Mutual aid systems rely on forms of exchange, sharing support and resources, to enable communities to care for their members in the face of difficulty. In May this year, Museum Workers Speak started the Museum Workers Relief Fund, a form of ‘radical redistribution’ that seeks donations from those with means to support US-based museum workers who have been laid off, furloughed, or otherwise severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those donations are then redistributed as $500 gifts to help recipients stay afloat.
In this episode, we speak with Paula Santos, Christian Ramirez, and Alyssa Greenberg about the initiative and the role of mutual aid in supporting museum practitioners. While you’re listening, take a moment to support the Museum Workers Speak Relief Fund if you can.
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Paula Santos is a museum educator who relishes teaching diverse and multigenerational audiences in museums. She has previously held positions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney Museum. She is a graduate of the Leadership in Museum Education masters program at Bank Street College and earned her B.A. in Art History from Williams College. Currently she’s the Senior Manager of Learning and Engagement at Intuit: The Center of Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.
Since 2018, Christian Ramirez (she/her) has been the Public Programs Manager at Phoenix Art Museum. She recently programmed a series of sold-out lectures around Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, which included Phoenix Art Museum first Spanish language lecture. Ramirez participated in the 2018 MASS Action convening, meeting with museum practitioners to discuss, develop, and implement Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion plans in their institutions. With over ten years of experience, Ramirez has programmed numerous public programs and curated exhibitions from Phoenix to Detroit. Since 2016, she has been the co-founder and curator of Everybody, previously based in Tucson, AZ, and now located in Chicago, IL.
Alyssa Greenberg (she/her/hers) is an academic, facilitator, and organizer based in Toledo, Ohio. Currently, she is the Community Engagement Director at Toledo Opera. She recently completed a postdoctoral Leadership Fellowship at the Toledo Museum of Art where she served on the Museum’s Executive Team, expanding the porosity between the Museum and the local community through initiatives including re-launching Circle as an affinity group to engage new audiences and establishing The Art of the Cut, an event partnering with local Black barbers as artists. Alyssa is a founding member of Museum Workers Speak. She received a BA from Oberlin College in 2009, an MA from the Bard Graduate Center in 2011, and a PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2017.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Ian Anderson.
Suse Anderson: Good day and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson, and I am your host for this episode. I’m flying solar for the first time in a while. Ed Rodley, my regular cohost was recently laid off from his position at the Peabody Essex Museum. One of countless museum layoffs that have been decimating the U.S. museum sector in recent months against the background of the COVID pandemic. Our friends at Art + Museum Transparency have been tracking the layoffs, furloughs, and reduced hours, and the numbers are staggering.
Perhaps unsurprisingly with its focus on the in-person visitation as a key barometer for success and financial support museums have been significantly impacted by the COVID crisis and related shutdowns. A recent report from the American Alliance of Museums put the number as high as one in three museums in the U.S., that is expecting to close as a result of the pandemic. And of course, the layoffs that are happening in the field are disproportionately affecting low wage workers. And that again highlights the need for labor equity and development in the sector.
Disappointingly it also seems that many of those laid off from the parts of the museum sector focused on public impact work such as freelance and contract educators, where museum staff tends to be more diverse. So it’s layoff provides a pretty unfortunate background to this episode, but perhaps an appropriate one. I’m joined by three of the members of Museum Workers Speak who have for the past several weeks been organizing a Mutual Aid Fund, which invites donations from members of the sector or the public to be redistributed to those now in need, to those who have lost their work and their income.
So I’d like to welcome Paula Santos, Christian Ramirez, and Alyssa Greenberg to talk about Mutual Aid and how it can help members of our community in need. A quick note, before we start the interview for this episode was recorded a couple of weeks ago. I really wanted to get it out sooner because this is such an important topic, but it turns out that everything is harder now, especially when trying to juggle working and parenting. But, I also had the death of a significant family member in those weeks. So, a quick note of apology to Paula, Christian, and Alyssa for the delay, this is a really important topic and everyone should hear about it as soon as they can. Okay, let’s get into it.
