Blog Post #28: Interview with Girish Daswani of Human Stories

May is “New Projects Month” at Peopling the Past, where we feature interviews with educators and researchers who have founded amazing new projects dedicated to making history, archaeology, and related subjects more inclusive.

What was the inspiration behind Human Stories? How did this project come about?

Human Stories has its own origin story. Its conception is inspired by the work of the amazing scholars from Peopling the Past. Having watched their videos with great interest and admiration, especially the easy and straightforward way in which historical knowledge was being shared and disseminated, it was suggested to me by my colleague (and co-editor of Everyday Orientalism) Katherine Blouin that Anthropology would benefit from a similar digital humanities platform. There was nothing like this for academics like me studying people in contemporary times – at least nothing I could find. I immediately thought of the number of occasions when I had searched online, sometimes in vain, for short and engaging talks by academics to use in my teaching. Since I was on research leave (2020/21), and unable to travel to Ghana where I conduct my research (due to the pandemic of course), I became more engaged in public facing scholarship and in finding ways to make anthropology more accessible to a wider audience.

Human Stories Logo. Colours include black, white and orange.
Fig. 1. Human Stories Logo. Image Credit: Bright Ackwerh.
Who is this project geared towards? Which audiences would benefit most from this platform? How would you like people to engage with your project more generally?

When creating Human Stories, I envisioned people like my parents, my uncles and aunties, and high schoolers who might not ordinarily consider a subject like Anthropology (or other subjects in the Social Science and Humanities that focus on storytelling), and who simply wanted to know more about an interesting topic, explained in a clear and accessible way and without too much technical jargon. I also pictured teachers, like myself, who could draw on a Human Stories video when discussing a topic in class (Human-Animal relations, Ghostly Hauntings, Egyptian Heritage, Pentecostalism, Playing Games, Hip Hop and Hiplife, Feminist Organizing, Internment Camps in China). Storytelling is an important teaching tool and a potent way to raise questions and have discussion in the classroom.

Importantly, I wanted to shine a spotlight on academics whose work I found interesting, and offer them a platform to amplify their work more widely within and beyond classrooms and academia. I also did not want to reproduce the star system of the U.S. Academy where the same people get cited and circulated, and instead made it part of my mission to feature a diversity of voices and to consider an intersectional approach when deciding who I invite. In her blog post “Making Feminist Points” Sara Ahmed (2013) describes “citation as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies”. Being thoughtful about how we participate (or refuse to participate) in such reproductive technologies was important for me.

If academia is embedded in an Androcentric and Eurocentric field of citation, one that gravitates toward certain kinds of bodies and toward telling certain kinds of stories, to the exclusion of others, how can we create a platform for alternative, and for more, stories? If our citational practices are an extension of the institutional centers of power that help create knowledge of the world – what I have called institutional Whiteness (Daswani 2021) – then how can we participate in and help create other citational and pedagogical structures that inform “our” disciplines? I am not naïve in assuming that I am creating a space without power relations. I am aware that I am a gatekeeper, but I hold on to certain feminist values of accountability and social justice when considering who or what I bring to this educational platform.

What was most challenging about designing this project?

The initial challenges of launching a free, educational platform like Human Stories usually comes from having enough resources like time and money. Fortunately, I am the recipient of a Canadian federal grant, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant, and apart from my ongoing research on activist and religious responses to “corruption” in Ghana, one of my mandates is to collaborate with and feature academics whose work highlight the (hi)stories, ambiguities and political struggles that often get erased. I was faced with the challenge of how to go about starting something like this as well as how to sustain it over the long term.

Screenshot of the About Page from Human Stories. The text reads:

Human Stories is a digital humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access teaching and learning resources about different kinds of peoples, humans and non-humans who make up the world we live in today, including those who study them. This project was inspired by the amazing women from Peopling the Past, whose own work has set new standards of conviviality in scholarship. We are grateful to them and to all the presenters who have shared their ideas, thoughts and work with us so that others can benefit from their insights and experiences. We aim to feature people whose work highlights the (hi)stories, ambiguities and political struggles that often get erased.

Co-Curator and Video Editor: Mac Graham

Founder and Co-Curator: Girish Daswani (@girishdaswani)

Logo: Bright Ackwerh (@brightackwerh)

Video Intro/Outro Music: Mutombo Da Poet (@MutomboDaPoet)
Fig. 2. Human Stories “About” Page.

My first instinct was to reach out to Peopling the Past – to learn from them since they were my initial inspiration and had been doing this longer than me. Peopling the Past (through Christine Johnston) made time for me. They explained and shared their ideas with me, and allowed me to use their presentation format and make it my own. They were generous in their sharing. With my grant I was also able to hire my PhD supervisee Mac Graham. Mac helped me create the blog; he created the slides and has been recording, editing and captioning the videos. My friend and artist Bright Ackwerh designed the logo, and the music of the videos’ Intro/Outro was gifted by another friend, spoken word artist Mutombo da Poet. I would not have been able to do this alone. So, this has been a collaborative effort. The generosity of these people is something to be acknowledged. In addition, our current speakers took time out of their busy schedules during a pandemic to create educational teaching material for the blog. To everyone mentioned (including groups and agencies) – I remain truly grateful.

Screenshot of post and YouTube video on "Egypt's Dispersed Heritage", featuring Heba Abd el Gawad.
Fig. 3. Screenshot of post and video on “Egypt’s Dispersed Heritage”.
What impacts have you made or do you hope to make with this project?

In terms of impact, my only wish is for more people to watch these videos and enjoy the stories shared in them by my colleagues (and, through them, so many other Beings); for others to learn more about the world we live in, its (human and non-human) diversity, and the wide spectrum of scholars out there who are doing this work. We aim to publish one video a week. I hope that educators and academics can use these videos in their classrooms as a way to make learning easy. I also hope that these stories can reach a wider audience outside the “ivory tower”, including people who are sometimes turned away by the academic jargon we are trained to use when speaking to other academics. As such, Human Stories is a resource not stitched together by particular names, but by the practice of sharing ideas and the commitment to embodied values such as generosity, reciprocity and humility.  

Screenshot of a YouTube video on Human Orangutan Relations, featuring Dr. Liana Chua.
Fig. 4. Screenshot of a video on “Human Orangutan Relations“.

Want to learn more about this amazing project? Visit https://www.humanstories.ca/ and follow on Twitter: @HumanStories4.

Dr. Girish Daswani
Dr. Girish Daswani

Girish Daswani’s research interests include Ghana, religion, morality and ethics, transnationalism, corruption and activism. Girish’s work centers on the socio-political dynamics between individual lives and collective forms of transformation. His first book examines the ethical dimensions of a Pentecostalism, in shaping the collective aspirations and individual lives of members from The Church of Pentecost in Ghana and London. Girish’s most recent scholarly work has been exploring different activist, artistic and religious responses to political corruption. He is currently working on a book manuscript, a comic and a documentary about the intersections of post/colonialism and activism in Ghana. His most recent public-facing work has been exploring the ways in which imperialism, colonialism, and Orientalism have impacted (and are still impacting) popular politics and the field of Anthropology. You can also watch him give TedxUTSC talks (2014; 2018) and read him on the blogs Everyday Orientalism and AfricaProactive.

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