The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center leads the Paseo por el Westside tour in San Antonio, Tex. | Credit: Esperanza Peace and Justice Center
Most preservation organizations have taken steps to embrace the idea of diversity. The composition of their staff better reflects the changing faces of Americans. Their programming has expanded to tell previously untold stories. These organizations are motivated as much by a desire to do the “right” thing, as they are by the realization that in order to stay afloat, their focus needs to resonate with a broader group of stakeholders.
Yet a commitment to diversity has to be ongoing. Existing programs and practices will need to be rethought and revised periodically. This post focuses on the initial steps that organizations can take in developing or expanding a diversity program and makes suggestions for establishing successful partnerships.
Take an honest look at your programs and initiatives. What’s been done? What hasn’t been done? What could have been done differently? What sort of diversity is represented among your volunteers and staff? What outreach or partnerships have you pursued? Have any of your organization’s policies biased your work by creating or depriving you of opportunities to collaborate with new communities? When trying to work with groups who have a different approach to diversity (more story-based, for example), has the conversation ended there or continued? Has your organization focused more on places with architectural integrity than those reflecting social history?
What does diversity look like in your area? Is it about differences or similarities based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, age/generation, ability, or socio-economic status? The ways diversity manifests itself in Scranton, Pa., may be different from Galveston, Tex. You will need to consider which populations were in your locale historically as well as the ones who currently call your area home. Your organization’s preservation practice may have elevated some groups’ stories over others. Take an honest look at your focus to better assess where improvement is needed. You probably have a sense already of any imbalances. A careful evaluation will reveal these gaps.
What is your organization’s goal for diversity? If you were to be a truly inclusive entity, what would your preservation practice entail? Establish a goal and the steps needed to reach it. Having a tangible statement of purpose will help to focus your efforts and can provide a litmus test to decide whether a particular project fits your mission.
Diversity can be difficult to quantify. It is very much about process and can feel amorphous at times. It’s been said that, “what isn’t measured, doesn’t get done.” Put some metrics behind your goals—number of meetings, events, projects, stories in affinity-related publications/websites, staff, volunteers, or board members. Remember that plans are meant to be adjusted. Partway through you may decide that your markers were either too ambitious or too conservative. Having concrete goals will help you move forward.
Whatever you call it—committee, council, or task force—you will need a team to help shape the direction of your diversity efforts. This advisory group can be composed of staff, board members, or others. Don’t assume that because someone is from an underrepresented group that they will necessarily want to be a part of this team. Inviting individuals directly (in the form of a phone call or face-to-face meeting) tends to bring about the best results. Having a group solely focused on diversity can mobilize some who may have previously felt they were on the periphery.
Make sure that your organization’s leaders support your efforts. We all have unconscious biases, so it’s important for leaders to be mindful of how their biases might be undermining the work they are signing off on.
Don’t forget to add a dollar value to your investment. By attaching a budget to this priority you are walking your talk, and community members will be more inclined to support your organization through sweat equity or as a dues-paying member. People will be reluctant to support a nonprofit when the dollars don’t recycle back into the community in terms of places renovated, events held, or staff or consultants hired.
Most diversity projects will involve partnering with organizations representing diverse groups of people. Once you identify potential partners, take time to build a relationship with them before tackling an actual project. By sharing information about yourselves, your projects, and your values you can make sure that your goals are aligned with those of the other organization.
Some potential partners may not initially value historic preservation. Saving old buildings, plazas, or parks may take second place to creating jobs, dealing with wayward youth, or caring for seniors. Yet preservation can sometimes help meet these community needs through skills training, oral histories, and neighborhood tours. Be prepared to help people make the connection using examples of preservation projects that have tackled similar issues. Understand that many people think progress means tearing down vestiges of the past or their community’s humble beginnings. Understand too, that some people might shy away from preserving sites that have a difficult or controversial past.
Some initiatives may not immediately interest the potential partner. Non-preservation groups may not perceive terms like “endangered” as a label they want affixed to a place they are responsible for stewarding. Smaller organizations responsible for a particular property may feel threatened by the preservation movement swooping in to save a place. They may relish their control of a property even if their ownership threatens that place’s renovation. For this reason it’s critical that an exchange of priorities and perspectives takes place early on.
Some communities have broader definitions of preservation; their ideas of what needs to be saved for future generations may extend to the intangible. They may pass down stories (recipes, music, photos may serve as evidence) relating to the time they lived or worked in a particular area. Make sure you respect these traditions and encourage their preservation.
Keep in mind that a group may have been preserving a place for years, just in a different way than how you would have done it. They may not be familiar with formal preservation tools. Making sure they understand basic preservation practices is an important first step in ensuring they have an equal voice at the table. It’s important that competency gets built within the respective community, so that they are left with a capability to steward their legacies themselves. Communities want to see their own stories reflected and not have their experiences interpreted by “outsiders.”
Tanya Bowers is the director for diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.