Sarah Marsom is the winner of the 2018 American Express Aspire Award, which recognizes an emerging leader who has made significant achievements in the preservation field. We asked Marsom to share some thoughts about her work—and the field overall.
Fostering connections to the past and to place from an early age is imperative for the growth of individuals—and seeing those connections through to careers is vital for the future of historic preservation. Think about the moments that made you the preservationist you are today. For many of us, a childhood vacation will spring to mind. I remember the hot sun on the ladders at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, which gave my sister blisters as we climbed up toward the cliff dwellings. Or maybe an experience as a young adult made you realize that, yes, you can dedicate your life advocating for places. I spent the better part of 2009–10 fighting against the closure of Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff, Arizona, by communicating with the community about the value of this historic property and the family that built it.
By the time I finished graduate school, I had spent countless hours leading educational programming at historic sites and had developed a keen appreciation of the fact that heritage interpretation is not “one size fits all.” Every person learns differently. Moreover, given shifts in culture, modifications in school curricula, and expansions in our understanding of what constitutes history, best practices for audience engagement in 2019 are not the same as those that were prevalent 30, 20, or even 10 years ago.
Given that heritage interpretation is the cornerstone of historic preservation, it is imperative for historic sites, museums, and organizations to ensure that their strategies still resonate today. So, what should they do? Take stock of what is working, what is not working, and what we can do better.
Maybe We Start by Sewing a Doll…
In 2016 I combined my sewing hobby with my love of Jane Jacobs to create the first Tiny Jane Jacobs. Heading to PastForward in Houston to join the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists panel in speaking about efforts to engage millennials, I decided that the coalition’s online following would be amused by Tiny Jane’s perspective of Houston, the city with no zoning.
On the one hand, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive—people were asking whether they could have their own Tiny Jane companions. On the other hand, I realized that many people in the historic preservation field are not familiar with Jane Jacobs, the author of “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” the savior of Washington Square Park in New York City, and the activist against urban renewal. If we don’t know Jacobs, arguably one of the most well-known preservationists in American history, who else have we forgotten? This question takes on new dimensions when we consider that less than 10 percent of National Register of Historic Places designations reflect the stories of underrepresented communities.
And so, the Tiny Activist Project was born. I partnered with illustrator Shannon May to design a doll in the image of Jacobs. And then I began sewing. I was looking to create not only travel companions but also opportunities, as the sale of the dolls funds the Tiny Jane Scholarship. In 2017 and 2018, I was able to give tiny scholarships to people with big dreams who may not have otherwise been able to attend the PastForward. Tiny Janes, which now live around the world, represent several unconventional strategies for educating people about preservation activism—through social media; through sewing lessons; and through causing strangers to wonder, “Who is that grey-haired lady?”
But, as I have learned, there are other “Janes” out there—incredible people whose stories have not reached a wider audience. A new doll is forthcoming from the Tiny Activist Project in partnership with Latinos in Heritage Conservation. The project is also offering workshops that fuse art, history, and the preservation of a traditional skill (sewing). Multidisciplinary learning resonates with broader audiences, and nothing is better than watching a kid’s creativity run wild or an adult’s artistry reignited.
…Or Leading the Young Preservationist Movement
Since helping found the Young Ohio Preservationists in 2014, I’ve seen new groups pop up across the country and shared the strategies and lessons I’ve learned to help foster their growth. Engagement strategies are at the core of the young preservationist movement, and organizations that seek to grow must evaluate and build their outreach to both students and early-to-mid-career preservationists. To attract young preservationists, relationships should begin prior to financial giving. Younger audiences can give time, energy, and passion—but organizations need to consider what types of programming appeals to different audiences and reevaluate their outreach strategies accordingly.
Social media tips and tricks can activate an online presence and reach new audiences. While every organization does not have to maintain an account on every platform, they do need to consistently post content on the platforms they do use. And they should use hashtags because people will be drawn to the #OldHouseLove. These digital connections can become real-world engagement—for example, through partnering with local Instagram groups for tours. An existing tour showing off a beautiful neighborhood or building can move at a slower pace and provide just the right amount of information for a snappy caption that, paired with the organization’s hashtag, will generate an online buzz.
Many young preservationists also seek experiences beyond a standard walking tour or lecture, so orgs should consider adding a bit of “active urbanism” into their programing. This could include riding a bike to Green Book sites in town; going for an urban hike that illustrates the city’s pedestrian infrastructure and development evolution; or even slapping on a hard hat, signing a liability waiver, and exploring a project mid-renovation to discuss historic tax credits. The young preservationist movement is not one-size-fits-all, so organizations must consider their assets and when creating engagement plans. Trying something new is key to finding out what resonates. Building young preservationist engagement will not happen overnight, so understanding short- and long-term goals is important. When developing a young preservationist strategic plan, I seek to create a sustainable and meaningful engagement methodology.
A successful historic preservation movement cultivates interest in history and the built environment from an early age. Investing the time and energy into younger demographics is vital for the sustainability of any preservation organization or advocacy campaign. And helping people connect with places through heritage conservation is the key to making preservation equally relevant for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old.
Sarah Marsom is a heritage resource consultant; a primary contributor to the third edition of Historic Preservation: An Introduction to its History, Principles, and Practice; a board member of Heritage Ohio; the chair of the Young Ohio Preservationists; and coleader of the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists.