10 Tips for Addressing Toxic Staff

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We’ve spent a lot of time on this blog describing the effect of Devil Wears Prada leaders on their staffs. Today though we’re offering a little air time, not to toxic bosses, but toxic staff. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the average American spends 44.4 hours a week at work. That’s 44.4 hours of disruption if you’re dealing with toxic employees. In addition, the Harvard Business Review, which defines toxic employees as folks who engage in behavior that is harmful to the organization or its people, helpfully points out these employees are also expensive. In fact, HBR says their behavior costs the average for-profit business $12, 489, while a superstar worker costs the business $5,303. In museum land where there is rarely money to burn, clearly it’s better to employ superstars.

There are as many types of toxic workers as there are humans. Their behaviors run the gamut from sociopathic harassers to individuals with poor or no time management, to the perennially disorganized, the angry, the victim–don’t worry about me, I’ll just work an extra 20 hours this week– to the party person, and everyone in between.

Unless you started your museum career a week ago, you’ve likely run across your fair share of toxic co-workers. If they’re your colleagues, perhaps you’ve learned to keep your distance or developed work-arounds to circumvent their ongoing behavior issues. But what if you’re the boss, the executive director, the team leader? Then solving these issues is your responsibility. Why? Because ultimately if you have two members of the Education and Engagement team who can barely sit at a table together or one exhibition designer whose time management skills are so poor that it puts everyone else on edge, it’s disruptive. Hugely disruptive. And costly. And no one else wants to be at the table with them either.

So what do you do?

  1. First, know what you don’t know: Who is the problem and how? How is your team, staff or program suffering? And most importantly, how and when has it impacted work? Has the individual in question suffered a life event that may be causing problem behavior? Can you offer time off or find them counseling? Will that help? And understand, in some cases, it won’t.
  2. Have any legal lines been crossed? In other words, is the uncomfortable, disruptive behavior the result of harassment, workplace bullying or racist or gender-based stereotyping? If your museum has an HR department you may want to have a conversation about how to protect your employees, but also to make sure your actions don’t make a bad situation worse. Know your state and federal law regarding workplace harassment. You can’t force an employee to report harassment or bullying, but you can suggest it, and you and the victim should document what you’ve seen and/or experienced.
  3. Assuming no laws were broken, talk to the staff member(s) in question. And for the love of God, do not suggest they need to fix it themselves. Too often people are unaware how they present to others, and they may be genuinely surprised. So provide concrete workplace examples demonstrating where things went off track.
  4. Listen. Paraphrase, summarize, and reframe what you’ve heard.
  5. Be clear in your expectations. If you have an HR department, work with them to determine how to tie your expectations and needs to consequences. If you’re dealing with someone with terrible time management issues, and they’ve asked to work from home a day a week, weigh that ask against their work load. Can they meet deadlines? What will happen if they don’t? Do you have time to monitor them to make sure deadlines and check points are met?
  6. Don’t say you expect X,Y, and Z, and then neglect to check in. 
  7. Document everything you do. Should you have to fire someone, your life will be its own special hell if you can’t document what you say has happened.
  8. Remember you are not a counselor, psychologist or mediator, and most people don’t change. That said, most of us would rather be happy than sad, and most enjoy feeling valued. A job well done, whether a short term project, or a years-long exhibit planning effort deserves the best team you can muster.
  9. Understand, the reason you’re involved is because this person’s behavior affects the whole workplace. Support other team members. Let them know they’re valued. Try to help them collaborate without being caught up in whatever baddy-baddness is going on. Be the person who doesn’t indulge in gossip.
  10. Don’t forget about your own work. You’re still a leader with a million things requiring your attention. Don’t get so deep in the HR weeds you forget about leading.