Paula Santos is a museum educator who relishes teaching diverse and multi-generational audiences in museums. She has previously held positions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum. She is a graduate of the leadership in museum education master’s program at Bank Street College and earned her BA in art history from Williams College. Currently, she’s the senior manager of learning and engagement at Intuit. The Center of Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.
Since 2018, Christian Ramirez, she, her has been the public programs manager at Phoenix Art Museum. She recently programmed a series of sold-out lectures around Teotihuacan City of Water, City of Fire, which included Phoenix Art Museum’s first Spanish language lecture. Ramirez participated in the 2018 MASS Action Convening meeting with museum practitioners to discuss, develop, and implement diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion plans in their institutions. With over 10 years of experience, Ramirez has programmed numerous public programs and curated exhibitions from Phoenix to Detroit. Since 2016, she has been the co-founder and curator of Everybody previously based in Tucson, Arizona, and now located in Chicago, Illinois.
Alyssa Greenberg, she, her, hers is an academic facilitator and organizer based in Toledo, Ohio. Currently, she is the community engagement director at Toledo Opera. She recently completed a postdoctoral leadership fellowship at the Toledo Museum of Art, where she served on the museum’s executive team, expanding the porosity between the museum and the local community through initiatives, including relaunching Circle as an affinity group, to engage new audiences and establishing the Art of the Cut and event partnering with local black barbers as artists. Alyssa is a founding member of Museum Workers Speak. She received a BA from Oberlin College in 2009, and MA from the Bard Graduate Center in 2011, and a PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2017.
Christian, Paula, Alyssa, welcome to Museopunks. It is so lovely to have you here today.
Alyssa: Thanks for having us.
Paula: Thanks for having us.
Christian: Thank you.
Suse: Concerted responses. So we are going to talk today about labor and equity and solidarity in the museum workforce but before we start, I’d love to just do a quick check-in with you. It’s something I’m trying to do in light of the pandemic, and coronavirus and people working in all kinds of environments that they might not normally be working in. So I’d love to just find out where you are today. Paula, can you start us off?
Paula: Yeah. Thank you so much for inviting us. Where I am right now? I am incredibly busy. I think that the pandemic has shifted and eroded any type of boundaries I used to have around work, personal life, organizing, and in a lot of ways that is energizing because I truly feel like I’m living and breathing who I am. But as I think many people on this call know it can be incredibly exhausting, so busy, exhausted, exhilarated. I think that would be the three things I would say of how I am.
Suse: That’s a pretty good check-in. I love the idea of sort of almost leaning into yourself through well, I guess, through being forced to, but it’s a lovely way of positioning it. Alyssa, where are you sitting right now?
Alyssa: Well, everything Paula said, I can certainly co-sign all of that felt very relatable. And I would just add that this project, the Museum Worker Relief Fund that we’ve been collaborating on together has been personally for me, so grounding and really made me feel centered in my values. And it’s been very exciting and meaningful to see the dollar amounts rise and to see the disbursements go out to museum workers. And that practice has really kept me centered and focused and oriented during this pandemic moment.
Suse: Yeah. That’s really beautiful. Christian, how are you going? What’s your world?
Christian: I’ve been working from home since March, like a lot of folks have. And I think what’s been interesting is that I feel like I’m just as busy or not, or even busier than I was prior to this kind of echoing what Alyssa and Paula just said. And also that I’ve connected with people on a deeper level, in this moment. This virtual space has really provided an opportunity to get to know people on a different level and connecting with Alyssa and Paula and all the other folks that I’ve worked with. I’ve gotten to meet through the Museum Workers Speak Relief Fund has been amazing. So even though I am physically more alone than I ever have been I feel like I’ve connected with folks around the country because I actually never met, I’ve never met Alyssa and Paula in person we’ve only ever known each other through Zoom.
Suse: Yeah. Amazing. I feel like I have different relationships with some of my students than I’ve ever had before for similar reasons. I think that you connect in different ways and I think we’re also just talking about different things in a lot of cases. So before we get onto the fund, which I really want to concentrate on, I think it’s really important to get a bit of grounding about Museum Workers Speak, where it came from, and how it started. Alyssa, I know you were one of the founding members of the group. Can you tell us a bit about Museum Workers Speak? What inspired it in the first place and what you’ve been involved with since it started?
Alyssa: Sure, I’d love to. Thank you for that opportunity. Museum Workers Speak really began in whispers and private conversations among friends and colleagues. And in 2015, the AAM Conference theme was The Social Value of Museums. And so I collaborated with some colleagues from across the country to propose a session on the stated commitments of social value of museums and their internal labor practices and shockingly that session was not accepted.
So what we did was we decided to have the session anyway, and we held a rogue session offsite at the Ger-Art Gallery in Atlanta as a shout out to them for hosting us. And we had what I think was a much larger and more deep and more honest and open and vulnerable conversation collectively than we ever would have had as a regular conference session at AAM. And it really sparked a movement that continues to this day.
Suse: Yeah. I remember following along the tweets fairly early on from the Museum Workers Speak conversations and sessions. Can you just also add a little bit more about what the organization has been doing in that time? I mean, I know tweet ups, I have some Museum Workers Speak resources that I share with some of my students from various sessions. Can you share a little bit about sort of that history and what’s happened in that five-year gap?
Alyssa: Great question. So the way that Museum Workers Speak shifted after that 2015 AAM moment was regional groups developed in the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, Miami, New York City and Washington DC. And there were also, as you mentioned, these Twitter meetups online. We did a lot of publications. We did a lot of presentations, things like that, but by 2016, after having three different sessions at the AAM Conference, then what a difference a year makes. We actually took a hiatus because we felt so burned out by this work and having this moment now to do the Museum Worker Relief Fund, it seems like a really great way to revive the spirit of that movement.
Suse: Yeah, fantastic. So in May this year Museum Workers Speak started this Museum Workers Fund that you’ve been referring to, which is a form of radical redistribution that asks museum workers who are still employed. People who love museums, museum board members, museum donors, and anyone looking to support people who bring arts and culture to you daily to donate small or large amounts that they can to support US-based museum workers who have been laid off, furloughed, or otherwise severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These donations are then redistributed as $500.00 gifts to help recipients stay afloat. Paula, how did this idea first come about?
Paula: Well, I have to say that the idea is something that was in the air and especially around the time of the shutdown. And when I say in the air, it was obviously on Twitter because I know that I’m going to say Seema Rao was the first person to ask, “Oh, is there a relief fund?” So I started talking to her a little bit about it. And then I started talking to Alyssa and began talking to organizers here in Chicago. Organizers that have built unions, helped unions to do strikes. So thinking about the model of a strike fund. I have some friends here in the city that have organized around jail support or prison abolition. And this was all pre-pandemic.
So the system was already there and the ideas were already in the air. And I was just wondering when, how, who can start bringing in some of these radical ideas of care, radical ideas of what we want museums and our field to look like, how do we want to think about our colleagues and support our colleagues? And that is when Alyssa, suggested that we revive Museum Workers Speak and that be the home for the relief fund. We were building from a point outside of the field. I know that there’s a lot of talk about Mutual Aid now, which is good.
I think we need more Mutual Aid as Mariame Kaba @prisonculture on Twitter would say it is it for me and also in our organizing phone calls, it has been an idea of more Mutual Aid of community care that really abolishes for us the very difficult hierarchies that our museums put on us, whether we’re managers or on the executive team or we’re hourly museum workers. I think that thinking about how we care for each other has been so galvanizing for me and having Alyssa’s support. And I can also …
I don’t want to get ahead of you Suse, but one thing I do want to say about this relief fund is that I had this idea and I was talking to Seema about it in the beginning, but I was still very unsure whether people would support it. So Alyssa encouraged me to talk to MASS Action, which is how Christian got involved. She encouraged me to talk to I think La Tanya Autry also from Museums Are Not Neutral. So there were already networks in place of people who were thinking about a different museum future that could support this work and I think that’s really, really important.
Suse: Yeah, that’s really helpful to get that sense of these networks that are happening and driving a lot of this action. Christian, can you talk a little bit more about how MASS Action was involved and how the work that has been done there has really helped to support these kinds of initiatives in its own space?
Christian: Yeah, so ever since the last convening there’ve been monthly, kind of just check-ins where I feel like it really just is holding space for each other to be able to discuss the projects we’re working on within our own institutions and other ways that we’re able to support each other. And that’s when I learned about the beginning rumblings of having the relief fund come together. And at that moment, I think we … It was in March is kind of when the first conversation of it I was aware of.
I think again, it’s just providing space for people to be able to actually connect with each other on a deeper level. And then when you can look outside of your own institution it just makes you feel less alone. So I think that that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve really gained from MASS Action is building a community of folks, even though I don’t get to see them physically on a regular basis, but learning from them and gaining those ideas and also being able to use them in my own space as well.
Suse: Yeah, that’s lovely. Well, I’m going to come back to you, you were talking about Mutual Aid and I think it’s really helpful if we could talk through some of the principles and values of Mutual Aid to get a sense of what it actually means and how these things manifest in the real world. I mean, obviously the Mutual Fund is one way of doing this, but it would be nice to get a broader sense of it.
Paula: Yeah, I’m glad you asked me about Mutual Aid actually because our first organizing sessions really were a place for us to talk through the concept of Mutual Aid. And is it something that we feel we could if it’s a model we could have worked with because it’s not the only model. So essentially Mutual Aid is where instead of having a more charity model where you have all the resources at the top, and then you have them trickle down to the neediest cases or have some type of a mechanism by which you allocate funds based on your own definition, like an organization’s definition of impact. For Mutual Aid you believe people when they say they have need and that and also it’s not hierarchical.
So it isn’t that big donor here has a pile of cash that is redistributing from this one big pile of cash. It is a community or community members coming in and gathering resources in order to care for other community members. And I think the one thing I really want to say about Mutual Aid is that Mutual Aid isn’t only money. I think currently money is a huge concern. Obviously, people need to pay their rent but Mutual Aid can be things like grocery runs. I know that in other organizing circles, there’s like Google spreadsheets where people say, “I really need …” What do they call them? The meal runs? Where you like send over like a week worth of meals or something like that.
So that is a community saying, “These are the needs, who can fill these needs.” And for us and it ended up being this $500.00 cash gift however, it could have taken other forms. It’s just that, that is where we thought we could make an impact. Here’s one thing I will say about Mutual Aid is that I think it’s still a very challenging concept even with among us because and I will just speak for myself, in my museum work, I think a lot about what resources we have and how to allocate those resources for the maximum amount of impact. And that is essentially because we are beholden to funders in some way, but then also thinking about equity, we want to make sure that certain communities have what they need and all those things.
In our project now it’s really challenging these ideas of, “Well, how can we even measure need with each other? Do we ask for a bill? Do we ask for someone’s contract that wasn’t fulfilled.” So, that’s what it looks like in the real world, right? Where it’s like, you believe someone when they say, “Yes, my hours have been reduced. Yes, my mom is sick.” And not relying on those structures of, “verification” to weed out people. And that’s, I know that that is challenging, I think still, but we’re over $50,000.00 into this, so it’s going.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. When I think about a lot of the structures we have, whether they’re professional structures within museums, whether it’s the reliance on master’s degrees to get jobs here in the U.S., in particular, all of those things they’re structures for accountability. There’re ways of formalizing things rather than relying on trust. And I think that what you’re talking about is almost a reversal of that. I know that you call it this idea of radical redistribution, and it seems like a lot of the radicalness of this is in that it’s built on these notions of trust and believing people when they say they’re in need rather than needing or requiring a kind of proof for it. There are obviously more people, or I would guess there are more people who are applying for help though than you can help. Christian, can you tell us how those who receive aid are selected?
Christian: Sure. Yeah, I guess following this idea of radical trust and just believing people when they’re asking for assistance. The only thing that we do is go through the spreadsheet of all the applicants, remove any duplicates and then from there it’s literally just a random drawing. I use Name Picker.net, and it just automatically chooses 20 folks for us to be able to distribute the funds to. We do just make sure that everyone is a human. There was a slight fear of maybe a bot getting in there somehow. But just a quick Google search, just to validate that everyone is just a actual person.
Then we just send their emails and then Paula will get the funds to them either through Venmo or PayPal things like that. But we do have eligibility requirements like the prioritizing of folks that have frontline staff positions, janitorial, visitor services, security, retail cafe, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. That was really the first wave of layoffs came from the front of house folks, people who were part-time or contract workers, freelancers or temporary folks that also didn’t get their contracts renewed.
People who were living paycheck to paycheck even prior to this, folks that potentially didn’t have generational wealth. If you were just going out on your own kind of thing, especially for younger museum employees or employees of color, that’s generally going to be the situation, interns paid or not. And then just people who got their hours reduced as well. So, that was the eligibility requirements. And then from there, it was just a random selection of the applicants that came in.
Suse: I’m sure you’ve had some really lovely stories of how this has impacted people. Are there a couple, you don’t have to use names, but are there a couple that you might be able to share?
Christian: Yeah, I was actually just reading through them the other day. I guess it’s more of being able to provide that sense of community and solidarity with the workers. A lot of them were let go pretty violently and I think that this is a way to be able to let them know that they are still cared for actively, that even though their institution might have discarded them which is a lot of language that you’ll see in the applications is feeling left behind, feeling as though no one cares about them ultimately. So being able to provide that level of comfort and to for some people being able to help them pay their rent, or if also their partner has lost employment, or we did have someone whose mother was very ill, knowing that we’re able to assist in a tiny way financially is really amazing. But also just knowing that we can provide comfort for people right now. I think has personally been one of the most impactful things.
Suse: That’s lovely. We all know that the museum sector in America has just been decimated by the response to the pandemic. There’ve been waves and waves of furloughs and layoffs. Others have had their hours cut and of course, these cuts, as you were just saying, disproportionately affect low wage workers, frontline workers within the museum, often they’re jobs held by people of color within our sector. There’s a real risk now that budget shortfalls and other institutional concerns will be used to again, reduce pay and benefits. So I’d really love to think about what we as a community do to prevent that kind of backsliding. This question I’d really love to hear from all of you, Alyssa, I might get you to start us off, but I’d really love to know what we do to stop this being an excuse for making things worse.
Alyssa: Absolutely. Thank you so much for asking that question. So for one thing, our relief fund had a goal amount of reaching $50,000.00, and we had to decide as a collective, have we achieved our goal, or should we keep going? And recognizing that this is a pedagogical project that we’re never going to be able to meet the needs of all of the museum workers who can benefit from a $500.00 gift that this has kind of a symbolic and organizing value and not just the literal value of $500.00 in your bank account. So especially considering that the end of the fiscal year is coinciding with the reopening of many museums.
This is such a critical moment for our field and we absolutely want to keep the project going. And that is why we have decided to increase our goal, double it in fact, to $100,000.00. So one of the parts of your question that I’d love to address is, what can we as museum workers do to support one another? And some of our suggestions include to organize the museum workers in your community through individual one-on-one outreach. Looking over the spreadsheet of applicants to our funds many of these people are people we personally know and have reached out to individually and spread the word that way.
And it’s just so important to make sure that the people who are eligible for our fund are actually aware of it and choosing to apply to it. And another option would be to start a local Museum Worker Fund in your area, in addition to the fund that we have on a national level, you can fundraise for a collective like ours. We have, we’d love to talk about some of the campaigns from our colleagues in the field that have raised money to support our cause. You can join a collective like MASS Action. You can document your experience on the anonymous spreadsheets that are circulating online. There’s room to support this movement in so many lanes from web design to social media, to writing about your experience, that everyone will find a way for themselves to participate in a way that feels most authentic to them.
Suse: Brilliant Paula.
Paula: Yeah. I think one of the things that we have been talking about internally in our collective calls is that the … And we have said this repeatedly here, the relief fund is one strategy, it’s one way and it definitely has been a very galvanizing way to have people join in and show solidarity, whether it’s through $12.00 or $500.00, as we have had some contributors do. But I think, and this is … I feel like I’m always the one that’s like, but what does this mean politically? I think that we have the opportunity to politically educate the museum workforce to demand what they deserve. Whether that, and I think Suse to your question, it is do not let them backslide into terrible wages.
