Lessons Learned, Part One: Cultivating Relationships
Update: As of November 2020, the website is live! Please visit africanamericanhorsestories.org
Post date: January 3, 2020
As the Digital Project Manager, I have spent the past year coordinating the various pieces that make up the Chronicle of African Americans in the Horse Industry. At the end of the first year, it’s time to take a pause and look back, reflect, and prepare for the coming year. Our primary funder, the Institute of Library and Museum Services, posed an important question in the interim grant report. They asked us to report on our lessons learned. They instructed us: “Describe observations, insights, and new understandings acquired during this reporting period, focusing on information that could be of use to others doing similar work.”
I’ve learned a lot of lessons.
The following is adapted from my narrative for the grant report, and lays out my struggles and realizations for others to learn from. For this post, I am focusing on the all-important aspect of relationships. Watch for three more blogs in this series that will cover additional topics.
Knowing Where to Start
Critical to the success and acceptance of this website as a resource for the African American community is the long-term work of building relationships between the museum and the community. Early on, our strengths and weaknesses were identified through the making of the logic models. We identified trust-building among the community as the area that needed the most work.
Audience evaluation strategist Kate Haley Goldman led IMH staff in developing logic models to connect different audiences with the goals of the project.
Acknowledging institutional racism has been a first step toward building inclusion and equity in the site. As the Digital Project Manager, and as a white woman, it was important that I educate myself about white privilege, dismantling racism, and moving forward in building a crowdsourcing website in a mindful and respectful manner. This has entailed reading books and articles, attending classes and workshops in-person, watching online videos, attending online webinars, discussing what I am learning with IMH staff and community members, visiting people in their homes and on their terms, and listening deeply to the hurts of the past in order to understand how not to perpetuate the harm that has been done.
Building trust is a time-intensive and emotional exercise in growth. As an individual, I can do only so much to bridge those gaps. It is also up to the other decision-makers within the museum, the horse park, the foundation, the larger museum community, and the state and federal government to be aware of how trust has been broken and what is most needed by the African American community. As a temporary contractor, no matter how much I build trust as an individual, the institution I am associated with has the obligation to maintain that relationship after I step out of this role.
Regardless of race, social factors give museums an elitist stigma. The difficulty of redefining what a museum means to a community is compounded by the topic we are dealing with: equine sports and lifestyles of horsemen and women are also viewed as elitist. There is much work to be done to intentionally break down barriers and provide points of entry so that anyone can enjoy the learning experiences the museum provides.
Kindergartener Zaylon explores hands-on activities in the Kids Barn at the Kentucky Horse Park.
One way we partnered with the community, met them where they live, and provided professional museum services was through two History Harvest events. Read more about the History Harvests in this blog. While they were not funded by IMLS, they were an integral part of introducing the project to the East End of Lexington, a historically Black neighborhood where the horse racing industry supported the entire community. The most meaningful aspect was the spontaneous connections community members made with others, recognizing faces from decades ago, remembering working with relatives and friends in the same horse racing circles, catching up, and swapping stories. Many people showed up just to learn more, check us out and see if we were trustworthy.
Another essential aspect is recording oral histories. We included brief recording times at the second History Harvest, and we conducted follow-up interviews. This has grown into its own oral history project, with a repository at a partnering institution, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History. Read more about the oral history project in this blog.
Oral historian Cynthia Maharrey and CAAHI Digital Project Manager Karen Lanier visit the world-renowned repository for oral history and its director, Doug Boyd.
Oral history collection is an extension of trust-building on many levels. It allows the contributor to tell their own story in their own words, builds a one-on-one relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee, and adds a multi-sensory experience for the website user as well.
Our collective work of building relationships will continue with more self-awareness, openness, honesty and humility as this project decentralizes power -- the power of words, stories, images and memories to rewrite history.