History Leadership and Community Engagement

I believe people long for history, that they demand the truth, and they are eager to talk about the tension in the past.

David Young, the executive director of Cliveden in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia

History is complex. So are communities. The big challenge in history organizations today is to find ways to make history, in all its complexity, relevant and useful to its community-at-large, and to the many sub-communities therein. This requires leaders who are passionate about both history and community, who are committed to helping others have better lives, and who believe that increased understanding of the past can contribute to this goal.

The leader’s first job is to show up. The history leader must be in the community, present at community events, participating in community organizations, and taking a lead in addressing the community’s concerns. By being present, the leader learns what people want and need, and begins to build relationships with other community leaders.

Without this preliminary work, the history organization is likely to encounter resistance when it approaches a community group with an idea for an exhibit or program. In the seminar last week Dan Spock, from the Minnesota Historical Society, had the class role play several cases. Those who were playing the role of community members had concerns: What does the organization want from us? How will our needs be addressed? Can we trust them? Will they listen to us? Will they believe us?

There are many ways that a community (groups and individuals) can become involved in the work of a history organization. Over the course of the first week the faculty introduced and we discussed many of these, including community input into deciding what to collect, community generated exhibits, and community participation in events and programs. Benjamin Filene, who teaches public history at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, is one of the editors of a new publication that addresses the same issues we discussed: Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Philadelphia, 2011)

A good place to start is to help a minority community tell its own story, take pride in its heritage and celebrate its achievements. Many history organizations originated with this impulse, focused on the group in power at the time. It is worthy now to help other groups have their turn. History becomes relevant when it enables people to share their stories, instill pride in their culture, and affirm their values.

Once you have built relationships and given a community an opportunity to tell its own story, it may be time for tackling some of the more contentious stories.

Here is some guidance for working with community groups, especially around controversial issues.

1.Be aware of your own biases and expectations. What is your motivation for engaging communities and the public around contentious issues? Others will be suspicious; they will want to know what you want from them.

2.Be pragmatic. Be honest with yourself with how much you can do. You may not be able to change others’ minds; at most you may be able to affect their thinking.

3.Expect to be challenged. Recognize that American history is difficult history. There are no straightforward answers. There are many perspectives. We haven’t got it all figured out yet. Don’t take it personally (this is the hardest thing.)

4.Retain the sacred while adding the forum. In the process, and in the final product, be it an exhibit or program, give people space and times to reflect and be inspired, as well as analyze and engage in dialogue.

5.Use concentric circles, start with those closest to you and move outward to engage others. Use both process and content to engage their interest.

6.Facilitation is crucial. The Tenement Museum trains its staff to facilitate tough conversations about immigration. David Young has used facilitators with expertise in group dynamics and psychology to bring blacks and whites together to discuss slavery. Dan Spock is using resources from Healing Through Remembering, an organization in Northern Ireland, to facilitate dialogue around the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota.

Posted on November 8, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. John, this post felt like an extension of a discussion that cropped up at my team meeting last night. Our curator was sharing her work on the upcoming Smithsonian exhibit, “Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello: Paradox of Liberty”, a collaboration between Monticello and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I have forwarded your post to some of my team members; I think they’ll appreciate your thoughts. I look forward to following this year’s SHA via your blog – what a nice way to get a feel for the program! Thanks!Rachel Baum, Manager of Family Programs, Monticello

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