Joan Baldwin

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How You Act Makes Workplace Equity Happen

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To begin, if you’re looking for an interesting listen, try Museopunks. This week hosts Suse Anderson and Ed Rodley examine ICOM’s existential crisis over the definition of the word ‘museum’ by gathering voices from around the world. Each of the 11 participants (myself included) muses on the nature and importance of the definition. For those of us at work in museum land it’s an interesting chorus. Take a listen.

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This was also the week Anne Ackerson and I talked about gender and leadership with our Johns Hopkins graduate students. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned gender here, but given that we’re a century from the passage of the 19th amendment, it’s appropriate to remember (again) how far we’ve come, and how much work there is left to do. In addition to talking with our students, I also listened to NPR’s On Point where Meghna Chakrabarti and David Folkenflik spoke with three individuals about the fact that 2019 marks the moment when women become the majority in the college-educated workforce.

As a woman and a member of a generation who were trail blazers in the workplace even when we didn’t realize it, I need only speak with our graduate students to understand the breadth and depth of the distance we’ve travelled. The women are acutely aware of workplace gender issues, having suffered the slings and arrows of mansplaining, verbal head-patting, not to mention more pointed harassment. Unlike my generation, many are also woke to the wage gap. For the men, things are different. They are different, and quick to point out that they are not their father’s or grandfather’s generation. Some reference the strong women in their lives, suggesting the way they were raised means they behave differently. And therein lies an issue. They believe their values and behavior will change the museum workplace. I hope they’re right.

Their words were echoed by the On Point interviewees, one of whom suggested part of our problems stem from the Boomer generation. Although I’d like to be more optimistic, it’s hard to believe that once the last Boomer folds her tent and heads for retirement, that the workplace will be cleansed of gender bias. While anything is possible, as far as I know, Target’s toy section is still filled with gendered toys: girls’ toys are pink and sparkly and boys’ toys are camouflage-colored and make noise. Even searching for a toy is a gendered experience. I don’t mean to single out Target, only to point out that unless millennials were raised by unique parents, they are just as likely to suffer gender imprinting as earlier generations, and are as subject as the rest of us to the relentless barrage of gender norms. And woe betide the non-binary child for whom a neat parsing of pink and princess vs. red and soldier does not not fit.

The point is only–and we’ve said this countless times here–workplace equity isn’t about you and your politically correct feelings. Your upbringing and your beliefs are in fact, immaterial. What matters is how you act: How the bucket of impressions and experiences you carry with you takes meaning as it makes its way into the world. No matter how kind, empathetic and understanding you are, if somewhere in your lizard brain, you implicitly believe that men are natural leaders, that informs your decision making as leader and follower. Museum workplace gender bias is still a thing, and change only happens when staff is self-aware, understands their workplace culture, and when museums and heritage organizations actively support staff in all their glorious diversity.

While we’re waiting for perfection:

  • Don’t ascribe bias to one generation while not looking to your own as well.
  • If you have power, acknowledge it.
  • Don’t ask for feedback if you aren’t ready for a response that may be at odds with yours.
  • Try not to avoid conflict at the expense of honest communication that could clear the air.
  • If you are in a leadership position, know yourself and how you present. Ditto for your museum or heritage organization.
  • Remember, you make change through action, and your observation is your obligation.
  • Be respectful of other’s experience. No matter how informed, intentional and empathetic you are, their narrative may be different, and it takes time to build trust.

Yours for an equitable workplace,

Joan Baldwin

Image: Portland Art Museum


Inherited Staff? 6 Ways to Get to A Shared Vision

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Google the words “vision and leadership” and you will get 493,000,000 hits. The two words go together like ice cream and cone. We tend to think of vision as something a leader must not leave home without, and lack of vision as a bad thing, but like most things in life it’s a little more nuanced than that.

