If you’ve read this blog before, you know I am a frequent NPR listener. Because I listen in the car, I often hear pieces I might skip if I were reading. Recently, I heard a long piece on teaching improv, which I associate mainly with comedy and Saturday Night Live. (I was right, but not really.) The interview intersected with something else I heard that week, this time an in-person chat with poet and writer Clint Smith. I was lucky enough to be in the tent when Smith received the StowePrize in Hartford. He spoke with Linda Norris as part of the prize giving.
Improv, as you know doubt know, is live theatre where plot and dialogue are made up in the moment. Why does improv matter? How did my brain connect it to Clint Smith? And how do both link back to museums and their current state of peril?
First improv: For what appears as such a hilarious loosey-goosey enterprise, improv possesses a clearly defined architecture. One of its tenants is “Don’t deny” often expressed as “Yes, and….” affirming the speaker’s statement and connecting it to something else. This sends dialog forward as opposed to shutting it down with a negative.
Now, Smith: One of the questions Norris asked Smith was, while writing his prize-winning How the Word is Passed, what it was like to talk with 21st-century Confederate descendants? One of the places Smith visited was Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. Although its earliest grave dates to 1702, Smith went because 30,000 Confederate soldiers are buried there, and it has long been a place of pilgrimage for people with family history bound up in the Confederacy. His visit with the Sons of Confederate Veterans took place on a Memorial Day weekend when he was likely the only person of color on the 189-acre site. Norris asked what it was like to speak with people whose belief systems were so different from his own? Smith answered that the man he spoke with “was a microcosm of the cognitive dissonance of the American project.” In describing his Blandford conversation, Smith remarked how inconsistent our reckoning with history is, how dependent it is on the randomness of birth, where we grow up, our teachers, and the personal narratives handed down, treasured and burnished by our families. He was respectful of his interviewee, while fundamentally disagreeing with his ideology.
Both in conversation with Norris and in his book, Smith is clear his role was listener. Although he didn’t use these words, what he offered was improv’s “Yes, and…,” adding “there is something to be said for meeting people where they are, and extending grace and generosity……” He said that the best museum guides and teachers he heard while researching How the Word is Passed offered “a balancing act,…… while also not holding back on the truth,” extending an “and” that often included a sentence like “This might be difficult to hear, but I’m going to be on this journey with you.”
Maybe I am late to the party. Maybe you all got there before me, and have absorbed “Yes, and…” into your daily practice. If not, how could it possibly hurt? Not only with the challenging issues of re-centering the country’s history of enslavement, but how sites interpret and present issues of gender, religion, and politics, as well as our inter-staff relations where communication in our divisive age is often challenging. If you want examples of what improv exercises look like, here’s a handy Youtube video. Start at about 6:59 and watch through to around minute 10.
So how might this play out in daily life?
- When you say Yes, and…you’re living squarely in the present.
- When you say Yes, and…you’re promising to listen.
- When you say Yes, and…you’re being present, listening and therefore connecting.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re letting go of the judgement genie for yourself and for others.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re offering trust before it’s earned.
- When you say Yes, and….you’re letting others shine before yourself. (Adapted from David Charles @ Rollins College.)
Clint Smith quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during his Stowe House chat. That is the poem that famously ends “Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield,” but Smith’s quote came from the first stanza, “I am a part of all that I have met.” How easy it is to forget those 10 words as we move through life, at home and at work, with family, with friends, colleagues and strangers, trying hard to say yes, and… to listen, and then speak our own authentic truth for ourselves or for our museums and heritage sites.
Be well, stay safe, do good work.
This week the Berkshire Museum posted a job announcement for a new Executive Director. The museum, a small-city, art, history & science museum, founded in 1903, and located in Pittsfield, MA, has been without a full-time director since last September when Jeff Rogers abruptly stepped down after two and half years in the top spot. For anyone with memory loss, in 2018 the Berkshire Museum became the poster child for monetizing collections when it summarily sold $57 million worth of art, earning censures from the museum world’s governing bodies, and condemnation, gossip, and ire from the museum world at large.
From the outset, the Museum said it wanted a new direction, adamant that it couldn’t be who it wanted to be unless it sold a piece of itself. The decision left a gaping hole in its collections, and four years later, an organization that still seems to lack intent and self awareness. It hired M Oppenheim, a San Francisco-based search firm, to find a new ED. This week they released a five-page position description. Oppenheim is not without museum experience–the Philbrook, Peabody Essex and the American Visionary Museum are among its current and past clients–but the kindest thing you might say about the Berkshire’s position description is that it’s odd.
I used to work for a leader who liked to tell me, “Joan, people don’t change.” I found those four words truly disheartening because I really wanted people to change. I wanted them to be better, to do their best, to be humane. The unspoken words behind that sentence were “unless they want to.” In this case, I have to assume, based on this strange job description that–despite a five-year interval–the Berkshire Museum’s culture remains unchanged, a place in search of itself in a city it doesn’t much care for.
