For many, the diversity affinity sessions at the annual PastForward conference are a highlight of the program. Conceived to provide a dedicated time and place for underrepresented groups to gather at the conference, these sessions offer room for dialogue and exchange, as well as the opportunity for people to meet, network, and share information and best practices.
The content for the diversity affinity sessions is developed by groups working to promote recognition and preservation of a wide range of resources. These resources are often overlooked by mainstream preservation practices and vary in format from traditional panels, to conversational, to small working roundtable discussions. These conference sessions are critical to broadening the conversation about what preservation is and for whom, and in telling the full story of our shared history.
At PastForward Online 2020, the diversity affinity sessions kicked off the conference and set a high standard of what was to follow in the coming days. When in person, these popular sessions are standing room only and generate stimulating conversations that often continue throughout the conference week. However, it was uncertain if the personal and welcoming atmosphere could be replicated online through a virtual format.
Thankfully, Zoom proved to be no barrier for the usual warmth and familiarity between participants, as evidenced by greetings and continuous comments flowing within the chat. In addition, the high attendance—ranging from 400-750 persons for each session—did not hinder the ability for attendees to participate and share information. Honest conversations about how to work through distrust, being disenfranchised, conquering language barriers, fear of displacement, and lack of resources freely occurred among participants.
While each of the sessions had its own focus and dialogue, there were some common themes that appeared throughout the day. One of the most frequently mentioned challenges was documenting and representing history using standard historic preservation processes such as districts and landmarking. Often session attendees described work to protect places of significance that are cultural sites rather than sites of architectural significance and obstacles exist through codes, regulations, and policy in recognition of these sites within the traditional system of historic preservation. Several questioned if and what fundamentally needs to change within preservation practice to address this shortcoming.
A shared perspective among participants was preservation of tangible heritage should not only be for the sake of documentation. Instead, preservation should occur because of the meaningful intangible benefits that result—such as recognition of identity, connections to the past, breaking feelings of unworthiness, isolation, and shame, and promoting change and understanding about how we look at history.
Perhaps the most relevant underlying sentiment of the day was the importance of engagement and relationship-building to position preservation as a tool for social change and social justice. The acknowledgement that this work is difficult, facing not only structural challenges and issues of misrecognition but also requiring a tremendous amount of emotional labor, solidified the sentiment that working together and learning from each other will be crucial for forward movement. A commitment to this type of collaborative mindset was demonstrated by the extensive amount of information and resources shared in the chat throughout the day. This dynamic and collaborative aspect of the sessions and among participants was truly inspirational and certainly a benefit of the virtual format. It allowed for heightened community-driven participation which complimented information being shared by presenters and moderators.
Recordings of the diversity affinity sessions are now available for viewing. Unfortunately, the chat is not captured in the recorded versions of the sessions. However, we pulled the plethora of attendee links, suggestions, and best practices into a resource document (Excel file). Each of the session links is organized by separate tabs in the file.
The affinity sessions at PastForward remind us that our history is true only when it includes the history of all. Although the affinity sessions are a step in the right direction, we recognize a long-term and continuous effort is needed for results. Together, we can work toward a preservation moment based on relevance, truth, empathy, and unity.
Rhonda Sincavage is the director of content and partnerships at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.