There are plenty of museum leaders with vision who are dreadful at what they do. They need to be the center of the stage; their leadership philosophy is “my way or the highway,”and they have all the empathy of a box of Kleenex. That said, in the vision department, you know  what they want, and where they’re going. Their vision may be self-centered, but it’s clear. They may raise buckets of money in some weird form of self-aggrandizement, but money gets raised. They like programs and exhibits because it’s a chance for them to shine at the expense of long suffering staff. Having worked for more than one of these folks, in my experience, there’s a counter-intuitive kind of peace that comes when it’s never your job to have an original thought. But maybe that’s just me.

Despite the digression, it’s not leaders with vision I actually want to talk about. It’s leaders who have no vision. Poor communicators, who are attracted to every shiny object, and can wander in the weeds for hours, these folks employ familiar leadership language, but nothing happens. They blather about starting this new program or that new initiative or tell you they’re revising the strategic plan, but to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” This is bad enough when you’re living it, but the cost when they leave is lasting. Here’s why: Working for someone who doesn’t know where they’re going creates anarchy. It permits everyone to put up their own guard rails and create their own reality. The curators may see the museum as one thing, while education may believe it’s something subtly different, and external affairs may be selling a third version to funders. Oh, and then there’s the board, and who knows what they think.

In theory a new director’s arrival might close these individual paths, funneling everyone behind the new leader, but old habits are hard to break. You may find staff who don’t meet deadlines well or who never finish projects. Why? Well, working for a vision-less leader means there isn’t a lot of decision making going on. Things happen, but not because the director acted as though they mattered. You may find staff who don’t get along well. Why? While there are myriad reasons for staff dysfunction, but a vision-less leader forces staff to chart their own paths, and if there are six staff, there may be six subtly different paths–a sort of individual mission drift.

A leader who succeeds a vision-less ED must be a great communicator. She needs to be explicit about her vision, while at the same time embodying it. If you inherit staff used to charting their own way, here are six suggestions to make life better quicker:

  • Pay attention at meetings. Meetings are organizations in miniature: Be clear what you want to accomplish. Create agendas–as normal as that sounds, your colleagues may not have experienced regular agendas. Assign a note taker. Assign tasks. Follow up at the next meeting.
  • When staff talks about previous projects, programs or exhibits, ask how they were tracked. Through data, anecdote, both, neither?
  • Be transparent, authentic and clear. Listen.
  • Use the Heath Brothers’ concept of mining the bright spots*. Look at staff successes and parse how and why they worked. Understand. Repeat.
  • Check in with staff often. Does their work have meaning?
  • Recalibrate when possible, pointing out how differences in approach mean differences in result.

Joan Baldwin

*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.

 

 

 


Museum Boards: Money, Values & Solutions

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Decolonizing is the word of the moment. Symbolizing action, the old ways swept aside, as everyone left outside the museum narrative steps forward; it’s a powerful verb. For more than a year, we’ve witnessed decolonization at a multitude of levels from venerable European museums beginning the process of returning antiquities to countries once deemed too ‘backward’ to care for anything, much less their own patrimony, to American art museums mining collections for work by women and people of color long banished to storage or never purchased in the first place, and historic sites grappling–often for the first time–with the through-line of slavery. With that as back drop, it’s no surprise that the decolonization discussion finally turned toward money. Specifically, an argument’s been made that how money’s made, and where it comes from, impacts gifts to the museum, which impact the organization itself. And not in a good way.

The best-known example of this is Warren Kanders’ resignation from the Whitney’s board in July 2019. Kanders, who served as the Whitney’s board co-chair, joined the board in 2006, donating more than $10 million in his 13-year tenure. But Kanders is not alone. The Sackler family of Purdue Pharma is also persona non grata. Although their name is tied to spaces at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, Harvard’s Sackler Museum, and the Guggenheim’s Education Wing, museums–including the Tate, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan and the Museum of Natural History have all decided they will no longer accept gifts from the Sacklers.

With all of this as background, in its summer issue of Museum Magazine, AAM published an article titled “Decolonizing Development,” by Chong-Anna Confora. In it Confora writes, “Decolonization is social justice, anti-racist work. In order to decolonize fund development, we must ask ourselves: What organizational practices can we dismantle that center whiteness and reinforce white supremacy through fund development?”

