Courtney Chartier served as the seventy-fifth president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in 2020–2021. Her presidential address was delivered on August 7, 2022, during ARCHIVES*RECORDS 2022, the Annual Meeting of SAA. Chartier was introduced by Dr. Meredith Evans, director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and a past president of SAA.
Once upon a time a woman from a small community moved away. After ten years, she came back and never told anyone much about where she had lived or what she had done in that time. Once she returned to town, she lived her life the way that she wanted to; fearless and high-cost living that made other people gossip about her and hate her and shun her.
As she lay dying, her sometimes friend Nel asks her what she had to show for that life, and Sula says, “Show? To who?”
This is a small moment from the novel Sula by Toni Morrison. I heard about this exchange before I read the novel, and even without the full context of the story, I was struck by it.
There is so much freedom in that statement. To quote the novelist Marlon James on his own reading of that passage, “. . . until then I had no idea that I mattered. It never occurred to me that I was worth anything, and that the only person qualified to judge that worth is my own damn self.”
A year ago, I sat in front of a virtual audience, and I said, “. . . we all deserve grace. To be shown it, to show it in turn, and to fully give ourselves the grace we need as people to heal, and to process, and to rediscover the joy that does exist in our colleagues, and in our collections, and in our profession.”2
In a follow-up to those remarks, I wrote, “I don't want to move on or go back to ‘normal,' but I want something that works better and fits better and makes me feel more successful and adjusted.”3 These ideas flowed naturally for me from one to the other. What is healing, what is showing ourselves grace, if not learning how to fit better into our own lives as they change?
As I read it, Sula was living fully in her own grace. Now, her life in the novel is quite messy, and she does hurt other people. This is not to say that one has the right to hurt others; we all have people in our lives that we are accountable to in some way. But our own expression of life shouldn't be predicated on either providing comfort or avoiding the criticism of those people. I'm not interested in some sort of twisted objectivism that rejects our personal responsibility to other people or our community.
However, I am interested in how I live my life now. How do I show myself grace in such a way that I have the complete self-confidence to say, “Show? To who?”
I'm sure you can relate. A lot has happened in our country over the past few years; a lot continues to happen. I feel depressed; I feel out of control. I feel hopeless. Above all, I feel unwilling to give grace to the world. It's hard, and some days it feels impossible.
And that is why I must choose grace for myself, so that I am able to show it to others. I must do this so that my today is as realized as it can be, because if I don't take care of myself, I have nothing left to give the future. No thoughts. No grace.
How can we imagine true archival futures without giving grace to what we do today? Without, to extrapolate from Marlon James, realizing that we matter?
I hope that you are all able to attend tomorrow's keynote, a conversation between Katrina Spencer and Jamillah Gabriel (11:00 a.m., in this room and streaming to virtual attendees). This year Katrina published an article in the publication up//root called “The Comprehensive Guide to Resisting Overcommitment.”4 I won't step on Katrina's work (please do read it for yourself if you have not), but I will tell you that it is bookmarked on my work machine, my home machine (and therefore on my phone), that I use the tools she has developed in my own life, and that I send the article to anyone and everyone who will sit still long enough for me to work it into conversation, including my therapist, Dr. Mike.
What Katrina has created is so powerful because it speaks quite broadly to our needs as individuals who are whole human beings and who must operate within unsupportive systems and quite specifically to the needs of a black woman operating within an unsupportive system. She graces us with her wisdom and advice.
Work like Katrina's gives me hope for the future. Her advice and guidance give me hope because by learning to protect myself in the present, I have more space to imagine a better future. I can see a path forward again that has challenges and hard work, but it is a path.
But first, how do I protect myself? Ask yourself, “What does the system want from me?”
In this system that we are evaluating, be truthful: what does it WANT? Does it want you to work hours and jobs outside of your position description? To reward your conscientious and quality work with more work? To never talk about your salary or to stay siloed from your colleagues? To be silent? To capitulate? To bend the knee?
This is what it does.