The job description begins with this sentence: “The Berkshire Museum offers in-person and online visitors a gateway to the natural and cultural history of the Berkshires and the world,” a weirdly grandiose sentence (the world?) built around a curiously passive verb. One of the themes that comes through in the five-page job description is board leadership. We learn the Board has installed strong financial controls, and that it’s hired a design firm whose work will be well underway before the new director arrives. The job description requires (their word) an experienced fundraiser, and explains the ED will manage curators, who curiously are listed separately from staff and volunteers, as well as collections, operations, exhibits, programs, systems and processes to ensure financial strength….” Community partnerships are barely mentioned. In fact, community seems to take a back seat except for a sentence about Pittsfield’s population. And the re-centering of whiteness, decolonizing, and doing the work of dismantling patriarchy that has permeated much of the museum world’s narrative over the last three years is absent. Nor does the job description point to towards success. Instead it seems to suggest the new director’s time will be spent shoring up unfinished projects. And despite the fact that the museum appears to have multiple curators, the new director will be responsible for a monster amount of collections management.
Absent from this executive vision is a museum value statement, the idea of community partnership and participation, of creating a place where Pittsfield’s people are resources. The idea of the citizens of Pittsfield and Berkshire County as independent beings with agency who deserve respect doesn’t come across. Perhaps most frighteningly, the Museum is portrayed as a place unmoored from the museum world’s ongoing themes of partnership, participation and not being neutral. After reading all five pages, imagining the Berkshire Museum as a place for voter registration, for discussion on Berkshire County’s wealth disparity or as a lynch pin in community collaborations around the subject of race feels close to impossible. It reads as though the Museum’s biggest accomplishment was raising a ton of money by monetizing the collections’ treasures, and the Board, like folks hallmarked by the Depression, remains fearful the money, and thus their hedge against a board’s relentless work, will vaporize.
The museum workplace is having a moment, and it’s not a good one. Numerous directors have either been pushed aside or have left as part of the Great Resignation. I recognize as well that for some this entire post could be considered a cheap shot, but Oppenheim makes it clear on its web site that they want the job description shared, which is how I ended up seeing it through social media.
The Berkshire Museum is in the unusual position of having a strong endowment, and yet somehow it has ended up with a job description that, rather than emphasizing the Museum, Pittsfield, and Berkshire County as places of possibility and avenues for change, reinforces the same scarcity mindset that prevailed four years ago, and still seems to hang cloud-like over the building. To quote Amy Edmundson’s The Fearless Organization, (recommended by Museum Human) “The problem solving that lies ahead is a team sport, and so you want to start by identifying and naming what the creative opportunity might be…” Creative opportunities in this job description are absent. Instead, it’s mind the money, mind the store, expand and diversify revenue streams, and maintain best practices.
Words matter. A lot. Few organizations are where they want to be, but many can point to what they’re proud of, what they’ve accomplished, what matters, and why. For many in the museum world, people matter: people who visit and people who are part of the workplace. Is this job description an anomaly? How many other museums and heritage organizations, especially those who can’t hire a search firm, don’t have enough self-understanding to identify their faults alongside their creative opportunities? I worry the answer is too many. Yet doing that work is the first step toward change, and that’s how we grow.
Be well, be kind, and do good work, and I’ll see you in March.
There’s a blizzard here in the northeast this weekend, and it’s hard to think about anything except comfort food, a heat source, and a good book. But despite the relentless wind, blowing snow, and the fear we may lose power, it’s time to say something, and ironically it’s something about moving forward despite the circumstances.
Self-care and wellness permeate the online world of information exchange, preaching to the choir as it reminds us what a huge emotional and mental health toll three years of COVID has taken. I’m about to add to that. If you’re a regular reader you know that since the New Year, I’ve been a bit obsessed with change. In considering change, I’ve also thought about what holds us back, individually, organizationally, creatively, physically and emotionally. What keeps us in place when we find ourselves paralyzed, procrastinating, and frozen, unwilling to disrupt the current moment, which, while maybe not perfect, is at least familiar? Sailors call this “being in irons,” when a boat turns into the wind and stalls. The sails luff and you’re stuck. It’s not good. The only way to move is to turn so the wind hits you sideways, into the sails.
So what can we do to feel the wind in our sails again? And more importantly, why are we holding back? Well, the short answer is probably COVID. Along with being a pandemic, COVID was also a change agent, highlighting faults, issues and problems in the museum world and in society at large. Maybe you remember your college literature classes where the novels were filled with change agents. Frequently, a character left or arrived, their addition or absence acting as a destabilizer. Characters went to war, were enslaved, ran away, or found themselves somewhere new. The point being that movement often prompts behavioral change.
But back to real life. For some, COVID provided an opportunity to move. Having discovered we could work remotely, if we were lucky, we moved sometimes in the company of family or friends. Some found new jobs. The act of physically separating took us away from old habits, offering, whether we realized it or not, a new beginning. If you experienced this, you may find yourself a year later, already looking back on the original lockdown as a hinge point. By providing time you never meant to take, by putting you in a new environment–even if that meant 40 hours a week at home instead of in the office–it offered a chance to think, and perhaps to think differently. But now, for what seems like the third or fourth time, we’re beginning again. How can we use what we learned and not hold back?
