We’ve handed the megaphone to Dominique Luster, founder, and principal archivist at The Luster Company.
Dominique believes in archives and storytelling, and The Luster Company is the outpour of that spirit by way of helping individuals and organizations uplift, honor, and tell stories that represent the lived experiences of the Black diaspora.
Working in the cultural heritage and memory work field for nearly 10 years, she has come to understand that history is not merely a listing of events in chronological order. But rather a meticulously curated phenomenon of power. All too often the stories of marginalized communities are suppressed, oppressed, erased, or forgotten. The Luster Company seeks to rechart that path.
This is a Growth Network Podcasts production. Our producers are Lynz Floren, Sari Weinerman, and Jeffrey Morris. Production Manager is Maura Murphy Barrosse. Original music by Nicolas Fournier. Promotional support from Marsha Ord. Website by Nick Brodnicki.
Mentioned in this episode:
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All you see is darkness, it's really dark. It's really dark.
It's really dark. And then you see a tree. The lights lifts slowly on this tree. It's
spotlit. And in front of the tree, there is a Black woman reading a book, or
maybe she's flipping through pa
ges and you don't really know what it is.
But the lights come up slowly, and then you see more lights come up and you
see more women and men and kids reading these books. And there's no words,
there's no words. It's just this West African orchestral music
in the background.
It's very soft, but it's very pointed. And the lights come up very slowly and
they're all a little farther apart. But as the lights come up, you see hundreds of
them and then thousands of them, and then millions of Black people connected
in these ways. And then the lights go out and it says, we believe in Black
My name is Dominique Luster. I am the founder and principal archivist of The
Luster Company and I'm an archivist, a historian. Let's just say if Indiana Jones
rriet Tubman were squished together, that's basically what I do.
The Luster Company is about a need that I felt in the world. It is about a desire
to uplift and just outpour from my spirit what I felt around my own family story
and what I felt around the s
tory of Black Pittsburghers. I try to help Black
families find their Black families find their own stories, connect to their
ancestors, to their heritage and honestly connect anyone who has an invested
interest in Black storytelling to those narratives. It
's pretty multifaceted. As long
as you believe in Black storytelling as much as I do, we can pretty much figure
I had this thing that needed to come out of me of helping people tell stories and
finding out what my own story was. And when I realized
that I needed help
doing this, and I found that other people needed help doing this and more
people needed help doing this, The Luster Company kind of burst itself out of
this idea of, Hey, our stories matter. And they can often be under recorded or
documented or under preserved. It's common right now to discuss and to
talk about the preservation of marginalized stories. That is something that we
think very intentionally about now.
However, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. So where ar
e the stories
of Black families, Brown families, religious minorities, families, LGBTQ AI
families? Where are those stories from their grandparents? What happened to
those old family Bibles? What happened to those family traditions? While we
can't always n
ecessarily go back and save them, The Luster Company kind of
comes from this idea of well, the second best time to plant a tree is now.
You'll see from my website thelustercompany.com, my own family's story
deeply inspires me. I list out the maternal linea
ge right there on my website. I
named their names cause these women really matter to me. So my mother, my
grandmother, her mother, her mother, and her mother, they matter. They are
instrumental to the story of who I am. I would not be able to be in this wo
without them. They are deeply inspirational and motivational to me.
I was brought into the field and mentored by Black woman. So I understand the
importance of Black female mentorship, and the impact that Black female
mentorship has had in my life. Ther
e are Black women archivists from Stacy
Williams to Patrina Jackson, to Holly Smith to Dorothy Berry, the numbers are
really endless. Women who have been inspirational to me and who have poured
into me and to them, I'm very thankful.
An archivist is a pers
on who genuinely believes in their heart that information
matters. And that people have a right, a human right to information. And that
information can be and is a source of power, that can be used wielded
manipulated or treated as a currency for any numbe
r of given reasons or
outcomes. An archivist is a person who believes that information has power and
wishes to share that power with as many people as possible. To give access to
that power, to as many people as possible. It's not just about Dusty boxes in
back of basements.
The spirit of it really comes from a belief of sharing, of providing access.
Whether that is in an institution such as a university, a government archive, A
museum, a library, whatever it is, or individually in a community archive,
tribal nation archive. An archivist believes in sharing information as a tool, as a
currency of power and having access to that power and that there shouldn't be
barriers to entry or barriers to power that are privileged to certain people.
Harris is one of my main inspirations. As I was coming up
through the field I had the incredible honor and privilege of serving his legacy
for a few years before beginning The Luster Company, and he taught me so
much about what it means to be Black in Ame
He was a photographer in Pittsburgh, in mid 20th century, and he taught me so
much about what it means to celebrate Blackness and to celebrate community
around Blackness, and to tell stories through imagery, through family church
albums. As his mediu
m was photography, there's certain modes that he could
teach through visual looks and acuity and analysis and light and shadow. There
are a lot of things that you can learn through the visual record. And as an
archivist, I kind of was able to blend my trai
ning, my education, my
understanding of records as places of power, through his understanding of
photographs as visions and windows into places.
