Moments of Resilience Amid a Pandemic
SAPIENS host Chip Colwell speaks with Melanie Adams, the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum (ACM), about #Moments of Resilience, the ACM’s effort to document and eventually tell African Americans’ stories about the times we’re living through now. They also discuss the unique role of a community museum, the value of oral history, and the communities the ACM serves from its home in Washington, D.C.
Check out these links to the three stories Melanie reads in this episode:
The following pieces are sources Chip mentions in his introduction:
- “As Pandemic Deaths Add Up, Racial Disparities Persist—and in Some Cases Worsen” by Daniel Wood
- “No, ‘Racial Genetics’ Aren’t Affecting COVID-19 Deaths” by Sonia Zakrzewski
Chip Colwell: Last year, I published a book with my colleague Lindsay Montgomery on the Native American school experience—how in the late 1800s, the U.S. government tried to destroy Native cultures by forcing Native children to only speak English, adopt Christian beliefs, dress in Western clothing, and much more. The book was a story of terrible loss, but it was also a story of awesome perseverance. As children suffered terribly—physically, psychologically, spiritually—they also actively resisted the forces of their destruction. They survived.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those children these days. In the United States and beyond, this last year has seen the twin crises of COVID and racism become fully entwined. NPR has reported, for example, that in places like “Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Michigan, African Americans are dying at a rate more than 2.5 times their share of the population.” And as SAPIENS pointed out in June this year, “In the U.K., people of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds constitute 33 percent of the critically ill patients with COVID-19, but only 22 percent of the local populations where those patients are being treated.”
What strikes me is not only the inequities suffered by these communities—but also their perseverance. The ways they endure in the face of such suffering and inequality. Like the Native American children in government schools more than a century ago, many in these communities are finding ways to fight back and find resilience.
Melanie Adams: One of the things that has come out of this for us is we really want to help people learn how to act. So, it’s great for us to tell them all of these inequalities exist based on both the history and current events. But how do we provide them with the opportunities to act on them?
Chip: Melanie Adams is the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, D.C., founded in 1967 as something of a precursor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The ACM today is truly a community museum documenting and preserving the memories, struggles, and successes of the Washington area communities it serves. The ACM’s newest initiative is called Moments of Resilience, an effort to document and eventually tell the story of the times we’re living through now: pandemic, protests, and all. Melanie, welcome to the show.
Melanie: Thank you for having me.
Chip: One of the big stories from 2020 is how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed really deep racial inequalities in the United States and beyond. But another big story, as you know, is the way in which many communities have refused to be labeled as victims and instead are demanding change through protests and political action. In other words, while 2020 is a tragedy in many ways, it’s also a story of courage and survival. The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, where you work, has started a project that is focused on how communities endure. And the project is called Moments of Resilience. Can you share with us what this project is all about?
Melanie: Sure. Well, I think like the rest of the country, at the Anacostia Community Museum, we closed our doors on March 14th and went home and tried to figure out: What does it mean to be a community museum when you can no longer invite the community into your space? And so, as you mentioned, the ACM was founded back in 1967. And we do have such a rich history of telling the stories of perseverance and resilience within the African American community. So, Moments of Resilience was really just continuing the work that we’ve always done but doing it in a new way in terms of being able to do it virtually. So, we really did feel it was important to ask the community to share those stories of how they’re being resilient. This was a new and difficult time for many of us. But you were hearing so many stories of essential workers continuing to go to work so the rest of us could get gas and be fed. You were hearing wonderful stories of neighbors meeting neighbors that they hadn’t met before because now they’re walking around their neighborhood. It really was such, just a wonderful opportunity to remind the community of how resilient they are and would continue to be and that we would all get through this together.
Chip: Mm-hmm. So, resilience really is an ongoing theme for the museum and community. It wasn’t necessarily new, although it sounds like, certainly, there is a new context for resilience given COVID and the issues around racial inequality in America today.
Melanie: Exactly. I would say that in terms of, especially a lot of the racial issues that we continue to discuss, there was an ongoing narrative of being resilient in the face of inequality and COVID just put a very different layer on it because I think it was something well, we’ve always addressed inequality in the areas of food insecurity, health, education, COVID was something that was a little different. And so, being able to talk about how we could be resilient when the whole country shuts down, and what does that look like for us?
Chip: Mm-hmm. And now when most people, I think, when they consider museums, they assume museums collect objects, you know, things, artifacts, the stuff, right? That tells us about human culture and society. But you decided to collect stories. Can you tell us a bit about your approach?