- Take some precious time and think deeply about the last two years: What did you learn? What do you want to hold onto? What habits hold you back? Is your volunteer work suddenly more meaningful than your career? Ditto your COVID hobby? Can you nurture it rather than see it subsumed by work?
- Did you learn to work more mindfully? Maybe you had to create space between your playroom, the kitchen table and the sink to work, and because uninterrupted time was at a premium, you had to plan. You may want to read this, yet another reason to let go of your devices for 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of your work day.
- Shed Load: Borrow from the power companies, and learn to shed load. For many, the pandemic underscored what is really important as opposed to what seems important, both at home and at work. Try letting go of what’s not.
- Can you take the creative time you had at home to work? How would your colleagues react if they were encouraged to take time every day to think without devices in the room? Is that possible?
- Did you discover new subject areas during COVID? Did you read astronomy and Rumi when you used to only read history or material culture? What can you do with that? Recently I read a piece in The Atlantic called Your Bubble is Not the Culture by Yair Rosenberg. My favorite line is “But when critics lose sight of why most people consume culture, they start missing what makes most things popular. In their search for significance, they forget about the fun.” The same could be said about curators, yes? Can we just be regular folks and put collaboration ahead of significance, working collaboratively with our communities to build bridges between collections and community? We might discover our bubble isn’t our community’s bubble, and low and behold we might find the wind in our sails.
Be well, be kind, do good, and do good work.
In case you missed it, last week the Art Institute of Chicago “fired” its docents, effectively ending its 60-year old volunteer program. Its intent was to swap its public-facing volunteer staff, replacing them with paid and volunteer BIPOC museum educators. Not surprisingly, the folks with time to volunteer tend to be white women of a certain class. Thus, the 82 remaining volunteers received a letter saying a new model was in the offing where paid educators and volunteers would work together “in a way that allows community members of all income levels to participate, responds to issues of class and income equity, and does not require financial flexibility to participate.” The result was a kerfuffle at numerous levels. Museum thought leaders spoke out. There were Facebook posts, and a days-long discussion on AAM’s Museum Junction. And that was before conservative media–including The Federalist–got wind of what was going on, turning an internal communication from the Institute to its volunteers, into a firestorm of reverse racism. The NY Times quoted Institute Director James Rondeau saying, “Clearly we were not prepared for this to become a discussion of identity politics,” he said. “We are only focused on our mission.”
The Art Institute isn’t the first museum, nor will it be the last, to diversify its volunteers and front-line staff to better reflect its community, and that’s a good thing. Privileged White people talking about art, inventions or living spaces created, made and owned by other privileged White people may be less than meaningful if you’re not White and privileged yourself, and even that’s not insurance against boredom. Instead, it’s not the decision itself that troubles me, but rather the way the Art Institute handled its staff.
What do I mean? Maybe it’s instructive to think about Spring 2020. Remember when the world shut down? We were barely going out or rather we were going out, but only to be outside, breathing air without COVID droplets away from other humans. The rest of the time we worked from home or we didn’t work at all because many, many front-facing museum folk were let go. Boards, museum presidents and directors will tell you staff were dismissed because with no visitation, they couldn’t be kept on the payroll. Remember how many of us deplored the way staff were treated? As if they didn’t matter, as if they hadn’t given a great deal to whichever museum or heritage organization was summarily letting them go. As if at the very moment the world was in crisis, it seemed like a great idea to fire folks via email.
Now forget which side of the Chicago Art Institute debate you’re on–forget for just a moment how important it is to have community based education staffs teaching in their own communities–and ask yourself whether a museum should fire anyone by letter or email much less 82 longtime volunteers? Is that a museum you want to work for? What does transparency mean if it doesn’t mean having the courage to talk to staff face-to-face? When your fellow front line staffers and educators were let go ostensibly because of COVID, the pandemic was an excuse for not talking to staff in person. Can the Art Institute not do a socially distanced meeting? We all say we want organizations that are humane and transparent? Shouldn’t that extend to volunteers?
What would have happened if the Art Institute had brought its volunteers together for a meeting and discussed the changes they want to make? What if they’d offered them the opportunity to partner with BIPOC staff and new volunteers? Would that have been challenging? Yes. Would some volunteers still felt unwanted? Probably. But if those alliances worked, imagine how dynamic they might be. Imagine a White volunteer of a certain age and a Black community teacher speaking to middle schoolers about a painting. Imagine them each engaging students, and treating each other with kindness and respect. In its best iteration, it might be like the verbal version of Kehinde Wiley’s Portrait of a Young Gentleman vs. The Blue Boy After all, isn’t really seeing and talking with someone you don’t know the first step toward empathy and caring? Isn’t that what 21st-century museums need? Isn’t that how systemic change begins or is that just too naive and Pollyanna-ish?
