When people ask me: “What’s going on at DHV?” my standard reply has become: “Where do you want me to start?” It’s partly a joke, and partly a way to gauge what they’re actually interested in (or if they’re just being polite) and partly the honest truth: I just don’t know where to start.
A few days before Christmas, we sent out the following email:
It’s been a remarkable year at Dallas Heritage Village–and we’re so glad you were a part of it. Here are just a few of the magical moments that our volunteer photographers captured in 2017.
What memories will we make together in 2018?
Ninety donors made it possible to create this giant replica of the first official Dallas flag. We raised it for the first time at Sunday Social, and it flew over Dallas Heritage Village through the summer. Watch for its return in 2018. Photo by Lois Lehman.
Waylon and Willie made their carriage-pulling debut at Old-Fashioned Fourth. Of course, Nip had to help show them the way. Photo by John Lehman.
The Robert Kam Playhouse arrived in its new home this summer. Robert Kam was a longtime volunteer at DHV and lovingly restored this playhouse at his home in East Dallas. Thanks to his family and friends that provided the funds to move and restore it–and preserve his legacy. “Before” photo by John Lehman. “After” photo by Lois Lehman.
Our fall exhibit, Neighborhoods We Called Home, wouldn’t have been possible without these fabulous partners. From left to right: Debra Polsky, Dallas Jewish Historical Society; Melissa Prycer, Dallas Heritage Village; George Keaton, Remembering Black Dallas; Evelyn Montgomery, Dallas Heritage Village; and Juanita Nanez, Dallas Mexican American Historical League. Photo by Bud Mallar.
In September, the former Law Office reopened as The Parlor, a preschool play space. We’ve been thrilled to welcome our littlest visitors in this special space. Special thanks to our program partners at Vogel Alcove and our funding partners: The Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Hoglund Foundation, and The Thompson & Knight Foundation. Photo by Drew Timmons.
When I put this together, I reflected a bit on the past year. There is a reason why I’m tired–and why my staff is tired! We’ve gotten a lot accomplished this year, including several projects that were literally years in the making. Almost everything in that email (except the Dallas flag) took over a year from inception to completion. I first had the idea about the Parlor back in 2010!
And, of course, there’s all the things that have been going on behind the scenes that aren’t reflected in any charming photos quite yet.
Completion of the Visitor Counts survey–and beginning to absorb the findings. This study will go hand in hand with the work on the interpretative plan.
Lots and lots of grant writing–and strategizing for grants. Funding is still a real issue, though we managed to cut our operating deficit in half this year
In 2018, I’ll begin my fourth year as Executive Director–and I still feel like I’m just getting started. There is so much to do and try! I’ve also come to realize how much of this work is a long game. Every time I get impatient, I try to remember that. But patience is a challenge, especially when you’re waiting on developers to start construction. Or funders to give you an answer.
I know I need to write more and share more about what we’re attempting, but finding the energy is a real challenge. And it’s also a challenge to figure out when to share–there are a few things we’ve been working on over the past several months that I just can’t share yet! So, I’m here and I’m thinking and trying to decide when to think out loud. Thanks for listening.
On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.
Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.
Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.
I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.
But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.
Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.
But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.
Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.
As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.
Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.
And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.
In the last few months, my work has taken a surprising turn. I’m having meetings about things that I don’t think most history museum directors ever dream about. People are approaching us with some pretty incredible ideas–ideas that have made my jaw drop and my mind whirl. After about the third time, I started thinking about what caused all of this. And though I could be wrong, the motivations seem to boil down to three main things: our location, our reputation, and the fact that I spend an awful lot of time out in the community talking to people.
And then I flashed back to a board meeting a few years ago. We were looking at the budget, and it wasn’t pretty. We were running a deficit again. Heck, we’re still running a deficit. Out of frustration, a board member said “How will we ever stop this slide?”
“Well, we’re hiring development consultants so we can all learn how to better fund raise. And we can’t discount the impact that the coming development will have. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
“So, you’re saying you’re pinning the entire future of this organization on neighborhood redevelopment?”
