Conversation Starter Part 2: Telling Richer Stories of Place

Posted on: December 28th, 2012 by Preservation Leadership Forum Staff

Another Conversation Starter at the Spokane National Preservation Conference focused on ways that preservationists can work with diverse communities to develop richer stories of place. Panelists used their experiences to highlight different strategies and success stories. Speakers Aissia Richardson (Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp.) and Michelle Magalong (My HiFi) respond here to a few of the questions that went unanswered at the end of the session.

First, however, Michelle Magalong suggests five strategies for preservationists who are working with diverse communities to tell richer stories of place:

1. Representation in the process: Preservation work requires full representation by all communities affected by the project or site. There is a difference between an empty ritual of participation versus having the real power to influence the outcome or process. Communities must feel that their participation truly has a direct influence on the process and outcome and not feel that their involvement is contrived or tokenized. As such, it is critical to fully engage participants by developing partnerships with community groups and involving community leaders in decision making.

2. Knowledge of their history: Many marginalized communities have a history of discrimination, disenfranchisement, displacement, and invisibility. As a result, these communities may be skeptical about participating in preservation efforts. Furthermore, many marginalized communities were denied the right to own homes or businesses, causing them to create a sense of home and community in non-traditional ways. Consequently, buildings and sites that may be historically or culturally significant to these communities often do not fit traditional standards of historic preservation. A single site may have a complex, layered history, and it will be necessary to peel through each layer to understand the various interpretations and uses of this site.

3. Community leadership: One strength of many marginalized communities is the presence of strong community leadership. Community leadership may come from local community agencies or informal community groups. It is important to get a comprehensive list of the leaders within the community as you may find individuals and groups with much-needed skills and resources. Integrate community leaders into your project and they will contribute in various ways that will greatly benefit your project and their community.

4. Community participation: Having a community leader on your task force or committee is one positive step to community engagement, but it is equally (or more) important to involve all members of the community. This can take the form of community meetings focused on various stakeholders within the community (e.g., youth, residents, small businesses, nonprofit agencies, local leaders). Don’t just invite community members to attend; rather encourage them to be part of the development and implementation of the meeting. The involvement of community members will yield innovative strategies and solutions.

5. Representation in the final product: When working with diverse communities, it is important to remember that they often are the cultural bearers and protectors of the built environment. Honoring their historical contributions can only bring positive results. Omitting their legacy in the final product may perpetuate distrust and trigger negative responses.

PS: For those of you interested in the song that played at the start of the session it is called: Joy Harjo entitled “My House is the Red Earth” from the Letter from the End of the Twentieth Century 

Q&A

Question: What is your biggest struggle and how did you solve it? Looking back would you have done anything differently?

AR: The biggest struggle for Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation has been to convince our elected officials to preserve the Uptown Theater and not tear it down for a parking lot for neighboring Temple University, which has been experiencing an uptick in student enrollment and has instituted a mandatory on-campus living requirement for freshmen and sophomores.

There have been other attempts to restore the theater without considering improvements to the neighborhood, so we joined with other cultural institutions to form an advocacy group to bring art and culture to the surrounding community. Unfortunately those organizations that benefited were located downtown, while those of us north of downtown had fewer resources for programming.

We overcame the obstacles with technical assistance and capacity building from the National Trust. We realigned ourselves with other African American historic preservation institutions and developed a collaborative project to help improve our neighborhoods and drive visitors to our sites. We also remained consistent in our messaging to supporters and elected officials. Now, our staff is being asked to serve on policy commissions and to represent elected officials on boards of city-managed cultural institutions.

MM: The biggest struggle I face in doing preservation work is twofold: (1) the lack of public awareness or education about the importance of historic preservation in the Filipino American community, and (2) the lack of public awareness of the historical contributions of Filipinos in America. Two common questions about Historic Filipinotown, by Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, are: (1) What makes this place “historic”? and (2) What makes this place “Filipino”? Located near downtown Los Angeles, Historic Filipinotown is a multi-ethnic, working-class neighborhood that does not have obvious “ethnic” signage that would be considered Filipino. We, at My Historic Filipinotown (My HiFi), address these two questions through advocacy campaigns, community workshops, social media educational campaigns, and neighborhood tours.

For example, October is Filipino American History Month, and we have a social media campaign called “31 Days of Filipino American History.” Every day we feature significant dates and events in Filipino American history that are tied to key historic sites. This social media campaign encourages the public to learn more about Filipino American history and to visit Filipino American historic sites.

Question: Everyone spoke on creating communities around their projects. How do you create and foster these communities?

AR: We've hold classes for area landlords and small developers on LEED certification. We created a community garden. We'll be talking about storm water management credits to help residents reduce water bills. We've partnered with neighborhood organizations to host food drives, toy drives, and community forums with those seeking political office. We ask what people want, what they think, and keep an open dialog with our neighbors, even if we disagree.

MM: I believe in creating a sense of community in two ways: in person and online. We are fortunate to be located in Los Angeles, which has the largest concentration of Filipino Americans in the Southern California region.

We host educational workshops and tours in Historic Filipinotown for local college students, community groups, and the general public. We are able to connect and partner with many Filipino American organizations within Historic Filipinotown and across the region. In working with other Filipino American community groups, we share information and resources—drawing from the strengths and skills of each group.

We are also creating a strong presence online. At local Filipino American events, many individuals noted that they were interested in learning more about Historic Filipinotown, but found little information online. In response, we created a website that acts like an online information kiosk for Historic Filipinotown. The website provides a map with listings of Filipino American landmarks, small businesses, religious institutions, and community institutions. We also have an extensive list of scholarly work, news articles, and digital media (video, audio, photography) about Historic Filipinotown. Lastly, we have educational resources on Filipino American history, historic preservation, and public history (including how to conduct oral histories, archive photos, and conduct property-related research). We use all these resources and share them on other social media platforms (FacebookTwitterTumblrFlickr, and Instagram).

Question: What partnerships have proved most successful for Uptown Entertainment? What do you suggest for others? 

AR:  A recent partnership has been with our Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which recently mapped all 422 African American sites in Philadelphia. We created a trail linking these sites either thematically or geographically. We developed a policy stakeholder committee and a sites stakeholder committee. The project started in July 2011. We met several times during 2011 and 2012. By November 2012, the pilot brochure was done.  In the future we're planning to collaborate to create additional trail brochures focusing on music, churches, Underground Railroad sites, and civil rights.

Question: Does the Historic Filipinotown community have many links to media and traditional Filipino culture?

MM: We at My HiFi are fortunate to have partnerships with local and ethnic media outlets, including a Filipino American talk show that featured a special episode on Historic Filipinotown (see videos here). With many young Filipino Americans interested in film, photography, and Filipino American arts/culture, we are able to connect with them online through various social media platforms. We found that while it is important to connect with youth, we also want to connect with another important target audience—our elders. Some might not be as tech-savvy as the youth but they are important cultural resources. We also try to involve our community in local education workshops and community events. In our upcoming SurveyHiFi project, we aim to enlist youth to help gather community data (e.g. conduct oral histories, archive old photos, conduct property research) while engaging our elders as cultural bearers (e.g. be interviewed, share old photos).

 

Diversity, Historic Sites, National Preservation Conference