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Backing Student EDI Initiatives: The Black Digital Humanities Speaker Series 

Submitted on Monday, August 21, 2023
Slide from Origin Story: Building a Black Archive

The Black Digital Humanities Speaker Series, held online last spring, was designed to highlight the many different pathways available to students of archives.

Keith Cheng arrived at the Faculty of Information with a strong interest in digital archives and the use of digital tech in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums (GLAM) sector. But even though he was able to take courses in archives and in user experience design, he didn’t find the opportunities he wanted to explore the topic holistically in individual courses. 

Cheng, who had also been attracted to the Faculty by its Diversity Working Group (DWG) and Museum Professionals of Colour at U of T, decided to try to fill the gap. In his role as chair of the DWG, he worked with students and professors at Jackson State University in Mississippi to help organize a Black Digital Humanities speaker series. 

“A lot of things led to the Black Digital Humanities speaker series,” says Cheng. “A lot of Black students I was friends with said they didn’t feel represented in the curriculum.” 

The series was designed to highlight the many different pathways available to students of archives as well as to take advantage of the different resources offered by U of T and Jackson State University, whose Margaret Walker Center is an archive and museum dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of African American history and culture 

“Having that perspective was really nice for our students,” said Cheng, whose Jackson State connection came through Brittany Myburgh, who he knew from his time in art history at U of T, and who is now an Assistant Professor at the Mississippi university. 

The speaker series, which took place in spring of 2023, kicked off with a tech-focused talk on UX and social justice, moved into archival focused talks, and then ended with UX. “We wanted to have this cohesive narrative and give people time to process,” said Cheng. “It was looking to the future, looking to the past, and then, in the present, asking, what can you do about it?” 

The series was held online to make it as accessible to as many people as possible. Attendance exceeded Cheng’s expectations, attracting professors from a range of universities and students and faculty members from across U of T. “What was really fulfilling was hearing what people were saying afterwards,” says Cheng. “They felt connected to people and I still see them conversing. This is just the beginning and there’s so much more that can continue to be done.” 

Keith Cheng portrait

For Keith Cheng, the EDI Student Initiatives Fund helped make organizing a major speaker series a lot easier.

The series was funded by the Faculty of Information’s EDI Student Initiatives Fund, which supports recognized student groups with facilitating equity-based initiatives and projects to help advance EDI within the Faculty for the betterment of its student community and the Faculty as a whole.     

“The grant really made a difference. It helped in getting more interesting speakers,” says Cheng. “And it made it a lot easier in terms of getting things done. It allows student groups to focus instead of constantly advocating for really basic things.” 

Given that the vast majority of students at the Faculty of Information are in a two-year program, student leaders often find themselves moving on just when they have finally gotten a handle on how everything works. The EDI Unit can help plug institutional knowledge holes as well as offer one-on-one advice. 

While Cheng too has left the Faculty of Information for OISE and Master of Information student, Lenora Huỳnh, has taken over as chair of the DWG, he plans on keeping his ties to the Faculty including its Knowledge Media Design Institute and Assistant Professor Priyank Chandra’s Street Lab. “I’m hoping the relationships we’ve built as a brand will help moving forwards,” he said.