I mean, they’re already very bad, so I don’t even know how much lower they can go, but I’m sure they can go lower. And, I think people usually jump to … And I have been in enough of these conversations to know that people usually jump to like, “Oh my God, we have to organize let’s form a union,” which is not always the right strategy for a certain situation. I mean, it’s a strategy nationwide. We should be in unions but I think that the examples of, for example the Field Museum, the petition they just did, also the petition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it is a written document that says, this is what we expect from you, the museum, our employer, not only as someone who gives us a paycheck, but also in the way that you portray yourself to the public.
And I think that these instances of organizing are so important because even if you don’t have your demands met, you have already put forth what they are. And I think that this is a point to the organizing of Mutual Aid and Prison Abolition, pre-COVID-19, these demands have been in place years and years ago. It is now that more people are joining the movement. A consciousness has been raised that we can go back into those demands. We can go back and say, “Oh my god, look at this amazing network that has been built.” And we have the words we have the work so we can move forward. So I think that as museum workers, this political education will be so important for us moving forward. Like perhaps this is a moment of loss, of intense loss, but we are literally building the foundation in this moment of what we want museums to be and what we want us to be to each other right now.
Suse: Yeah. I love the idea that there’s also an accountability to one another it’s and that the institution has to be accountable to us as well as the other way around. Christian, what do you see as sort of some of the ways that we do actually work together or can continue to build on the work that’s being done to make sure that this isn’t a moment where we start to see increased reliance on contract work, for instance, and things like that that can be damaging overall.
Christian: I think Alyssa and Paula just did an amazing job. And I just, I think one of the biggest things for myself is that I didn’t come into the museum field through like getting a college degree in it specifically, so it’s been really amazing to have this opportunity to just meet and learn and hear other people speak. And I think that that’s probably one of the biggest things that is needed right now is just more connection with each other and having that dialogue and feeling comfortable asking questions, or just listening to folks that have been in this field for so long and doing this type of work for so long, that it can feel really daunting.
When you still feel new to it, but really it’s just about having conversations and starting it out and looking towards other organizations like Mia, who had that petition going and the Field Museum, but also knowing that that started from a lot of work beforehand of just dialogue amongst those employees as well. So I guess encouraging us to just really talk to each other, to really get to know your colleagues on a deeper level which can feel really challenging right now, because if you’re still employed by … Excuse me, if you’re still employed by a museum you’re most likely working from home, but like making an effort to just still connect with each other, I feel like is really how we’re going to be able to move forward collectively.
Suse: Yeah. The relief fund seems like it meets the immediate needs of many people in the sector. And it does so as we were talking through these ideas of radical trust with dignity at the heart of it, but it does also feel like a short term solution. And in a lot of ways, a necessarily short term solution, I hope you’re not all needing to still be running something like this a couple of years from now. I think that, I don’t know what that would say about the state of the field. Paula, how does this work? You were starting to get to this, but I want to push you a little further. How does this work and this action then translate into an ongoing response to, or maybe against a system that devalues workers as individuals and denies them those rights and dignity in a lot of times?
Paula: I actually think I’m going to push back a little bit because I think that a Mutual Aid Fund for museum workers, even in the good times is a good thing because it’s not always good times for everyone. And I think what we have been seeing in our applications is that this has been a worker dignity and our museums, and also from Melissa’s work and Museum Workers Speak is been that low-level hum in the background for many years and the pandemic has made it like literally boil over. But need has always been there and one point I want to make about this too is that we, all three that are on this call are highly professionalized museum workers.
We are not, I at least I know that I’m not really having conversations with people who have been in the facilities staff. So what if we do keep a Mutual Aid Fund for when things get tough, like period. And I think that’s probably one of the things about Mutual Aid that I keep thinking about is that a lot of people see it as a bandaid but I see it as a constant reminder that we care. There is need always. So do your second part of your question of how do you keep it going? I mean, yes, I don’t want to hand out $10,000.00 every week because I think there’s only a certain amount of time I can deal with Bank of America in my life who’s our bank.
But I think that we are starting to discuss about what coalitions do we start building, which we have started like other members of our collective have started to do some of that work. We, at least I know that I’m very interested in having museum workers meet organizers, for example people who I know who doing immigration organizing, union organizing obviously, and also doing work around prison abolition. And I think it’s not so much because it’s a one for one, but rather that I think that there are direct action tactics that people who are highly professionalized, like myself are a little bit squeamish about and are a little bit that definitely do not have that background.
