Questions of Digital Witnessing, Community Engagement and Human Rights

Lydia French introducing panelists to Digial Witnessing audience

On March 2, 2010, the Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group (E3W) featured several faces of the HRDI in one of its Sequels Symposium precursor events, “Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” held in the UT Libraries Benson Latin American Collection Rare Books Room. The following post details this event and another pre-symposium panel focused on community engagement; these events are great examples of the activist scholarship and dynamic discussions on human rights occurring at UT.


By: Lydia French

In March 2010, the English Department’s Ethnic and Third World Literatures Group held two events in advance of their annual Spring SEQUELS Symposium. This year the symposium will feature E3W alumni Joseph Slaughter (Columbia University, author of Human Rights, Inc.) and Jennifer Wenzel (University of Michigan, author of Bulletproof). As such, the special events drew on the global themes of human rights, but with special emphases on (1) archiving and (2) community engagement/service learning.

“Digital Witnessing: A Record of Human Rights and Wrongs” featured human rights archivist T-Kay Sangwand, I-School graduate student Nicholas Rejack, and Texas After Violence Director Virginia Raymond, each of whom offered illuminating discussions of the praxis and ethics of collecting stories of trauma. In her presentation on the Human Rights Documentation Initiative, Sangwand highlighted the unique collaborative, technological, and narrative features of the project. Rejack discussed his own experiences working with HRDI partner organization, the Free Burma Rangers (FBR); last summer he traveled to the FBR offices in southeast Asia to transferr hours of video narratives onto a computer to be preserved, translated, and housed in the archive. Finally, Raymond, Director of HRDI partner organization, the Texas After Violence Project, spoke on the ethics of collecting and preserving stories of violence. Every individual involved in the process, she suggests, bears a responsibility to each other as well as to the narrators of the stories, the absent individuals involved in the stories, and the future generations who will hear them. Parsing the exact nature of that responsibility, though, is not so easy. Nevertheless, each of the panelists—indeed the philosophy behind the HRDI itself—recognizes the sensitive nature of collecting and preserving the voices of those so long silenced by the violence of trauma.

If there appeared to be tacit agreement among the audience and panelists of “Digital Witnessing,” one week later at “Service Learning: A Roundtable Discussion on Community Engagement” the discussion was a bit more contentious. This event featured panelists from across the university and in the community in capacities as diverse as graduate assistant instructors, not-for-profit directors, activists-turned-administrators, and so on. The roundtable aimed to explore the state of community engagement/service learning (even the nomenclature was/is a sensitive subject; most agreed that the terms have been evolving over several decades now, but generally service learning is seen as a narrow concept within the larger umbrella of community engagement) at the University of Texas and in general. Administrators, instructors, and community activists agreed that anyone who incorporates a community engagement component in their classroom and pedagogy needs to prepare themselves, their students, and the community partner well in advance of the project to avoid what one panelist called “drive-by” interactions, which tend not to benefit either the student or the organization. The instructor needs to have a sustained and mutually beneficial relationship with the organization(s) well before incorporating a project into his/her syllabus. Communication is key. All parties need to be fully informed of the needs of the community partner, the limitations of the classroom, and, honestly, the limitations and needs of the students in order to sustain a healthy relationship.

More contentious are the philosophies behind “service,” “engagement,” and “development.” Particularly in a climate where “service” to “underdeveloped” areas is garnering more and more institutional backing (i.e. it’s hip for universities), the event’s participants questioned the efficacy (and history) of sending thousands of students out as saviors for a community. The answers to one question in particular will illustrate the stakes of the discussion. When asked, when and why did the university start getting interested in community engagement, the following genealogies were offered:

  1. It was a reaction against the self-interested, resume-padding model of “student development” of the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a move, today, toward greater social action.
  2. When the university wants to take land and/or resources from disenfranchised people in the community, it needs to mollify that community by offering its own resources: students. Power relations thereby get watered down to “diversity.”
  3. The university is under pressure, now, to compete with online universities and degree-granting institutions, so it needs to institute local programs.
  4. The need for engagement comes down from the legislature when the university becomes more selective. In other words, it’s a public institution, but it’s no longer admitting as much of “the public,” so the university must compensate by instituting programs to “serve” that same public.

The questions of power, representation, and discrimination implicit in each of these genealogies compel thoughtful response. As an instructor, I realized that the stakes of community engagement are far too high to approach it as simply another assignment; it demands great patience, understanding, and working relationships.

For more information on community engagement at UT, you can visit the following websites:

Bridging Disciplines Program

Practical Opportunities for Law Students

Volunteer and Service Learning Center

Lydia French is a graduate student in E3W and co-organizer of the annual E3W Sequels Symposium.

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