And anxiety tends to find problems where there aren't any, so if you are like me and struggle constantly with your own mind and emotions, then the unreasonable demands of the system start to feel like a personal failing. That it's you who is broken, that it's you who should give more of yourself, that it's you who can't.
This is what it does. And this is unacceptable.
Practice saying it with me now, “This is unacceptable.”
We should all want to play God, not in the sense of pulling strings and directing puppets but in the sense of seeing the big picture and knowing that you are an actor in a play and not the character. The actor adjusts to the scene as they better understand its needs; characters are victims of writing and stage management.
Now, there are two major groups of people in our lives who we do not get to choose: family and work.
But work is not family; it is an insidious pattern in American workplaces that managers and executives try to replicate family structures. If they are the parent, then you need them to survive. Your well-being is tied to theirs; until it isn't.
Children also do not get to make decisions for themselves. But in the workplace, you are no one's child, and we do get to set boundaries. We do get to make choices.
And a person who is “higher” than you in a system hierarchy who does try to take that role of a parent is someone you should set the strongest boundaries with. I find the best approach in dealing with people who are manipulative is to show them radical transparency. They will not like it but know that what you are doing is right.
Power is a very uncomfortable thing. I hold with me those moments from Dr. Mike: if you are not primed for power and privilege, you are primed to reject it, to take issue with it, when you do have it. You tell yourself you can't, when the truth is, you have the training, you have the experience, and you know how to get informed to make the right decisions. Take a step back, stay rooted in your values, and stay consistent. Know that you are right.
I exert my power when I know what I am doing is right.
But our old friend Anxiety loves to find a problem where there isn't one, so why is it that I can so easily exert my power on behalf of others but so rarely for me?
It's not hypocrisy. It's because my ego isn't involved. It's because exerting power on my own behalf feels ungraceful, when it is in fact the highest form of grace that I can show myself.
Own your basic need for self-grace and ask, “Does this work for me?”
It is not selfish, it is selfless. By truly understanding your capacity, you will be a better colleague, employee, friend, lover, parent, child. Your gifts will shine more brightly.
Say it with me now, “Does this work for me?”
Systems are real, and systems keep creating spaces for bad action, and I am complicit in that. The things we do are rooted in reasoning and power, but also in habit and assumption. We must challenge the habits and assumptions that can grind us down and exploit us. Considering how I might protect myself is important for my own mental and physical health; the system, and the institutions and people that make it, will be just fine.
This is certainly not an administrator's plea that you fix yourself and let the system do as it wishes. Institutions frequently send out self-care messaging, encouraging us to meditate or take a yoga break, but not offering us larger salaries, more flexible schedules, or meaningful benefits that might negate or reduce the need for self-care in the workplace. Instead, I suggest that it is our right to understand our exploitation and our complicity, to recognize the realities of the systems we participate in, while maintaining our own boundaries and even our ideals about the work we do.
I get angry and frustrated by the systems that try to define my life and my work. What I seek is a path to rediscovering my own curiosity because by tapping into curiosity, I can find a motivation that is a surprise.
And so, I ask myself a series of questions:
What is the purpose?
Why is it the way it is?
What matters? Who is it for?
If it's not about my agenda, it's about what has to get done, why do they want it this way?
And if you can't find what you like/are curious about, then ask, “Why am I doing this?”
If I am really struggling, is it because I don't know or understand something essential, or is it another flaw in the system?
And don't denigrate what it is you are being asked to do. What does it serve? The answer to that doesn't have to be positive; it could be that the activity is the only solution to a problem.
But that doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't ask, “How does doing this benefit me?”
If I want to get to a specific place, and this is the requirement, then maybe it is worth it for me to do it.
And so, I call it fair that, if I don't understand the direction that I am given, then doing what I want is the way to go. To quote Dr. Mike from a few moments ago, “The truth is, you have the training, you have the experience, and you know how to get informed to make the right decisions. Take a step back, stay rooted in your values, and stay consistent.”
