Reflections on #NCPH2019

Wow, what a conference. I met and reconnected with so many public historians doing fantastic work and had many opportunities to reflect and work on my own complicity in oppressive structures that shape our field. I also spoke to many fellow practitioners who are struggling to make a living or secure health insurance as they cobble together jobs or rely on partner incomes. There are too many stories of public historians lacking support when facing sexual harassment (see Dr. Lyra Monteiro’s Twitter thread or Hope’s blog post) and others who risk losing their jobs while trying to do ethical public history within inflexible institutions.

I was disappointed to hear a few well-established public historians I respect dismiss some of these concerns as “career anxieties” or “entry level” folks needing to “pay their dues.” This is not an issue relegated to a few nervous emerging professionals—the widespread inability to earn a living doing public history affects the ability of a diverse range of people to access and sustain involvement in the field. Labor conditions also profoundly affect the (lack of) racial and gender equity within the field. Addressing public history as work is a critical link within the broader repair work discussed at #NCPH2019.

To be clear: everyone deserves a living wage, not just those who identify as public historians or who hold a degree in the field. Rebecca Brenner put this particularly well:

This framing helps push back against using labor equity efforts as a gatekeeping tool. Sam Prendergast rightfully pointed out in person and on Twitter that:

To Sam’s point, any organizing around work and wages must be done with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ consultation, collaboration, and leadership. And, as suggested by Jess Lamar Reece Holler, we ought to walk the walk by securing funding to pay for that labor.

Furthermore, we need to be thinking about not just how public historians make a living, but how our work directly and economically impacts the publics we seek to serve. Catherine Fleming Bruce, for example, is exploring how to use Qualified Opportunity Zones as tools for economic justice through preservation of African American historic sites. I also think this is why we should consider what a public history cooperative could look like.

The overview I offer here is very cursory—there were so many more thoughtful contributions that I haven’t covered and we still have many conversations and hard work ahead of us. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the effort to organize public history workers, please take this survey or reach out to phworkerscaucus@gmail.com.