Because I know at least for myself, I’ve been groomed to work within my sphere of influence and develop strategy for how I can convince X, Y, and Z to do what I need them to do, which is valid. We all have to survive in our workplace, but we are seeing the deep structure of institutions and in order for accountability to happen, we need to be bold. And I know that when I talk the more and more I talk, I realize that I am just at this moment where I care deeply about the work that museum do and I’m not very invested in the structures that they use to survive. So I’m very invested in how do we hold the structures accountable? Do they need to be the same that they’ve always been?
Suse: Yeah. I mean, so in this you have sort of shifted my way of thinking because, for me, I’ve been thinking that this is an important solution, but a short term one, and maybe it’s not, but if it’s not, is it sustainable? I mean, I know that there’s a group of you that this is a collaborative effort and there’s a number of you working on it. But I even at the start of this conversation, when I did a check-in with you, you were all talking about what it means in your life. I imagine it also is tiring and exhausting. Alyssa Museum Workers Speak sort of took time away after only a year or so the first time around, how does this become sustainable then in ways that just give you capacity to keep going?
Alyssa: That’s a great question. That’s the question in a lot of ways organizing, and co-founding a group like Museum Workers Speak. I felt like the extent of labor of having a second job. I was working, I was in graduate school and I was working on Museum Workers Speak, and yeah, it’s a lot. And for obviously unwaged labor, it can really take a toll on the rest of your life. And so I think that when we think about what the long-term work is, it isn’t necessarily as Paula the weekly labor of going and doing transactions with the Bank of America. But it really is about larger network building and relationship building that will be able to perpetuate the work. So what we have through this project isn’t just the $500.00 gifts.
We all recognize that $500.00 gift is never going to make someone whole. What we’re doing is we’re building a greater network of solidarity on the side of, we have all of these donors and on the side of we have all these applicants and what can we do together? And looking back on Museum Workers Speak, and the group that coalesced in 2015, a good chunk of those activists, actually myself included are no longer working in the museum field and have just transitioned to other fields.
And what we’re going to see this time around is that many of the people who have applied for and donated to this fund are no longer working in museums and will transition out of the museum field. And so how can we collect the knowledge and expertise that those individuals have to contribute back to museums? I feel like our network is actually one of the only networks that’s going to contain a lot of voices of people who are no longer working in museums. And those are the voices that museums probably really need to hear the people that have been excluded and discarded.
Suse: So this is a massive collaborative undertaking, as you were saying before. There’s so many people who’ve been working with connected networks, whether the people working directly on the project to try and make a little bit of that invisible labor visible, is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge? And I’m going to put this out there. I know that this is an awkward question because there’s probably going to be people who are doing things that we weren’t come up with in a podcast, but it would be great to try and give a nod to anyone that we can.
Paula: There are so many people we’ve love to thank and acknowledge for the success of the Museum Workers Relief Fund, and for its continued work in what we’re doing with museum workers. I’d love to say a very, very public thank you to our current active collective members, as well as the members who helped shape our vision along the way and helped in their own unique ways. Anniessa Antar, Gwendolyn Fernandes, Alyssa Greenberg, Hannah Heller, Gretchen Jennings, Porsche Moore, Christian Ramirez, Kate Swisher, La Tanya Autry, and Margaret Middleton. I’d also like to thank everyone who’s helping us fundraise.
This is really an ongoing lift and we couldn’t have done it without a supportive museum community. Everyone who has contributed on GoFundMe from the people who have done it more than once, the people who I know are donating, like speaking fees to our fund. Thank you. You know, who you are. The museum group has been very supportive, the Empathetic Museum, Nina Simon and OF/BY/FOR ALL has been vocally supportive. We were incredibly heartened and surprised in a great way when Museums and Race donated a portion of the donations for their conference to us, that was one of our biggest first visible support and that was really meaningful.
