Serving Versus Observing Communities as Part of Preservation Practice

By Special Contributor posted 01-23-2020 13:43


By Adriel Luis 

Editor's Note: This piece came out of a session at the 2018 PastForward Conference in San Francisco, California, which was led by Adriel Luis and Michelle Angela Ortiz. The session focused specifically on working and communicating with underrepresented communities as part of preservation practice. In this piece Adriel Luis expands on his work with various groups across the country. 

What do we mean when we say community? It is a word that is often uttered, yet seldom defined. These days, it has become a device to soften the public messaging of institutions and companies where community can encompass a neighborhood, a nation, a demographic, or a consumer base. 

Lately, I’ve been paying closer attention to when and how I use the term. Even as a community organizer, I’ve noticed myself using it as a default substitute for terms such as people or audiences when I intend to strike a progressive tone. I have watched the term elevate in the public consciousness, where it is no longer just deeply associated with activism and radical movements. Increasingly, anything can be considered “community” as long as it’s well-intentioned. 

Photo of the Ways of Knowing Crew with one of the families from the production.
The Ways of Knowing crew with the Garnanez family in Santa Fe National Forest, 2018. Ways of Knowing is a production of Bombshelltoe that explores how Navajo communities have responded to the nuclear history of the American Southwest. Throughout the production process, the crew has repeatedly visited community members such as the Garnanez family to exchange feedback and strengthen friendships. | Photo: Carmille Garcia

Within the fields of cultural, historic, and environmental preservation, there has recently been a wider acknowledgement of community. Many organizations and institutions are, for the first time, deeply considering those who have been overlooked or silenced. This development is welcome and long-overdue, especially in cases where it is assumed that something associated with community is by definition pious, rough-around-the-edges, and not serious, professional, and quality. The notions of community, community practice, community service, and community-based holds currency in an age where we long for a more democratic, egalitarian, equitable society. 

But when is something actually community? How do we approach the concept with rigor, and resist diluting as we have with diversity, tolerance, and equality? Perhaps a good first step is to recognize the difference between serving and observing. 

For community organizers, there is little distinction between who they observe and who they serve. The primary recipients of a community organizer’s labor are the very people who they focus their work upon. The work of a community organizer includes researching, engaging with, and drawing conclusions about a community, but also includes affecting change for, empathizing with, and even being intimately part of said community. 

In contrast, academics draw a clear line between who they observe and who they serve. The primary recipients of an academic’s labor are members of their academic field, which is not necessarily the people who they focus their work on. Usually, this academic field stands apart from the people who the academic researches, engages with, and draws conclusions about. Affecting change, empathizing, and being intimately part of the subjects of observation are considered conflicts of interest. 

It should be noted that there are certainly exceptions to the rule—for instance academics who practice embedded ethnography (study of communities the observer is expressly part of), and community organizers who focus on high-level movements (the community they organize is organizers). But in the realm of preservation, there is often an assumed object-subject divide. The divide, however, can be elusive, especially since preservation is a field derived from anthropology, but increasingly congruent with community organizing. Today, a preservation-based organization may include both academics and community organizers on their staff, often undistinguished from one another based on professional title. Yet, the intentions behind their work may be quite distinct, even if described as community work. 

Artists from ʻAe Kai in Kokua Kalihi Valley, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 2017

Artists from ʻAe Kai in Kokua Kalihi Valley, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, 2017. ʻAe Kai was a Culture Lab produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center that included artists from throughout Hawaiʻi and the continental United States. Months prior to the public event, artists were convened in Honolulu in order to forge friendships and engage in local community building. | Photo: Nathan Kawanishi


I have experienced some of the friction of these two approaches in the past couple of years that I’ve encountered preservation practice—and it’s not unlike what I’ve seen in museums. My position as a community-centered curator means that I’ve met and even partnered with anthropology-based curators who are abhorred by the idea of “organizing” the communities they study. To recognize the distinction is not to value one above the other, or to advocate for one being dominant or defining the field. Instead, a mutual respect for the utility of both, when properly contextualized, can often lead to more creative, holistic, and thorough results. 

In recent years I’ve had some enthralling conversations with preservationists about what it means to pay due diligence to work involving communities. The four elements to this notion of due diligence are: 

  • Humility—not privileging or valuing one’s work or knowledge over what is embedded in the community;
  • Openness—resisting the urge of approaching projects with predeterminations or mandates that cannot be shifted or upended upon community feedback;
  • Creativity—nimbleness with talents and resources based on the shifting and unexpected needs, preferences, and circumstances at hand;
  • and Love—daring to forge complex, intimate, and lasting relationships with the communities where the work is being done.

For many, this outline for due diligence may strike as idealistic or even disruptive to the realities of preservation work. The responses have sometimes come in the form of “that’s great, except...” Humility is great, except when the voice of expertise is needed to draw solid conclusions. Openness is great, except when detailed project narratives and set goals are needed in order to procure funding to begin the work in the first place. Creativity is great, except when timelines must be abided by and differing ideas lead to overwhelming tangents. Love is great, except when a professional dynamic is critical to getting the job done. Why not use terms that may be more palatable to the field—respect rather than humility, flexibility rather than openness, adaptability rather than creativity, passion rather than love?

To that, I must still respond as a community organizer. Humility, openness, creativity, and love aren’t simply steps for achieving success in a project, they are vital ingredients for forming the human bonds that make communities thrive. As a community organizer, I judge projects by how beneficial they are to strengthening communities. An award-winning report about a group of people who do not have agency over how they are depicted is as pointless as a pristine art exhibition theme on social change but that didn’t pay its artists fairly. Due diligence is about centering a project on positive and productive relationship with the community, even at the expense of the project itself. For community practice to truly succeed in a project, it can’t just be a descriptor or optional element—it must be recognized as vital and uncompromising. 

Adriel Luis is an artist and Curator of Digital and Emerging Practice at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.