Summer 2020 Seed Grant Funding

Report Submitted by Christina Boyles

Puerto Rico’s recent spate of natural and man-made disasters has led to greater public attention on governmental disaster-response methods–prioritization of urban centers, slow distribution of resources, and limited communication with those in need–often leaving marginalized and vulnerable communities to fend for themselves. Individuals and communities were and are highly dependent upon local traditions, oral knowledge, and community organizing. These knowledge systems are key to surviving the conditions lived and experienced in Puerto Rico, and they serve as powerful resources for future disaster response protocols.

In response, I am working with a team of collaborators across Puerto Rico to develop the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico (AREPR), a freely available Omeka S site that depicts and describes the innovative knowledge production of grassroots community organizations in Puerto Rico in the wake of both natural and man-made disasters. A sample of the project can be viewed below:

While this project focuses on Puerto Rico, it also brings attention to the ways in which disasters are weaponized and leveraged by those in power and how crises such as these are becoming more and more frequent as the effects of climate change worsen. We already are seeing these issues at play in the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments’ early responses to COVID-19—centering corporate interests to the detriment of public health and safety. In response, the Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico offers us new ways of relating to the pending climate catastrophe by foregrounding the knowledge and lived experiences of Puerto Ricans and shifting our notions of the ethical by laying bare the injustices of colonial policies.

The Archivo de Respuestas Emergencias de Puerto Rico received a DH@MSU Summer Faculty Fellowship during Summer 2020. This partnership made it possible for Ben Dougherty, a graduate student and researcher, to work on the project. During the summer, he worked with me to develop an Omeka S tutorial geared toward project participants. This tutorial is being used by student researchers at both the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras and the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez as they partner with community organizations to collect and share disaster response artifacts. On July 1, 2020, the project was awarded an Andrew W. Mellon grant in the amount of $325,000. At that time, Ben and I shifted our focus from the tutorial to grant-related infrastructure. Notably, Ben worked with me to organize communications, schedule events, create documentation, and more. His contribution has laid the groundwork for fall 2020, during which we will hire ten student employees, host six workshops, collaborate with two classes (one at MSU and one at UPR), launch our website, and publish our first collection.

This project is connected to my forthcoming book, The Data of Disaster: The Problems with Quantifying Crisis, which examines how disaster response mechanisms are becoming increasingly datafied. These rigid response mechanisms stand in stark contrast to the dynamic and embodied work of on-the-ground crisis response activists: water protectors at Standing Rock, #RenunciaRicky protestors in Puerto Rico, #BlackLivesMatters protestors worldwide—who are an unsung vanguard of disaster response activism. As local and federal governments scramble to develop and implement their own disaster response policies, it is imperative to rewrite these activists into the history – and present – of disaster response and to learn from their instructive examples of how to uplift, transform, and sustain communities. The research I was able to conduct with the support of DH@MSU this summer enabled me to make significant advances on the book as well as on the grant project.