“No. But I’m saying this pending development makes me a lot more optimistic about our future, though we’re going to have to work hard to fully take advantage of it.”
Some board members nodded. Some avoided looking me in the eye. Some gave me the side eye.
And though it’s too early to say “I told you so,” I do believe these conversations are a sign of what’s to come–and a sign that a vital neighborhood will make a real difference for our museum. Of course, it’s all taken far longer than I anticipated. Of all the buildings on Ervay that changed hands in 2014, only one is under construction. Back then, we were told that things would be done and open in 2016. Now I just laugh at developer timelines. But yesterday, I had a big meeting with one of our neighbors and that project is finally starting to move forward (and it will be amazing!)
And last weekend, we celebrated another big project and big win for the neighborhood–the grand opening of the Lorenzo Hotel. This building, super visible from DHV, has been empty for years. It was an eyesore, overrun by homeless. Initially, the redevelopment proposal was for affordable housing, and the neighborhood fought that. Today, we have a gorgeous, funky boutique hotel with a pretty fabulous bar.
There was no question about whether or not I would go to the party–I wanted to celebrate that one of the big ideas for the Cedars was complete. And when it was mentioned that a few folks were renting hotel rooms that night, I decided to splurge and get one too.
It was a party unlike anything I’ve ever been too. Of course, there was lots of food and drink. But there were also aerialists spinning by the pool, mermaids swimming in the pool, body paint artists and fairies roaming around.
And most shocking, there was a line around the block of people trying to get in. At that party, a lot of people learned that there is life south of I-30.
We’ve got a long way to go, both as a neighborhood and as an organization. Balancing the budget continues to be a real challenge. Quality of life issues are enormous. But I can’t help but think big and continue to be incredibly optimistic. In a few weeks, we’ll present to the Master Plan Committee and staff some initial ideas for DHV’s future, and we’ll be doing it at the Lorenzo Hotel. It just feels exactly right to think about the future in a place that is a few steps ahead of us.
P. S. I wish I could be less vague about some of these big ideas and partnerships. I want to shout it from the rooftops! (and if I see you in person, I’ll probably share). But nothing is official yet. Trust me–I’ll share when I can.
But here’s a new answer: I don’t think I would have survived this past week without the past two years of increasing community involvement. And my museum would be in a very different place.
On Monday, we needed to make a call about whether or not to pursue a rain plan for our largest fundraiser, History with a Twist. During a two hour meeting, the forecast for rain on Saturday went from 40% to 80%. We decided to wait until Tuesday morning to make the call.
Usually, DHV can’t do much about rain. We can cram about 200 people into the Pavilion, but with 300+ expected guests, food, silent auction, and drinks, there weren’t any good options to keep it at DHV. However, when the 10 day forecast came out, with an 80% chance of rain, I emailed Karen, the ED at Vogel Alcove. I asked: “Is there any way we can move Twist to your building? I know you may have a lot of issues to consider regarding this request, but please think about.” I was expecting a long conversation because this was a very, very big favor. Within a few hours, Karen wrote back “Of course. Whatever you need.” I shouted Hallelujah at my desk. More than once.
First thing Tuesday, I had a long chat with my event chair, Don. Forecast varied depended on where you looked, but all said we would have severe weather on Friday night. This meant set up, particularly for sound and lighting, became more complicated. We knew Vogel would be a very tight fit, but I thought it would be better to spend the week stressing about things we could control, rather than things we can’t. I decided to ask Helen, my director of sales, how she would advise a bride and get back to Don. While I was on the phone with Helen, my phone rang. The last time I ignored a call from the Ticket Office, a reporter had shown up. So I picked up–another reporter had arrived. I texted Don as I walked over, letting him know it would be a little while before I got back to him.
As I was chatting with the reporter, he thought he had a scoop on the growth of the encampment behind DHV (nicknamed Tent Village) as Tent City was closed. I told him that he was the 3rd reporter this month. (Story 1,Story 2, and Story 3)
When I got back to the office, I called Don and we made the decision to proceed with moving Twist to Vogel. Helen and I had a quick meeting, and we got to work on contacting vendors and figuring out the setup.