There is a lot here to grapple with. On the one hand a part of you–maybe not your noblest part–wishes you had an endowment big enough to turn down a gift like the ones the Kanders and Sacklers gave. On the other hand, taking money made by companies whose values you abhor may make you cringe. What should you do? Are there board members in your own organization who are consistently generous, but whose money comes from unsavory or conflict-ridden endeavors? And since we’ve opened that door, where is your organization’s endowment invested? Are those investments conflict-ridden as well?

If you are like many museum leaders, you may serve an organization built on the generosity of people whose values and opinions might distress you were you to meet them today. And yet there you are, darkening the same door that symbolizes white supremacy as Confora calls it. You may literally owe your livelihood to a group of white men’s careful investing. Your organization may have been the beneficiary of charity, which Confora underscores as different from justice. Charity, she says, quoting the Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Hayes, is often hierarchical, where the giver has all the power and the receiver very little. Justice, she writes, “is an ongoing process of rebalance, of achieving the equality that everyone is entitled to.”

Are you confused yet? Flailing between what feels like moral bankruptcy and the fear of plain old garden variety bankruptcy? Well you should be. And I don’t have any answers, only some thoughts. Here they are:

  • First, if you haven’t read the inimitable Darren Walker on the politics of donors and museums, do so.
  • Next, as we’ve said so often here, remember we’re all human, and change is difficult. Simply decreeing that something ought to be, won’t make it happen, even in the face of a pyrrhic victory like seeing Kanders resign. (Under other circumstances, the Whitney’s board would hardly be the poster child for narrow-minded, white, Waspy privilege.)
  • Grapple with the fact that your values and belief systems may not be your board’s. Does that make any of you bad people? Is it your job as a museum leader to bring the board ’round to your point of view? Or is your job to serve your organization? If the latter, in slowly re-centering your organization, might its values change? Understand then, there is a difference between individual values and collective ones. As Darren Walker writes, “It’s relatively easy to talk about destroying a system. It’s harder to build and sustain one. While I appreciate protests, those of us who are focused on solutions can’t be distracted by extreme perspectives.”
  • If you are going to set your flag on the moral high ground with big money as the enemy, make sure you know what you don’t know. Shaming one board member as a climate change villain while running a less than green museum campus might be a bridge too far. Not to mention that without major gifts you will need five times as many small ones, and will you investigate their sources as well?

Despite the fact that people like me blather weekly about museum leadership, museums and heritage sites are run by boards, who raise new money, supervise the investment of old money, and set the organizational tone and culture. If you want to make change, make friends and allies on your board. Board Source’s latest report reveals that in 2016 84-percent of boards were white and yet only 24-percent said that demographics is important in recruitment despite the fact that 79-percent of executive directors said that a diverse board advances mission.

So….in a nutshell:

  1. Help your board to change. Help them understand the need for diversity, and the role implicit bias plays in the non-profit workplace, including the board.
  2. Make sure your board understands the racial wealth gap and the gender pay gap, and that they understand that money is not the only way board members build organizations.
  3. Work on patience. Real change develops from human-to-human interaction in service of a common goal–your museum.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


Why is a Museum Definition so Important?

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The International Council of Museums may seem like it has about as much to do with your work as New York’s fashion week does with your sartorial choices. In other words, not much. ICOM is literally some far-away group deciding things that have nothing to do with you, a museum leader with a new strategic plan underway, an underpaid and overworked staff, and insufficient funding for just about everything. But wait, maybe it does. Just as Fashion Week has a trickle-down effect on day-to-day wear for the average human, so too does ICOM’s decision making. So while it may seem like a lot of talk about a lot of nothing, ICOM’s proposed new museum definition, and its failure to pass, is actually kind of important.

