A Call to Action for 2016: Stephanie Meeks Addresses the 2012 National Preservation Conference

Posted on: November 6th, 2012 by Stephanie K. Meeks 2 Comments

Interior of the Fox Theater in Spokane, WA

This speech was given by National Trust President Stephanie K.  Meeks during the Opening Plenary of the 2012 National Preservation Conference.

Thank you Mayor Condon for that introduction and for giving us such a warm and enthusiastic welcome here in Spokane.

It’s a great pleasure to be here with you today in this beautiful theater, which was rescued from demolition 12 years ago thanks in part to the federal historic tax credit.

Today, the Fox has an annual economic impact of $16 million, making it a great example of why we’re working so hard to protect and enhance the tax credit program.

I’d like to thank everyone who has helped with our tax credit campaign this year, and encourage all of you to visit savingplaces.org and get involved.

We’ve also had an extraordinary group of people and partners helping us pull the conference together this year, and I’d like to join Carolyn Brody in recognizing them.

I’d also like to recognize our 150 Northwest Regional and Diversity scholars and the Trust members and advisors who mentored them this year. We are delighted to have you here.

Finally, I also want to highlight two exceptional emerging leaders who are with us here tonight, Claudia Mean and Eduardo Rojas, who both participated in this year’s Washington State Youth Summit. The program, created by Ann Pritzlaff, has engaged over 200 high school students in preservation from Washington and Colorado.

Thank you all for coming. And hello to all of you watching us online or following us on Twitter at hashtag presconf.

And Happy Halloween. I’m told there’s a great party tonight at the Davenport Hotel. But first, I’d like to talk a bit about how we build on 50 years of the modern preservation movement to make preservation an even stronger, better-known, dynamic, national cause.

Introduction

At this conference two years ago, I talked about my vision for the future of the Trust and preservation. I imagined a day when preservation was as visible and relevant to Americans as the environmental movement is today, when we needed a stadium to hold all the people who wanted to attend the National Preservation Conference, and when the Historic Preservation Fund and other important programs enjoyed the sort of full and robust funding they deserve.

These were ambitious goals then, and they still are today. But I remain convinced that they ARE possible.

That’s why I’d like to spend my time today talking about how we can get there and, I hope, start a conversation about how the Trust can partner with all of you to transform preservation—to make it a more visible movement, one with the influence we need to make this vision of the future a reality.

From Cause to a Movement

Last year I talked at length about market research the Trust has conducted. One of the key findings from that research is the fact that there are right now in the United States 65 million people who say they are sympathetic to the cause of saving historic places. 15 million of them are already taking action.

These numbers quantify something I think we’ve all seen to be true, which is that our work resonates deeply with people. Historic places speak to something very primal and universal in all of us that yearns to feel connected to our past and to the people who went before us.

It’s the same sort of emotional connection that drives people to action in all great causes, whether it be the crusade against breast cancer, homelessness or drunk driving.

Yet, while most of us would agree that saving historic places is as worthy a cause as those endeavors, I doubt many of us would argue that we have penetrated the national consciousness as deeply.

What those causes have—and what we still need to build—is the visibility and cohesion that turns a POPULAR CAUSE into a national MOVEMENT.

The good news is that we already have more in common with these movements than you might think, starting with the fact that most of them began with exactly what we have now: a deeply resonant cause and a core group of very passionate, committed individuals—people like all of you.

You have already done a tremendous job raising awareness and support for preservation nationwide, as those market research numbers demonstrate. Still, we estimate that all of us together are probably reaching just about 4 percent—or roughly 600,000—of those 15 million people right now.

So the question before us is really: how do we build on our success? How do we get to the same level of influence and impact as America’s most successful movements?

To start answering those questions, I’d like to spend the rest of my time today looking at a few of the most successful movements of our time and what they have to teach us.

Four Elements of a Movement

To organize these observations, I’ve borrowed from the work of Eric Hoffer, one of America’s great experts on mass movements. In his influential book The True Believer , he observed that all great movements have four qualities: they are “soul-stirring, spectacular, communal, undertakings.” Those qualities—soul-stirring, spectacular, communal, undertaking—still hold true today, and I’d like to look at each one in turn.

1. Soul-Stirring

May 1980, Candy Lightner experienced every parent’s worst nightmare: while on her way to a church carnival, Candy’s 13-year-old daughter, Cara, was struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident. The driver’s wife turned him in, and it turned out he had been driving drunk.

Candy was so devastated that she stood in Cara’s bedroom and made a promise to her daughter: she would do whatever it took to stop the outrage of drunk driving.

It wasn’t long before a handful of other parents had joined her, and then hundreds more, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving was born.

Their voices were unforgettable—grieving parents and friends who weren’t afraid to show their feelings in front of the cameras or to get creative in making their case.

When legislators in Florida were considering drunk driving legislation, MADD volunteers placed a pair of shoes worn by every drunk driving victim in Florida that year in the Capitol Rotunda. There were 1,100 pairs of baby shoes, toddler’s shoes, men’s shoes, and women’s shoes.

