Long live the idea that historians should be advocates

On the last day of the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Las Vegas, I saw a couple of conference tweets that really resonated with me.

A pin I received at the 2017 AASLH annual meeting.

These struck me in part because I very much see “using history…for advocacy” and “speak[ing] out as advocates” as core tenets of my professional identity, but also because it was the first time I really felt like history as advocacy took on a central role at a public history conference. Don’t get me wrong—it’s always there—but I’ve always felt like I had to seek it out on the fringes, and it wasn’t always easy to find. This year was different. The idea that historians should be advocates seems to have taken a much more central role in conference sessions than ever before.

This probably results from a mixture of things, including the current political climate, the turn in public history toward the importance of demonstrating the relevance of history, the coming of age of a generation of people oriented toward advocacy and social action, the push for inclusivity in our professional organizations and the field at large, and history and other cultural organizations increasingly committing themselves to using their resources to build dialogue and community between diverse groups of people. Whatever it is, the idea that public historians should be neutral is being pushed aside by people who believe that we should be advocates.  And good riddance– the idea of neutrality among public historians has always been problematic. Not everyone can afford to be neutral. The idea that historians should be advocates isn’t new, of course. But the difference now is that the folks who see the urgency and necessity of advocacy-oriented history are starting to lead the way forward.

I saw this reflected in a number of conference presentations. Rachel Boyle, my friend, colleague, and Omnia co-conspirator, is actively searching for alternative economic models for doing public history work. She discussed her efforts at the “Negotiating Power Lines: Economic Justice and the Ethics of Public History” working group, and you can read her thoughts about this here. For my part, I’m interested in how historians advocate for change on the local level—the places where we live and work and where the policies that shape so much of our day-to-day lived experience are determined. The presenters at the roundtable I was part of, “Exploring the Ties Between Local History and Grassroots Change,” talked about this phenomenon in the past and present, and we engaged in a robust conversation with the audience about strategies for undertaking meaningful and change-making local history projects.

So here’s some inspiration from our roundtable. The local-history-as-advocacy projects included:

Andrea, Kimber, and Victoria talked about how they use local history to advocate for progressive social change and create spaces in which residents can have conversations about issues of urgent local importance. Tim Kneeland and I rounded out the discussion by presenting about some of the ways in which local historians used local history in the past– the history of local history– and how their efforts shaped the local spaces we’re navigating in the present.

It’s gratifying to see the turn professional public historians are taking toward advocacy-oriented work, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this shapes future conferences and the field more broadly. The notion that public historians should be neutral is dying. Long live the idea that we should be advocates.

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