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A Chronology of A Peopleโ€™s History of Washington University

A Thematic Month blog special
Last update: Mar 20, 2022

In 2015, a group of student activists at Washington University in St. Louis (MO, USA) created a "disorientation guide" in order to share key topics in student activism with other student activists on their campus. "Disorientation guides" are a play on the term "orientation guide" that refers to providing students with an introduction to a new environment, specifically for incoming first-year students in the college context, that acts as an alternative to the highly-manufactured "official" orientation programs that colleges provide to students, hence the "dis" in "disorientation guide." These guides are popular across colleges in the United States and are usually created in the form of zines by student activists to prepare the incoming class for student activism.

Later that year, they were inspired by Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" in which Zinn popularised the term "people's history" which refers to shifting the mainstream account of history from institutions to everyday people. As a result, they rebranded as "A People's History of Washington University" by creating a new website and helping publish essays written by marginalised students on a variety of topics. Their driving mission was captured by the following statement: "It took many of us years to find other students, professors, and community contacts who realise that there are changes that need to be made at this university, and who are actively working to change things. We believe that a People's History will shorten this learning curve and encourage future student organising informed by the experiences of those who came before you."

Specifically, these student activists were interested in addressing the primary barrier to student activism: uniquely short activist turnover from when students are first mobilised and trained to graduating just four years later. This barrier also results in a remarkably short collective memory where details about historic events are constantly being lost. By creating a project focused on capturing people's personal lived histories and experiences, they were also functionally saving their histories for a future generation to learn from the past, which can be considered as archival work. Although the project eventually went on hiatus from 2019 to 2022, current student activists at Washington University restarted the project with a greater focus on creating an archive by recognizing the ways in which community archives can be used as a tool for transgenerational learning.

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