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L. Burchall Case Statement

NHC 2016 Working Group
Challenging the Exclusive Past: Relevancy, Inclusion, and Diversity
Leondra Burchall Case Statement

History is a reflection of the choices and values of human beings and I see the questions posed by this working group as an opportunity to reshape, or redefine, public history. In 2009 I participated in a working group entitled “Where is the History in Historic Districts?” where I described the role of the public historian as a mediator that interprets and lays bare the dominant values and operating assumptions that guide and shape the rules of narration and preservation; and the broader non specialist public whose lack of power and authority renders their voices and experiences as marginal. I argued that public historians should interrogate the lenses, sift through the models and critique the rules by which the historical enterprise is conducted. I believe this democratizing trend will enhance our scholarly and public work, because it will enable questions to be asked in an expanded forum of participants. As scholars we may yet learn more about ourselves, and proceed to generate fresh and productive guiding presumptions that inject life into our work. This is a hopeful change as the modernist academy confronts a sometimes hostile and suspicious multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-vocal postmodern world that can heap scorn on the reign of the doctoral level “expert” as the sole acceptable voice in the conversational space. Postmodernity rejects meta-narratives, the monarchical rule of the elite expert, and the dominance of one mode of organizing the public discourse.

In 2016 much of the historical landscape continues to reflect the perspectives of the powerful and it is important that public history professionals and organizations participate with and engage the public in the discourse. The time has come to practice what we say we believe in and to mirror with integrity the democratic values we claim to cherish. The intentional redefinition of public history to address the needs of our diverse publics recommends itself as an opportunity to “play well with others” in the sandboxes where we ply our trade. It is our best strategy for equalizing the narrative. This however, is no small feat. Democratizing history is a colossal challenge that requires those with power to redefine and relinquish control over what stories are told, how they are told, and what is emphasized in the re-telling but in so doing we humanize and empower the disempowered.

According to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, most grantmakers could benefit from being actively introspective about the roles privilege and inequity play in shaping our worldviews. “When we are inclusive of a diverse set of perspectives (from grantees and the communities we serve) and use these diverse perspectives to shape the practices that drive our work, we are able to offer the kinds of support that matters because the people closest to the problems have the best solutions.” Our methods must reflect a collaborative, democratic praxis that simultaneously values everyone’s perspective. Our organizations must reflect the diversity that reigns in the broader community. Our boards and committee choices, celebrations, programs, and exhibitions must reflect and take seriously the varied perspectives that are present among our people.

The first step to building a framework of equity and inclusion is to revise our methods, models and claims. History isn’t a singular, isolated occurrence. There is no single story, yet the dominant narrative continues to hold sway. We must reframe how we gather evidence from original sources and be truthful about how much interpretation affects the retelling. Singular, sweeping narratives may be where we start and then the skillful professional work of teasing and probing and conversing with multiple voices will help our discipline to inform and layer our shared human stories. This requires trained historians to trust and partner with communities as they shape and frame their historical voices as they deem most fitting. When we speak of shared authority we must be willing to offer ourselves humbly and sincerely as community servants with specialized skills. This posture may allow heretofore never before encountered intimacies between scholar and non-professional communities that feels like real and fruitful teamwork. We are and can be guides and resources in mutually agreed upon areas of need but we are not by ourselves “experts.’’

At this level there can be a seamless melding of communities with diverse outlooks and strategies that can have an added benefit when decisions about employment come before our organizations. The more engaged the body, the increased likelihood that expertise will be found among the same diverse public with whom the side by side endeavors are a daily occurrence. This could mean that staff diversity can be a fact and not just an ideal to be striven for but as yet unrealized despite “valiant effort.” It is simply tautological that our organizations must employ a diverse staff. GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center states in GrantMaking with a Racial Equity Lens, “the value of diversity is realized only when organizations allows staff to bear skills, abilities, and insights that are directly related to their cultural, racial, linguistic, economic, gendered, and other experiences.” It isn’t enough for majority organizations to reach out to underrepresented or diverse communities while maintaining homogeneity. Equity and inclusion should not be limited to the work outside of the bubble. It should also include our staff, our partners, our collaborators, and of course our audiences.