For those of you for whom ICOM is a new acronym, the International Council of Museums was born in 1946, another child of the post-war baby boom. It’s opening meeting took place in Paris where its first-elected president was Chauncey J. Hamlin, politician, public figure, philanthropist, and president of the board of both the Buffalo Museum of Science and the American Museum Association (now the American Alliance of Museums.) In 2007, 61 years from its founding, ICOM adopted a “new” definition for museums:

“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

This year, when ICOM members gathered in Kyoto, Japan the plan was to vote on another definition of museums, one that is far more aspirational then previous versions. Spoiler alert: the new definition wasn’t adopted. But for those of you who missed it, here it is:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.

So why should you care? Well, maybe you can’t. Maybe this week or next you just don’t have the bandwidth to think about the museum field at a global level. But if you do, here are some thoughts about why it might matter to you, toiling away in museum land around the globe.

  • First, ICOM’s argument is your argument. You may not have hashed it out on a global stage, but how many of you have discussed Mike Murawski and LaTanya Autry’s “Museums are not neutral” campaign with board or staff? And P.S. if you haven’t, you might want to. You don’t have to agree, but you do have to talk.
  • Second, since 2007, ICOM has seen museums as “permanent institutions in service of society.” Before we even think about its proposed new definition, that’s an interesting line to parse. How many of you (and your boards) think of your institutions in service to society? And what about your definition of society? Is it inclusive?
  • How many of you feel that too many museums, particularly, but not exclusively,  American heritage institutions are blissfully disconnected from their communities? If your answer is yes, then the new definition might speak directly to you. It asks you to guarantee equal rights and equal access to collections, and to aim to contribute to human dignity and social justice. What does that mean for curators at fancy robber-baron houses? What does it mean for art museums where by some counts 87-percent of the work is by men, most of them white? What does it mean for your typical early 19th-century kitchen where for years the dangers and drudgery of housework is somehow subsumed in the nifty qualities of flat irons and wash boards?

It seems to me, far from the center of ICOM discussions, that the proposed definition asks two things of us all, one of which is far easier than the other. First, it asks us to stop pussyfooting around and tell our collections’ stories in a transparent, authentic way that connects past with present, telling the whole story even the parts we can’t show because we don’t own the stuff. Second, and this is trickier, it asks us to “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.” Contributing is a loaded word. Is simply doing all the regular museum things–exhibitions, programs, fund raising but better—enough? Or do we need to actually take a stand? And does taking a stand affect development efforts, collecting, programming, and exhibitions? Does it blur the line between individual values and organizational ones? Does it mean we support our staff members who openly protest? And what would it look like? Would it mean that as the local historical museum we stand with our local human rights organization when a member of our community is about to be deported?

You don’t need me to tell you that museum land in the age of Google is different. Is it possible that whether ICOM makes a decision about a new museum definition or not, that all of us need to change? That if we can’t change, the public, who has the entire world in words and images on the their phones, will go somewhere else for information, for history, for tranquility, for a civics lesson, for connection? So regardless of what ICOM does, it’s up to you. Listen. Know what you don’t know. Know what your collection means, not just in a textbook sense, but to your community. Find and make meaningful connections, person to person, object to person, collections to community. Make museums matter.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. In the spirit of bringing everyone to the table the wonderful Maria Vlachou directs us to a Padlet created by Anna Marras with voices from around the world commenting on what museums could and should do prompted by ICOM’s recent meeting.


Making the Moral Argument for Museum Pay

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How much time do you want for your progress? James Baldwin

One of the panels I participated in at AASLH’s 2019 Annual Conference was on pay.  Titled “Advocating for Equity: How to Talk About Salaries in Your Museum,” it offered participants small group discussions through the lens of race, gender, salary negotiation, and emerging careers. In the end, however, many of the discussions came back to questions of inadequate pay, and what to do about it individually and organizationally.

