Building the Young Preservationist Movement

By Sarah Marsom posted 01-18-2018 12:31


When you look around at historic preservation events in your community, who do you see? Do you see a spectrum of individuals who represent the diversity of your community in terms of gender, ethnicity, profession, and age? If not, the time to work toward a more inclusive preservation movement is now!  

During the opening plenary at PastForward 2017 in Chicago, Lee Bey, vice president of the DuSable Museum of African American History, called on preservation organizations to create diverse boards, foster new organizational partnerships, and ensure that social equity be a part of historic preservation. Developing a young preservationist movement in your community is one way to work toward an inclusive preservation movement. 

During the Rust Belt Takeover of Buffalo in July 2016, Buffalo Young Preservationist members Chris Hawley and Dana Saylor led a tour that described both the history and their future of the city's abandoned grain silos. | Credit: Sarah Marsom

Who Are Young Preservationists?

To understand who young preservationists are and why this demographic needs special focus, we should start by defining the three types of preservationists: passive, active, and professional. Passive preservationists do not actively support preservation, but they enjoy its benefits. For example, they prefer eating at a restaurant in a Main Street community rather than in a strip mall, but they have not articulated the underlying reason. Active preservationists, on the other hand, intentionally support historic preservation. They may show their support by visiting historic sites or volunteering for local preservation events, but they are not paid for their efforts. Professional preservationists are financially compensated for their work in historic preservation. Young preservationists can fall into any of those categories, but most are active preservationists coming to the movement from a place of community. 

Many young preservationist groups define “young” as “under 40.” (Does that mean only people under 40 can attend young preservationist events? No! Young preservationist organizations regularly host events open to anyone who is “young at heart.”) 

In 2017 the National Trust for Historic Preservation published Millennials and Historic Preservation: A Deep Dive Into Attitudes and Values, a survey that highlights the demographic’s appreciation of preservation in a broader context. Thanks to the ongoing developments in the historic preservation and urban planning fields, today’s preservationists have a greater understanding of how older architecture and history impact daily lives. Yes, they are passionate about saving individual structures, but they are also passionate about neighborhoods, pedestrian-scale environments, history, sustainable architecture, and aestheticsin other words, a sense of place. Organizations seeking to enhance their missions or to develop advocacy for a community’s history must take this generational perspective into account. 

Engaging and Developing Young Preservationists

Historic preservation should be for everyone, but for much of the past 50 years, the movement has been limited by narrow ideas of what history is valuable and who qualifies as an expert in retaining historic resources to foster community growth. For example, only 8 percent of sites listed on National Register of Historic Places honor people of color, women, or LGBTQ people. A push for inclusive storytelling has gained momentum in the recent past, but it will take time to build a more inclusive preservation field. 

The Young Ohio Preservationists partnered with Igloo Letterpress in Worthington, Ohio, to create preservation inspired posters. | Credit: Sarah Marsom

The young preservationist movement has emerged to fill one of the voids, in response to the high costs of events, the non-inclusive storytelling, or the lack of vocal advocacy that had often characterized preservation. Each young preservationist organization seeks to give a voice to the next generation of leaders. 

Young preservationists are seeking opportunities not only to build their resumes but also to learn from those who have already left an imprint. Giving young preservationists leadership roles will develop their desire to be stewards as well as their understanding of best board and nonprofit practices. Engaging this demographic will expand your list of potential members and volunteers—and potentially increase event attendance, develop new donors, and broaden advocacy reach.  

When undertaking to develop a young preservationist movement in your community, consider these questions and strategies. 

Who can help lead young preservationist initiatives?

  • Look around the room, and see who is currently attending your community’s preservation events—happy hours, commission meetings, protests, etc. Existing organizations should identify individuals who are already engaged, as they are most likely to take a more active role in preservation.
  • Host a focus group! Send an e-blast to your mailing list and invite young professionals to participate in a conversation about what a young preservationist movement would look like. Hosting a facilitated event may encourage new engagement from people who have previously stood on the sidelines.
How does this kind of initiative fit into the current preservation landscape?

In 2015 the Young Ohio Preservationists partnered with Homes on the Hill in Columbus to host a window restoration workshop. | Credit: Stephen Newport

Do young preservationist resources already exist?

  • You do not need to reinvent the wheel to create a young preservationist initiative. Reach out to existing organizations, each of which operates differently and can provide insight into its organizational methods, events, and successes and failures. Each community is unique and this will impact local goals, but there are a number of broadly successful strategies for organizing. The Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists was created by groups from New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan specifically to assist people interested in beginning young preservationist initiatives. The coalition regularly offers guidance to others who want to build the young preservationist movement. They provide this support through social media groups and, beginning in 2016, city takeovers. The takeovers allow young preservationists to showcase their city and to discuss larger issues in their movement. During the Pittsburgh Takeover, participants took a tour of the city steps, discovering the history of the neighborhood stairs and learning about the city’s current efforts to preserve this pedestrian thoroughfare. The Detroit Takeover included a discussion with the Live 6 neighborhood nonprofit about advocating for neglected neighborhoods and listening to individuals whose voices have previously been underrepresented in shaping the city. In St. Louis the takeover included a visit to the Cahokia Mounds and addressed the difficulty of funding the site’s maintenance. The takeovers allow both active and professional preservationists to learn new tactics; at the same time, young preservationist groups learn best practices for organizational strategies.

Young preservationists in the windows of the Dixie Cream Donut Flour Factory in St.Louis, Missouri, during the May 2017 Rust Belt Takeover. The factory is being adapted into artist workshops. | Credit: Sarah Marsom

Support from the National Trust has allowed these volunteer-coordinated events to remain free (sometimes with a suggested donation). The next Rust Belt Takeover will be hosted in Columbus, Ohio, April 2729.

Making an Impact

Young preservationists across the country have already made significant impacts, frequently by encouraging pride in place through new partnerships. The Young Ohio Preservationists recently partnered with a community development corporation to restore the windows in a home for a future low-income family. The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh worked with high school students to record a neighborhood history podcast. The Wheeling Young Preservationistslovescaping of downtown led to the purchase and restoration of a historic structure.

Consider incorporating a young preservationist initiative into your 2018 preservation plans. Inspire a passion for place in the next generation.

Sarah Marsom is a historic preservation consultant based in Columbus, Ohio; the creator of the Tiny Jane Project; a primary contributor to the upcoming third edition of Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles, and Practice; the chair of the Young Ohio Preservationists; and co-leader of the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists.