How we aim to lead by example in history engagement

By Katie Rispoli Keaotamai, Executive Director

This fall, I was asked to speak at the California Council for the Promotion of History's (CCPH) annual conference in Sacramento. When I was asked, I felt surprise and intrigue as we are a small organization, but saw it as an opportunity to share our message. 

For the last eight years I've been surrounded by history professionals, whether it was during my time at CSU Long Beach and USC's Heritage Conservation program, or in my working world renovating historic places and sharing stories with young people. What I've learned is that the world of history professions is deeply divided: it is filled with those who are afraid of change, and have yet to embrace diversity and technology, and those who have embraced change and seen the return on that investment.

Going into this presentation, I understood that much of the audience would be on the side of the field that has not yet embraced diversity and technology. This isn't necessarily the choice of the individual, a lot of the time it's actually institutional - large institutions are set in their ways and may require years of determination from forward-thinking staff members to gain permission and take action.

Regardless of where you stand in this ongoing debate among history lovers and professionals, there's a consensus that the population has shifted dramatically. With a growing number of young adults and a changing complexion, the audience for our work is a new one every year. This is what I chose to address during my time at the CCPH conference. 

I invite you to watch the video, however it's pretty long so to give you a summary, here's a few key points of my talk to summarize:

1. My perspective (as a middle-class white person) on Historic sites contrasted with that of today's young metropolitan population

The Rives Mansion in Downey, Photo by We Are the Next

The Rives Mansion in Downey, Photo by We Are the Next

While earning my degrees, I was constantly brought to visit the grandiose homes of legendary architects, stars of the silver screen, and entrepreneurs. The kinds of people who weren't just California's early pioneers, but often were the early exploiters of our native peoples and immigrants. Their homes are beautiful, but when I interacted with these places, I saw them as representations of an era where people were separated by risk and creativity. In my perception, these places demonstrated the endless possibilities offered to those in California throughout the last 200 years... but this is where our histories with an 's' come into play.

As a privileged, middle-class white American I was seeing pictures of opportunity, but for those who weren't in my position they may have seen the opposite. For those who don't come from my background (the majority of Californians), they may look at these lavish estates and see them as representations of racial divide. These places aren't the homes of royalty, fun to tour over a three-day weekend and drop a donation at the door, they can be intimidating, alienating, and a standing reminder of the "we're us, you're you" mentality that has been painfully separating humans into categories throughout history.

2. How can we engage the majority, if not through the traditional "Historic House Museum"?

VIP Records in Long Beach, Photo by We Are the Next

VIP Records in Long Beach, Photo by We Are the Next

At We Are the Next, we don't simply focus on "historic places." Instead, we broaden our efforts to include the places that tell the stories of our communities. Through this approach, we've learned that all communities have places they consider centric and culturally-relevant, only those places often don't look like your typical historic house museum, they might look like the strip-mall storefront you see in this photo to the left (Long Beach's infamous VIP Records). 

The difference is, few are recognizing the cultural relevancy of these places... but they should be. These places shape our way of living, they've played a role in our histories, and the stories they tell are often more inclusive. If we can raise awareness that these places are valuable, we can spur the conversation of why they matter.

3. Confronting the assumption that "Young people don't care about history."

Students at We Are the Next program create digital content about historic places, Photo by Lindseying Photography

Students at We Are the Next program create digital content about historic places, Photo by Lindseying Photography

When history organizations say that 'young people don't care about history,' they create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Believing young people won't be interested in their work leads them to engage with older crowds and dismiss young people as a potential audience, which in turn discourages young people from coming to their events and participating in their programs as those programs aren't intended for their consumption. This decreases the number of young people present in history-related activities, and as a result encourages the perception that 'young people don't care about history.' Are you seeing a pattern here? Because I am. 

The fact is, it's not that young people don't care, it's that we haven't kept their attention. At We Are the Next, we've been doing history-based programming with young adults for over two years, and we've seen through our work that tomorrow's leaders are dedicated. Once they're interested in history, they dig their heels in. They've asked me how they can give back, they've signed up to volunteer with us, and I've even received emails and letters from their parents saying our programs have changed their children for the better. 

When we look at today's youth born around the year 2000, we can gather that they're a volatile and necessary generation. They will spend their lives finding solutions for the unsolvable through their innate ability to master tech, they'll do everything in their power to counter our environmental mistakes, and they will learn to tell their histories their way. 

This generation (sometimes called Gen Y) learns fast - we perceive them to have short attention spans, but really a lifetime of instant gratification through social media and the internet has taught them that they don't need to rely on someone else to give them answers. When they have a question, they search for the answer.

It's for this reason they're some of the most skilled problem solvers we've ever seen. They complete tasks much faster than we do, because they've learned that the quickest way to find a solution is to lean on your resources and teammates. With this information, we know our educational techniques will need to change dramatically to accommodate their learning style... and if these methods are changing, why wouldn't the way we teach young people about our histories need to change as well?

4. Investing in the next generation

High School students at Youth Heritage Summit, a summer program by We Are the Next, walk Cesar E. Chavez's morning meditation hike with his grandson, Fernando Chavez

High School students at Youth Heritage Summit, a summer program by We Are the Next, walk Cesar E. Chavez's morning meditation hike with his grandson, Fernando Chavez

Traditionally, the United States brings students to historic places to learn about local and state history between the ages of 8 and 10. As a result, the majority of funding intended for educating students about these topics gets allocated to this age group alone, meaning very few students in our public schools visit historic places between the ages of 10 and 18. This is pretty important, because if you think about your own personal view of the world and its challenges in your teen years, it's dramatically more complex and socially-motivated than it is before adolescence. 

Through the National Park Service alone in 2015, the federal government allocated 45 million dollars for 4th grade exposure and education, while only allocating 4 million dollars to youth between the ages of 15-35... which means that only a fraction of that $4 million reached impressionable young adults. This indicates that the distribution of our investment is drastically unequal. So while we're working to improve and adapt the way we share our histories, we need to also pose the question - What is the opportunity cost of investing so substantially in children as opposed to young adults, who will be entering adulthood in the next decade? Is investing in 4th graders even worthwhile?

Now I'm not saying we shouldn't engage children with history. We do this for good reason, it's just a matter of evaluating whether we should only engage children with history... because knowing facts about battles and movements, and having a passion for your culture and community are very different.

In surveys conducted by our organization in 2016, we asked current history professionals and advocates to share with us the experience that inspired them to pursue their interest. The majority described an event or personal experience which took place when they were a young adult in their teens or twenties, and this tells us there's a difference between exposure and impact. We can bring elementary school students to historic places to expose them to history, but those experiences won't have a real impact on their perception of the world as they live in it until they are in their formative years.

5. How to reach the next generation

Cesar E. Chavez attends a meeting to organize California farm workers in the fight for farm worker rights, Photo courtesy of the Cesar Chavez Foundation

Cesar E. Chavez attends a meeting to organize California farm workers in the fight for farm worker rights, Photo courtesy of the Cesar Chavez Foundation

We know that when the next gerneration needs answers, they go out and find them. If we're not right in front of them when they go searching for careers and philanthopic opportunities, we won't be on the short list. It's our responsibility to ensure that when young adults go looking for these things, we're ready to be the answer.

Most individuals interact with history every single day, they just don't think about it.They work or live in a historic building, they vote using constitutional amendments that were added as a result of social change movements, they eat produce grown more safely because of human rights advocates, they practice a religion - every single one of these actions is made possible because of our collective histories. If we emphasized this, we would reach a much more substantial audience.

As a history-serving organization, our greatest disservice to today's youth would be to go to our offices and simply put our heads down and do our jobs. For us to be the answer when they go searching, we need to be as active and accessible as possible. We need to go to our neighborhoods, our families, our children - and make it a point to talk about our painful and joyous histories. We need to comment online, share news of cultural events, and attend neighborhood outreach meetings. 

It's up to us to guide tomorrow's leaders, so our histories can be their histories too.

We Are the Next is committed to becoming a leader in engaging young people with historic places. To help us further our efforts, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today.

Katie RispoliComment