Museums and heritage organizations aren’t known for their excellent salaries. In fact, given that a master’s degree is the de rigueur entrance ticket for most positions, compared to other fields also requiring graduate degrees, the museum world lags behind. And as we’ve said many times here, poor pay and lousy benefits create a workforce that is stressed rather than focused, competitive rather than collegial, not particularly diverse, and constantly looking for better opportunities rather than devoted to their current organization. All those things–stress, inter-personal competition, lack of diversity, and job seeking are money losers for employers, and yet when asked about regrettable salaries, boards and museum leadership often respond that they can’t. They just can’t. They’re doing the best they can, and frankly, if you don’t like your salary, there’s the door.

When we presented the “Advocating for Equity” panel we were lucky to have two museum directors in the room. There may have been more, but those two self-identified. One worked with his board to create an endowment for salaries which will come into its own in 2020. The other is just beginning the process. Listening to both of them, one thing was clear: adjusting salaries on a grand scale isn’t something you’re going to solve in a couple of meetings. The director who has already raised the endowment underscored the patience and restraint the project took. His board is large, and not all agreed salaries were a problem, but for this director and his board leadership, the salary question had become a moral question. He didn’t like the idea that smart, creative, double-degreed, 30-year old members of his front-line staff were forced to live with their parents because their salaries wouldn’t stretch to an apartment in his city. For the other director, who works at a very wealthy institution with an enviable endowment, his concerns were as much about equity as simple raises, but here too, morals and values play a part. Although his institution is still in the planning stages, he indicated that in all likelihood raises would be phased in, with the first ones going to those who make the least. Again, a judgement call.

Are you mentally eye rolling? Is there a little voice in your head saying, “They’ll never, ever go for it. And is this what I want to build my leadership on? What about the new wing? What about Mrs. Buckets of Money? She likes building. She even has an architect.” All that’s probably true. There are plenty of one-percenters who’d rather give to build than endow people. And yet it’s people who will animate, care for, and program Mrs. Buckets of Money’s yet-to-be-built building. Here are some things to ponder when thinking about moving the needle on pay:

  • Increasing pay takes planning. Know what you don’t know. Who sets pay? How often are salaries adjusted? Have your organization’s salaries kept pace with inflation, the field, other similar fields? When did they start to lag? Why?
  • Unless you’re a founding director, you inherited a pay scale. When was the last time you looked at your entire pay scale from grounds, cleaners, and security to the top? Assuming you have an HR department and/or a CFO, work together to create a spreadsheet of all job titles (no names), education, race, gender, length of service, and hourly rate. What does it tell you?
  • Using your newly-created spread sheet, you’ll know whether you have a gender or race pay gap. Is that a moral issue for you or your board? Remember, raising inequitable salaries perpetuates bias we need to leave behind.
  • Know what it costs to live in your area. Know the median rent. Know the living wage.
  • If you lead a large and/or urban institution, has your board discussed its concerns regarding unionization? Again, have you done your homework? What will the union offer that you’re not providing? Could you provide it? Does staff asking for a union trust your museum’s leadership? If not, why not?
  • If you’re a leader, sound out your board. Are there some members who agree your organization’s pay is abysmal and it should do something? Are they willing to make change?
  • Last, is your board comfortable with moral questions? Pay isn’t just about money. Pay represents so many other things: It represents where you are in the institutional decision-making process; It represents who you rub shoulders with; It determines where you can live, the car you drive, and how fast you pay off student debt; It provides a sense of self-worth. Boards are traditionally made up of wealthy people who support an institution by donating money, knowledge about money, connections, intelligence and decision-making experience. When it comes to salaries, your job may be to remind your board what they don’t know–about student debt, about the cost of living in your locale, about how your museum or heritage organization fits into your community’s job picture, and most importantly, about the gender/race pay gap.

