In late July 2020, preservationists from across the country gathered for the Dismantle Preservation Virtual Unconference. Organized and sponsored by Sarah Marsom a heritage resource consultant, this conference directly addressed some of the problematic areas of the preservation profession to encourage practitioners to confront and acknowledge systems that hamper equity within the field. With panels that ranged from racial bias to mental health (and a quick project share at the end of the night called “Burning Down the House.”) the conference directly spoke to issues related to racial bias, the weaknesses brought forth by COVID-19 in terms of pay equity and recruitment, and mental health.
As a follow up to the conference, I reached out to Marsom and several of the speakers to ask about the future of the field, and what we, as a profession, need to act on as we go forward. Each of the featured speakers bring with them different experiences and expertise in the preservation field. Some are long time professionals who have made an impact in telling the full story through preservation, while others come to the practice with fresh eyes having just entered the field a few years ago. Learn more about the speakers and hear what they have to say—including what is next for the #DismantlePreservation series.
Tejpaul Singh Bainiwal is a PhD candidate at UC Riverside and a board member for Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation. He is a Sikh American historic preservationist working on several projects in California.
Samuel Collins III is the owner of Stringfellow Orchard in Hitchcock, Texas where he tells the story of his family and others in the area. He is also a preservation advocate, serving as an advisor with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and several other state and local preservation groups. He has been providing financial services to the Galveston Community for 20 years.
Ty Ginter (they/them) is a queer historian and historic preservationist who has conducted a long and storied love affair with most things old and historic. They are the founder of D.C. Dykaries, an oral history and memory mapping project that aims to document lesbian spaces in Washington D.C..Ty currently work as an architectural historian and has a keen interest in urban planning, community development, and the effects of gentrification on communities and the built environment.
Jeffrey A. “Free” Harris is a Hampton, Virginia based historian & preservation consultant who works with historic preservation organizations, historic sites, non-profit organizations and academic institutions on issues related to diversity and historic interpretations. Free was the first director for diversity at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and is a member of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, and Board Chair of the Rainbow Heritage Network.
What was the impetus behind this conference? What were your goals?
Marsom: I chose to invest in the future of the preservation field by conceptualizing and producing #DismantlePreservation for the following reasons:
Over the past few years I've had the privilege of attending a wide variety of preservation conferences. Every conference provided insight into what the preservation movement and practice has done in the past, what is currently happening, and what preservationists are working toward. Combining these experiences with my work as a moderator for the Historic Preservation Professionals Facebook group, I saw a number of topics that people passively/actively expressed an interest in learning more about, but these were not conversations that were being had, or were not being pushed far enough at conferences.
As the historic preservation field continues to reflect on how to better work toward a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible movement, it is imperative that we uplift and amplify Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), and other lesser recognized voices that currently exist in the field.
Since 2017, I’ve been happy to give out tiny conference scholarships to people with big dreams as a part of the Tiny Activist Project. With the shift toward virtual conferences in 2020, it did not feel like a conference scholarship would have as much of a benefit to the recipients this year. The 2020 Tiny Activist Project scholarship funds were diverted to support the Dismantle Preservation Unconference, providing speaker honorariums. These honorariums would allow me to further support the work of people who are pushing preservation in new directions. This pivot also allowed my "investment" to have a positive impact on more than a handful of preservation practitioners, instead it provided learning opportunities for more than 1,000 people live streaming and many more through the recordings.
It is/was my hope that this event (and all the conversations had during it) will empower preservationists to be advocates for both themselves, the movement, and the practice. The response to the event has shown that people want to have these conversations and that we (individuals/organizations) need to be working to make the space for them, so that we can all learn and expand our preservation toolkits.
What does “dismantle preservation” mean to you?
Bainiwal: “Dismantle preservation" means to take apart the current preservation structure in place as it continues to be one of whiteness and gatekeeping.
Collins: To re-imagine what we preserve and how we tell the stories of our history in these shared spaces.
Ginter: Dismantling preservation, to me, means removing and/or renovating the systematic structures that for so long have only meant that cis, white, straight, able-bodied heritage is preserved. It means divorcing preservation from the capitalistic mindset that preservation must be profitable to be successful, and instead thinking of preservation as a public service that works to preserve and interpret our past while helping communities prepare for the future.
It means uplifting and centering marginalized communities and protecting them against speculative redevelopment which uses the systems of preservation to dismantle and destroy those communities.
Harris: “Dismantle Preservation," to me, is an opportunity to look at the component parts of the preservation movement to identify ways to rebuild the movement to better address issues of relevance, equity, access, and continued growth/expansion in the movement.
What do you consider the first three priorities that you think the field needs to consider as it addresses issues of inequity in the field?
The three priorities that the field needs to consider is
- Take BIPOC sites, histories, and cultural contributions seriously as the field perpetuates the erasure of these communities.
- Invest in BIPOC preservationists and communities: When talking about BIPOC sites, invest in people within the community who are already doing the work rather than bringing in "preservation experts" who do not really know the community.
- Access to resources for underrepresented communities - do not just tokenize them.
- Tell the full history/story truthfully without omitting the difficult subjects.
- Be proactive recruiting and promoting qualified minority and diverse preservation professionals.
- Seek the input of subject matter experts and organizations that have been doing this work for years that may not have the official titles or degrees normally associated with preservation professionals.
- Pay Equity & Higher Wages
- Removing the Graduate school requirement/barrier
- Uplifting and hiring more BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other marginalized folks in government, nonprofit, and the private sector; providing more funding for the marginalized communities to use to preserve their heritage
Harris: First, the preservation field needs to see increased substantive diversity across the board (too many still believe that "diversity" means "Black people"), from those training in the field formally, to those coming into the field organically, to those professionals working within the myriad preservation organizations from the local through national levels.
Second, the field absolutely must do a better job of demonstrating how preservation is NOT gentrification. That interchangeable understanding of preservation will continue to turn potential allies in minority/working class/poor historic communities into some of the field's most fierce opponents when the very subject of preservation is discussed.
Finally, the preservation field must find a way to become a competitive field of study and employment for a wider variety of people from racial/ethnic/sexual minority communities, as well as for those from working class and poor communities. In so doing, those expanded voices likely will amplify the voices of those already within the field who have been pushing for substantive changes to the movement.
What’s next for Dismantle Preservation?
Marsom: Change does not happen overnight (something preservationists know very well), so I'm excited to be organizing #DismantlePreservation: Let's Keep Talking panel discussions. Upcoming discussions include topics such as: Elevating Unpopular Opinions (link is to resource page, and the video is embedded above) and Supporting/Cultivating Emerging Preservation Professionals. In addition to panel discussions there is a call to action, which advocates for labor equity in the field through job board reform. If anyone wants to discuss what the future of #DismantlePreservation reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org
Learn more about the Dismantle Preservation Virtual Unconference view session recordings.