Please welcome T-Kay Sangwand for the second interview in the “Five Questions for…” series! T-Kay Sangwand is the Human Rights Archivist for the University of Texas Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative and the Brazil Studies Subject Specialist for the Benson Latin American Collection. Since 2009, she has worked with non-governmental organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the U.S. to preserve their human rights documentation. Sangwand earned her MLIS and MA in Latin American Studies at UCLA; she is currently a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists.
Welcome, T-Kay, and thank you for participating in our “Five Questions for…” series!
1. Where do you work?
I currently work as the Archivist for the University of Texas Libraries’ Human Rights Documentation Initiative (HRDI). The HRDI office, though global and primarily digital in its work scope, is physically based within the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, which has a robust physical archive infrastructure (and is the second largest collection of its kind within the U.S.). Since I also have an academic background in Latin American Studies, I have also taken on responsibilities specific to the Benson, such as becoming the Brazilian Studies Subject Specialist.
2. How did you get there?
I feel very blessed that my academic background in Gender & Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, and Information Studies, work with social justice community organizations, travel experience in Latin America, and deep love of music have all converged into an ideal skill set for the work that I am currently doing. Since my undergraduate days, social justice issues have always informed my academic and community work. However, I had originally entered graduate school at UCLA with the intention to become an academic librarian subject specialist and was unsure how and if I would be able to combine my professional skills with social justice praxis. Dr. Anne Gilliland’s introduction to archival theory course foregrounded how archives could be used as a source of community empowerment or accountability and really inspired me to embark upon an archival path in service of social justice. Later that year, I attended a panel at SAA on which Human Rights Archivist, Patrick Stawski (another UCLA alum, incidentally), presented on his work with the Human Rights Archive at Duke. I thought, “I want a job like that!” Realistically, I knew that there probably weren’t many jobs like Patrick’s, but seeing a concrete example of human rights archival work made me seek out as much related experience as possible, from processing collections that fell under the broad rubric of human rights/social justice, conducting service learning at community archives, and researching and writing papers on archival and social justice themes. All these different types of experience proved to be very beneficial for the multifaceted work I am doing now.
3. What materials/collections do you work with?
The main focus of the HRDI’s work is building post-custodial partnerships with small, grassroots organizations who are either collecting or creating digitized or born-digital audiovisual documentation of human rights violations. With the post-custodial model, organizations maintain physical and intellectual custody of their materials and send digital copies to the HRDI for long-term preservation and access. To date, we’ve established five of these partnerships with the following organizations: Free Burma Rangers (Southeast Asia), Kigali Genocide Memorial (Rwanda), Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (El Salvador), Texas After Violence Project (U.S.), WITNESS (U.S.).* Within these post-custodial partnerships, my responsibilities as the archivist are to cultivate relationships built on trust, provide preservation recommendations and training, organize processing workflows at UT, work with our partners to design access solutions that fit their goals, and of course work with students, faculty, and other patrons to use the archival material. The material is incredibly rich because it allows the people who have been most directly impacted by genocide, armed conflict, incarceration and other human rights violations, to bear witness to their experiences in their own words. Free Burma Rangers has amassed hundreds of hours of video that contain testimonies from internally displaced people within Burma on the human rights abuses committed by the Burma army that they have both experienced and witnessed. Kigali Genocide Memorial has been recording survivor and rescuer testimonies as well as filming the post-genocide gacaca court proceedings since 2004. Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen’s collection of recordings from Radio Venceremos, the clandestine guerilla radio station, contains eyewitness reports from El Salvador’s brutal civil war that was backed and funded by the U.S. Texas After Violence Project conducts oral histories with people who have been directly impacted by the death penalty in Texas, be it family and friends of executed and murdered persons as well as the lawyers, journalists, prison staff, and police officers. WITNESS has a long history of working with grassroots human rights activists and organizations around the world to use video as raising awareness on and organizing around a wide breadth of human rights issues including rape as a weapon of war, human trafficking, and genocide. Actually viewing and interacting the material is far more powerful than me talking about it so I encourage people to browse our collections online.
*The Libraries have also partnered with the Archivo Histórico de la Policia Nacional (Guatemala), though I don’t personally work on that project.
4. What impact do/should/could archives have on human rights?
Archives can and do play such a crucial role in human rights struggles, from preserving historical memory, enabling the right to know, empowering future users, to actually holding evidence that can be used in legal accountability efforts. The Guatemala National Police Archive serves as such a strong example of all these aspects. Its documents are a testament that the atrocities of Guatemala’s dirty war actually happened. The physical Archive in Guatemala City, which is open to the public, welcomes families to look for evidence of the whereabouts and fate of disappeared family members. Some of its documents have actually been used as evidence against perpetrators of human rights violations. Many people recognize the power of this archive, which is why there have been so many attempts to intimidate users and curtail its work; conversely, the archive’s power motivates its advocates to keep processing the documents, maintaining open access to the physical archive space, and finding multiple avenues of access to the documents and the information contained within.
5. Any advice for other/aspiring human rights archivists?
I truly believe that archivists can incorporate human rights and social justice principles into archival practice, regardless of a job title as “human rights archivist.” Some questions that all archivists might consider are: What voices and stories are missing from the archival record with which we are entrusted? What types of collections might we accession to contribute to a more robust historical record? What do we even consider to be an archival record (keeping in mind that not all communities rely on tangible forms of recordkeeping and memory making)? Whose voices and experiences are we privileging when we are describing our collections? The archival profession has long prided itself on its supposed objectivity, but it’s absolutely crucial to recognize how our own biases and other institutional/systemic factors impact our collection and preservation of the historical record.
FREEFORM: Anything you’d like to share with the Roundtable.
When I’m not in the library/archive, I’ve been hosting various radio programs and dj’ing parties over the past twelve years. I’ve tried to incorporate that experience into my archives work, such as when I do instruction sessions for undergraduate students. I try to engage them to think about human rights documentation existing in many forms, especially within the arts and including forms like hip hop, which I believe to be another form of oral history. Here is a human rights hip hop playlist that I curated for them as a soundtrack to their human rights archival research, which I hope others will enjoy as well!