Friday, February 14, 2014

Writing History with Potomac Gardens Residents

Back in December 2012, I took a look at the Wikipedia page for Potomac Gardens public housing at 13th and Pennsylvania Ave, SE. At that time, I was surprised by what I read:
The existing [Wikipedia] page surprised me because it focused exclusively on 1) the potential replacement of the buildings either with Marine barracks or mixed-income housing and 2) crime in the area (under the only category of "Incidents"). There was no discussion of what life might be like in Potomac Gardens, as well as no mention of people important to the community, significant sites within the property, or important events or activities. There was also no discussion of how life in Potomac Gardens may have changed over time. In general, the page seemed to be written from the point of view of people unconnected with those living in Potomac Gardens. Yes, those living inside and outside Potomac Gardens have a great interest in the potential redevelopment plans, but the page does not capture much about Potomac Gardens. Without knowledge of the life within Potomac Gardens, it becomes very easy to argue that Potomac Gardens should be dismantled, since it appears to have no value or significance. 
In that post, you can see what the original Wikipedia page looked like. I made some additions to try to expand the perspective of the page. Others have since revised it further. However, I knew that those living in Potomac Gardens would be the ideal editors of the Potomac Gardens Wikipedia page.

A couple of weeks ago, I got to visit Grassroots DC's Wednesday evening computer class in Potomac Gardens. The computer class had seven adult students learning how to use computers to do email, explore the internet, and write letters, resumes, documents, etc. Earlier the class had written a letter to Councilmember Tommy Wells, asking for help with the former recreation center in Potomac Gardens. This meeting, we were going to update the Potomac Gardens Wikipedia page!

I handed out this guide, which anyone can use:

After they logged into Wikipedia at their computers, there was an immediate debate about whether Potomac Gardens ever had the nickname "Magic City." Someone told me that it had been called this, and months ago I had added it in the Wikipedia page. While one person vaguely remember this name, everyone agreed that Potomac Gardens had only one nickname: "The Gardens." So, two of the students changed that on two different parts of the page.

A discussion broke out about how anyone could update the page. Someone suggested that the history on the page must therefore be false. Someone else referred to a fact about Potomac Gardens that was true. Another asked, how do you know that? She said, I know it from the Wikipedia page. I admitted that I had written most of the page. One person turned to me quite surprised: but you don't live here. How do you know this information? Another student said, you did research? I then asked, how can we get information about the history of Potomac Gardens, how can we get historical information? Some said that they could ask some older residents. Others said that one could Google for more information. I said that there was almost no information on the web about Potomac Gardens' history. So, they would have to research and write it themselves.

The discussion was a professor's dream discussion. The class became incredibly loud as the very nature of history was debated along with the topics and details they each wanted to include in the page. It was agreed that a section called "Community Life" would be added. A student added this section, while other students wrote up different paragraphs in Word, which they then posted to the new section. Actually, more correctly, most of them wrote up their parts in beautiful handwriting and then typed it up in Word. The non-profit organizations operating on "Community Row" in Potomac Gardens and the old recreation center came to life. One of the senior residents revealed the pride and joy of the senior building -- the greeter system they had implemented themselves (see the page for details).

So, it was a fantastic time. The experience made very clear how history writing reflects one's perspective. The glorious University of Maryland, College Park, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins has contributed her work on "intersectionality" to feminist standpoint theory, which is valuable when thinking about how one's perspective or standpoint influences one's view of history. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Feminist standpoint theorists make three principal claims: (1) Knowledge is socially situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the non-marginalized. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized.(1)
Wikipedia provides the tools for marginalized groups like those at Potomac Gardens to make the non-marginalized aware of histories and power relations not necessarily visible to the non-marginalized. Much more research and further revisions of the Wikipedia page are necessary. I also, of course, can't stop making revisions based on information I find. One can then ask what my perspective or standpoint is. In the meantime, you can see the page's current state, and you can take part in this history writing as well.

(1) "Feminist Standpoint Theory," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


  1. Thanks for creating this post. As the coordinator of Grassroots DC it has been a real pleasure working with you. The night you came to the basic computer class and taught us how to update the Wikipedia page was indeed lively! Along with writing a letter to their councilmember (which was in fact a great exercise) this exercise really left the class feeling empowered. I'm going to add it to the curriculum so that every Potomac Gardens resident who goes through the basic computer training will have the opportunity to update Potomac Gardens Wikipedia page. That way, we'll keep it current. What do you think?

  2. Thanks, Liane, for your comment. It is great that updating the Wikipedia page will be part of the training. There is so much to add. It has been great working with you.


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