Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Network: Learning from San Antonio's Preservation Leadership Training Program 

02-25-2019 16:08

One of the most important lessons to be teamed from military strategy is how to retreat effectively. Because historic preservation efforts often seem to parallel military moves, hard-fought battles, and conciliatory negotiations, we as preservationists also need to learn to retreat effectively.

The dictionary defines the word “retreat” as both an act of going back or withdrawing and as a time of seclusion for quiet thought and study. An opportunity to retreat in both senses of the word was offered to thirty-six individuals participating in the National Trust’s Preservation Leadership Training Program in San Antonio, Texas, in September. This week-long program afforded participants the opportunity to withdraw from everyday activities and spend a significant amount of time evaluating, reviewing, learning, and planning. I was fortunate to be chosen as one of those participants in what turned out to be the best educational experience of my life. I left San Antonio with a new perspective on my dual roles of paid professional in the preservation field and community activist striving to provide leadership abilities to a variety of good causes.

One key factor in the success of the program was the makeup and dynamics of our group. More than half of the thirty-six participants were from Texas and most of the others represented the western states of Colorado, Montana, and Nevada. I was one of only three people from east of the Mississippi River; it was a refreshing change to find Easterners in the minority at a preservation program.

We were a wonderfully diverse group that included a cattleman from Fort Worth, Texas, who is the chairman of the city’s landmarks commission; the new director of the San Antonio Conservation Society who had been on the job a week; an attorney from Boulder, Colorado, who heads the local preservation board; a feisty volunteer from Ardmore, Oklahoma, who created—and then staffed—a local history museum. Other job titles and backgrounds of participants included paid executive directors of community preservation organizations, directors of historic house museums, board members of statewide preservation organizations, Main Street program managers, city preservation planners, and community activists. We were all joined together by common problems and shared philosophies. We also shared a common feeling that we are often isolated from fellow believers in preservation and good planning. One of the most rewarding aspects of the week was the opportunity to share stories with fellow believers.

Another factor that contributed to the success of the program Was its location in the city of San Antonio. The city’s exceptional cultural and historical resources became our learning tools and we used the city as a preservation laboratory. Our home base for the program was the conference center at the Stevens Homestead, a historic house museum located in the King William Historic District. Our local host organization was the San Antonio Conservation Society; the organization’s members coordinated many of the local details.

The leadership sessions planned by the National Trust were intensive. Sessions and meetings often ran from 8 A.M. to 9 P.M. We touched on a variety of important subjects—developing strong mission statements and long-range goals, recruiting membership, seeking corporate support, attracting new investment to historic areas, writing effective historic ordinances, setting up Main Street programs, creating heritage education programs, building a strong board of directors.

The Trust brought in a variety of exceptional speakers, some of them local preservationists and business people and some of them nationally recognized experts from as far away as Boston and Denver. Among the lessons shared about leadership development were that:

  • we must pay attention to the future because that’s where we will spend the rest of our lives;
  • maintaining a positive vision of the future is the greatest motivator;
  • a board’s nominating committee should be working year-round and constantly developing a pool of candidates for board positions;
  • members of the media should be recognized as sincere people doing significant work;
  • in the face of negative publicity, try to tell your side first and always return phone calls from the press;
  • corporations are not in the business of giving away money, but they will invest in programs and people they believe in;
  • all boards should undertake yearly assessments and evaluate their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats;
  • board members must provide the three Ws: wealth, wisdom, and work;
  • when planning a special event, put on a good show first, then worry about the money;
  • people who volunteer are more positive about their communities; long-term residents and those who have done well in the community also have more positive attitudes;
  • leaders shape a vision but this vision must be shared with supports; a vision must be comprehensive and detailed and everyone involved must know how they will participate;
  • communication and education are the key factors in the success of any project in any community;
  • we possess the ability to make a difference.

In opening remarks the National Trust staff described the program as a revival of the Trust’s past involvement in providing preservation leadership training. Having completed the program, I believe that sponsoring such programs is one of the best ways for the National Trust to provide substantive and continuing education for grass-roots preservationists. I would encourage the Trust to continue this program and to conduct similar workshops in each region of the country. In doing so, not only will the Trust assist and educate individual preservationists, it will also be building regional coalitions made up of past participants who have bonded closely together.

All of us who participated in the San Antonio program benefitted. Not only did we become better employees and volunteers for our preservation causes, we also became better leaders in a more general sense. Since preservationists are usually vitally interested in their communities and quality of life issues, they become involved in activities and organizations on a broader scale. This can mean serving our communities through our schools and churches, our art galleries and historic house museums, our neighborhood associations and local zoning boards. All of us who participated in the San Antonio program have become better trained and more effective community activists.

The end result is that by retreating to the National Trust Preservation Leadership Program we have emerged as better members of our communities.


The Preservation Leadership Training program is an intensive one-week workshop tailored to the needs of local historic preservation organizations. Its emphasis is on providing a participatory experience in leadership and organizational development and the most current and effective information and training in preservation practices, issues, and action strategies. Attendance is limited to thirty volunteers and paid staff of private nonprofit preservation organizations who are in a position to influence preservation activities in their communities.

Preservation Leadership Training programs are planned in each of the National Trust’s six regions over the next three years. The Southern Regional Office, in partnership with the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, will host a workshop July 13-20, 1991, in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Midwest Regional Office, in partnership with the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, plans its leadership training program for the week of September 21-28, 1991, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Preservation Leadership Training programs are scheduled for the Mid-Atlantic and Western regions in 1992 and for the Northeast and Mountains/Plains regions the following year.

For more information, call your regional office or Katherine Adams at (202) 673-4162.

Publication Date: March/April 1991



Author(s):Richard Holland

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