Change is really, really hard, but it needs to be equitable. And, at an organizational level, museums need to stand behind the change they make by being willing to talk things through with staff, whether volunteer or paid. We all want museums to evolve, but successful DEI work isn’t just replacing white volunteers with BIPOC staff. An organization needs to understand its own DNA, acknowledge its faults, and move forward through collaboration. In this case, part of its self-reflection might be helping its longstanding volunteers understand how they–perhaps unwittingly–helped put it in a place that needs changing.
I want to be very clear here: I’m not objecting to the Chicago Art Institute seeking a new model. Docent tours hark back to an age of sage-on-a-stage, of museums that are all-wise, all knowing, and too frequently imperious. This particular docent program is sixty years old and undoubtedly needs disrupting. What I’m objecting to is the way it was done because it echoed the way big museums treat their front line workers. Museums need change. They need staff who reflect their communities in imaginative, smart ways. But they also need staff who feel safe, seen and supported. An organization that can “fire” 82 volunteers by letter can also fire 82 staffers. Systemic change might mean museums working toward changing organizational culture, creating models where staff –volunteer or paid–work together with empathy and respect.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
If you read this blog often you know it’s not autobiographical. In fact, most weeks I try to keep my private life off stage, but today I’m changing things up. To begin, I’m involved in a working group on my campus called “Doing the Work.” It’s an off-shoot of six-month study to help members of our community understand and combat racism wherever we see it. Last year, it was structured on readings, video, and discussion. This year, it’s focused around personal projects on campus in the hopes that we can each influence the spheres in which we work, whether it’s Special Collections (me), the Library, the classroom, residential life, you name it. All that is to say, that I am currently hyper-conscious of my behavior, my words and my choices, trying to re-center a privileged, white outlook toward something more empathetic and wholistic. Most importantly, I’m conscious of what’s missing, since so often here in the genteel northeast, what’s left out is as telling as what’s included.
So that’s the back story, but not the main event/ There are a lot of creepy, wrong things about Facebook, but it’s not entirely without merit since it allows us to hear from colleagues we might only see annually at a meeting. In my world one of those people is Omar Eaton-Martinez, the Assistant Division Chief for Historic Resources in Prince George’s County, Maryland. If Omar and I have met once, it’s a lot, but I grew up in Maryland, and started my career about a billion years ago working for the Maryland SHPO’s office so reading his Facebook posts pulls at my heartstrings. I know the region. I know some of the places although most not well, until last week. Last week Omar posted a video from the Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recent hearing in Allegany County, Maryland. Why is that important? Well, I moved from Washington, DC to Cumberland, Maryland, the county seat for Allegany County, in sixth grade. It’s where I went to middle school, and where I returned after graduate school, and where I had my first full-time job as director of the Allegany County Historical Society.
The Maryland Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearing, sadly the first of many, tells the searingly sad story of the October 6, 1907 lynching of Robert Hughes, an 18-year old Black man, arrested for an altercation in a local bar resulting in the death of a White police officer. Awaiting trial in the County jail in Cumberland, Hughes was abducted from the jail, beaten and shot while local officials stood by and allowed it to happen. Needless to say many of the town’s residents came out to watch as if seeing a man killed in front of the courthouse is akin to seeing the circus come to town. Like many of this country’s lynchings, the murderers were never charged, Hughes’ family never received an apology, nor did the town provide funds for Burns’ sister to take his body to Pittsburgh for burial.
Apart from the obvious pain of the story, the sadness in the voices of Burns’ descendants speaking about their family history, here’s what struck me: As the historical society director, why wasn’t I thinking about race in Cumberland, Maryland? And to add insult to injury, all of this took place less than two blocks from where I lived and the Historical Society headquarters. No, it wasn’t the digital age, when I could have Googled a ton of information from my home laptop, but it was there. Where was my head? And here’s what’s even weirder. I didn’t have an easy time in that position. I was fresh out of graduate school, and almost messianic in my zeal to make change. But questions of race, weren’t the questions I was asking. Why? Perhaps I thought I knew the narrative although clearly I didn’t. In the end, I think everyone engaged in re-centering ourselves needs to ask these questions. Not everyone will be brought up short as I was, but everyone needs to look to their pasts and acknowledge what was left undone, unsaid, and unexplored. You can think of yourself as the kindest most empathetic human in the world, but if your world view is stuck on the White channel, you’ll never ask the necessary questions. Maybe you don’t even know what questions you should ask, but start by “doing the work.” Acknowledge the work left undone, the questions left unanswered. If you work for a heritage organization look for the stories left out of the narrative. Who’s not present? Who in today’s BIPOC community can help reconstruct stories that are missing or covered over because while it’s your obligation to make sure the story is told, it’s not always yours to tell.
So, it’s decades late, but kudos to Maryland for creating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and for the hard work of historians and genealogists in Allegany County in uncovering this story. And a big thank you to Omar Eaton-Martinez for posting the video.
Be well, be kind, and do good work.
So it’s been a few weeks, in fact, almost a month since I last wrote. I like to think that if this blog has any redeeming qualities, one is consistency. So apologies for the radio silence. These pages were never meant to be self-revelatory. They were created to support the publication of both editions of Leadership Matters (2013 and 2019), and as such, be a springboard for the discussion of all things leader-like in museum land. But sometimes life just comes at you, slamming you in the face with your own worst thing. And that’s what happened to me. The specifics don’t matter so much except to say of the several cataclysmic things that can happen in a lifetime, this was one.
My experience made me think of what Lisa Lee, Director of the National Public Housing Museum, said in her Leadership Matters interview. When I asked her about work/life balance, her response was pure Lisa Lee. She underscored that siloing our energy and thoughts isn’t productive, that our lives aren’t binary, meaning work versus home. She added “At the museum we pretend we’re not grappling with other issues, but we’re human beings all day.” That seemed like an important statement to me when I heard it the first time, and equally important today as I prepare to return to work. I can’t shut off my grief the moment I walk into my office or my first meeting. I have to look it in the face, carry it with me, and move forward.
One of my “sheroes” is Brené Brown. Her short film on the difference between sympathy and empathy is pretty stellar. If you haven’t seen it, watch it, because all good leaders should understand that what you say isn’t as important as simply being present and reminding the person who’s hurt that you recognize pain, maybe you’ve experienced it yourself, and you’re by their side. And it isn’t about you. Nothing is worse than a hurting colleague comforting the comforter. Nor is there some unwritten scale of dire events that ranks human reaction. It’s not a worst experience contest. As a leader, your job is to respect what happened to your colleague and empathize, not weigh a pet death versus chemotherapy or a car accident. Life is hard, and we all meet challenges differently.
Brené Brown always says presence trumps perfection. There is nothing about being a museum leader that makes you a people fixer, so don’t try. Today a colleague asked if she could stop by, and when I said yes, she simply wanted to tell me she was there for me–big or small–lunch companion, after-work walk, chair to sit and rant in. It was incredibly kind, and my only job was to realize she’s on my side. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that this colleague is someone I can trust because she’s willing to sit with me at my lowest. I know I can go to her office and weep if I need to, and she will share the space, metaphorically and actually.
The American workplace, which is the only workplace I know even a little about, is not a place where emotions are on parade. We’re not supposed to yell (well, men can, but that’s another post), nor are we supposed to cry (especially if we’re women), because crying means you’re emotional which is sometimes code for hormonal or menopausal which is definitely bad or wait, maybe just human? Sometimes checking our emotions at the door, and locking up our grief just isn’t possible because, as Lisa Lee reminds us, we’re human.
So 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have written this post. Maybe I would have suggested that we need to button up those emotions, park them at the door, and just get on with it. But in a world of climate change, systemic racism, pandemic fears, and gender discrimination, not to mention all the bad stuff that besets us individually, I don’t think that’s the workplace any of us want to work in any more. We need to know we can be our real selves–or at least as real as we choose to reveal–because it’s only in environments where trust flourishes that we, whether leaders or staff, feel safe, seen and supported.
Be well and be kind.
Mentors and mentorship seem to be having a moment. From annual meetings where mentors and mentees meet up, to organizations dedicated to mentoring, talk of mentors is in the wind. But here’s a little secret: There are likely as many different ideas about mentorships as there are people, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
About a lifetime ago mentors were the province of business. They were invariably white men and they were there to help give their compatriots a leg up. Sometimes they knew a ton about business craft, sometimes they possessed a wealth of connections. Either way, they helped when paths diverged and choices had to be made. And because like follows like, more white men were mentored than anybody else.
I could be wrong, but 25 years ago, mentoring in the museum/heritage sector was in its infancy if it existed at all. It’s possible the museum field was late to the mentor party because just as it ignored leadership, it also ignored its trappings, preferring to let curators spring fully formed into the director’s office, as if careers dedicated to research and exhibitions prepared anyone for dealing with human nature writ large. It’s also possible the museum world’s mentorship reluctance was slow to evolve because it seemed “businesslike.” Museums didn’t want to be seen as businesses. They were different. And while the for-profit world isn’t perfect, far from it–there is an expectation in the B-Schools that everyone will lead, making the leadership skillset a component of every degree. So while business trained leaders, the museum and nonprofit world laid the groundwork for some epic 21st-century HR and leadership failures. But I digress.
Leadership and mentorship are halves of a coin. As a leader learning never stops, and mentorship allows you to pay it forward while continuing to learn. I am lucky enough to work at an institution that assigns new faculty and staff mentors. That means my new program leader will partner with another human who will guide her during her first year on campus. One of the myths about mentorship is that older, wiser folk counsel younger ones, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s about organizational or job experience. In those cases age doesn’t matter. Your mentor could be 32 and know your heritage organization inside out, and you could be pushing 50, vastly experienced, yet still need to learn your new organization’s DNA.
And that’s another mentorship myth: One person–the mentor–doesn’t do all the work while the other–the mentee waits for the magic to happen. Mentorships are two-way streets. If you’re the mentee, it helps if you spend time thinking deeply about your career plan, if you know where you want to go, but most importantly why. Your mentor can help hone your plan, point out places it may be unreasonable or suggest side roads that help you achieve your goals in a different way. Think Glinda the Good Witch. (“You always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”)
And speaking of Glinda, here’s another mentor thought: Women need mentors now more than ever. In a workplace like the museum world, that’s 50.1-percent female, with a population whose jobs were hard hit by COVID, women need the alliances mentorships provide, particularly since a percentage of women may continue to work remotely. While remote work has its advantages–there is no trailing partner if one of you can work remotely, and it often makes child and elder care issues easier–it lacks the social networks of an office environment. It’s harder to make professional contacts over Zoom than it is around the coffee machine. And bottom line? Studies tell us that people in the mentor equation, whether mentor or mentee, feel empowered, have more confidence, and not surprisingly, get promoted more often than the un-mentored.
So…if you want a mentor:
- Remember, it’s not about age, but it is about compatibility.
- Mentoring doesn’t have to be about your entire career plan. You can be mentored around a specific skill.
- Be clear about your goals and your career plan. Sometimes mentorships begin around transition–you hope to move up or out–and want guidance as you take the next step.
- Asking someone you know to mentor you is clearly different from asking someone you don’t know: Either way be respectful of their time. Begin with a brief meeting and the opportunity to talk. See how things play out. If after meeting more than once, this is a person you still trust and admire, and the feeling seems to be mutual, ask about a mentor/mentee relationship.
- Self reflection is key. Do the work ahead of your mentor meetings so you know the questions you want to focus on.
If you’re asked to be a mentor:
- Say thank you. Acknowledge the courage it takes to approach someone a chapter or two ahead of you in the museum world, not to mention it’s an honor to be singled out for your wisdom and decision making.
- Mentees take time. Be clear in your own mind about the time you have to give. You may want to advise on one question–learning to speak up in meetings, for example– and see how the mentor relationship goes before committing to a full mentorship.
- Think about the skills you’re willing to help with. Do your potential mentor’s needs and your skills match?
- A mentorship isn’t a lifetime commitment. Know when to kick your mentee out of the nest.
For both mentors and mentees: Think outside the box. We’re all more comfortable with people we think we know, and sometimes that’s just what we need, but we learn more (and more quickly) from those whose life experiences are different from ours. And don’t forget to be an active listener. Mentorship isn’t about fixing someone’s career so much as holding up a mirror to help your mentee reflect on the right questions. (“Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you’re on earth, the more experience you are sure to get.” The Wizard of Oz.)
Stay well, stay cool, and depending on where you are, stay dry.
nevil zaveri – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nevilzaveri/2211600979/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29855988
We’ve all had enough Zoom, but weeks ago I agreed to be part of a panel discussion. I was one of four museum women asked to speak about gender in museums for a group of museum interns. I had a difficult week so when our Friday morning planning session rolled around I logged on without much thought about what might happen except a group of women slicing the intersectional pie regarding gender and race in the museum workplace. I anticipated a kind of cut and dried divvying up–five minutes on the gender pay gap, 10 minutes on sexual harassment, overlaid with time spent on museums as a pink collar profession, and on and on, while also trying not to make a field these interns might someday join sound too horrific. And besides, I thought I could encourage them to join the Gender Equity in Museums Movement, always a good thing.
I was wrong on all fronts. From the get go, our moderator was more interested in our own narratives and what we’d learned from them, then tidbits about navigating the museum workplace. After introductions and some background on the intern group, it suddenly occurred to me we’re wise, and if we suddenly turned the clock back, what would we say to our 22-year old selves? And that’s where we started. One of the panelists recalled how she’d chosen the path most expected. Each time the road forked she selected the way forward that seemed conventional and secure. Would she do that again? No. We talked about letting life, fate or some force beyond our control make choices for us. One of us recalled how when the worst thing happens–and maybe each of us has our own worst thing–it not only fills us with sadness, but it reframes all the small stuff. Even a world-wide pandemic isn’t quite as devastating when you’ve already visited your own pit of grief. We talked about how it felt to be bullied at work and the inexorable damage sexual harassment visits on a career. We referenced the fact that too many of us see a career’s beginning as a long, slow climb toward some pinnacle of success off in the distance, but how for many women there’s not a direct path, but a series of zigs, zags, sharp slopes, and the occasional deep dive. And one of us reminded the group that we’re all victims of other people’s imaginations, that trying endlessly to fit ourselves into someone else’s conception of us is exhausting, and headache-making.
So what made this such a breathtaking hour? I can’t speak for everyone, but not knowing one another might have helped. There was no posturing. There was humor and openness. There was a willingness to read the room in its weird Zoom squares. There was generosity, and thanks. There was, I think, grace.
One of the participants characterized museums as being the kid–probably the white, privileged kid– at the back of the room behaving like a jerk, but who never gets caught. And if he does, he deflects, letting us know it was simply a mistake, not in any way a series of deliberate choices that leave women of color navigating racism, all women navigating harassment and gender bias, and collections too often reflecting curators’ biases rather than communities they represent.
So here’s my take away: If we could come to work and leverage a little grace in our workplace what would that look like? I have filled these pages with how important it is for museum staff–indeed any staff–to be safe, seen, and supported. Grace nurtures empathy and compassion so colleagues feel valued and cared for. Those values breed happiness, which turns on creativity. And who doesn’t want all of that?
Grace is the place where wisdom, humor, empathy and compassion intersect. It is a practice, and museum workplaces could use more of it.
Sometimes, when we allow ourselves to pause and reflect, what we see are intersections. That’s what happened to me this week. It’s a year since George Floyd was murdered, 12 months for many of us spent on re-centering, on understanding that seeing ourselves as nice and not racist was never enough, and that in a world where white is “normal” and everything else is “other,” action is necessary for change. And change, however small or local, is still change. So on the eve of the George Floyd anniversary, I had the honor of listening to a group of high school students report from their 20/21 history class. Although, like everything else these days, the presentation took place on Zoom, in reality, it took place at Salisbury School, an independent boys boarding school in northwestern Connecticut, and in local archives, hiking trails and towns in Litchfield County, CT.
If you spend time around high school students, yours or someone else’s, you quickly realize teenage boys and history aren’t always a natural fit. This class was titled “Searching for Slavery in Salisbury,” and taught by Rhonan Mokriski. What I witnessed was the premiere of the student film “Coloring Our Past,” which focuses on local Black history and the Cesar family in particular, but also on the way the boys learned American history in elementary and middle school. After the screening, there was a discussion where the students and viewers like me were joined by members of the Cesar family including their matriarch and family historian, Katherine Overton.
Ms. Overton’s family has the distinction of being able to trace its roots back five generations in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut to Overton’s fifth great grandfather, Timothy, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and Titus, who is buried in Town Hill Cemetery, Lakeville, CT. If you’ve watched any of Henry Louis Gates’ series Finding Your Roots you know how rare it is for a Black family to have a history that doesn’t dead-end in enslavement. The Cesars are that family, landowners, farmers, and business people, who sent Rae Ellen Williams to Howard University in 1936, launching their descendants away from the tiny pocket of Connecticut where they’d lived for generations.
As important as that narrative is, much of it researched by Overton herself, that’s not what made the Thursday evening Zoom so distinctive. First, it was the privilege of listening to Overton’s family. On the Zoom screen were tiny grandchildren, teens who had helped with some of the filming, cousins, sons and daughters. There was a lot of laughter, and a few tears. Even though we were outsiders, we were present for their reaction to a film about their family, a gift to them, but also for us as witnesses. After a year marked by a murder seen around the world, here were 10 minutes of reparation shared when a high school history class attempted to undo the missteps of standard American social studies, not to mention your basic All-American racism and implicit bias.
This week on Krista Tibbet’s “On Being,”former poet laureate Tracy Smith talks about asking white readers to observe, listen, eavesdrop and reflect. One of the things she says is “As a Black person in America — as anyone who’s not white, in America — you know what it feels like to be the unintended audience of something and to have to bend your ears in a certain way to accept and deal properly with a statement that isn’t intended for you but that implicates you in some way. This is a skill. And this is a skill that it’s time for those in the community of whiteness to embrace, because, like I said, I think the salvation of our culture — and I don’t really think that’s an exaggerated term — depends on that kind of expanded awareness of self, of place, of where we are and what we’re doing here together.” I can’t speak for everyone on the Zoom, but I became a listener to a history I had no active part in, and yet I couldn’t help but think how the threads of my own family narrative and others like mine imprinted families like the Cesars.
The second thing that was so powerful was that this was history in action. A lot of museum folk talk about making history real, but too often that means actor-like guides or labels filled with questions rather than facts. I doubt any of the boys in the class will become historians, but I bet 50 years from now they will still be able to recall their feelings when they hiked to George Cesar’s farm site with their classmates and a metal detector or when they placed a Witness Stone dedicated to writer and abolitionist, James Mars on the Green in nearby Norfolk, CT and were greeted by Connecticut’s first Black Congresswoman Jahana Hayes. They didn’t just learn history, they were historians. They were participants.
There is a line in Allen Bennett’s play The History Boys that goes, “How do I define history? It’s just one f***ing thing after another.” This class, their film, the witness stone, and the other place-based work they did, took them away from learning the long list of stories we call history by making them story tellers, changing them from passive to active. Did they get a five on their AP U.S. history? I don’t know, and honestly I don’t care because they have an experience of doing history which is very different from studying for the AP.
