At last week's AASLH conference, Lindsey Baker, Beth Maloney and I facilitated a session about the process of working towards long-term community engagement. In our (possibly strained) metaphor, we called it, "Don't be a Runaway Bride," in the hopes of creating good conversations about the importance of long-term, sustained relationships in building community.
We began by asking participants to reflect on the communities they belonged to: cat rescuers, gardeners, museum professionals, Latinos, activists, dog owners, sports fans, and even three Star Wars enthusiasts were all there. But then we asked what community organizations their museums partnered with. The answers, to a large degree, reflected the caution with which museums approach their communities: libraries, universities, the chamber of commerce, schools. Kind of boring, I thought, and to a large degree, reflecting current power structures in communities.
We then tasked them with conceptualizing collaborations between a specific type of museum, a community group who were not museum-goers, framed around a current topic of community interest (such as affordable housing, food security, or mass incarceration). The small groups came up with projects all of which more interesting than anything that had been mentioned before. I'll come back to those at a later date, but here are the pointers for community collaborations that emerged when the groups shared out those short brainstorming sessions:
- find commonalities
- people power
- creative use of resources
- follow your mission, but be flexible
- be open to new groups
- embrace the challenge: don't run away!
- bring in outside expertise (i.e. from the community)
- be patient
- let your community identify the issues
Lindsey, Beth and I were all struck by how many of you knew these and practiced them in other parts of your life, but how few museums actually put them to use. Our final advice? Get going!