Creating Meaningful Change: A Look Back at 2021

By Priya Chhaya posted 12-27-2021 09:58


Just over a year ago Marisa Brown put together her seven resolutions for 2021, a clarion call against a return to “normal” after two years of upheaval related to the existential and systemic challenges to the field, particularly in regards to justice and equity. In this story Brown stated, “By year’s end we will begin to know which organizations have instituted meaningful change and which haven’t.”

I’ll state up front that there is no magic wand for this work; rather it requires sustained, committed action. That being said, across the country preservationists and preservation organizations are making changes to ensure an equitable practice—as illustrated in some of the stories featured by Preservation Leadership Forum this past year (see the list at the end of the piece).

La Alma” mural by Emanuel Martinez on the Recreation Center in La Alma Lincoln Park. The mural shows two outward faces flanked by two images of two figures standing wide legged. The mural shows a then and now story of the neighborhood.
“La Alma” mural by Emanuel Martinez on the Recreation Center in La Alma Lincoln Park. This mural was featured in a piece on Preservation Leadership Forum describing the community based process to designate the La Alma Lincoln Park neighborhood in Denver. | Credit: Shannon Schaefer Stage.

However, there are two key initiatives that Preservation Leadership Forum members will be hearing about (and learning from) in the year to come, projects that we have already covered in 2021. Both are direct responses to the challenges of the last few years, and seek to provide clear, actionable change to build a preservation movement that is responsive and equitable, honest, and transparent in our work to protect historic places for all Americans.

The first is Leading the Change Together: A National Impact Agenda for the Preservation Movement, which is a framework of guiding principles, shared goals for the contemporary movement, and collection of suggestions for concrete actions that people across the movement identified as potential pathways—large and small—to achieve these goals and create positive change in preservation. While the work is ongoing and there is more to come in the early part of 2022, this past year included more than 65 listening sessions and comments from 700+ people that will result in an agenda for the full movement.

The second is a partnership between the National Preservation Partners Network and the National Trust for Historic Preservation called the Preservation Priorities Task Force. The Task Force is focusing on four key issues facing the preservation movement to identify actionable steps in the areas of affordable housing and density; diversity, inclusion, and racial justice; preservation trades and workforce development; and sustainability and climate action. 

This past year the Task Force released four issue briefs produced by over 50 practitioners in working groups that represent 23 states and dozens of organizations. The issue briefs are designed to build mutual understanding, spark conversation, and inspire action at the local and state levels. They will also provide a foundation for the development of a range of new resources in 2022, including messaging, case studies, and policy models.

2021 also brought with it increased options for funding projects related to telling the full American story. From the incredible underrepresented communities’ grants from the National Park Service, to the commitments by the National Endowment for the Humanities related to telling the full history, the available funding to this work is unprecedented. For this program we received strong interest, with applications coming from 49 states, D.C. and the Virgin Islands, and Forum looks forward to sharing some of those stories next year.

Preservationists and People Power

The initiatives above all seek to respond to the Brown’s question at an organizational level, but what about from an individual perspective? What is meaningful change for those of us doing the work?

Issues in Preservation Policy Covers
In December Preservation Leadership Forum published a piece by Erica Avrami that asked preservationists to consider equitable preservation policy. 

If there is one thing we have learned over the last few years, it is that our professional lives have a real impact on our well-being and health. In September, Preservation Leadership Forum published a piece by Raina Regan titled The Burnout Crisis in Historic Preservation. This piece attempts to identify some of the pain points in our work and how those manifest and make the work of preservation harder to accomplish, while also making it difficult to sustain and recruit important voices and perspectives.

So, knowing all this, what does it mean to be a preservationist in 2022? Considering the last two years this feels difficult to predict. However, I believe the answer to that question requires intentionality and a consistent recognition that our identities as preservationists may not remain, and may actually require redefinition in order to truly do the work.

At the start of December, we asked our community of preservationists on Forum Connect to reflect back on the past year. In doing so we asked the following questions:

  • What is a moment (as a preservationist) in the last year that brought you joy?
  • What was the most frustrating moment, that led to an unexpected opportunity?
  • What did you wish you had been able to do but weren't able to accomplish?
  • Do you have a preservation resolution for 2022? And what is one step you can take towards that goal this January?

Take a moment and think about your answers to these questions and consider sharing your work on the Preservation Leadership Forum online community so that we can continue to learn, grow, and lead the change together.  

Resources to Revisit from 2021

Stories and Series

Webinars and Free PastForward Content: