When Does Preservation Become Social Justice? Conclusion

By Jacquie Johnson posted 08-25-2017 11:51


The Forum Blog has been publishing a series that responds to the question: When does historic preservation become social justice? This post concludes that series and reflects on the themes and ideas that have been discussed. Interested in starting a discussion about the series? Sign up for Forum Connect.

We wrap up our social justice series at a time when the controversy around Confederate memorials dominates the news. These conversations have challenged Americans to question how we approach ideologies, grapple with emotions, and memorialize our histories. Many find themselves disheartened to realize that, alongside our nation’s founding principles of freedom and equality, ideologies of white supremacy, hatred, bigotry, marginalization, and victimization have existed—and remained prominent—since our nation’s infancy. Longstanding biases still contribute to the systematic oppression of our most vulnerable communities, both overtly and covertly. Unwittingly or purposefully, these biases are held and perpetuated by our family members; friends; community groups; and colleagues—and, yes, that includes fellow preservationists.

In Virginia, Richmonders gather at the Slavery Reconciliation Statue for a unity, prayer,  and reconciliation rally one day after the violence in Charlottesville. | Credit: Shaban Athuman, Richmond Times-Dispatch

The latest demonstrations and violence around Confederate memorials speak to the urgent need of including a social justice framework in preservation. Many historic places, sites, and structures serve as the only—or at least the best-preserved—evidence of injustice in our nation’s history. Interpreting them through a social justice lens enables us to identify the systems and institutions that perpetuate inequality and see who is really being left out, disenfranchised, and oppressed—and who is making questionable claims of marginalization and injustice.

Social justice is key to ensuring that preservation centers people. It invites the preservation movement to critically analyze its role in ensuring that the basic needs of struggling communities, particularly those with deeply divided histories, are met. It positions the preservationist in a lifelong process of speaking truth to power and advocating for marginalized groups during their most trying moments. And it ultimately seeks to empower underrepresented individuals and communities to speak up and advocate, seeking the opportunity to fully flourish.

Lessons from the Series

As the many case studies in this series underscore, preservation and social justice intersect in a multitude of ways to help communities confront their pasts, as well as the institutions and systems that continue to perpetuate inequality. We explored several examples of social justice operating through preservation and of preservationists incorporating social justice into their work.

Birmingham National Urban League young professionals support the National Trust’s campaign to preserve civil rights sites. | Credit: Mark Sandlin, National Trust for Historic Preservation

One of the first posts in the series examined art as activism in preservation, including art advocacy, event planning, filmmaking, creative writing, and community dialogue. Artists discussed activating historic places to bring communities together, encourage healthy discourse, and shed light on underrepresented histories.

Music and music videos also have a role to play in arts activism. In “But Anyway,” a video that Washington, D.C. native, lawyer, and emcee Tarica June tackles gentrification and power. Featured on NPR, the video sparked rich conversation about social justice among preservationists.

The following post considered the role of faith-based institutions in mobilizing communities to save places. Faith is central to many communities’ identities, and faith communities “are repositories of legacy, occasionally even functioning as de facto local museums.” And organizing rooted in faith is especially well positioned to address the needs of vulnerable communities.

In the two-part environmental justice conversation, contributors provided resources and insight about how preservation can work in tandem with environmental justice, a movement that provides a template for preservationists seeking to incorporate social justice. Through this collaboration, preservation can address inequality at both the national and local levels.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s (SRST) fight to protect their community and sacred sites from the Dakota Access Pipeline is an environmental justice struggle that has recently been prominent. Hip hop artist Taboo created “Stand Up/Stand N Rock #NoDAPL” in solidarity with SRST.

The most recent post in the series looked at the intersection of social justice writing and preservation—specifically, storytelling and writing as tools for addressing inequality. The post discusses writing as a tool for expanding the reach of preservation, documenting diverse preservation efforts, and using narrative to rebuild and strengthen cultural identities.

Dr. Andrea Roberts started the blog series by expressing the notion that “social justice in preservation asks something more of us.” The social justice–oriented preservationists and activists who contributed to the subsequent posts have done that “more.” They have looked beyond the scope of traditional preservation and justice processes—such as courts and legislation or remembrance and memorialization—to embrace a variety of avenues to connecting deeply with communities and changing perception and behavior. In order for preservation to become social justice, the preservationist must persistently interrogate their personal preconceptions and biases with the goal of creating an intersectional and inclusive movement. Social justice in preservation means committing to challenging systems of inequality at the individual level, a commitment that will ripple out and create widespread social change.

Actor George Takei visited the Rohwer Concentration Camp, where he was interned during World War II, and took a "This Place Matters" photo as a visual reminder of the camp's significance. | Photo Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Tips for Practicing Preservation and Social Justice

  • Start with yourself. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effects on others. When we check our unconscious and unquestioned biases, we can move toward a preservation culture of inclusion.
  • Fully explore various approaches to social justice. Revisit this blog series periodically for ideas, and continue seeking other readings that address the intersections of social justice and preservation. University of Maryland professor Jeremy Wells recently provided a list of suggested resources on Forum Connect. Other relevant resources include:
  • Know the stories of marginalized communities. Really get to know the people who habitually experience injustice with little room to heal. Understand the places and stories that matter to them. Such communities exist locally, nationally, or internationally. Learn about some of these communities and stories under Preservation & Inclusion issues on the Preservation Leadership Forum website.
  • Show up and speak up at controversial community conversations. Be prepared to organize in your community when an important issue is being neglected. Show up to school board meetings, town hall meetings, and rallies to help determine policy. Help address place-based issues rooted in difficult histories. Note the voices that are included in or excluded from the decision-making process.
  • Know your elected officials and advocate at the local level. Show up at their offices, call them into your community meetings, raise questions about their legislative agendas, and tell them where you would like to hear their voices. One of the best commentators on social justice and politics is Angela Rye, host of new podcast On One with Angela Rye.
  • Build a dream team and participate in networks. For stakeholders aiming to carry out a vision of justice, learning to work as a team is critical, but building a diverse and inclusive network is the hardest and often most neglected component of social justice work. We benefit from working with people who have different styles and challenge our assumptions and viewpoints. Use Forum Connect and preservation and social justice day programming at the PastForward 2017 in Chicago to network and start creating your team.

How does social justice show up in your work? Please share resources and insights in Forum Connect to help sustain this important conversation.

Jacquie Johnson is the manager of programmatic diversity for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


#Inclusion #Diversity