Mutual Aid in Archaeology: The Black Trowel Collective Microgrants

Mutual Aid in Archaeology: The Black Trowel Collective Microgrants

An interview with the Black Trowel Collective conducted during the Summer of 2021.

June 22nd, 2021 marked a year for the Black Trowel Collective (BTC) microgrants program, and in that time, BTC has distributed $43,500 USD to archaeological students in need from 22 countries, including India and Brazil. The latter two countries were recently centered due to the impact of COVID-19 in those regions. The total to students from India and Brazil since this push at the beginning of May to mid June 2021 has been $6,350 USD. Given this remarkable example of mutual aid within archaeology, I thought it important to talk to the collective about what it meant to set up something like this; what sorts of practices has the collective developed? How do they make it work? Most questions related to the BTC Microgrants, for example: what is a microgrant , how they work, who is eligible, and how to donate, are all answered and available on their website. This interview was conducted on a google document, over a couple of months, with multiple respondents from the collective. 

Uzma Rizvi (UR): First of all, thank you so much for all the labor that this collective is doing for the discipline and field. Thank you also for taking the time out to respond to some questions. There is no doubt in my mind that this microgrants program is one of the most important interventions by and for archaeologists that is available globally. Last year there was an increased awareness and development of mutual aid groups across the United States in response to COVID-19, mostly on the neighborhood level. Prior to BTC microgrants, I was most familiar with such solidarity work within activist circles, collectives who were engaged in mutual aid for the safety and well being of disenfranchised communities. Here, I’m thinking of Mariame Kaba’s and Dean Spade & Mia Mingus’s work on mutual aid, and the histories of where such movements come from within the context of the US. What does mutual aid mean to BTC? And what sorts of experiences or knowledge sharing was involved in creating a mutual aid program? 

Black Trowel Collective (BTC)The meaning of mutual aid probably differs depending on which Collective member you ask. The central idea for most is probably best highlighted through the now fairly ubiquitous tagline used by many mutual aid groups: “solidarity, not charity”. This essentially incorporates a lot of anarchist principles and practices. It means instead of waiting for a state or institution to address an issue, or trying to get them to take care of it, we’ll do it ourselves (direct action). It means coming together as a group and making decisions through consensus (discussion leading to full agreement). It means recognizing that charity often involves forms of violence that seem fine to folks who haven’t had to navigate the world by constantly having to prove they are valid to be recipients of help. Basically it means stripping away and radically undermining structures of violence to see the recipients of aid as equal to the people distributing that aid. No one makes charity committee members prove their qualifications to each recipient who asks for help. Why should we make each recipient have to prove they qualify? Particularly when the qualifications we enact replicate so many of the inequalities that are baked into our disciplines and institutions. That’s all wrapped up in the phrase, “solidarity, not charity”. In the end, mutual aid is about crafting and maintaining relationships and our relationships with our students are our main priority. We generally help them with whatever they need outside of the microgrants themselves as well. At least within our ability.

The Sportula microgrant project’s support and visible success organizing something similar in Classics was absolutely essential to helping us find our footing. As for experiences, many of the original Collective members who set up the microgrants program talked about how traumatic economic issues were/are for them as they tried to navigate the archaeological field as a student. One of the members relied heavily on dumpster diving for food to support their family while working as a PhD student in one of the top archaeology programs in the US. Some relied on state aid and were battered by the constant harassment, denigration, and structural violence that was applied to them to receive any sort of help. These types of conditions structurally reinforce who can become an archaeologist and so these experiences fed into the desire to start the program up and try and create a broader sense of solidarity within our field for folks that have not traditionally been supported by the field.

UR:  It is so important to amplify the significance of what it means to break down the hierarchies between donors and grantees in the name of solidarity. I would like to invite us to talk about process. Can we talk about how the idea first started, and what sorts of conversations were had in order to make this a reality? Can you also talk through the ins and outs of how such self organizing happens?

BTCThe Black Trowel Collective began through conference sessions and conversations about the relationship between anarchist theory and archaeology, and anarchist archaeology, probably starting back in 2009 but really initiated by TK back in the 1990s. These all culminated with a funded Amerind workshop in 2016. During this workshop, archaeologists (and former archaeologists) from multiple continents (some explicitly anarchists, others more interested in the theoretical applications of anarchism), laid out a vision of what an anarchist archaeology might look like. This was also done in concert with a strong social media presence so that folks who were not able to attend because of space and financial limitations, could participate and direct the conversations of the in-person attendees.