They put a human face on statistics people had known for years, and it got results. Across the country, DUI legislation sailed through committees that had voted it down before. Just 3 years after Candy’s daughter died, 129 anti-drunk-driving laws had passed. And just as important, the nation’s perception of drunk driving had changed forever.

Preservation may not be life or death, but we have the same ability to connect with people on a visceral level by talking about the human aspect of our work.

However, I know for us at the Trust, that personal, emotional appeal hasn’t always come naturally. We have tended to feed the brain, rather than stir the soul.

But we’re working on it. We recently launched a new podcast series that highlights the personal stories behind America’s historic Rosenwald schools, which we have been working for decades to protect.

The schools were the brainchild of Booker T. Washington, who enlisted philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to help fill the huge unmet need for modern school facilities in African American communities in the rural South early in the 20th century. All told, Rosenwald provided matching grants to help build more than 5,000 schools, shops, and teacher’s quarters in just 20 years.

Many Rosenwald alumni are still alive, and the podcast series gives us a chance to share their remarkable stories.

I’d like to play you a clip from a podcast featuring Bishop Frederick Calhoun James, who attended the Howard Junior High in rural South Carolina in 1927, when it was still so new it smelled like fresh paint. He went on to a very distinguished career that included a stint as bishop of six South African countries, but as you will hear, he credits Howard Junior High with giving him his start in life.

After hearing that, it probably won’t surprise you that Bishop James has been a tireless advocate for restoring his alma mater, to the point of reaching into his own pocket to pay for windows and a new roof.

He is one of those 15 million local preservationists I mentioned earlier—those grassroots champions who are already taking action in their local communities.

As I discussed last year, they have been flying under our radar somewhat because their work is so local, and because they tend to think of it as a subset of other causes. Perhaps as a result, they aren’t joining preservation groups in vast numbers or affiliating in obvious ways with our formal preservation organizations.

But when you look at them on a national scale, they’re already doing a remarkable amount of work—many times the work that we’re able to do because their numbers are exponentially larger.

That commitment was on display at a recent Rosenwald Schools gathering convened by the Trust, which drew more than 300 incredibly passionate local champions who wanted to share stories and resources with their peers from other states.

Descendents of both Booker T Washington and Julius Rosenwald were there, and poet Nikki Giovanni delivered the closing address.

She captured the real power of these schools when she talked about the role they played in helping people who had been denied not just an education—but a personhood—start to emerge from the shadows.

Rosenwald’s great-granddaughter Alice was so moved by the event that she surprised everyone by increasing her support of the program on the spot. Lowe’s Foundation has also been a generous supporter, donating nearly $2 million to help 41 schools to date.

That’s the sort of enthusiasm this program inspires. It’s shown us how important it is to develop a clear and emotional message that makes the connection between people and place.

2. Spectacular

We are also looking for ways to tap into Hoffer’s second observation about movements, which is that all of them must have some measure of the spectacular.

People love drama, in all its forms. Our friends in the conservation community know this, and they have done a great job of capitalizing on nature’s spectacular places through imagery. We can do this too. The built environment rivals nature in its beauty, complexity, diversity and its ability to inspire.

What’s more, we know these things matter to people. The Knight Foundation recently did a study in which they talked to thousands of people in 26 cities nationwide about what makes them feel attached to a place.

By overwhelming numbers, people talked about the importance of beauty as one of the top three things they look for in a city. It is part of what transforms a community from just a place to live, to a place to love.

At the Trust, we are exploring a variety of tools to emphasize the visceral, emotional impact of the sites in our National Treasures portfolio.

These are nationally meaningful places that represent important movements and milestones in America’s history. By their very nature, they contain some element of the spectacular.

At Chimney Rock in Colorado, for instance—which the president recently designated a national monument—the spectacular comes from the ethereal and raw beauty of the ancient archeological sites.

At Ellis Island, it comes from the central role this place has played in the American story.

All of these places have the power to appeal to large numbers of people and bring a national spotlight to our work as preservationists.

Through our new National Treasures campaign website, savingplaces.org, we are using images, stories and maps to capitalize on the qualities that distinguish these places. We are also exploring the potential of social media tools like Foursquare to encourage people to experience the sites in person.

We know there is much more we can do on this front, and we look forward to working with all of you to find creative ways to inspire people, with the spectacular, at these National Treasures sites.

3. Communal

Of course, inspiration is just half the battle—we also need to spur people to action.

Hoffer observed that all great movements ask something of their adherents. They require us to make sacrifices of time or resources, and in the process, they tap into our fundamental human desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves. To use Hoffer’s terminology, they are inherently communal.

The Breast Cancer 3-Day has been one of the most successful examples in recent years of such a communal event. It happens in 14 cities every year, and draws thousands of breast cancer survivors, family members, and supporters to walk 60 miles over three days to find a cure.

