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Interview with Cynthia Tobar from Bronx Community College

Assistant Professor Librarian Cynthia Tobar, Head of Archives Bronx Community College.
Assistant Professor Librarian Cynthia Tobar, Head of Archives Bronx Community College

Byline: Staff writer, OLS.

Cynthia Tobar is an artist, activist-scholar, archivist, and oral historian at Bronx Community College, who is passionate about creating interactive, participatory stories documenting social change. She has led projects including performances, presentations and talks in public spaces and academic spaces to tell stories of people excluded from issues that pertain to them and people denied recognition in history. She sees the ability of the arts to impact individuals, to galvanize them to make their own changes in their communities. She emphasizes the importance of having a space that serves both as a creative outlet for marginalized communities and a medium for social change. We spoke with her about her numerous projects. The interview is edited for conciseness. 

Question: You record narratives to give a crucial window into the history of communities left out of mainstream archives. What drew you to this work? 

Tobar’s Answer: The non-hierarchical nature of documentary work is what intrigued me. There’s an inclusivity in community-based archiving as a form of history-making. The work I do is to promote social change, person to person, on a community level in academic spaces and in public spaces for people excluded from issues that pertain to them—education, housing, and the viability of making it in the city. My hope is to activate those spaces, where people can engage with one another, express themselves, and advocate for themselves.  

Question: How did you get involved in community-based archiving? 

Tobar’s Answer: What I want to do is to foster this idea of increasing people’s sense of agency and empowerment to implement social change around us and, for me, obviously, having been a first-generation Ecuadorian American, a student and mother who’s been on welfare, I had a lot of stigmas placed upon me. It wasn’t until someone had taken the time to inform me on what my rights were and that I could speak out—that I should speak out—that I was able to activate myself and do something through legislative advocacy groups I was involved with as an undergraduate. Getting involved sparked my interest in public service and as a librarian that’s what appeals to me the most. 

Question: Tell us about your Hall of Fame project at BCC and why it is important.   

Tobar’s Answer: The areas that I focus on directly have to do with documenting student activism, which has a rich legacy at CUNY, and providing a space for counter-narratives of historical exclusion in public art and debates in monument culture. This is a very big issue at Bronx Community College. On our campus we have the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a public monument that centers on who gets to determine what is great and what gets to be included or left out, which mimics what we encounter in the archival field. A lot of my work amplifies stories of community care and power by centering the stories of those who get left out of mainstream history. These are mostly people of color, immigrant communities, the working-class communities that help the city run, and underserved communities. When I think about memory work, I think about incorporating narratives of Americans who live in the shadows of national myths and monuments. When you validate their narratives, you’re presenting a dynamic view of history-making and correcting disparities in mainstream representations of American history.   

Question: Your memory work incorporates art in socially engaging ways.

Tobar’s Answer: I’m open to working with all forms of art that will get the message of inclusive memory work out. The best way to achieve that is to build a sense of empathy, to listen to one another, and so, how do we reach across all these divides currently in our society, in our city, and in our country? By creating moments where we can create shared joy, we can create community where social reckoning is also possible, for us to realize we need to be mindful of who’s being affected by our decisions. 

Question: Tell us about some of the new directions your work at BCC has taken. 

Tobar’s Answer: At BCC, I’ve been interested in documenting responses to the Hall of Fame and creating a space for students and Bronx residents to share their experiences among monuments that fail to reflect the diversity of their local community. This was the inspiration for “American Icons,” my latest project which I got funding for through a 2021 Social Practice CUNY Faculty Fellowship program. This program, housed at the Graduate Center, funded American Icons which explores counter-narratives of historical exclusion in monument culture and public art. I will be creating a new form of commemorative art by interweaving oral histories of a BCC student and a local Bronx resident with music that reflect on the lack of diversity in the Hall of Fame. I’m partnering with Julliard musicians who will set these stories to a score. We’re hoping to have the piece ready by this May for a public performance. 

Question: How did you begin documenting student activism with community-based archival projects?   

Tobar’s Answer: At BCC I first got started with “Raising Ourselves Up” which documented first-generation college students at BCC by and for first-generation college students. We trained six BCC students in oral history methods and came up with some wonderful interviews. When students have agency, there’s an authenticity to the project. When people feel listened to and heard it has a significant impact. It starts with us making space for one another. 

I am also working to build collaborations with other groups to find new ways to enhance community engagement with stories that reflect instances of resilience and community building. Along those lines, amidst the height of the pandemic in 2020, I partnered with Mutual Aid NYC to create “Community Care during COVID”: Oral Histories of Mutual Aid in the Bronx.” This project, which was funded by the Metro Library Council, developed a digital library and archive of mutual aid organizing tools and oral histories-created for, by, and in collaboration with mutual aid organizers in the Bronx.  So, it went from, we’re taking a self-reflective moment as a campus and documenting our experiences, to how are the neighboring communities in the Bronx dealing with Covid?   