And when you merge those two things together, you can kind of see, okay well
who is historically left out of th
e record? Who was historically left out of the
photograph? How are these photographs positioned to present a certain
narrative? And is that narrative skewed in a certain way or provided to a certain
person in a certain way.
And how do we tell that story fo
r ourselves. The lesson that I learned about
from Teenie was about how do you tell your own story in the way that you want
to tell it? How do you make sure that the story of your life, the story of your
family, the story of your legacy is told from your ow
n words? From your own
heart? And in whatever modality that may be. In his modality, that was
photography. In my modality it's in archival records. In another person's
modality, it could be in visual art or music or in banking. It doesn't matter.
this really beautiful quote that says if there are 44 million Black
Americans, which is not any more, but this is a historic quote, if there were 44
million Black Americans, there are 44 million ways to be Black and every
single one of those ways is corre
ct. And so however you express yourself, then
it's correct. And that's what I learned and that's why I actually felt like I had to
start this company, because when you know better, you must do better. When
you feel charged to do something, when you underst
and, when you seen the
page, you can't unsee it. And once I really understood this concept of this is how
I express my Blackness. This is how I give to the world. I couldn't unsee it.
What is the past, honestly? It's such a complicated question, but I wil
l start by
trying to illustrate the fact that the past is essentially the idea of a chronology of
things in a certain order. So February 2nd and then February 5th and then
February 14th last year. Those dates are in the past. And even those things are
ective. If you've ever asked say, your aunt, uncle, or your grandparents
about a very memorable or particular day and they have slightly similar, but
slightly separate memories of that exact same event, say their wedding from 40
years ago, they're going to
remember it differently.
But it happened on the same day in the past, right? Those differences, the fact
that it happened on the same day, the fact that they are trying to recall the exact
same event is the chronology of the past. Whereas they're processi
memory of that time, of that event, is history. The difference being that the cake
was ordered from this company as a receipt, like fact can be pointed to as in the
Whereas the story of grandma and grandpa's wedding, thei r storytelling of i
the history. History is one, a phenomenon of power truly. Because it is
controlled, dictated and shared through influences of power. There's this saying
that history is written by the Victor, it's very true because it's about controlling
the flow of i
So if an influential person decides that this is what happened as a historic event,
and that is told at enough scale that it's broad spread shared either through
narrative history books, when one version of a story get shared at scale, it
s history. It becomes historic. And given some education systems, we
may not challenge it all the time. It depends on when or how or why something
might be introduced, but for certain individual events like your great
grandparents wedding, we don't necessa
rily think about it as a phenomenon of
But when we think about the transatlantic slave trade or a narrative about the
Jim Crow South, it is. It is absolutely a phenomenon of power. And it's a
phenomenon in which information is used as a currency, as
a weapon, for either
driving a certain narrative forward, or information can be used to shape a certain
narrative in a different direction.
Records can be left out or destroyed. Humans can be left out or destroyed.
Power takes the shape, and it uses infor
mation as the tool, as a principle melder,
for what that history is going to be. And it's our job when we know better to
question it, to criticize it. It's not as if I'm looking for different history. It's that I
truly believe we need to have more history.
So I personally, in The Luster
Company, I'm not advocating for one version of an event over another. I think
it's okay to have both. I think it's okay to have multiple narratives of any given
time in American history and world history. It's okay to have m
ore stories. We
need to have more narratives, more histories. Histories can be plural.
And that gives us a fuller and more complete understanding because we are
living through history and how this time in our lives and American history and
world history wi
ll be recorded and shared will dramatically impact those 20
years from now or 50 years from now in a myriad of ways.
Something that I am excited to work on is these ideas around community
archiving as independent places of power and influence. And what I m
that is, like I mentioned earlier about the community archives, if you live in a
neighborhood or if you have a specific community or profession in a specific
geographic location. There's a ton of communities out there, they have things
ey have records, they have movement, they have people, they
have power. They have a shift that is occurring. And there are some projects
coming down the road that would really allow us to support communities in the
most authentic and genuine ways by giving
infrastructural support. By
providing those information and documentary services. By going into their
attics and closets and actually helping them do the archival work. Helping them
do those preservation pages, helping them get those photo albums out of t
old boxes and into some sleeves.
There is work to be done. And it's a really amazing opportunity to be invited
into, essentially a community's home, to help them tell their stories. It's such a
powerful thing. And to be able to help people do that onc
e they've decided it is
an honor and a privilege. And so I'm really, really excited about it. I can't
necessarily express how much I think it will change the way that we think about
information and breaking down those silos between what is formal and what
informal, what is important or not important? What is privileged or not
privileged? By really investing in informal community archiving, just as much
as we invest in formalized institutional archives.