I know it turns Washington, DC, into a sea of pink for a few days every year—and probably many of your cities as well.

The organizers have been savvy enough to make the difficulty of completing the walk part of their marketing for the event—they call it the “boldest” thing you can do in the fight to end breast cancer. Not only must people walk 20 miles a day, they are also required to raise at least $2,300 to participate.

Preservation campaigns are rarely as high-profile as the 3-Day, although the effort to save Penn Station or to stop Disney from opening its theme park in Manassas were certainly evidence of our ability to rally people on a large scale.

But even when a few hundred—or just a few dozen—people get together to save a beloved local landmark, the dedication and communal spirit are exactly the same.

Just recently in Buffalo, for instance, a local blogger discovered that a community landmark, the Bethlehem Steel building, was facing imminent demolition.

He put out the word on his blog, and people immediately started mobilizing to try to stop the bulldozers. Many of them were young people whose parents and relatives had worked at the company.

A dozen people camped out the night before the bulldozers were set to arrive. The Trust helped to publicize the action through its social media channels, and Preservation Buffalo Niagara helped the protesters navigate the preservation process.

The outcome is still uncertain, but the protest has temporarily stopped the demolition.

I tell that story because I think it is a great example not only of how dedicated these local activists are, but also of how reaching them may require us to broaden the way we think about our target audiences.

We’re used to thinking of media outreach in very traditional ways—like sending out a press release—but our research has shown that local preservationists are very plugged in, and they get a lot of their news from people like the community blogger who started that groundswell of support in Buffalo.

With that in mind, we have started experimenting with outreach to community bloggers at the Trust, and we’ve been very pleased with the response so far.

As part of the most recent round of Partners in Preservation grants in New York City this past spring, we engaged a wide range of bloggers who typically write about goings on in their neighborhoods, but not necessarily about preservation.

We found them to be very enthusiastic and receptive partners. And we couldn’t have asked for better results: we got 147 MILLION impressions for the program and participating sites just through their blogs.

I’m not sure how many of these people were members of the Trust or a local preservation group, or even would have identified themselves as preservationists before this experience. I suspect most of them consider themselves primarily community advocates.

But we didn’t have to work very hard to explain the connection between historic buildings and stronger communities—they got it immediately. They care deeply about preserving the authentic character of their neighborhoods, and they know historic places are integral to that character. And just as important: they are willing to act when those places are threatened.

There is no question in my mind that they can be tremendous allies in the often uphill battle to preserve a place and then keep it protected for the long term.

4. Undertaking

Which brings me to Hoffer’s final criteria: the presence of enough obstacles to allow people to take pride in their success. Now this one, I know we have in spades!

Habitat for Humanity hasn’t become the sixth largest homebuilder in the United States because building houses is easy. They’ve succeeded because it feels good to work hard, to fight the uphill battle against long odds, when you know you’re toiling in service to a cause that matters.

Preservationists know this feeling too. It’s what pushes our grassroots activists to protect preservation laws year after year in Congress….

It’s what motivated the National Trust, Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, as well as our many other partners, and the people of New Orleans to focus on rebuilding some of the many historic neighborhoods that were damaged in Katrina.…

It’s what motivated the residents in St. Augustine to rally and save the Bridge of Lions…

Call to Action

…And it’s what pushes all of us. We all know preservation is a great, inspiring cause. And we know there are literally millions of people out there who are ready to hear our message and join our crusade to save America’s past.

Our challenge now is to figure out how to take our soul-stirring, spectacular, communal, undertaking and transform it into the vibrant movement it deserves to be.

I will be the first to concede that the Trust doesn’t have the road map for how to do that all figured out yet. And even if we did, we couldn’t do it alone.

We will do our part, but it’s going to take all of us working together to develop a path forward.

To get things started, I’d like to invite all of you to join us in generating ideas on how we can plan an event that taps into these four qualities to build our movement.

We propose using the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act in 2016 as a deadline.

As you’re thinking of ideas, keep in mind that the National Park Service will be celebrating its 100th anniversary that same year, which could provide a chance to demonstrate the connection between saving our natural and cultural heritage.

We have set up a webpage on PreservationNation.org where you can share your ideas, and right now we’re sending all of you an email with a link to this site.

There is a world of opportunity out there waiting for us, and given the collective resources in this room, and those of our colleagues across the country, I know we can capitalize on it.

We can make preservation the sort of broad-based, powerful movement our nation’s cultural heritage deserves.

I remain convinced that our best days are still ahead. And I look forward to working with you to make them a reality.

About Stephanie Meeks

Stephanie K. Meeks is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Advocacy, Announcements, National Preservation Conference

2 Responses

  1. Preservation Round-Up: Preservationists Take Spokane Edition - PreservationNation

    November 9, 2012

    […] A Call to Action for 2016: Stephanie Meeks Addresses the 2012 National Preservation Conference — Preservation Leadership Forum Blog […]

    • Peter H. Brink

      November 18, 2012

      Definitely thought provoking.