The other morning, I awoke to an unexpected text from my former supervisor. The Help Digitize Friends Radio campaign, which I helped launch as part of my internship last summer, was nearing completion. The Rainbow History Project, a nonprofit collecting and preserving LGBT history in the D.C. area, will be able to digitize nine years of gay radio (1973-1982) – saving the audio content from the fate of the decaying cassette tapes.
To get a taste of the program content, check out the video I made as part of the fundraising effort:
One of the things I’ve appreciated most at Swarthmore is the College’s generous support of summer opportunities. For all of my three summers as a Swattie, the College has helped connect me to – and financially support me in – fantastic opportunities. With Swarthmore’s help, I’ve spent my summers far from home learning outside (and sometimes inside) the classroom:
- As a rising sophomore, the Classics Department funded me to study ancient Greek at UC Berkeley’s Greek Summer Workshop. (To understand why the Classics Department is the best, check out Canaan’s post Grappling with the Greeks.)
- As a rising junior, I received a Summer Social Action Award from Swarthmore’s Lang Center, which supported me in travelling to Marrakech, Morocco, to intern at Amal Women’s Training Center. (Amal is a non-profit that aims to empower women from disadvantaged backgrounds through job training.)
- And this past summer, I received Summer Internship Support from the Lang Center, allowing me to work with Rainbow History.
Internships with nonprofits are frequently unpaid; after all, many nonprofits struggle to do vital work with their already-limited resources, and paying interns is not their top priority, for good reason. Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility recognizes this reality; a variety of Lang grants provide financial backing to Swarthmore students who want to spend their summers on social justice work. A Lang grant certainly isn’t extravagant, but it can cover the basics (rent, transportation, food) as you explore social justice work, often in a new city.
That’s how I came to spend my past summer in D.C., interning for an LGBT-themed public history project. As an intern, I got to do everything. I wrote blog posts; I revamped Rainbow History’s website; I created training materials for volunteers; I helped represent RHP at the Capital Pride Street Festival; I researched new technologies the organization was considering using; I conducted and transcribed oral history interviews; I compiled digital timelines; I processed and digitized materials for the organization’s historical archives. It was exhilarating, exhausting, and thoroughly educational.
Most importantly, my work allowed me to explore the intersection of history (my major) and community building. I got to see first-hand how a marginalized “community” organized to collect and share its own stories: narratives typically ignored by mainstream history. But even this do-it-yourself archive faces problems of representation. For a number of reasons, the Rainbow History Project archives (both material and oral history) tend to cluster around white, cis-gender, gay/lesbian, professional identities. Full inclusion of the voices of people of color, trans and non-binary people, non-monosexual people, and working class people remains a challenge for the Rainbow History Project. As I came to understand this bias in the archives, I grappled with the meaning of “community.” How do you best tell the stories of the “LGBT community”? Is there even such a thing as an LGBT community? Or would we do better to talk about many communities? And if so, how do these communities intersect and diverge? What are the advantages that come from representing a single unified LGBT community and how does this apparent unity mask difference?
Back on campus, I have plenty of time to pursue such questions through my history coursework. My honors seminar, Women and Gender in Chinese History, for example, has given me plenty of new frameworks through which to consider the nature of gender categories and sexual identities. I still don’t have answers: a rule of thumb at Swarthmore is that the more you read, observe, and absorb, the more complicated things get. But the important thing to note is that learning happens inside and outside the classroom: you learn by reading, but you also learn by doing. So I’m grateful to Swarthmore for helping me extend my education through summer opportunities.