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“Collecting Grassroots History” Project Director Interview

“…if we don’t have the people from our communities being involved in the humanities, then these histories disappear and that would be tragic.”
– Amitis Motevalli

Amitis Motevalli is the director of The William Grant Still Arts Center and a full-time employee of the city of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.  Amitis has overseen the production of numerous community outreach projects, publication, and websites in the course of her eight-year career at The William Grant Still Arts Center.  She holds an undergraduate degree in Fine Art and Women’s Studies from San Francisco State University, and a Master of Fine Art degree from Claremont Graduate University.

CH: What inspired you to do this project?

AM: I’d been working at the William Grants Still Arts Center, a community cultural center operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department for several years, getting to know people from this very diverse and historic neighborhood called West Adams, before I realized I was meeting an amazing group of collectors: a group of older African Americans who were literally keeping the history and heritage of their community in shoeboxes and crates in their garages, attics, spare rooms – if not their living rooms. The collections they had amassed touched on every aspect of Black life in Los Angeles and included everything you could imagine – photos, newspaper clippings, letters, political flyers and posters, to musical recordings, instruments, dolls and toys, clothing and textiles, furniture, and every kind of memorabilia imaginable. Most of them had never been seen by anyone outside a small group of friends or family members or perhaps an isolated academic researcher before.   

I found it incredibly moving and powerful – and was honored that people trusted me and were willing to share these treasures – and the history they represented — with me. I was very aware that many of these collections were in a precarious state – all of them were priceless and could most likely never be replaced if lost. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to try to do something to make sure they would be preserved and maintained for future generations.

At the same time, I was hoping that I could work with these collectors and find a way to share this incredible store of knowledge with the community, and that our institution could help provide the means to do so. Since we do a lot of work with young people in the neighborhood, it also occurred to me that it would be wonderful to encourage them to learn more about their history and their community and to connect them with elders, and maybe spark their interest in learning more about collecting, preserving, and sharing history and culture.

CH: How did the project unfold?

AM: All of these ideas came together in a plan for an 8-week series of workshops and fieldtrips that would connect their collectors with professional archivists, librarians, and curators, so that they could enhance the management of their collections, and give young people some valuable experiences and skills that would be of benefit to them. We thought that putting together an exhibition that would showcase some of these collections would be a great way to share this history with the rest of the community and provide a hands-on way for the young people to test out some of the skills they were developing and, encourage them to consider careers in the arts and humanities, so we built that into the design of the project, too.

With support from the Department of Cultural Affairs, California Humanities, and many passionate librarians and archivists, we were able to do all these things. Working though our community networks and connections, we put out a call last spring for people to attend our “West Adams Collectors Club” workshop sessions. Each week we did something different: sometimes we invited outside guests to bring in their collections to share, or we had a visit from an archivist or librarian who talked about their work. Other weeks, we had field trips to places like Bunche Library at UCLA, the Mayme Clayton Archive, and the One Archive among others.  Each week was different and each one was a lot of fun.  It was so gratifying to see everyone enjoying themselves and making new friends, especially across generational divisions.

When the workshop series ended in July, we started to design and fabricate the exhibition.  Because one of our collections, the Community Services Unlimited organization, had so much material that had never before been exhibited, we decided to dedicate one gallery to their holdings.  The other galleries will house a number of smaller exhibits, including a collection of individually mounted and framed postage stamps honoring African Americans, a collection of James Baldwin material, including an original letter, and a very special Shindana doll collection, along with other exhibits developed from individual and organizational archives.  It’s been a tremendous amount of work and effort, but we’re almost done, and really looking forward to the exhibit opening on October 3 and the public programs that will follow.

CH: What has most surprised you about doing this project?

AM: We thought it might be hard to get young people involved, but actually that’s been one of the most successful aspects of the project.  Youth have done a huge amount of the work on this project, including doing a lot of editing and video that will be part of the exhibits.  They are real experts on “digital humanities,” and shared some valuable lessons about the transitory nature of contemporary digital technology with the elders, including pointing out the importance of keeping “source” materials, and not relying on digital images stored on media platforms that may quickly become obsolete.

We had hoped that people would find this an enjoyable experience, but honestly it’s been surprising to see how much it has meant to the participants and to us.  One of our collectors, a founding board member of  the Center, told me “this is what I’ve always hoped this place would be and do for our community. “  We’re all sad that the workshops are over, but we’re going to find a way to keep meeting and keep this going.

CH: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

AM: As strange as it may sound, the biggest hurdle we faced was at the curation of the exhibit: getting the collectors to participate.  Many of them are very private people and had a hard time understanding that others outside a very narrow circle would be interested in them or their collections.  Many people had a difficult time, too, deciding whether to share private communications such as letters even though it might also be viewed as part of history.

You also have to remember that for many years these collectors had gotten the message from museums, archives and canonized history that their collections just weren’t important. It has taken a lot of effort to build trust and convince them that there are now many people who are genuinely eager to learn about the history and heritage they have keeping safe for all these years.

CH: What do you think this most important accomplishment of this project is?

AM: Beyond the exhibit and public programs themselves, which are themselves means of preserving and sharing community history, we’re hoping that this project will inspire a new generation of young people to take up this work and carry it forward.

Young people today have a tremendous desire to get at what is real – they want to dig – they want to uncover the truth about the past and to explore histories and experiences that haven’t been documented before. I think that’s why we got them involved in this project.

More than anything else, I think the message of this project is that we can’t let other people write history for us – or depend on them to — we have to do it ourselves. If we don’t, our history may disappear. And what a terrible injustice that would be.

Photo Credits:

Image 1 & 3 – Billie Green’s collection of dolls made by the Shindana Toy Company showcase how a company formed in South Central Los Angeles in the post-Watts Rebellion era created dolls which reflected positive role models, cultural figures, and everyday life for children of color to enjoy.

Image 2 – Neelam Sharma of Community Services Unlimited organizes an archive of the past, present, and future of the organization which was founded in 1977 and has its roots in the Southern California Chapter of the Black Panther Party.

You can reach Amitis at ami.motevalli@lacity.org.  For information about the exhibit and upcoming public programs, please visit HERE.

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