The group published a manifesto on Savage Minds, an issue of the SAA Archaeological Record, and a volume of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. After this intense activity over three years, there was a pause in organizing as people moved to other projects. The original plan to maintain a website as a nexus for anarchist archaeologists never really worked. There were some attempts to create private groups through a couple of social media outlets, and a bit of organizing was sustained through this, particularly for Collective members from Spain and Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries in South America. Eventually, the Facebook space for the Collective was abandoned as so many members had fled that platform. A few members started talking about maintaining an anarchist archaeology bibliography because there had been so many publications in the last decade. After an early discussion about whether to establish a public Zotero bibliography or something a bit more accessible, a Google site was created in 2019. This was followed by a shift from the Facebook Group to a Whatsapp group, as many of the collective members were isolated in distributed locations.

In May 2020 on the Whatsapp group, Lewis Borck proposed that we start a Microgrants initiative, modelled on Sportula. We very rapidly got organized, meeting weekly, and launched on June 22, 2020. There were some teething pains, as we tried to understand international tax law, rogue t-shirt shops capitalizing on our designs, and the verification of the archaeology student status of applicants. All of this was during the COVID-19 pandemic and during the uprisings associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, when people were overwhelmed by the ongoing circumstances, and recognized the immediate need for mutual aid efforts. 

Eventually Whatsapp became too overwhelming for people to engage with 100s of linear messages, so we moved to Discord, where organizing different threads is easier. As the BTC has grown, this has led to an expansion of our activities and the attending organization of consensus and safeguarding, or creating a security culture for our many members who fear an affiliation with anarchism will negatively impact their career.

UR: Let’s talk a bit about the grants themselves. These are small grants – between 5-300 USD. How did BTC come up with that range and what was the thought behind the micro-ness of the grants?

BTC: We copied the amount from The Sportula, who had demonstrated the efficacy of small grants. People tend to ask for the maximum amount, which usually does not cover their entire need, such as rent. When they ask for lesser amounts, it is usually specific to need, such as the registration for a field school. Even when people ask for $300, we cannot usually provide that much, as there are many requests each month. At the year mark, we’ve distributed about $43,500, but in total folks have needed about $90,000.

UR: I know for collectives such as BTC, group decision making, consensus, and distributive and lateral leadership models are very significant. Can we talk a bit about how the grant works? How do you make the decisions? To be completely transparent, I am opening the door here to talk explicitly about how we can engage in anarchic praxis and the many benefits of such work.  

BTC: When an applicant submits their microgrant application, the Microgrants committee, a subset of seven members of the larger Black Trowel Collective who are accountable to the whole, take a few discrete steps. The applicant’s request is verified as coming from our intended community – archaeology students – by establishing communication with the applicant through their institutional email and verifying their payment details. Once their request is verified, as much of their request as can be covered is distributed to the applicant. Because this is a fully volunteer operation, funding disbursements generally only happens 1-3 times a month (although committee members are working every day monitoring email and verifying student status, etc.). Emergency disbursements, if necessary, will happen during this daily work.

Anarchist principles and praxis are manifested in how we frame our relationship to our applicants and their needs, as well as how we decide to disburse. Marginalized and historically excluded students are well accustomed to having to “perform their pain” and demonstrate how they are oppressed but still conforming to the values of the institution and groups oppressing them, and how their grant awards will be put to “proper” use – often a very restricted range of possibilities directly tied to their research. In contrast to this, Black Trowel Collective Microgrants follow an anarcho-feminist perspective where no such performance or justification is necessary. Finding and applying for the Microgrants is justification enough. Optional, additional comments can be made, and many of our applicants open up here about what they intend to use the money for (and while this may help us identify priority cases, the lack of additional comment has never stopped a grant award as long as we can verify they are students). These additional comments show the breadth of precarity that archaeology students are made to navigate: automobile repair in order to make it to fieldwork (or additional jobs); veterinary bills for cherished animal companions; required school textbooks; expensive testing requirements and graduate school applications; health costs for themselves and family members; testing fees; food bills, and many more.

