But if all the educators are gone?

If we’re lucky, we all have particular moments in our career that we can point to and say “I’m really proud of this. If this is my legacy, it’s enough.” Earlier this week, Facebook reminded me that it had been 10 years since one of those moments–the founding of the Informal Educators of Dallas County. In a cruel twist of irony, that same day, a dear friend found out that the entire education department of her museum was being laid off in the first round of cuts. Though she wasn’t at the founding meeting, she has been involved with IEDC since the early years. She’s someone I never would have formed a friendship with if it hadn’t been for that group. We’ve traveled together, drunk countless beers together, and she’s been a special pandemic buddy as we’ve shared a produce box. IEDC began as a response by educators to the 2009 recession. As we move through this pandemic, I’m seeing many opportunities for museums to begin again and build something better. But if all the educators are gone, what hope do we have for a better, more equitable museum field?

IEDC began because I got annoyed at a meeting. In a room full of struggling nonprofits, a leader in the arts community asked us to create a huge, new program, outside of most of our wheelhouses. She told us to “not think about budgets, just think about the children.” I had just been asked by my boss to figure out how small our staff could be–and still provide quality field trips. After the meeting was over, I stood in the parking lot with a friend, and we ranted together. And that’s when we realized something important: informal educators get together regularly at various meetings, but there’s never any time to network or get to know each other, especially across disciplines. We kept being asked by various funders to collaborate, but there was never any opportunity to brainstorm or just get to know each other.

The two of us reached out to a few other educator colleagues. On a rainy night in June, we met at a local bar. We all realized we needed dedicated time to network, brainstorm, and see each other’s institutions. So, we formed the Informal Educators of Dallas County–a group for anyone that taught outside of the classroom. We decided to meet every other month–6 institutions were represented at that first meeting, so we walked out with the plan for the year. Because we’re educators, and that’s what we do. Our meeting format has remained essentially unchanged: meet at 3 p.m. at the host institution (which rotates) for a tour, 4 p.m. discussion on various burning issues, 5 p.m. adjourn to a nearby watering hole. The tour and happy hour are optional, and there are plenty of people that just come for that meeting’s topical discussion.

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A tour of the Bush Library back in 2013.

Ten years later, the group is still going strong. At one point, I think representatives from 40 different institutions were involved. I’m not sure what the number is now. Though I crossed over to the dark side of being an executive director in 2014, I still occasionally join them for drinks. I have made so many good friends through this network. When I became an ED, I realized very quickly that there wasn’t a local group for EDs that I could seamlessly enter. Recently, I’ve started to build that local ED network, but it has taken years.

And what has IEDC meant for Dallas? There have been some great cross-institutional partnerships. One of my favorites was between the Dallas Theater Center and the Holocaust Museum during a production of Cabaret. When a short-sighted decision by Dallas ISD threatened field trip funding for all non-arts institutions, we were able to mobilize in days. Our programs are better–none of us are operating in isolation. And when the pandemic began–something none of us could have imagined–we had friends to turn to and commiserate with and try to adapt.

As I watch the layoffs throughout the country, it appears that education departments are taking a disproportionate amount of the cuts. Others have noticed too–there’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter. Here in Dallas, the frustrations of the last recession helped us build a much stronger community for informal education. It’s too soon to know how the pandemic will shape the future of museum education, but I wonder if too many cuts have already been made. If no educators are left at the end of this, what will the future of informal education be?

At DHV, we’ve been able to avoid major layoffs. It helps when you’re already a tiny, bare bones organization. As I talk to the board about options, I often ask the question: If we gut the organization, how do we recover from that? How do we re-emerge and rebuild if no one is left? What’s more important–cutting short term financial losses or the long-term health of the institution? If there are options to keep people employed, we do that to save the museum.

I will never understand why educators are often the last hires at a new institution, and the first to be laid off when cuts are necessary. We’re all having to ask ourselves very tough questions right now. Will anyone notice if my museum just disappears? What is the point of a museum if we don’t have any visitors? How do we continue to fulfill our mission while we’re closed?

In my mind, there’s only one answer to these questions–and one answer for museums to survive the pandemic. Educators.