In the midst of all this, I had a long conversation with Michael, one of my favorite neighborhood advocates–and a member of our board. The day before, there had been a rather contentious Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall. CM Greyson asked a lot of questions regarding police plans regarding Tent Village, and they continued to state that it wasn’t a priority. But this was the first time someone besides our council member, Adam Medrano, had asked any questions. This seemed like a small glimmer of light in what has been a very long, dark tunnel.
Earlier that morning, I had received an email from Stephanie, who is our primary contact for schools. As a result of Friday’s Channel 8 story, schools were calling, concerned about their students’ safety if they came to DHV. Two schools requested to talk to me directly. A few schools cancelled. Late Tuesday afternoon, I sent an email to Mayor Rawlings and Adam letting them know that I had just reassured two schools that their students would be safe on their field trips.
That evening was the monthly CBD (Central Business District) crime watch meeting. I hadn’t planned on attending–I have been to a lot of crime watch meetings over the past year, and I can only tolerate them so often. Also, it was FYA book club night. But after hearing more about the Public Safety meeting and seeing a note that one of the agenda items was Tent Village, I figured I should probably go.
As I walked up, I happened to run into Adam. He told me that the letter writing campaign we launched on April 15 was working–and we needed to keep it up. He also mentioned the letter I had just written to the Mayor–and that he had already gotten a call from the Mayor’s office. Another glimmer of light in the tunnel.
The Dallas Police Chief was there, which I hadn’t realized when I made my decision to go. When the floor was opened for general questions, the very first question, not asked by me, was about their plans regarding Tent Village.
I want to pause for a moment to say this: at every single meeting I’ve attended regarding the current Dallas homeless crisis, I have never been the one to bring up Tent Village. Someone else always does it first. This isn’t by design–there’s no planning or coordination. It just happens. Do you know how gratifying that is? How good it feels to see all your advocacy work out in the community like that? I don’t think there’s a better expression of how the Cedars neighborhood feels about Dallas Heritage Village than what is said in these meetings.
Chief Brown said “I’d like to hear more about what’s going on down there.” The entire room tilted towards me. I introduced myself. I mentioned Friday’s story on Channel 8 and that schools no longer felt it was safe to visit DHV. He asked if the story was accurate. I said yes. And then I said: “My one question for you, Chief Brown, is why it’s not a priority for the City of Dallas to protect a city-owned cultural institution?”
At that, he and Chief Lawton (over our area) sat straight up and started to sputter. Chief Brown “I never said it wasn’t a priority.” And then the strangest thing happened: at least four voices, including my own, responded: “But your actions do.”
That may be the moment when all the momentum we’ve been building as a community–the letter writing, the tweets, the meetings, the news stories–finally began to turn the tide. Chief Brown promised to make closing Tent Village a priority. He asked us to help with creating barriers to make it a less enticing spot. I responded that we had neighbors that have been talking about a cactus/rock garden for months. Enthusiastic nods around the room. At 7:15, I left to head to book club. I really needed a beer.
Early Wednesday evening, I was chatting with my board chair, Trey, after a meeting. My phone buzzed, and I glanced at it. It was a direct Twitter message: a photo of a cleared area behind the Farmstead and the message “Thanks to all involved.” I stared at my phone, not quite believing what I was seeing. “Umm, Trey. . .” And then Michael posted something in one of the neighborhood groups on Faceboook. I clicked on that and saw this picture:
After a long trying process, most of tent Village is gone. This is been the culmination of the efforts of many many people. We hope we can remain that way. Some cleanup still has to get done Landscaping xcetera to prevent them from coming back. Many thanks to Chief David Brown Adam Medrano and all the people in The Cedars, DHV, and Farmers Market who made this happen over the past few months.thanks to all DPD and support from friends downtown.
Trey headed out as I called Michael. Several neighbors were in our small parking lot off Ervay, so I ran over there. We all kinda looked at each other in amazement, stunned that the city had finally taken action. We all know it was just a first step, that there is still much work to do–both to help the homeless and discourage the camp from forming again. However, we still decided that we needed a beer.
