Equity Audits in Historic Preservation: Case Studies from Providence, Rhode Island and Baltimore

By Susan West Montgomery posted 03-02-2022 09:00


In 2020, as the covid epidemic raged, black lives continued to be lost to police brutality, and systemic racism and entrenched white supremacy became impossible to ignore, many historic preservation organizations across the country carved out the time, resources, and discomfort to put matters of equity and inclusion at the center, or at least toward the center of their work.

Two organizations, Providence Preservation Society and Baltimore Heritage, Inc. went even further. They undertook unprecedented and deeply honest audits of their organization’s programs and policies with an eye toward determining if they were inherently biased, inequitable, or exclusionary. Their audit methodologies were different— one was conducted internally, the other worked with an outside consultant (the author of this piece)—but both sought an honest reckoning with their past and present to move forward.  

Screenshot of a report cover
The cover of Providence Preservation Society's new strategic plan called "Democratizing Preservation."

The Path to the Audit

Baltimore Heritage, Inc (BHI)was founded in 1960 as an all-volunteer advocacy organization, and did not have paid staff until 2003. Today, two staff members oversee an agenda of technical assistance, advocacy, and education. Given its urban focus, it is not surprising that between 50 and 70% of the organization’s projects and programs occur in communities of color. Even so, it was not until the City of Baltimore had removed its Confederate monuments and was in the process of considering the fate of others, that BHI felt compelled to take an unequivocal, equity- and justice-informed stand on the issue. 

BHI’s June 2020 statement in support of the removal of all monuments that “memorialize the oppression of Black people and people of color” was unflinching and went much further than most preservation organizations’ positions at the time. BHI asserted, “For too long, too many people in the historic preservation movement have either discounted the ongoing harsh suffering that some public memorials are causing, or have remained silent … We support the removal of public monuments that were erected with racist intent to memorialize white supremacy.” With this statement,  BHI acknowledged that their work in historic preservation was not tangential to issues of equity and justice but central. It recognized the need to “develop concrete steps to achieve our historic preservation mission in a way that reflects and empowers all of Baltimore’s past and present.” 

The Providence Preservation Society (PPS) was similarly compelled to take action. In the Spring of 2020, the organization released a “Message of Commitment” to stand with people of color to acknowledge and address systemic injustices. PPS said, “As we look to our history, we see the injustice baked into our society, into the buildings that remain and the very way our cities work. Choices made generations ago are laid bare in our segregated neighborhoods, struggling public schools, housing inequities, the unequal health of our neighbors, and a biased justice system.” The organization then vowed to do better. 

PPS, founded in 1956, emerged early as a leader in preservation, pioneering approaches designed to halt highways and undertake neighborhood-scale planning and restoration. Later, through its revolving fund, PPS became one of the first non-profit preservation organizations to become directly engaged in historic property redevelopment. Providence’s oldest precinct, College Hill and its spine Benefit Street, were not only “saved” from blight and the wrecking ball, but they were also meticulously restored, and are now stewarded under a city preservation ordinance. 

Later, the organization would expand their footprint beyond this original focus, but like many legacy preservation organizations, PPS’s main sphere of influence and support remained largely rooted in relatively affluent white neighborhoods. By 2021, however, the organization’s board and staff were committed to using historic preservation to address a range of contemporary issues well beyond that sphere of influence, including injustice and exclusion, and engage the broadest possible constituency in the work. 

The Audit Process and Findings

As part of a strategic planning process, PPS’s board participated in an anti-racism workshop conducted by Rhode Island for Community and Justice. Building on the lessons and approaches learned in the workshop, the Strategic Plan Subcommittee conducted a racism audit of ten of PPS’s current activities. They posed a series of questions for each area and prepared a report based on the answers. The audit considered how PPS’ activities might contribute to inequity, exclusion, and oppression. The audit found that PPS has rarely intentionally excluded communities of color from its projects and programs. However, it has, in effect, carried out its work in such a way that it has almost exclusively attracted, benefited, and served a mainly white, affluent, and professional constituency. 

The audit also concluded that there are cases where the work or advocacy of PPS has directly or indirectly contributed to reinforcing patterns of real estate inequity, residential displacement, and the creation of an unwelcoming environment for people of color, the homeless, and others. These findings, along with additional interviews and assessments, led to a series of guiding principles that began to map out a new direction and vision for the future.   

Screenshot of Baltimore Heritage's Website
A screenshot of Baltimore Heritage, Inc.'s website featuring it's signature virtual program Five Minute Histories. 

BHI also embarked on what it called an equity audit. It evaluated its core “pillars’ of activity including its human capital: board, staff and volunteers; its programs: education, advocacy and technical assistance; and its sustainability: how it funds its work. For each pillar it conducted both qualitative and quantitative analysis. 

In the case of its programs, BHI ranked them on a three-point scale to determine whether the activity directly advances the “righting” of one or more equity imbalances, whether the program impacts a specific equity imbalance but not as its sole purpose, or whether it has no impact on an equity imbalance. Baltimore Heritage found that its technical and advocacy programs were primarily directed at addressing equity imbalances. However, it also found that its two most popular educational programs, Heritage Tours and Five-Minute History videos, fell short of the goal of addressing an equity imbalance. The equity audit also found its board, staff and volunteers were not sufficiently diverse nor racially representative of its community. And, perhaps as a consequence of this, it relies on a mostly white base of financial support for the organization.   

What’s Next

PPS released it 2021 Strategic Plan “Democratize Preservation” which has been lauded both locally and nationally. Di Gao, senior director of research & development at the National Trust for Historic Preservation said, “the work should be held up as a national model for how preservation organizations should be thinking of their work and impacts ... it is so refreshing to hear the leadership of a historically white organization acknowledge and confront these issues head on.” The plan includes guiding principles, a reconciling with the organization’s past, and several focus areas that will be the work of the organization going forward. 

BHI used its audit findings to develop a series of recommendations designed to ensure that its preservation practice, its human capital, and its organizational capacity and sustainability are oriented toward justice and equity. 

Baltimore Heritage and Providence Preservation Society are not alone. On the occasion of its 50th  anniversary in 2021, Landmarks Illinois dedicated itself to a series of Guiding Principles that, among other forward- looking aims, models justice, equity, inclusion, diversity and accessibility. The Boston Preservation Alliance is taking part in a year-long process guided by the YW Boston’s Inclusion Boston initiative which works with organizations to evolve their work to support inclusive policies and practices. The Alliance is now in the action planning phase.

Susan West Montgomery provides consulting services to local, state and national non-profits and government agencies in the areas of strategic planning, meeting facilitation, research, writing, project management, public advocacy, fundraising, and training. She is committed to acknowledging and addressing organizational biases, and exclusionary and inequitable practices and she presses organizations to think beyond their traditional allies to build broader coalitions to support their missions. She is a former vice president for Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and served as president of Preservation Action, the national grassroots lobby for historic preservation. She is also a certified outdoor mindfulness guide working to bring mindfulness programming to historic sites.