These discussions aren’t easy. Change is always hard. But this is about museums wanting to create equitable workplaces where women of color — from Latinx who make 53 cents for every white man’s dollar to American Indians who make 58 cents, and Black women who make 61 cents* — make the same amount for the same job as a white man. Museums and heritage organizations may waffle about taking a stand on community issues, even on historical or cultural issues, but how about starting inside, with your own workforce? How about taking a stand for them? Invest in your staff. They pay you back every day.

Joan Baldwin

*American Association of University Women, “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap.” 

Image: From Marabou at the Museum“Money Makes the Museum Doors Open: Museum Funding 101,” September 6, 2018.


Museum Leadership: Your Observation is Your Obligation

AASLH 2019 Women WorkshopIf leaders were cartoon characters, they’d have heads topped with arrows instead of hair. Why? Because whether they mean to or not, leaders exude direction. They are points on the organizational compass. And when direction isn’t clear there are plenty of folks in the hallway, around the coffeemaker or after meetings to interpret what has or hasn’t been said. That’s a preface to what follows, meaning I may not be correct. After all, I’m only an observer.

If you couldn’t attend last week’s meeting of the American Association of State and Local History in Philadelphia, it was a good one. Anchored by the indomitable Eastern State Penitentiary, and the city’s other national historic sites, not to mention its many museums, the conference drew a large crowd. The theme was “What Are We Waiting For?” but the subtext was certainly history’s importance in understanding the present. It was there in the keynote, moderated by Sean Kelly, Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, and featuring Susan Burton, a Los Angeles-based writer and prison reform activist whose memoir details a 20-year cycle of addiction, pain, sadness and prison, and Dr. Talitha LeFlouria, a University of Virginia associate professor, and author of Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, where the arrow pointed directly from centuries of enslavement to decades of mass incarceration. And it was also there in Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s myth-toppling speech about George Washington’s obsessive search for his runaway slave Ona Judge. And, I’m sure it was there in the many panels, tours, and countless conversations as conference attendees struggled, argued, and supported one another in connecting past and present. If you want to interpret those directional signals, what you might say is the complacent, white, male narrative of the past is disappearing, replaced by a host of other black and brown voices, from individuals who’ve been here months, and those whose past stretches back to enslavement or others whose land was stolen, and they lived out their days on reservations.

For me though there was another signal: The four panels and one workshop that addressed women in the history museum workplace. Anne Ackerson and I have written and spoken about this topic for almost seven years, and in that time there were more than a few moments when getting one panel on women’s issues for AASLH or AAM seemed like an achievement. So maybe I’m reading too much into this, but finding AASLH President John Dichtl in a panel titled “#MeToo: AASLH, NCPH and the Field” was a sea change. Perhaps it’s AASLH’s size and more cohesive membership, but its leadership is clearly listening to women’s issues in the field. When asked to post salary ranges in their job announcements, AASLH did. And their willingness to open the annual meeting to discussions about women’s leadership, sexual harassment in the field, and pay equity tells me they’re acknowledging that while the heritage organization/history museum workplace might not be Nirvana, they want to make it better.

So, here’s a thank you: Thank you for a great conference. Thank you to AASLH’s leaders and planners for changing the narrative; thank you for publicly acknowledging the consequences of workplace harassment, and gender pay inequity. Thank you to the male leaders who showed up to represent at four of the five sessions. Kudos to all the women who spoke, especially those brave enough to reveal personal stories.

One final plea though: Do something with what you learned. Commit to personal change. Be kind. Support one another. Don’t do it because someone’s different than you. Do it because you are colleagues. If you are a leader, and haven’t addressed the gender pay gap in your organization, do an equity audit. See how bad things are. If you don’t have a values statement or a statement about the kind of behavior you expect in your museum or heritage site, write one. Don’t wait ’til next year to hear it another time and realize 12 months went by and you didn’t move the needle at all.

Make change now. Do it as individuals, do it as organizations. To quote Enimini Ekong, Superintendent of Nicodemus National Historic Site and Chief of Education and Interpretation at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, “Your observation is your obligation.” So for goodness sakes look and then act.

Joan Baldwin