Question: What are some other projects you’d like us to know about? 

Tobar’s Answer: My latest project ¿Dónde puedo ir? Searching for Home is a collaborative musical project created around recorded oral history that captures the immediacy of displacement facing Latinx residents in Bushwick where I live. From the summer until November, I collected eight oral history interviews, and I worked alongside my musical collaborator Luis D’Elias, a Venezuelan musical composer and guitarist. The primary funder was Brooklyn Arts Council. We’re going to just keep on releasing the products of that collaboration, but our hope is to bring awareness and collective healing to our communities. I can’t wait to share the music with the public.

Latest project updates will be posted at ¿Dónde puedo ir? Searching for Home at
URL: https://www.cynthiatobar.net/projects/donde-puedo-ir

LaGuardia Archivist and Linguist Find New Perspective for COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project 

Byline: Irene Gashurov/staff writer, OLS.

Thomas Cleary.
CUNY Professor Archivist Thomas Cleary

A successful collaboration between assistant professor archivist Thomas Cleary and linguistics professor Tomonori Nagano at LaGuardia Community College will ensure the pandemic stories of the college’s Southeast Asian and South Asian students will be preserved while, at the same time, providing a wider lens onto this Asian community that is often known only by stereotype.

Tomonori Nagano.
CUNY Linguistics Professor Tomonori Nagano

The co-operation between these two academics-turned-oral historians is through LaGuardia Library’s “COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project” project in which they worked together to incorporate students’ stories into the library’s archives during this momentous period. 

LaGuardia’s involvement began in the early days of the lockdown with Nagano checking in on his bilingualism class students to see how they were managing. Like most people during the lockdown, the students talked about the isolation and uncertainty commonly felt at the time. In other ways the reactions of the Asian students to the crisis were different. The Asian students at LaGuardia, who were from mostly from South and Southeast Asia, talked about the disruption of contact with their families abroad and the dearth of public health information for their communities in their native languages—Bengali, Nepali, Tagalog, Tibetan, and Urdu. Nagano began recording their stories on video. “The purpose was not to solve a problem,” he said, “I wanted to listen to them and see what issues they had.” 

Poster of Asian woman with blue lipstick and colorful earrings. The words I still Believe in Our City written on bottom.
“I Still Believe in Our City” by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

When Cleary learned of Nagano’s work, he saw a chance to document an Asian population that had largely been missing from LaGuardia’s archives. “I wanted to give them representation so that our archives fully reflect our students,” said Cleary. In Fall 2021, thanks to a PSC-CUNY Grant, the team began work on the “COVID-19 Asian Oral History Project,” a video and multimedia archive of pandemic stories. Two research assistants, Mariana Lopez de Castilla and Joyce Ma, with backgrounds in oral history and community organizing, conducted the video interviews.  

Like discoveries that come about when someone finds something they were not looking for, the Asian Oral History Project revealed something essential about the lens of race. When separated from class, religion, education, and immigration status, race alone was too narrow to understand the students’ experiences and their basic humanity. Starting out, the team had assumed that because the pandemic hit people of color harder, the students would want to talk about race. Some had experienced Asian hate, others did not. Mostly they talked about shock, coping, along with their hope and aspirations, what they had done to help their community, and what was important to them.  

“We need to consider more than just race,” said Nagano of the project that defied expectations. “It’s always some interaction with something else.” He said the team will pursue their future oral history work through the lens of intersectionality, a concept referring to the complex way that different forms of discrimination crisscross and affect people. 

The Asian Oral History Project has completed 30 oral history videos thus far. “We still see the need to provide Asian students the space to speak about their experiences, especially with the increase of attacks we are seeing. At the same time, we are widening the focus of the project to students from all backgrounds and identities,” said Cleary. They are working with different community organizations, like the Queens Memory Project, a community archiving program at Queens Public Library and Queens College, and involving more people and communities in creating their own public record. They are opening the project to all CUNY students and hope to combine the online exhibit of video recordings, images, and essays with public programming.  

“We enjoy building bridges between isolated components,” said Nagano of their work. “We like doing interviews and discovering missing links.” 

OER Fellows Share Their Experiences of the OER Initiative  

In 2021, CUNY Office of Library Services launched a fellowship competition in two of its vital areas: Open Educational Resources and Scholarly Communications. The inaugural cohort, comprising four fellows from the CUNY Graduate School of Library and Information Studies (GSLIS), began their fellowship in September of last year. The focus of the OER Fellowship was to support open education at CUNY. The Scholarly Communications Fellowship was aimed at individuals looking for an opportunity to support open research at CUNY. As the nine-month fellowship nears its end, the participants discussed their work and how the experience kick started their careers. 

