Race, Class & Inequalities: Partnering with Local Schools to Document Racial Justice in Rochester

April 27th, 2023

Guest post by Brandon Fess, Special Collections Librarian, Rochester Public Library

This post is part of a series written by members of the Community Webs program. Community Webs advances the capacity for community-focused memory organizations to build web and digital archives documenting local histories and underrepresented voices. For more information, visit communitywebs.archive-it.org.

The Rochester Public Library (Rochester, New York) serves a diverse city of 210,000 people on the shore of Lake Ontario. Founded in 1911, RPL consists of a downtown central library and 10 branches scattered across the city. The library has a history of innovative work and programming; we are perhaps best known today for our refugee outreach program and small business outreach programs. The library has a rich history of supporting local history work; a dedicated Local History & Genealogy Division opened in our central library, the landmark Rundel Memorial Building, at the building’s opening in 1936. RPL was an early entrant into digital collections development, with the Rochester Images project putting 23,000 images online between 1997 and 2003, followed by the establishment of an in-house Digitizing Department that operated between 2005 and 2015. I’m Brandon Fess, and I have served as Special Collections Librarian in the Local History & Genealogy Division since 2016. I’m a “lone arranger,” overseeing both our digital collections and physical collections that include 299 named manuscript collections, over 150,000 photographs, and many other images, maps and pieces of ephemera.

Photograph of the Blundel Memorial Building, Rochester Public Library.

The Rundel Memorial Building, Rochester Public Library

Once dominated economically by the “Big Three” of Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch & Lomb, the city is slowly recovering from economic turmoil caused by the decline of these major employers in the 1990s and 2000s. On a deeper level, Rochester is also one of the many American cities struggling to come to terms with generations impacted by structural racism and ingrained inequities. Overcoming the combined effects of economic and socio-cultural struggle will be a difficult process, but our history gives us precedents for doing so. Rochester takes pride in its rich activist heritage, a heritage that the Rochester Public Library actively aims to preserve and support. The powerful legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, Amy and Isaac Post, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass – to only name the best known of our reform-minded citizens – are very much alive.

Interest in squarely addressing issues around race, class and inequity in the Greater Rochester area have been growing for years, starting with grassroots efforts to identify, document and remove from the legal record racial covenants on home deeds. In 2021, school districts across Monroe County (where Rochester is located) decided to create a new, collaborative curriculum addressing “how race, class and inequities have shaped our region from 1964 to today.”[i] The curriculum project involved collaboration between 19 area school districts, two Board of Cooperative Educational Services offices (Monroe 2-Orleans and Monroe 1), the Center for Urban Education Success (CUES) at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education and the Monroe County Council of School Superintendents. This common curriculum provides inquiry-based learning modules for 8th and 11th grade social studies students to engage with issues of race, class, and inequity in the Greater Rochester area’s recent past. The year 1964 was chosen as a starting point as Rochester saw one of the first major urban uprisings of the 1960s in that year.

Through the library’s existing connections to area schools, the Local History & Genealogy Division was asked to play a key role in developing access points for students to use the curriculum materials. Planning for the Race, Class and Inequities curriculum had already started when the Community Webs application period opened in spring of 2021. Historical Services Consultant Christine Ridarsky saw the application announcement and realized from it how useful the Archive-It toolkit might be for assembling a web-based curriculum. Having this project already underway drove our application to join Community Webs and, once our application was accepted, I used the training projects to begin work on assembling the materials requested by the curriculum development team. (The library uses Race, Class, and Inequalities as the name for its projects so that they can easily be differentiated from the larger curriculum project.) Ridarsky coordinated the project, while Senior Historical Researcher Michelle Finn developed a landing page and uploaded content that could be saved to the library’s existing education-focused Rochester Voices project. Through the library’s membership in Community Webs, I created an extensive collection in Archive-It for web-based resources. This collection consists of news articles, historical documents, and other web resources related to the impact of race on Rochester’s recent history.

Screenshot of 13WHAM ABC Rochester website (13wham.com) archived August 31, 2021

Having a ready-made project with materials to preserve in Community Webs was incredibly helpful in focusing my learning process and refining my skills with Archive-It. My background with web tools and development is very limited, but I found the instruction from the Community Webs team to be clear and helpful. This allowed me to move into serious work on the project as soon as the training modules were complete. The project itself had some challenges: I was never in direct communication with the curriculum development team, so communicating any questions I had or problems I encountered was slow. This problem became acute when I found that certain webpages the team asked to be added to the curriculum were unable to be saved; these included videos with interactive start buttons and websites built around user interaction (such as a map that shows changing school district boundaries in the Rochester area over time; the user must click on various menu options to see the changes displayed). Explaining to the team the limitations of web archiving, especially the ways in which those limitations manifested themselves across outwardly different webpages, was a tedious task.

The Race, Class and Inequities curriculum is now a standard element of middle and high school social studies curricula across the Rochester area. Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain statistics on the use of the materials we assembled nor have I received direct feedback from the curriculum team. However, conversations with teachers who have used the curriculum have been positive. From my perspective, this was both a powerful collaboration to be involved with and great project for starting out my experience with Community Webs. I hope that it continues to have a positive impact on the Rochester community for years to come.

[i] Board of Cooperative Educational Services. (No Date). Race, Class and Inequities Research Project. https://www.monroe2boces.org/RaceClassInequities.aspx