It's not just about getting family photographs out o
f the old dusty boxes and out
of the old scrap albums and digitizing them. Digitizing is actually a multi
process. And it is expensive, but that's actually why and not always advocating
or pushing for the digitization of records because I want to be u
and aware of the needs of the families that I'm working with and the clients that
I'm working with.
So if I'm working with a family whose grandmother has photo albums from the
1940s, Granny has no idea how to log into a secure cloud storage
and view her
photographs on the computer. It's of no use to her. And what we prioritize over
everything is use. It's about using the things and seeing the things and sharing
the things. There is a physiological response that the brain and the body and the
soul has to touching old things and to having your family's photographs or
newspaper clippings where your great
grandparents were listed on the front
page of the newspaper, there is something about having that in your hands that
can never be replaced.
, that is not to say that if the elements have taken the family photographs
and digitization is the best way to preserve them so that they can be seen for
years to come, then absolutely. But I firmly believe that technology should be
used in the service of
solving a problem. If solving the problem is access to
family recipes or their family Bibles. If the answer is use and the family has no
need to use digitization as a technology, there are other things that we can do,
then I'm not necessarily going to int
roduce it because I want to encourage the
thinglyness of things. And not necessarily as a overwhelming of things kind of
way, but as a point of peace, as a point of yours, as a point of not dealing with
who owns the cloud storage.
There's too many things t
hat get caught up in digitization, especially at the
community archiving level, when really people want to see the mother's dayphoto from:
The Luster Company is a community of anyone who cares about Black history
and storytelling and negativity, as much as I do point blank. Period. And that
can be of any walk of life, of any background, but you come to this table and
you definitively a certai
n stand on the ground that Black stories, Black people,
Black ancestry matters. From that table, then we can talk about whatever
projects or opportunities there are to dive into that for your unique expression.
But our community is anyone who definitively
believes as we believe. Period.
Now, that has looked like individuals looking to trace their families as far back
as possible. So that could be something in the genealogy kind of realm of work.
It can also be individuals looking to break through his very
specific brick wall.
So that could be a very specific question or interests that they may have in
either their family or something that they are working on. A research interest, a
book, a film, whatever it is that might involve Black stories, Black individ
those who have gone before us.
So maybe you're working on a project about someone who there's not a lot well
known about that individual, but you know how important they were to your
work in the arts or your work in Black financing and America, if yo
u know, and
you just need help getting there, then we do that kind of work.
This community can look like collectives or cohorts who are looking to do good
in the realm of supporting and uplifting Black collections. There is a notorious
of Black and Brown stories that are formally recorded and
preserved in libraries, archives, universities across the country. If there is
already a little bit of a lack of support in major institutions, you can only
imagine how much there is a lack of infr
astructure and support in community
archives or informal institutions. So maybe you are a local community in
Pittsburgh, or you are a local community in New York or local community in
And you live in a predominantly Black community that has a ric
h history, but
no one is collecting and no one's preserving and no one is making sure that
those records are kept and available. That is also our community. We believe in
Black storytelling. So if you believe as we believe, we can find a way to work
Those who need to hear about The Luster Company's mission most, are really
two groups. There's a generation who do not know their grandparents or great
grandparents names. There is a generation who do not know what their great
grandparents did or wher
e they came from or anything about their lives. There
is a generation who has no idea how valuable and how powerful they are, cause
it's never been made of interest to them in a way that is captivating.
Regardless of what happened in your high school, his
tory is cool. They lied.
History is awesome. It's very cool. It just depends on how it's framed, I swear.
It's so fascinating when it is relatable to you and it connects to you and what's
important and matters to you. So there's that, there's that generati
on, there's that
group of individuals who I would love to hear this message and to be more in
But on the flip side of that, there is a generation of people who have the
knowledge. Who don't think it is a value to be shared. They are our pa
our grandparents generation who were around and they may actually know their
parents' or grandparents' names. So now all of a sudden you have access to you
and I's maybe second or third generation great
grandparents, but our
grandparents have no i
dea that that information is valuable.
They have no idea. They don't write it down. You grow up at the kitchen table
and then you find out, oh yeah, My mother went to so
so's college. She was
like the first Black woman who went to that college. You nev
er thought to tell
anybody? Things like that happened and families all the time and that
information gets lost. It can't necessarily be recaptured in the same way.