Consensus practices are used to figure out how to most equitably disburse grant money which we receive from our donors (really our fellow travelers without whom this would be impossible). The Microgrants committee meets monthly to assess the ebb and flow of need; in the course of this discussion, priorities are made for emergency disbursements, for applicants from countries, or backgrounds, that the Microgrants are currently centering (such as India or Brazil, in response to the surge in COVID-19 cases that took place this past spring, Black students during the US originating uprisings during the summer of 2020 to help with anything from bail for protesting to rent). In the course of this discussion, the committee hears all proposals for how we make these prioritizing decisions, and will not come to a decision until all members of the committee agree on that course of action (full consensus). All meetings are open to the rest of the Collective and so the Microgrants committee is fully transparent and accountable to them. And we do monthly updates for the donors. Except for a few months, the incredible need that our applicants have had forced on them means that we do not typically have the ability to fully fund applicants. We often choose to help as many applicants as possible with partial funding instead of committing to a first come first serve basis, which may prioritize the needs of those with more available free time or access to the internet. Unfortunately, this may mean we still end up with more applicants than money, having exhausted our ability to fund applicants near the end of a given month. We encourage applicants who have not received money to reapply to the Microgrants; higher priority is given to students who have applied and not received money.

These practices are always up for discussion and re-discussion; the Microgrants, along with all of our practices and perspectives in the Collective are open-ended and can be brought back into consensus conversations by any Collective member that has concerns. The above decisions about how we prioritize need are re-evaluated every month, and have come about by arriving at consensus; they can and very likely will change in the future.

UR: What sort of future are we looking at for the BTC microgrants program? Is this a program that will run indefinitely? Does the collective have ideas for how long this will be in place? 

BTC: Simply, yeah. We hope to run for as long as we can still muster the money and the effort to distribute it. We don’t really see the need for these grants diminishing. The comments discussing specific needs that we sometimes publish on twitter, with permission, from the recipients of the microgrants really highlight how bad it is for many students who don’t come from economically privileged backgrounds. And these are often the more moderate comments as we don’t usually get permission to publish comments from applicants in absolutely terrible situations, or who have multiple, long-term barriers  to becoming professional archaeologists. It does take considerable time, effort and emotional labor to administer the grants. Distributing the microgrants, like most mutual aid projects, is incredibly rewarding, but taxing. Pushing against neoliberal models that create need and inequality for many to facilitate the success of a few is honestly exhausting, but we think it’s necessary. This balance between what needs to happen and who has the capacity to work on it can be difficult to navigate, but we do the best that we can. We have been trying to rotate our members through different committee roles, both to avoid burn-out and to combat issues of soft power collecting through long-term committee membership. 

UR: Thank you again for so much of your time, labor, and for all the work that BTC does to make archaeology a more equitable and just practice. As we near the end of our conversation, I wondered if there were any closing remarks the collective might want to make.

BTC: The Black Trowel Collective has made it obvious (to at least one of its members) how powerful and important it is to have communities that cross boundaries between institutions, countries, and academic and professional categories that are built on principles of mutual aid, radical egalitarianism, cooperation, consensus, and direct action. Even if you aren’t an anarchist, consider joining or forming a collective (maybe a union!), particularly if you want change. We are more powerful together, we protect us, and we can come together to make a new world in the shell of the old.  

Anarchist visions of collectivity and mutual aid are often ridiculed as impossibly utopian or only workable on the small scale. The futures we imagine–and which we attempt to prefigure through our actions–seem constantly to recede into the distance. As archaeologists, however, we know it can also be salutary to look to the past. Before capitalism, before states, before Homo sapiens and even mammals, there were stromatolites. Stromatolites are the first multi-celled organisms to thrive and colonize the hot salty seas of a young earth over a billion years ago. A stromatolite forms when various single-celled microbes, many of them cyanobacteria, become stuck in sediment; they grow together towards the sun, eating and excreting, forming a food-rich, sticky mat that other microbes settle on. Collectively they feed each other, build layers of mat upon mat, and create undulating underwater forests of pillars. Among their excreta was most of the oxygen in our planet’s atmosphere. At a fundamental level, our entire existence is possible because a bunch of different single-celled organisms formed an accretive collective and thrived. Collectivity, mutual aid, and peaceful coexistence are the farthest things from impossibly idealistic: they are, as the stromatolites remind us, at the very root of what it is to be a multi-celled organism; and they are by far the most proven strategies for making a future worth living in. More than a billion years after they first came together, there are still living, thriving stromatolite colonies, now sheltering fish but still pumping oxygen out for the rest of us to breathe as they grow, layer upon layer, towards the sun. 

UR: That is beautiful (sigh). Thanks to all of you for your time and for this interview.