On Thursday, the forecast changed again. Late that afternoon a committee member asked the question I had been avoiding: can Twist be moved back to DHV? We started reaching out to key vendors to find out if they could change their set up schedule. They could. On Friday morning, I made the call–back to DHV! And I thanked Karen again, who responded “You know if you hadn’t made all those plans, the forecast wouldn’t have changed.” Nothing about the time her staff spent answering our questions, planning the setup, all the week before their own big fundraiser. As I said in my remarks on Saturday, they are the definition of neighborly.
That evening, I went to the monthly Cedars Neighborhood Association meeting. We are the default hosts, but on Monday, with my cloudy crystal ball, I asked them to find a different location as I didn’t want to ask anyone to stay late to host–and I knew I didn’t want to. But with all that had happened, I knew I had to go. While I was eating dinner, the official word was spread that Tent Village would be closed in conjunction with Tent City on May 4. I spoke briefly about the landscape/barrier plans, and then I said “There are certainly challenges in running a museum in our neighborhood, but there’s not another neighborhood in Dallas I would rather be in.” And then I totally started crying and quickly sat down.
My Saturday started pretty early by my standards–breakfast at 8 with the Mayor Mike Rawlings and selected neighbors. it was on the calendar before the events of the past week, but the timing certainly felt fortuitous. We talked more about Tent Village, the challenges of being in the Cedars and feeling neglected by the Powers That Be. It was a very good conversation, though I remain somewhat pessimistic about any radical changes. And then, I headed to DHV to start setting up for Twist.
Saturday ended up being just about a perfect day, weather-wise. Not too humid, not too hot. It was a beautiful night at DHV. Many, many neighbors were there too–along with Adam Medrano, board members that have definitely had my back through all of this, my parents, family friends, and museum friends. It was a good night–we raised some money, had some fun, and I didn’t tear up once.
So, why write this very long blog post on some issues that are perhaps unique to DHV? Well, first, I write to process–and there is a lot to process. But for my museum friends that are reading this, I ask you:
Could you ask a favor of one of your neighbors on the level of what I asked Karen?
If you were in the middle of a local political crisis, would your neighbors speak up for you?
If, as a director, you had to enter into some very tricky political waters, would your board have your back? (I should mention not a single board member has questioned the letter writing campaign. At least not to me.)
Would you be invited to a “neighborhood” breakfast with the mayor?
Lots of work still to do, and the Dallas homeless crisis continues. Tent City and Tent Village will be closed on Wednesday. It will likely be another crazy week, but perhaps a bit calmer since Twist is now behind us. And no matter how crazy it gets, I know I have some neighbors and friends that are willing to have a drink with me as we attempt to build a better community.
When I joined the staff here in 2004, our name was Old City Park. Consequently, I spent a lot of time on the phone explaining to people the following:
No, you can’t bring your frisbee.
No, we don’t have a swimming pool available for your birthday party.
Yes, you do have to pay admission even though you’re a Dallas taxpayer.
The “museum” is all around you, as soon as you walk through our gates.
In 2006, we changed our name to Dallas Heritage Village at Old City Park. Of course, name changes are never easy, and we still get asked all the time why we changed our name. My short (somewhat snarky) answer has always been: “Why would anyone want to go to an old city park?” And then people generally get it. Changing our name has solved many, many problems. We don’t get the above questions any more. But, of course, there are other challenges.
Changing vocabulary is hard. There are still lots and lots of people out there that still use our old name or just say “the park.” I never correct many of our long time supporters (after all, some of them have supported this organization longer than I’ve been alive. They can call us whatever they want), but if you got to know us post-2006, you better be not be calling us a park. As we began working with our new developer friends, I had to have a conversation about how they referred to us, emphasizing “history museum in park-like setting.” Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way that people that primarily think of us as a park aren’t going to respect our mission of preservation and education. For years, I’ve been working to eradicate the word park from our DHV vocabulary. But now I’m starting to have some second thoughts.