Melanie: Sure. So, ACM, like many of our colleagues around the country, we are a collecting museum. So, we do want your artifacts. We want those things that are important. But the key here is they have to tell a story. And so, we like to say that we tell stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. So, it’s not just that you want a specific item, you want an item that’s going to tell the story. And so, as we look at the pandemic, as we look at issues related to racial justice, what are those artifacts that we may collect that may tell the story? Right now, the reason why we went virtual and went to stories immediately without the objects is because it wasn’t safe to collect the objects. So, in the middle of the pandemic, we can’t have people dropping things off at the museum. So, getting the stories is a great first start in doing that. So, we can even look at, you know, some of these stories on our website, and say, “Hey, we would love to have an artifact from you that matches that story.”
Chip: Right, right.
Melanie: So really, collecting the virtual story was really the first step in that larger process of looking for actual artifacts.
Chip: You know, actually, your statement about people doing extraordinary things reminds me of one of the stories you collected about rocks and spreading joy. Maybe you could recite that narrative for our listeners?
Melanie: So, we did have a wonderful story come from Arizona called “Spreading Joy One Rock at a Time.”
[story] So, a local photographer, Mimi Parris, in Scottsdale, offered her talent to take “porch” portraits at the height of social isolation. We were to depict what we were doing during the quarantine. After our portrait, Mimi hid a beautiful hand-painted rock in our yard. I was so moved by her kind gesture and the beautiful rock, I decided to learn how to paint rocks with encouraging messages and leave them all over our neighborhood. This rock art has turned into an obsession, and I had gifted them to everyone I know. In the meantime, my new friend Mimi and I go on weekly walks, and she has nurtured this new hobby that we now share.
Chip: I’m guessing some of our listeners might not be familiar with the Anacostia Community Museum. Could you give us an introduction to the museum and the community you serve?
Melanie: Sure. Sure. So, the Anacostia Community Museum was founded back in 1967, and we have always been a Smithsonian museum. So, we were founded by then-Secretary Dillon Ripley. And the purpose was to provide a museum for the African American community. And we were actually founded out of the racial unrest that was happening during the ’60s, very similar to what’s happening now. And so, the Smithsonian recognized that they needed to find a way to appeal to the African American community. And so, they created the Anacostia Community Museum. And we were located in southeast D.C., where we still reside. We’re in a different building now. We originally were down on Nicholls Avenue in a former movie theater. And so, we’ve since moved from that location. But the really great thing about it is it actually spurred the growth and the development of the community museum movement. So, the ACM was the first, and we had a wonderful director, John Kinard, who came out of community organizing, which was also unique at the time because he was not a traditional museum director, but really someone who worked in the community to organize around issues related to the African American community.
Chip: Yeah, that really is a reversal because so many museum professionals come from anthropology or archaeology or, you know, the social sciences or humanities. So, to have a community organizer be the head of a museum really must have been totally original, a reframing of what a museum could be, right?
Melanie: Right, it was. And that’s a great way to put it. It did reframe it in terms of putting the community at the center. And so, telling the stories at that time, specifically African American–related stories, to help people connect and to see themselves in history, arts, and culture. And so, we celebrated our 50th anniversary back in 2017.
Melanie: Thank you. And since that time, we’ve just really continued to do the work. We started off our name, our original name, was “neighborhood museum,” but we’ve since, you know, switched it to “community museum.” And that really shows the expanding community in the D.C. region. So, we’re not only African American, but we serve the diversity of people that call the D.C. region home and really look forward to telling the story, more complete stories, of all of these histories and not just focusing solely on one community.
Chip: And to me, that’s such a key word, you know, for the work that you’re doing at the museum but also this project in particular: “community.” And one of the stories you collected, I think, does a really amazing job of sharing how the neighborhood around the museum is focusing on community even in the midst of the pandemic. And I’m thinking of the story around Starbucks, which many of us might think of as being anything but community oriented, you know, a big, international corporation. And yet here is a community that’s embracing it as, you know, a beloved local business and spot.
Melanie: Right, and that’s because, so the Starbucks kind of just opened in Anacostia, so it was recently opened, and I think this story really talked about how it was more than a cup of coffee.
[story] So, today Starbucks opened in my neighborhood. What would be a run-of-the-mill occurrence in any other neighborhood in the city holds special significance for mine, especially amid COVID-19. Businesses are closing across the country. The pandemic has provided the perfect excuse for many to turn inward, choosing not to invest in people or places that have been historically marginalized. That’s why even the pouring rain didn’t stop me from grabbing my morning cup and showing some love to my new neighbor on their first official day in our neighborhood. One of only 16 community Starbucks in the nation, my new Starbucks is a concept aimed at boosting local economic development, and the first of the chain stores in the district located east of the Anacostia River. Looking at the small store on the corner of MLK and Maple View Plaza SE, some may see another coffee shop, but I see so much more. I see a sign showing the world my neighborhood is open for quality-of-life enriching, community-focused investment. I see a pathway that will provide new and needed opportunities to my neighbors. I see an erasure slowly but surely removing the deeply etched red line that has for too long defined our neighborhood. I’m hopeful for all of the things that Starbucks will bring to our neighborhood, the least of which is a pumpkin-spiced latte.