There are things that I can do as an archivist to go find historic records or
s, or school records. There are empirical primary source records
that I can go find as receipts or evidence to your family, but it is very different
from actually having your own family story shared with you by those who know
it. It's incredible what our p
arents, our grandparents know about their own
families that they just don't think is important or matters to share, or it doesn't
occur to them that anybody would be interested in where their grandma moved
It's incredibly important, even if it just k
eeps the information in the back of
someone's mind. Because maybe it isn't as important to you, but it might be
important to your kids. You never know. So just having that information,
talking about it, is vitally important. Those are the two groups those
to hear, and those who have to tell.
As a small business, our most ambitious goal was to be of service. And was to
prove the value of this service was to create something and prove that it was
needed and wanted. That people were wanting these idea
s around narrativity
and storytelling. So, I feel like we have accomplished that and I'm very proud
and sending big hugs to all of our partners, y'all know who you are. And so, the
goal right now would be to just have more people want to do it. To expand i
these community archiving projects that are coming into play to be able to be of
service to more families. That is a huge goal right now.
Genealogy, as you can imagine, African
American genealogy is quite difficult.
There are gaps in the records that
other families may not necessarily experience,
and it requires a different lens kind of reading between the lines. Even if you're
looking at the exact same census record. There's also a brick wall in Blackily genealogy sometime around:
s very difficult to trace back
families through the Civil War. And so one of my goals would be to figure out a
way that we can help more people unlock that brick wall in more efficient ways,
because there's such a powerful reckoning that happens on the oth
er side of that
Other goals would be to get the word out because I really want people to be
thinking about how they can do this work for themselves. How can they be
inspired to do what they can by themselves? And when they can't get any
urther, when you hit that brick wall, tap an archivist on the shoulder. I want to
have more conversations along the lines of this historic Black and brown
community out of Pittsburgh or out of Richmond or out of DC is looking to
memorialize its ancestors a
nd those that have come before those who have built
the community to be what it is, how can you help? So many ways. Let's talk. So
those are the goals. It's just really where can we be of service.
I think that we are all in doubt by an instinct to tell the
stories of our lives and to
see the stories of our lives and the stories of our families outlive us. There are
some innate human instincts around legacy and legacy building that are just
hard to really explain and define. I have often advised clients or f
you do not need a professional archivist to save your family history. I am more
than happy to help you, but you did not need someone with a fancy degree to
help you save your own family's story, because what's important is to
understand that y
our family's story is yours.
The way that your family speaks to each other is yours. The way that your
family saves recipes and passes it down is yours. You are the only person that
can know truly how it should be saved and preserved. And there are a myria
techniques to do that, whether that is recording family videos, whether that is
doing an actual oral history with your grandparents, whether that is being the
person who volunteers to keep grandma's family photo album. Those are things
that you can do
. There are some basic preservation techniques and tactics that
any of us can do in our everyday lives, that would help preserve our family
history and narratives. It's just being aware of it.
We've all been in some sort of circle or event, wedding, Thank
Christmas, birthday party, whether it be with friends or family, and you have
this moment where you look around and you say, wow this is cool. That's the
moments that you want to record. And so, taking a picture and making sure that
the photos on
your phone are uploaded into another place. Anytime we think of
history keeping, it doesn't need to be formal or structured or an active oral
history interview. You can simply make sure that those moments where you feel
it in your spirit, get captured or w
ritten down or journaled or have those
conversations with your family members.
Ask them questions about who their parents were because often with my work,
one of the hardest things to do with individuals who are looking to do their
family history now is because they don't even know their grandparents' names.
And not being able to get
to that second generation confidently, creates a whole
branch of problems later down the road. So even just knowing your
grandparents or great
grandparents names or where they were from or
something about them, even if you don't know all the details, that
's where I
come in. But what it really comes down to is being present and asking
questions, being curious. It really comes down to however makes sense for you
and your family to thrive.
What I hope is that at some point in the future, we'll see a world whe
people know who their great grandparents were. They know where they come
from, they know who they are and whose they are. That the idea around Black
history and Black narrativity and Black storytelling isn't crazy or reserved for
one month a year.
I don't know about y'all, but we should have a real good
conversation about Black history month. This is something that I've always
thought, but at any rate, one day I want to be able to look up and most Black
people that I know have a token or a photogra
ph or a family heirloom, because
there is a sense of pride and a sense of knowing a sense of peace and Ancestry
as a new form of power.[:
You've been listening to Mission Megaphone, a Growth
Network Podcasts production. Follow this podcast f
or more incredible stories
from purpose driven organizations and individuals you'll want to meet.
To find out more about this show or The Luster Company, check out our show
notes. I'm Lynz Floren. Our producers are Sari Weinerman and Jeffrey Morris.
tion manager is Maura Murphy Bourasse. Original music by Nicholas
Fournier. Promotional support from Marsha Ord. Website by Nick Brodniki.
Thanks for listening until we meet again, keep searching for inspiration and
when you find it, make sure to pass it on.