La Tanya Autry and Mike Morawski made a commitment to donate the proceeds of the Museums Are Not Neutral t-shirt campaign to us while we have the fund and every few weeks we get a wonderful notice about the money that has been raised through that. Likewise, Mara Kurlansky started a T-shirt campaign, “I Miss Going to Museums” to raise funds for us. And that was just kind of an amazing surprise so thank you, Mara. And in the museum and library sector, Dr. Porsche Moore put us in contact with Dr. Nicole A. Cook of the hashtag #Informationcampaign and they lent us their platform to reach a wider audience.
And also everyone who has invited us to panels, invited us to talks, who has shared our posts. When we say that this has been something we’ve done in a community, we really mean it. And we want to embody that in every way possible to us, this is a relief fund, but it is also a model of how we believe leadership and the museum sector should move. And we definitely see ourselves as right in the thick of that so thank you.
Suse: That is such an awesome group of people to be working with. If listeners want to find out more about Museum Workers Speak, or ideally donate to the Museum Workers Relief Fund, or receive something from the Museum Workers Relief Fund, how can they best do so?
Alyssa: Sure. So you can find our website at bit.ly/museumworkerfund, and you can find us on Facebook at Museum Workers Speak, on Twitter @museumworkers, and on Instagram @ MuseumWorkersSpeak.
Suse: Amazing, Paula, Alyssa, Christian, thank you so much for joining me. The work you are doing is amazing, and I really hope that this not only provides short term relief but does prompt us to think about different ways of thinking about Mutual Aid and ways that we can continue to shift the sector and its structures from within. I was just thinking, when you were talking about Mutual Aid, that even I’m seeing a lot of people offering support and services, looking at resumes and those kinds of things for one another. And I think there are all kinds of ways that we can think about how we help develop a better and friendlier sector and think about that concept of dignity in everything we do.
Alyssa: Thank you. Thank you so much for having us today.
Paula: Thank you.
Thank you, Paula, Christian and Alyssa, this is such important work, and I appreciate the efforts that you’ve been doing and that everyone has been working to make the sector a better place has been doing right now. My husband made an observation recently that has stuck with me. While this moment, this momentous cataclysmic moment sometimes feels like we’re living in a new world where everything has changed, it’s important that we recognize that we’re in the same world that we’ve been in, just some parts of it better illuminated than they perhaps were. There are a lot of things that haven’t changed.
The violence and deeply felt impact of racism, of inequality, of injustice, is not new. Even if it is perhaps more sharply defined and made visible, particularly maybe to those who’ve been unwilling or unable to see it before. My hope is that once rendered visible, it becomes harder for people to turn away from the real and systemic racism and their complicity within it. I recently got a copy of, We Wanted A Revolution, Black Radical Women From 1965 to 85, a sourcebook, a publication made to accompany the exhibition of the same name, which was held at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017.
The book is filled with writings from the time, and it’s some of the most compelling reading I’ve done lately chiefly because it helps ground the work and conversations that are happening right now in history. And I’ve got such a better understanding of the activists and their work that are focused on social justice in the generations that preceded this one. So if you’re looking for something to read right now, I really recommend it.
So before I wrap up, I wanted to introduce a new logo for Museopunks. Some months ago, we received a tweet commenting that the former logo bore a great similarity to the rising sun flag, which was used by Japan’s military forces and is in some countries, a sign of Japanese imperialism. While the resemblance was coincidental and not intentional it was important to Ed and to me and to the team at AAM that we take the comments seriously. We thank the individual who provided us with this feedback. At the same time, the podcast had evolved significantly from 2015 when we started to use that logo and it felt like a good time for a refresh.
The new logo and visual direction has been created by a designer whose work I’ve admired for many years, but he also happens to be my husband. The shapes you’ll see whilst giving the impression of an abstract painting are also the insides of the M and the P and the font used is Medi Sans-serif, a humanist font. I think it’s really beautiful and I hope you’ll like it too. I’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about in today’s episode in the show notes, which you can find at museopunks.org, along with transcripts of this and previous episodes.
Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. And of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. I don’t know when we’ll be getting our next episode out, just trying to cope with everything that’s happening, including trying to be a full-time parent and a full-time worker is putting quite a bit of burden, certainly, on me other people associated with the show. I’m going to keep trying to get your episodes as we can. (silence)