And one of the things I love about that, if you listen to it, she sneaks in history because she mentions, she alludes to redlining, and she alludes to the fact that neighborhoods east of the river were redlined and that determined who can move where and where people were pushed. And so, I mean, that’s just such a wonderful one, and showing the appreciation that corporations and individuals and organizations are valuing those communities that once, in the past, they might not have.
Chip: Yeah. It’s a fantastic story that connects past and present. I really love it. So, tell us, you took this job relatively recently, as I understand it. What were you thinking you’d be working on prior to a pandemic?
Melanie: [laughing] Right? Oh, God. Great question. I, so, yes, I took this job in August of 2019, moving from Minnesota, and so, I only had a few months. So, when I took the job, we were actually closed because we were doing kind of a very light renovation, some HVAC work inside. But more importantly, we reimagined our outdoor space. So, I don’t know if we were foreshadowing or thinking ahead, but we created a whole new plaza area outside. So, we reopened to the community at the end of October. So, I really have only been on board with our “regular museum” for about three months before we had to close again. But it’s an interesting blessing in disguise because I think what it really has done is it has forced us to think about who are we without our space, like, we’re still a community, and how do we still serve our community when people can’t come to our space? I think once we’re able to reopen, we do have that wonderful outdoor area. And I think in the time of COVID, we are going to utilize that a lot because we’re still not sure how comfortable people will be coming back to our museum space. So, it really has forced us to flex some of those creativity muscles. I think it’s things we would have eventually gotten to, but COVID has forced us to do things a lot sooner.
Chip: Well, that transition that you’re making as an individual and as an institution is such a profound challenge, right, of how do we adapt in this moment? And that’s right on theme with resilience, too, right? I mean, that’s what resilience is. It’s being able to creatively find new ways forward when you have all kinds of obstacles in your way. It’s amazing that you’re, you know, living your own principles, you know, that you see in the community.
Melanie: Right. And I think, you know, one of the things I’ve really been saying, especially in regard to museums, is: Shame on us if we don’t take advantage of making the changes that we need to make now. So, everyone, I feel like early on people were like, oh, we can’t wait to go back to normal. Well, was normal really working for everyone? Was normal going to push us where we needed to be? And I know, one of the things, especially for the ACM, our vision is creating a more equitable future for all. Well, moving along the normal path was not going to get us there, whereas this dramatic reimagining of who we are and who we want to be for the community really will get us closer to that, creating a more equitable future for all. And so, while we definitely understand the pandemic has been horrible in so many different ways and impacted the community, it’s also provided organizations, I think, kind of the swift kick that we may need to say, hey, we need to step up and do better.
Chip: No, I definitely see that. I see how COVID is helping us to reimagine a different future and also different pathways to that future. Kind of along those lines, this conversation makes me wonder what going back to normal looks like for you as a museum professional? Do you imagine collecting objects again, or in this case, do you see how oral histories are more powerful than artifacts?
Melanie: Well, so we have always had a strong tradition of using oral histories. So, our last exhibit, A Right to the City, our future exhibit, Food for the People, the foundation of those exhibits are oral histories. So, we’ve always done that. But what I see as kind of changing a little bit when we go back is, I think we are going to really look at how are we better sharing our content out in the world and not necessarily only virtually but looking for spaces. And we did this a little bit looking at library spaces where we were able to do small pop-up exhibits, but really looking at what does it mean to be in and with community, and what types of issues do we want to tackle? Like, I know, you know, we’re really looking at issues related to racial equity. So, looking at potential theme years. Next year, we’re going to talk about food. The next year, housing, then the environment, education, and then health. So, looking at, how are we tackling those important issues from a racial equity lens, creating the steps toward that more equitable future? I think one of the things that has come out of this for us is we really want to help people learn how to act. So, it’s great for us to tell them all of these inequalities exist based on both the history and current events. But how do we provide them with the opportunities to act on them?
Chip: And what does that look like in practice? How do you go from storytelling to concrete action?