I don’t work in a history museum or historic site any more, and since the collection I manage is largely art-based, I rarely do history exhibits. But if there is a lesson here, it’s what experiential educators the world over know: That we remember what we do, more than what we’re told. There are many museums and heritage organizations that help visitors understand history not as something they read on the walls, but in personal ways, making them part of the narrative. Think of Eastern State Penitentiary’s opening question, Old Salem Museum & Garden’s Hidden Town Project or the way Matilda Joslyn Gage’s house chose not to be another suffocating collection of 19th-century furniture, and instead asks visitors to talk about complicated questions surrounding religion, Indigenous people and women’s rights.
Burbling beneath the surface of American public education is an ongoing argument some have termed “the social studies wars,” pitting those who see teaching history as an opportunity to delve into the country’s complicated past, opposite those who think the “The 1619 Project” is dangerous and divisive. No matter who’s right, there is a generation who are abysmally ignorant about democracy in general and American democracy in particular. So many of our museums and heritage organizations, whether the proverbial wealthy white man’s home, the site of a social experiment or a memorial to carnage and disaster, offer us a window into how people thought and what they thought about. Those are bridges to conversation about how we reached this moment, to a group of high school boys, who learned a version of local history that left everyone out who wasn’t white.
At the end of the Searching for Slavery Zoom someone asked Rhonan Mokriski what he thought. He wiped his eyes, struggling to keep his emotions under control. After thanking everyone, from Katherine Overton and her family to his students and his school, he said he thought he saw change. That maybe, just maybe, this generation would be the doers and the change makers. It was a spark of hope at the end of a long year.
Sometimes it’s better to make change where we can then to rail at the world. As museum and heritage organization people, what can we do to follow these students’ example?
This year my team participated in a series of “Community Conversations,” designed to help us talk to each other. Why? Well, like everything there is a back story. Since the spring of 2018 when our last permanent director resigned, we’ve been like foster children, passed from one leadership situation to another. It didn’t do a lot for our ability to get along. Let me be clear, though. What suffered wasn’t the work. We were good at what we’re trained to do. What suffered was the connective tissue, the getting along with folks, the trust, and the good humor, that allows a team to do more than complete a task. We were good at hiding petty issues from the community we serve, but backstage it could be rough.
My interim leadership ends this summer when our new director arrives. Like someone preparing for a 5K after a long period of inactivity, we’ve spent the last 10 months dedicating ourselves to getting ready for new leadership. We created a series of community values: patience, empathy, mutual respect, transparency, mutual support, and inclusion. We’re now using those values as themes in team meeting agendas, and they will also be front and center in this month’s performance reviews. And, as I mentioned, we’ve worked on communication and trust through the community conversations, bi-weekly chats in randomly assigned pairs to talk about our goals, both personal and professional. These are 30 minutes of work-sanctioned time to hit pause, put the dip stick down, and talk about how the last two weeks went. Did you succeed? If not, why not? Does your goal need tweaking? One person actively listens, while the other talks. What’s active listening? It’s being there. It’s mirroring what’s heard, It’s not trying to fix anything. It’s simply being there for someone else. Sounds almost too good to be true, right?
So what do team values and conversation in pairs have to do with gratitude? Gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what we have. There are plenty of blogs and articles reminding us to be grateful for our good health, our families, our paychecks, and that’s great, but even if you spend your entire commute to work reminding yourself how lucky you are, it won’t help if your work relationships are suffering. In fact, it’s hard to be grateful if you’re miserable at work. You’re isolated, and your partner’s sick of listening to you bitch when you come home. Perhaps you’re underpaid, perhaps under-resourced, and maybe under-appreciated. What do you have to be grateful for? Well, maybe nothing. Maybe your leader and your organization doesn’t realize how important gratitude is.
I worked briefly for an individual who always thanked me, not in a big showy way, but in a little, folded note, written in handwriting that looked like something from the Bronte sisters. They would arrive late, left on my desk or in my mailbox for the next morning. He never staged thank you’s in front of my co-workers, so they never were about him, the person doing the thanking. They were about me. He took the time and wrote to me. Personally. It was a boost, what former Avis CEO Robert Townsend called “A neglected form of compensation.” (Don’t let your hair go on fire here. I’m not suggesting personal thank you notes in lieu of decent pay.) But I am suggesting that a simple expression of thanks–authentically directed at a coworker– builds the kind of team we all want. Because as we say on our campus, we all want to be safe, seen and supported.
The museum world is in a tough spot at the moment. There is a big revenue gap. Who knows whether visitors will come back. Staffs have been cut. Many staff do more than one job. Most organizations won’t see a raise this year. But gratitude for the team you work with, their creativity, their energy, their devotion, doesn’t cost anything except your time. Don’t just think about writing a note, do it. A thanks doesn’t have to be big or expensive. It’s probably better if it’s not.
Gratitude generates social capital. It makes us seem more trusting, more appreciative, and kinder. As a result, it makes us happier. In a 2020 study–well into the pandemic–only one in three Americans reported being recognized for their workplace successes, and yet 63-percent of those who are recognized are more likely to stay and not quit their jobs.
Gratitude is a practice. It takes time to nurture. Translate your feeling of thanks into action and let your colleagues know. And if you need a boost, listen to Brené Brown on gratitude.