Are we fixing me or the system? Neither. I don't need to be fixed, and the system can't be fixed by me taking a step back and requiring the time to think through my decisions and actions.
The question that I want to consider the most is, “What does it serve?” Because sometimes the answer is “It serves ME.” Selflessly, not selfishly.
Questioning assumptions and beliefs is always relevant, but it is certainly more urgent in an ongoing pandemic, which continues to usurp assumptions every day. For my own part, I learned that my long-held assumption that I could work from home is entirely misguided. I couldn't focus, after ten years tobacco-free I started to smoke again, and I deeply resented having any part of my work life intrude on my personal space to the point that I started having to take meetings outside.
We can absolutely break our habits and question our assumptions. I assumed I was well mentally, and the pandemic has shown me in the starkest relief that I was not. (I am getting better.)
And, if my assumptions about myself were false, what about my assumptions about other people? Many of us seem to be in a great rush to return to some sense of normalcy, and I understand the impulse, but it begs the question, “What assumptions does that make about others?”
I can't see inside your body. Or your heart. Or your mind. And therefore, my assumptions are, quite literally, dangerous. Instead, I chose to focus on making decisions and responding to others based on my own reasoning and power. This protects me, and this protects others. It's care.
Shall we talk about the future?
Dreaming about the future invites the most beautiful poetry. To quote the novelist and my fellow Texan, Bryan Washington, from his very fine biscuit recipe,
The labor behind biscuit-making—hell, behind cooking—is an extension of care that I've received myself. If we're lucky, we can only hope to find ways to redistribute it. And this idea of care feels particularly queer, and crucial among queer folks as we find ways to support our communities. Whether it's supporting trans kids navigating cultures of harm throughout the country, finding hyperlocal resources for creating community within queer hubs or creating beacons for folks who might feel isolated in their own situations, a vision of queer futures feels inseparable from a practice of care. And it's care that takes many different forms—accepting folks as they are, alongside whatever they bring to the table.5
If it wasn't clear the first time, I will repeat it, “a vision of queer futures feels inseparable from a practice of care.” What a fine thing to say. (It's probably because he's from Houston.)
Can you envision archival futures as inseparable from the practice of care? Where we are truly connected to our communities in such ways that we are crucial, that we support those navigating harm, that we create community, that we are beacons for those who are isolated, and where we accept folx as they are? I think these things actually matter. In the same way that I matter, that we all matter and that we all bring something extraordinary to the table.
I can point to individual projects across our country that live these things that matter. And I'll bet that I can't point to many institutional mission or vision or strategic statements that list those as deliverables. But I have power, and I know what's right. I can protect myself from the demands of a system that will never support those futures so that I have the time and the energy and the grace to do what matters. I can keep reality real by working the system that I have and strive for something better with my ideals in place, and when they ask me, “Courtney, what is it that you have to show?”
“Show? To who?”
I've quoted some brilliant people today. People who have graced us with their time and their wisdom and their passion. Thank you to Katrina Spencer, to Toni Morrison, to Bryan Washington, and most of all to Dr. Mike Carollo.
For some time, I have had the unfortunate habit of closing meetings with a quote that I didn't even realize was a quote. It is so ingrained in my brain that it just comes to my lips unbidden. And so, my final thoughts today come from a less refined source of American ingenuity: Jerry Springer.
“Take care of yourself and each other.”
Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Vintage International, 2004), 143.
Courtney Chartier, “On Grace” (presentation, Society of American Archivists annual membership meeting, August 3, 2021).
Courtney Chartier, “Grace and Futurism,” Archival Outlook (September–October 2021): 2, https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=722035&article_id=4118577&view=articleBrowser.
Katrina Spencer, “The Comprehensive Guide to Resisting Overcommitment,” up//root, January 17, 2022, https://www.uproot.space/features/the-comprehensive-guide-to-resisting-overcommitment.
Bryan Washington, “A Great Biscuit Is a Miracle of Care,” The New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/magazine/kimchi-and-cheddar-biscuit-recipe.html?smid=url-share.