Daniel R. Kerr is an associate professor of history at American University, where he also directs the public history program. His work focuses on the methods and ethics of doing collaborative, community-based historical research, especially with those living in extreme poverty. For example, Kerr interviewed nearly 200 homeless people and facilitated dozens of workshops in shelters and drop-in centers where unhoused people could view, reflect upon, and interpret these oral histories. The themes that emerged from these workshops structured the questions and archival research that gave rise to the book, Derelict Paradise: Homelessness and Urban Development in Cleveland (2011). He currently serves on the editorial board for Oral History Review. Seeking to mobilize the humanities, Kerr initiated and directs the DC Humanities Truck Project. The truck—a customized step van that will be completed in summer 2018—will function as a mobile workshop, recording studio, and exhibit space that can be driven around the Washington, DC, metropolitan region to provide resources and equipment to document experiences, start conversations, and share the stories of diverse and underserved communities. Kerr's ongoing project,"Whose Downtown?" will use the truck space as a workshop to reflect on the past and future of the downtown Federal City Shelter, whose demolition and private redevelopment has been proposed for 2021. The project documents the histories of the shelter residents, offering a lens into the social and economic dislocations of the past fifty years. By collaborating in this project, shelter residents will be able to engage more effectively with the planning processes that will dramatically impact their lives.
Drawing on his experiences doing oral histories with unhoused people, Kerr challenges the ethical stance of the unbiased, objective historian. He argues that this fiction obscures our own social position and privilege and normalizes inequality. Holding on to the desire to more truthfully and accurately understand the past, Kerr makes the case for acknowledging and reflecting upon our own subjectivity, being more transparent about our commitments, engaging communities beyond the profession, and participating in movements to change the world for the better. Using his own work as an example, Kerr argues that the engaged historian is a better historian.