Melanie: Right. Well, it’s interesting because I think even some of the stories in Moments of Resilience get to that, you know, even the rock story and ones where people were like, OK, I was cooped up in my home, and I had to act. I had to do something. And I think that how we do that is, we use the history to show how people have acted in the past. So, really connecting all of these movements. So, whether we’re talking about protests for quality housing, quality education, transportation, we’re able to show, OK, you’re not the first one to protest about this. This is what has happened in the past. These were the effective models they used. You’re able to put the moment into context in a way that people see a way forward. And so, that’s why we really want to be able to look at, like, what organizations are we partnering with? Like, we’ll be the first to say the museum is not a social service agency, but we can partner with social service agencies. We can talk about the lack of affordable housing. We can talk about these things and connect the community with people who are doing the work to get it done and to make positive change.
Chip: So, when you envision a Moments of Resilience exhibit in the future, what does that look like?
Melanie: That’s a good question. We never really imagined it as a physical exhibit. So, if you were going to say, OK, someone’s going to fund it tomorrow, would you need an idea? I would say, I would envision it as actually projections on the outside of our building. So, I would take these images, do projections, and then do some, somehow, if we record the people telling the story, but somehow do some type of recording connected to it. But I would want to make sure whatever we do with it, it’s placed out into the community and not necessarily only within the walls of our building. How could we project them out to the world?
Chip: Oh, I love that. I can almost picture it, you know, and I think, I mean, it goes to the heart, too, of what a community museum is and can do. As I see it, you know, so many museums, you have these, kind of, Greek temples, you know, and all of the treasures are hidden within it, you know, and you have to get through those walls to see what’s in it. But, you know, a community museum is working in the other direction, taking what the museum has and putting it in the community. And so, I love the idea of projecting on the walls itself. I mean, that just lives the community principle, it seems to me.
Melanie: Right. And I think it’s so interesting you ask that because I was having conversations with some colleagues, and we were saying, when will people be ready for an exhibit about 2020, you know?
Melanie: It’s one of those years. But it’s interesting because I think Moments of Resilience is a little different because we’re talking about being resilient and the uplift. So that doesn’t mean we don’t have programs related to all of the racial equity issues that have come out of 2020. But this is more of a kind of a joyful memory of 2020. And so, will they be more ready for this type of exhibit before something that dives into the deeper issues that have been uncovered?
Chip: No, I can totally see that because this has been a hard, hard year for so many people, and it’s so easy to dwell on the hard parts. And it seems to me that’s precisely what this project does, is it counters that with stories of survival. And so, maybe we could end on a story of survival?
Chip: You and your team recorded Gloria’s story, which seems to me such a promising note to end on.
Melanie: Right! No, this is a wonderful story. And the person who sent it in, her daughter-in-law, titled it “The Resurrection of Gloria.”
[story] So, my mother-in-law, Gloria, lives in a nursing home. A few weeks ago, Gloria caught COVID-19 inside the nursing home. At first, they just isolated her for social distancing. That was the start of the emotional roller coaster ride for friends and family. Every other day, we got good news and then we would get bad news. Because all nursing homes were closed to visitors, we were kept in the dark for the most part. The quarantine isolation was going fine, but then she kept getting weaker and refusing to eat. So, they put an IV in her arm for nourishment. But since she had dementia, she ripped out the IV line. Then they sent her to the hospital, and her condition worsened. We prayed and prayed. We made funeral arrangements. We had many sleepless nights. At one point, the hospital was kind enough to let us do a video call with Gloria online. Because we thought this would be the last time seeing her alive, we put all our energy into that one video phone call. We kept talking and talking so she could hear our voices and, possibly, that would make a difference in her recovery. And then we waited, and we didn’t hear anything for a few days. Then out of the blue, the doctor gave us an update. Gloria had “turned the corner” and was making a full recovery from COVID-19 and being put on oxygen in the ICU. We were so drained from mourning that we had barely enough energy left to celebrate. Today she will ship back to her nursing home, a COVID-19 survivor.
Melanie: So, I agree. I think that is a wonderful story. And it talks about the perseverance and the fact that her daughter-in-law wanted to make sure that story was kept and recorded somewhere and that Gloria’s life mattered. So, we are so thankful for the people who sent in their stories and trust us with them every day.
Chip: Amazing. For our listeners who might want to read more stories from Moments of Resilience, where can they go?
Melanie: So, they can go to the Anacostia Community Museum’s website, which is Anacostia.si.edu.
Chip: Melanie, thank you so much for your time and for your really inspirational work.
Melanie: Great. Well, thank you. I appreciate it. And stay safe.
Chip: This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Paul Karolyi; mixed, audio edited, and sound designed by Jason Paton, and hosted by me, Chip Colwell. SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod, with contributions from Executive Producer Cat Jaffee.
SAPIENS is an editorially independent magazine funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and published in partnership with the University of Chicago Press. Thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and all the staff at the Wenner-Gren Foundation and SAPIENS.org.
SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.
Until next time, be well, fellow sapiens.