Last week, I had a lengthy interview with a local reporter about the homeless encampment just on the other side of DHV’s fence. Since July 2014, we’ve had a steady stream of individuals that have chosen to live next to the I-30 access road, behind our Farmstead.
About halfway through that interview, I said to the reporter, “When I became a history museum director, I never dreamed that I would also become an expert on local homeless issues.” But this isn’t going to be a post about the complexities surrounding homeless issues in Dallas–after all, I’m hoping that this is an issue unique to us and our urban environment. However, the odds are good that at some point in your career, you’ll also be facing a difficult, complex issue, whether internal or external. Though this issue is far from resolved, I thought it might be helpful to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the past 18 months.
Get to know your local political representatives TODAY. My first meeting with Adam Medrano, councilman for District 2, was in March 2014. It was just a getting-to-know-you general tour. In the following months, we invited him to our fundraiser, I got to know his assistant, and ran into him occasionally at the neighborhood restaurant. So, when I wrote my first email asking if there was any way he could help with the homeless encampment that had popped up on our perimeter, he already knew who I was and what the museum meant to the neighborhood. Our first communication wasn’t about an issue, which made it a lot easier once there was an issue.
Do your research. In this case, I began reading a lot more articles about homeless issues in Dallas. We have a much larger tent city under a nearby overpass, so I follow any developments with that, knowing that our smaller camp will also be impacted. And as painful as it may be, read the comments on social media. It helped me learn what trigger words to avoid in any communications I made about the issue. It’s also a prime way to identify potential advocates–or people to be very careful around.
Communicate constantly. Over the last year, I’ve had a lot of meetings about this issue with a lot of different people–city attorneys, elected officials, police, and people working directly with the homeless. I make sure that staff and board know about each of these meetings and what I’ve learned. When a reporter showed up to talk about the encampment with no warning (and I was offsite), I let my board chair and our PR people know immediately. And when the story aired, I made sure to send the link to the board, along with an assessment of any potential repercussions. (For those that don’t follow journalism about homelessness in America, it can be very easy to be made out as if you hate the homeless simply by not wanting them to camp near your property. This was what I worried about–how might DHV’s reputation be impacted by this story? The good news is that everything was mostly fine.)
Have friends to whom you can safely vent. In some ways, homelessness is the third rail of politics. I have to be very, careful of what I say, but the whole situation is deeply frustrating. No one should be living next to a highway, whether they’re next to my museum or not. And all of this has been going on for a very long time. It’s good to have a few people that I can share my frustration with–so it doesn’t accidentally leak out in public.
Start working today on better understanding and increasing the soft power you hold in your community. Several weeks ago, I picked up a newish book from the American Alliance of Museums, Cities, Museums and Soft Power. The majority of the case studies feature internationally known art museums, so the connection to our issues and opportunities was slim at best. However, there were several times I found myself nodding. Without knowing the term, I’ve been steadily increasing our soft power in the community for the past two years. So, what is soft power?
According to the authors, Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenburg, “soft power is the ability to influence behavior using persuasion, attraction or agenda setting. Where the resources of ‘hard power’ are tangible–force and finance–soft power resources are intangibles, such as ideas, knowledge, values and culture.” (p. 9) So, what does this mean when facing a neighborhood homeless crisis? DHV matters in a very different way than the new developers or the homeowners. I saw this immediately in response to an incident last July: a cooking fire turned into a small grass fire uncomfortably close to one of our historic structures. Within a few days, I was able to line up a series of meetings that neighbors had been trying to get for weeks. And, of course, I made sure to have a neighbor with me at those meetings. Soft power also means that we’re not the only ones asking the city for help on our behalf. Two different neighborhood associations have asked for assistance on our behalf, as well as scores of friends via social media, calls to the police and more. Our neighbors want to protect DHV as much as they want to protect their neighborhood. If your complex issue is at all external, your institution’s soft power will be invaluable as you work through things.
This issue is far from solved, both in the city at large and in our own neighborhood. In fact, in recent weeks, both our encampment and the larger Tent City have gotten larger. But we have a pretty amazing team, forcing the uncomfortable conversations and working towards a solution that will serve both the homeless and the neighborhood. And as the neighborhood’s fortunes rise, DHV will also rise.