Questioning the Fate of Elitist Perceptions in Historic Preservation: Open Dialogues of Diverse Community Engagement and Inclusion

Productivity to the max pretty much sums up these past two weeks. I’ve been revising the image selections for my main project of the Section-7 Architectural and Style Guidelines. This past week I was allowed to reach out to various State Historic Preservation Offices, which is something I was excited about in an attempt at encouraging and promoting localized representation in this project. Since the National Register encompasses various projects spanning the nation as well as US territories and commonwealths, I think it is vital to highlight and touch upon all areas represented to further include and encourage future advocation and participation in National Register nominations and activity.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) committee meetings on both preservation and youth engagement this past Tuesday. I met some very interesting people representing a wide array of preservation related agencies and also left very enlightened to issues affecting preservation nationally and internationally. In the preservation committee meeting, issues about Congressional hearings to further advance the Historic Preservation Fund (HPF) were brought up, which assists funding for matching grants directed at State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPOs) to help with preservation related projects across the country. Many other legislative issues concerning historic preservation were hot topics – such as the future and fate of Section 106 applications and protocol, and the question, will current National Register listings targeted as ‘national security’ problems be removed from the database… these are very real issues that can have a dire affect on the future of historic preservation in this country.

Another topic discussed was that of Asian American and Pacific Islander Engagement, which was discussed by Terry Guen, a landscape architect and principal of Terry Guen Design Associates Inc. out of Chicago, Illinois. Terry is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, where currently the Chinese community is tackling serious issues of gentrification. One way that has been introduced to combat this has been through the use of historic preservation through 1) the obtainment of a preservation grant, 2) ability to open a forum for community engagement, 3) educating the public about historic preservation, 4) undertaking community building surveys and in the end 5) designating a building that best represents Chinatown’s cultural and historical significance to be nominated for the National Register. It’s an interesting and very relevant dialogue as there is a lot at play that is familiar for many diverse communities – diversity, inclusion, gentrification, historic preservation, local culture, community, etc.

In a world very overrun with elitist takes on what preservation should be, it is refreshing to see real people advocating for real and genuine preservation of culturally and historically significant community resources. Not that everything that someone finds important should be listed on the National Register, but we as preservation professionals need to take a step back and see the bigger picture – many have a jaded and close-minded opinion of what is deemed worthy of preservation. I think this topic should be on every preservationist’s mind, it should be discussed more openly in office dialogues and preservationists and communities alike should publicly discuss it.

Underrepresented communities usually suffer or miss out when it comes to historic preservation and we as younger and more diverse professionals in the field need to make noise and draw attention to these issues if we want them to change. Before this week I had a pretty stereotypical outlook about older preservationists, in that they are majority close-minded elitists who feel only certain people and resources belong in their realm. After this week my views have changed a bit, thanks to conversation brought up in this meeting, particularly by one of the leaders of the committee, who boldly and courageously stated he did not realize for nearly 50 years how ignorant he had been to the level of diversity in our nation because he had never had to face it head-on till just recently. That truly spoke mountains about this issue in regard to older generations, not that every older preservationist has the same story or even feels the same way, but it was encouraging to hear him be so frank and forthcoming about his personal realization. He also went on to say that younger generations are in a better position, as they have grown up in more diverse communities and are more open and accepting to the fact that the world is changing and are not trying to limit themselves or others.

In closing of the preservation committee meeting, Vincent Michael of the World Heritage Fund, brought up more pressing issues facing preservation across our borders and waters… specifically 1) rethinking the actual definition of a cultural resource and what we choose to preserve in terms of tangible and intangible culture, and 2) cultural resources caught in warfare and ways that we as global preservationists need to understand and better take on our roles as cultural stewards. It’s unfortunately becoming a more common occurrence that many cultural resources have been destroyed at the hands of war and hatred, termed ‘cultural genocide’. Basically we (collective we of global preservationists) need to start thinking of ways in which we can come together across the international spectrum to organize a unilateral approach to better protect these resources and put actual preservation law into place.

I am left with much food for thought from this week… literally. My head is spinning with ideas, motivation, and the great possibility of the what-ifs. This was  further exacerbated with our celebration of Latino Conservation Week and Latino Heritage Internship Program meeting on the Thursday, with the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary Jewell. She was gracious enough to give us an hour of her time to get to know us and our work and discuss issues affecting our public lands as well as open the dialogue to our questions regarding diversity, inclusion and the future of Latinos in regard to their environments, public spaces and their roles cultural and historic resource management. I appreciated her honesty in many of the questions and her openness with us. It was an honor to meet her and it definitely left me with more to think about with regard to the future of preservation in our country and the role diversity (racially, ethnically, age, sexuality, etc.) will play as time goes on.

This week was a good week. I feel blessed to be apart of this bigger picture and to be able to witness much of this dialogue firsthand. It is encouraging to hear these conversations happening behind some closed doors. I hope that in the not so distant future we can also be a bigger part of this picture, that through our participation in the Latino Heritage Internship Program we can inspire change and some ‘A-Ha’ moments to start taking place, and that we can inspire younger Latinos to realize they play a very important role in preservation of cultures, heritage, places and identities not just for their Latino communities but for the overall framework of our identity as a diverse country.

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