Sometimes, the answer is “not great”

Next week should be one of my favorite weeks of the year–the annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History. It’s a time to start growing new ideas, catch up with old friends, and make connections. But if I’m being perfectly honest with myself, I’m actually really dreading it.

At a professional conference, what is usually the very first question someone asks you?

“How are things going at work?”

And if I was to be perfectly honest, my answer right now would be “Not great.”

In mid-July, shortly after returning from a wonderful MAP (Museum Assessment Program) review in Montgomery, I got a phone call from the Office of Cultural Affairs at the City of Dallas. You know, the department where we get 20% of our funding? We hadn’t done well at all at our bi-annual panel review–and our city funding was at risk. Though there are nuances to the scoring, it really boils down to diversity and inclusion issues.

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Millermore, completed in 1862

The next several weeks were full of meetings and tough conversations–with the staff, the board, and the city. As an organization, we have never fully faced the truth: we were founded to save the home (Millermore) of a prominent local slaveholder. And we are in a city that is ranked as one of the most racially divided cities in the nation. You’ve seen the headlines about Confederate Memorials and Botham Jean. Long before the call from the city, we began taking steps to start facing all this. We were exploring options for cultural awareness training. We planned to begin a deep dive for all staff into the primary sources for Millermore so we can tell the stories of everyone who lived and worked there–enslaved and free, men and women, first and second generations, children. And we were already in talks to bring Joe McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project to Dallas, in what would be just his second visit to Texas.

But in a situation like this, words and plans don’t really matter. Only actions do. So, I made the decision that we are closing Millermore for reinterpretation while we do this work. We have some that are upset by this decision, but they’re not saying anything directly to me. In the end, I’m actually grateful to the city for giving me this very powerful tool. These are plans and projects I’ve been pushing for a long time and getting resistance at various levels. It’s much harder to argue when inaction could result in the demise of the organization. So, we carry on with these plans and wait for word from the city on how deep the budget cut will be.

At the same time, we’ve been struggling with our fundraiser, History with a Twist. About a year ago, I suggested to board leadership that we not continue this event and outlined a plan to make up that revenue. They decided to carry on–and we invested in a top-notch event planner, found an off-site location (no more weather worries!), and secured a great honorary chair. We moved the event from spring to September. It will be a great party. But sponsorships and ticket sales never really came in, and though we probably won’t lose money, we’re not going to make much either. More money woes.

On the bright side, there was very little discussion at the board meeting about making this the last Twist. And I have a pretty fun dress to wear.

In early August, my Director of Education, who has been with us for 5 years, announced that she was heading to the classroom to teach PreK for Dallas ISD. All of our work with Vogel Alcove and early childhood education made her realize that her passion is with the little ones. It is absolutely the right decision for her, but oh! The timing for DHV!

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Also, in the middle of all this, I had a birthday. I almost cancelled our weekend plans (mini-road trip) so I could be a hermit. So glad I didn’t do that! These friends help a lot.

In the middle of all this, I left for a two week trip to Europe in mid-August and removed the work email app from my phone. It was glorious. With everything going on, maybe the timing of the trip wasn’t the best. On the other hand, with everything going on, I desperately needed the break. I only had a few nightmarish dreams about work while I was away.

The day I got back to the office, my brand new part-time educator (started in July) told me she was taking a full time job at another museum in town. The good news about these education departures–they’re both working part-time for a little while to help with the transition. The bad news: with all of our budget question marks, it’s impossible to finalize a plan for the future of our education department. Not that I’ve had time to think much about it.

So, here we are, ten days from the end of our fiscal year. We have no budget for the next fiscal year. No real idea on how bad the operating deficit will end up being this year. No idea on who will carry on the work of the education department–or how that will be possible. And we have to make sure every step we take is perfectly placed, because all eyes at the city are on us.

This isn’t to say there aren’t some remarkable bright spots. The wonderful thing about a crisis is that there is an opportunity to really see what people are made of. Staff are stepping up. Board members are stepping up. And as always, our neighborhood has our back. And there are other signs. A surprise $25,000 gift from a long time donor who had never given more than a few hundred at a time. The news that one of the premier food and wine events in Dallas is moving to DHV in early November. My appointment to an AAM task force on museum education standards. The Board Engagement Committee (that I’ve been asking about for over a year) has finally formed–and is doing things.

Last Sunday, the sermon at church was about the gap between what you have and what you need–and how sometimes that is absolutely the best thing. That gap can force us to grow. So many parallels for where DHV is right now! I’m taking courage from Andrew’s word as we continue to step into the gap. All of these recent challenges are a powerful reminder of how precarious our financial situation is. Some days, I think we’re in the middle of what will be a remarkable turn-around stories. Other days, I’m not so sure–and feel completely inadequate for the work ahead.

I know I’ll enjoy my time in Kansas City (once I get through Twist and finalize those session powerpoints!). I know it will be refreshing and that I’ll come home with some new tools and idea to face these very big issues.

But I also know that when colleagues ask “How are things going at work?” I’m not going to say my usual “Great!”

I might say “interesting.”

I might say “challenging.”

I might say “not good.”

And I encourage you to be honest also–because we’re not always honest about the challenges we face in this work. Or the emotions. I can now say that I have cried at a staff meeting. I cried at our Annual Meeting. I have cursed a fair amount. And I’m not always sleeping well–I’m finishing up the rough draft of this at 12:30 a.m.

So yes, I’m heading into AASLH absolutely emotionally exhausted. I’m writing this post partly so I don’t have to explain everything quite so many times. I’m happy to talk more about any of this, though I may also say “I don’t really want to talk about it.” And it won’t be because I suddenly no longer believe in transparency. It will be because I am tired.

However, I will gladly accept hugs. Let’s face it: after the year we’ve had, we could probably all use a hug or three.

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Melissa

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. I've worked at Dallas Heritage Village since 2004, first as the educator, and became Executive Director in 2014.

3 thoughts on “Sometimes, the answer is “not great””

  1. Melissa, this is such a rich, thoughtful, well-written slice of the life of an ED of a historic site. There is so much here to consider. I will read it a few times more, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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