Social Justice, Sharing Authority, and Mission

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Guest post by Peter DeCarlo, SHA 2017

This year’s SHA participants come from a wide range of public history backgrounds——technology people and content creators, directors and site managers, curators and educators. Our places of work range from historic sites and regional organizations, to some of the largest historical societies in the nation. The first week focused on challenges and opportunities facing our field. Our time spent talking with leaders, going on field trips, and chatting over dinner has covered a wide range of topics, but throughout, three main themes rose to the top: social justice, expertise vs/& shared authority, and mission.

Social Justice: We realized the need to be intentional with our language. The term “social justice” is frequently used to encompass many things, but specifically relates to the equal distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privilege. As history organizations, the greatest resource we can provide the public is history itself. To pursue social justice we must make our sites, collections, programs, exhibits, and publications as accessible as possible to all people, especially communities museums have historically marginalized and oppressed. This work can take many forms, from contextualizing current civil rights issues, to opening a historic site to a displaced community, to the work of inclusion and diversity. It is important to note that in addition to social justice, working towards equality in all its forms is something history organizations should consider.

Expertise vs/& Shared Authority: This issue is sweeping the museum field and it permeated almost every topic we covered. Our cohort realized this need not be a “versus” dichotomy. Expertise and shared authority must exist together. The question is: what is the right balance? A workplace example: having a member of every department on your exhibits planning team and collections acquisitions team (yes, the curators only get one vote!). In interpretive work it can take the form of dialogic questioning, allowing visitors to guide the conversation and come to a shared conclusion. Sharing authority with community members often serves social justice. Both can be pursued at once. On the side of expertise, it is important to remember that we are professionals, and “we do know things,” as one presenter put it. We must defend forensic truth, and when false social truths, collective memory, or heritage emerge, we must contextualize and historicize them, and in the process correct them. When and where to do this is subjective, but then again, so much of our work is.

Mission: Many members of the cohort used the word “political” when alluding to the resistance we experience when pursuing social justice work. When is this work political? When is it advocacy? When is this work no longer political, but simply the right thing to do? Certainly history organizations should be advocates in certain instances, but our class came to feel that shifting this discussion from politics to mission can be helpful. Is the language of social justice somewhere in the mission, values, vision, or strategic priorities of your organization? Some examples from this week that I would argue include the language of social justice:

With all of these themes weaved together, the all-important question seems to be: how are mission statements formed? How widely should authority be shared in their creation? Should all staff participate in their creation? Most importantly, should the community? If staff and community members help craft them, we might receive more buy-in, trust, and belief in our missions while pursuing social justice and the sharing of authority along the way. Missions are meant to drive us forward, so perhaps they should be the product of the people…with some of our expertise thrown in. After all, as history professionals, we do know some things.

Peter DeCarlo is the Digital Content Developer, MNopedia at the Minnesota Historical Society.

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