The two figures behind the OER fellowship programs are Ann Fiddler, University Open Education Librarian, and Andrew McKinney, OER Coordinator at the Office of Library Services. They work to propel CUNY-wide expansion of Open Education Resources (OER), free and low-cost openly licensed alternatives to costly textbooks. Since the initiative’s founding in 2017, OER have been implemented in 80,000 course sections across CUNY, resulting in $154 million in savings to students.  

OER Fellows 

Rachael Nevins.
Rachael Nevins, OER Fellow at the Office of Library Services.

Talking about the idea behind the fellowship, OER Fellow Rachael Nevins said the primary goal was to launch a new Web-based, open-source publishing platform at CUNY called Pressbooks, which makes digital textbooks and course content accessible. A publishing tool to create OER, Pressbooks can be used to create books from scratch or clone books found in the Pressbooks directory, where they can be edited, embedded with interactive content, and adapted to reflect the experience of students. “The great thing about Pressbooks is that faculty can build books that are grounded in their knowledge of their students,” said Nevins. 

The innovative aspect of Pressbooks isn’t necessarily the obvious one. Like other platforms, Pressbooks content can be integrated with a learning management system, like Blackboard. Like other platforms, Pressbooks provides online formatting and design tools for professional publishing. But unlike other open publishing platforms, Pressbooks has the unique capability of authoring and editing, which lets instructors create a portion of a course or an entire textbook online without using code.  Pressbooks works for different kinds of learners, and instructors can pull open multimedia materials from different sources, substitute or blend them with their own content, add supplements like audio and video, including automatically graded quizzes, simulations, and modules that let students proceed at their own pace.  

“What’s lovely about Pressbooks is that it’s a platform with a global reach,” said Nevins. “If you make something with your students, you can make it available via the Pressbook directory, and the students’ writing will be discoverable around the world.”  

Elizabeth Arestyl.
Elizabeth Arestyl, OER Fellow at the Office of Library Services.

OER Fellow Elizabeth Arestyl believes that Pressbooks are forcing us to rethink how we engage CUNY students as knowledge creators. “Giving students the agency and the information that they need is the most important thing you can do,” she said. “If we can build materials that reflect our students, we would create a better learning experience for them.”  

Reflecting on how representation affects the way students see themselves, Arestyl told the story of the Bangladeshi woman in a pre-college writing class she teaches at Queens College. When Arestyl asked the woman what she wanted to learn that summer, the woman said, “I’m ready to not read about white people.” One of the articles Arestyl assigned to the class was on the post-birth process in Bangladesh and how it compares with practices in the West. The woman wrote Arestyl a letter to thank her. She said she never read about someone who was just like her.  

Pressbooks has been called a “living document” because it allows for continuous revisions. In the guidebook to Pressbooks the fellows are writing, titled the CUNY Pressbooks Guide, they distill everything they have learned from immersing themselves in the world of open pedagogy, open source, open content, and the intersection of books and the web. “The guide reflects our own learning curve,” Nevins said, of the manual that is available on the Pressbooks directory or from a simple Google search. The first part covers the building blocks of open publishing. The second part explains the benefits of publishing your work with Pressbooks.  

In May the fellowship ends. Sharing her thoughts on what the fellowship has accomplished, Arestyl said, “The great thing about OER is making learning free again. The same way we’re trying to fund education with the New Deal for CUNY, OER is part of that, and we must walk in step to achieve these goals.” 

As for their own goals, the fellows said their experience confirmed the trajectory they were already on. “I laugh at myself because I turned to library school after being exhausted with educational publishing,” said Nevins, “and here I am working in publishing. But it’s totally different because it’s driven by what teachers and students need, not what some salesperson says that a superintendent needs. I would love to stay with it, working in OER at CUNY.” Adds Arestyl, “Where I see myself in the future has not changed at all. I see myself as an instructional design librarian. So, building with Pressbooks is essential to what I want to be. And this experience has been amazing!” 

Welcome to Beyond The Stacks

May 12, 2022:

Byline: Kristin Hart, University Dean of Libraries and Information Resources.

It’s common to hear about extraordinary librarians as if they’re something distinct. But we all know colleagues who’re doing extraordinary things. Whether it’s supporting community, creating opportunities, or making an impact with their teaching and research, these individuals—librarians, archivists, library chiefs, and student workers—are innovators. We will feature stories about librarians, library workers and students who are doing innovative work in our libraries and with our CUNY communities. They’re leading and transforming the field. In the Beyond The Stacks blog, we’ll be going to the heart of what drives them and examine how their work is important to us, librarians, to the academic community, and to our city. 

Lastly, we report on the goings on in the Office of Library Services (OLS) world, with upcoming events. Take a few minutes and explore. We would love to hear from you. Please share any ideas that will help us promote engagement with our alumni community. If you have a story idea, comments, or suggestions, please connect with us.