival facility (Dana Library at Rutgers University. The Queer Newark Oral History Project is not based on crowdsourcing, which is probably a good way to ensure the quality of the recording and transcribing of the interviews. The local community can get involved by volunteering to interview members of the LGBTQ community, transcribe the interviews, assist with the website development and the design of promotional materials. One element I appreciated was the collaboration between the academic community and the local community not only for the oral history work but also through a walking tour and a podcast.
The project started as a way to tell the stories of the often-invisible queer population of Newark, thus connecting this queer history to the history of the city. As Darnell Moore explains:
“The making of history is not a project that is relegated only to those in the academy, those who do the work of observing our lives and attending to our voices from a distance. History is made through the living and the telling of our lives. It is made when we lift up our individual and collective lives.”Darnell Moore, November 12, 2011
The creators of Queer Newark identified a gap in the local history of the city and decided to launch this effort to collect queer histories. By bringing these stories to the light, Queer Newark stresses the importance and relevance of LGBTQ Newarkers in the life of their city.
The intended audience for Queer Newark is community members, activists, scholars, artists, or anyone interested in Queer Newark. The project has a strong focus on transcribing the interviews and digitizing the artifacts in their collections, to ensure that the Queer histories they collect are easily searchable and accessible from these different communities.
The project founders are:
- Darnell Moore is a queer activist and writer and the first chair of the City of Newark’s Advisory Commission on LGBTQ Concerns
- Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers University-Newark
- Christina Strasburger, the administrator of the Departments of History and African American and African Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.
The diversity of the creators’ bios reflects the intersecting interests of Queer Newark:
- LGBTW activism
- Establishing a relationship between institutions (the City of Newark and Rutgers University) and the local communities
- The attention to marginalized and vulnerable communities
- Using the academic knowledge of history and experience in historical research to serve the local communities.
The website has a very simple and intuitive structure, which makes it easy to navigate and to find information. The main technology that Queer Newark uses is digital audio recording, which makes it easy to gather the stories and share them online. The audio interviews are accompanied by:
- a PDF file with the transcript
- metadata such as date, location, and people responsible for the recording.
- Tags about the topics of the recording
- Bibliographical information about the interviewee
- Photograph of the interviewee
Queer Newark’s most impressive achievement was creating a community around a shared goal: collecting and preserving LGBTQ history in Newark. This requires enormous skills in organization, community outreach, public programming, and of course the capacity to create lasting and meaningful relationships with collaborators and the community. Apart from that, I admired the project’s commitment to accessibility and ease of use: with their simple and light design and the use of transcriptions and tags, Queer Newark ensures that these interviews can reach a diverse audience.
Inspiration for future projects
Queer Newark is a great example of how a community-based archive should work. Before even starting with the project, Moore and Satter understood the importance of building a community around the archive. They brought together Newark’s LGBTQ activists, high school students, artists, church leaders, professors, administrators, and university staff to discuss how to develop the project. I love this approach because archives often start with a top-down perspective that does not recognize the agency and the decision-making power of the community they intend to serve. Another element I appreciated was how Queer Newark mobilizes residents and trains them to become interviewers: this way, the community gets tighter and its members can learn how to communicate across gender, race, socioeconomic status, or age.