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M. Iijima Case Statement

NHC 2016 Working Group
Challenging the Exclusive Past: Relevancy, Inclusion, and Diversity
M. Iijima Case Statement

Background: My Personal and Professional Experience in Public History

Since the work group addresses public history, I’d like to start by coming clean with a personal confession: relating to Americans’ preoccupation with their history and heritage has always been a challenge for me. My own history might explain my ambivalence: my parents are foreign-born parents and their culture did not assign the kind of meaning to the past as that of our American friends and neighbors. As new arrivals, we could not relate to America’s past in the same way: we lived in a country where our family had no history to speak of. Particularly for me and my brother, with our tenuous link to our ancestral homeland, there was not that much to tie us to the past. Our family’s progressive politics and ethos also kept our minds on contemporary affairs, and, coming of age, I did not develop a deep interest in matters of the past. Unlike many of my colleagues at state humanities councils, contemporary art, not public history, brought me to the public humanities.

So, working at a state humanities council frequently brought up the difficulty of my understanding Americans’ enthusiasm for their past. Public history is a big part of council work, and our council operates in a state where the past is an especially compelling presence. So interested are Pennsylvanians in their history and heritage that our state has hundreds more historical organizations than our neighbor New York. Until quite recently when our council moved away from traditional cultural programming, part of my duty was to understand our state’s passion for history. However, many history projects we underwrote made accepting this responsibility a struggle and made me skeptical of our state’s appetite for history and heritage.

We are a rust belt state where prosperity moved away from many towns decades ago. For folks in those towns, what was is probably more attractive than what is, and what might be is more unappealing still! Given our state’s uncertain relationship to the present and the future, I often wondered how our history projects facilitated or hindered Pennsylvanians’ ability to navigate and manage their present and future. Many proposals we received celebrated the past without accounting for the present, never mind the future. Projects commemorating industries best left behind -- coal mining, for example -- were pretty common. Others reinforced particular ethnic or cultural identity with little regard as to how it related to other peoples. Projects on the traditions of older, working class white peoples were a mainstay.

Troubling also was our practice of making grants without investigating community context. We took proposals at face value and did not bother to examine the host community, its relationship with the applicant, and the wider community’s feelings about the story that the applicant proposed to tell. Ironically, right after we ended funding history projects, I was able to see the consequences of inadequate due diligence and the possibility of public history stymying a community’s capacity to deal with the present and future. We had a grantee that received annual support for oral history about the town’s coal mining legacy. In collaboration with the local community and economic development organization, this grantee applied for our new grants. We conducted a site visit, now a requisite, and, at this visit, our team was dismayed to learn how the grantee had been using their work in oral history.

The grantee’s narrative about the town’s coal-mining legacy was clearly the story of the men running the town and directing the local economy. The single-minded focus on coal-mining and an aging generation of coal miners excluded the narratives and perspectives of those with lesser say, including the young, women, and members of the farming community. It helped maintain power for some -- the coal miner’s male descendants who were now calling the shots, but the one-note narrative was stifling, excluding those with divergent views, those with ideas that might bring about change. The highachieving teens brought out for the tour admitted that, more than more on coal-mining, the town needed new opportunities for young adults and that they were planning to leave the area after graduating. With limited prospects, the town was stagnating.

History, Heritage, and Community & Economic Development

The site visit verified that my worries about history and heritage were not ungrounded, and as our council turned its attention to bettering our citizens’ future through civic engagement in community development, colleagues in community and economic development too confirmed many of my misgivings. As I consulted with experienced community development professionals, multiple people told me how preoccupation with history is a major obstacle in economic recovery. In many cases, they told me, a strong attachment to history prevents communities from seeing a way forward. What’s more, from economists at Penn State’s Center for Community and Economic Development, I learned how distinct ethnic and cultural narratives can be a reflection of how industrial interests used to exercise power. Divergent stories divided workers and hampered their will and ability to organize.

Nonetheless, history and heritage are important and play a role in our council’s new focus area in civic engagement in community development. The Penn State economists explained that the gist of stories of the past are also kernels of what we think our future could be and that failure to consider these stories is at the root of many failed community and economic development efforts. The same community development professionals who expressed concern about history also acknowledged that it can be an asset. In our state, the historic built environment is a big part of community identity, is vital to a town’s aesthetics which experts cite as a characteristic of healthy communities, and can be a driver in economic turn-around. Last, research has shown that, for members of disenfranchised groups, an understanding of one’s historical as well as cultural and social framework and the opportunities it has provided or denied is the first step in civic engagement.

What I Would Like to Learn from Our Work Group

While our council has moved away from directly funding history projects, we have certainly not abandoned history and heritage. Indeed our work on Community Heart & Soul, a resident-driven, humanities-based community visioning and planning process designed by the Orton Family Foundation, immerses us in history. The process, however, puts history in a community context, something that was, problematically, missing in our work before, promotes understanding of others, and looks to the future. Community leaders collect, share, and analyze stories, particularly from hidden or missing voices, and, in collaboration with others, create an inclusive and cohesive community narrative. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are central, and Heart & Soul teams invest substantial time and resources to get members of underrepresented groups involved and part of decision-making. The new narrative helps reconcile divergent narratives, puts the past in its rightful place, and thus offers a foundation for preparing for the future.

Like the rest of the nation, Pennsylvania and many regions that were historically white are progressively becoming “browner.” Our population of peoples of color grows as the number of white residents, older than many of our newer residents, declines. The expanding population of minorities and the influx of people of color to places once predominantly white are not only the result of births but also the result of minorities migrating from cities and from overseas. As we as a state grown browner, economic instability for individuals and families is becoming a larger issue since race and ethnicity can be a compounding factor in poverty. While there are many more white residents who are poor, historical and structural racism makes poverty more likely for people of color.

Our work with Heart & Soul enables our council to be proactive in addressing our changing demographics. However, it represents one aspect of how inclusive public history can play a role in community development. As our state’s leader in the public humanities, we are striving to demonstrate how the humanities can contribute to creating better futures for Pennsylvanians and to show others -- colleagues in the humanities and potential humanities supporters in other sectors -- how this can be done. Therefore, I feel it is incumbent upon our council to have a stronger understanding of the many ways in which public history can facilitate – or impede -- community and economic development, particularly one that is equitable. I hope that participating in this work group will furnish space for me to think about this topic and to dialogue with and learn from experienced colleagues in the humanities.