Yesterday was the 3rd Annual Dallas Jazz Age Sunday Social. This 1920s themed lawn party uses our grounds to their full potential. It’s certainly a day when we’re more park than museum. Thirteen hundred people showed up yesterday, the largest non-Candlelight event attendance we’ve had in 5 years. Though most people explored the museum, the prime attraction was sitting on our lawn, enjoying the first real spring day in Dallas. We closed at 5. At 6, we had to kick people off their picnic blankets. It was glorious. Matt, our partner for the event, uses the word park all the time–and he certainly used it from the stage yesterday. Sometimes I inwardly flinch, but I’m trying to get over it. Because he brought us 13oo visitors yesterday.
As the neighborhood around us changes, we’re going to have to rethink museum access. Today, 9,000 people live in the urban core, and 45,000 people live in one of the surrounding neighborhoods. More stunning, there are 5,500 new units under construction right now. Before I ever joined the staff, we offered a neighborhood membership option giving people after-hours access to our grounds. We are the largest green space in downtown, and we’re fenced–this is something worth paying for. In the coming months, we’re gong to be pushing the neighborhood membership option hard, in a way we never have before.
As I continue to ponder our options for long-term sustainability, I’m beginning to think that our land might be our greatest asset. We will always be a history museum, first and foremost, but I’m becoming more accepting of the word park. We’re not going to tear down our fences. We won’t become downtown’s largest dog park. As we ponder ways to increase access, we still have to protect our buildings. (as fabulous as Klyde Warren Park is, that can’t be our future. Our sweet wooden buildings would die.) But the word park is an important part of our history, and it’s an important part of our future as well.
I’m still conflicted about the word park. We are so much more than just a park. But, our historic land, so close to our urban core, certainly makes us special.
Dallas Heritage Village closes two months–January and August–every year. As much as I love our visitors, it can be really, really nice to be closed. This time gives us time to plan, work on some more involved projects and catch up on a few things–both at work and at home. This January, I was looking forward to tackling a few big projects at work, as well as finally organizing my home office.
And then, at the end of the first work week of 2016, I asked a very simple question that has uprooted all of my plans.
On Thursday afternoon, I was chatting with our neighbor Michael about a variety of things (per usual!). He said “You know that blue Victorian house on Griffin? Something is going on with it. All of the upstairs windows are open.”
Me: “Well, use your investigative powers and see what you can find out.”
The next afternoon, Michael forwarded an email to me from another neighbor (sent around 2:50 p.m.), reporting that there was a bulldozer parked in front of the house. Michael called me almost immediately and was already in his car to go check things out. I told him that I would call my friend David at Preservation Dallas to see if there was anything we could do. Dallas recently passed a demolition delay ordinance for any building over 50 years old, and our neighborhood is a part of that overlay. David, God bless him, picked up the phone late on a Friday afternoon.
My simple question: “Is there anything we can do?” David told me to call and email the preservation officer at the city. While I was doing this, Michael posted (around 3:15) pictures on social media of the bulldozer.
I copied them into the email I was writing and hit send. Within 30 minutes, I had a phone call from Robert Wilonsky from the Dallas Morning News wanting permission to use the photo. I gave him Michael’s number and headed to a meeting. Coincidentally, it was with a board member who happens to be a preservation architect–and we were talking about the deferred maintenance inventory at DHV. So, I figured if I was ever in a meeting constantly checking social media, this was the right issue and the right board member. Because social media was exploding.
That night, I had drinks with Michael and we strategized a bit: if we can stop the demolition, what options are there? Can this home get a new lease on life?
The next morning, I was minding my own business, sipping coffee, when this got published:
Throughout the weekend, I kept a close eye on social media conversations, jumping in when I felt appropriate. My goal: make sure that people understood that DHV couldn’t just rescue the house. With a huge needs list of buildings we already care for, the only way we could consider accepting the house would be with a very large check.
On Monday, I spent the morning filming a few of our early supporters as they talked about the early days of DHV. We were founded to save a house from becoming a parking lot. So when a colleague stood at my door and said “I just let in a reporter from Channel 8 news in. They want to talk to you,” the historical parallels just slapped me in the face. Here we are, at the dawn of our 50th anniversary year, and there’s another preservation battle. But this time, we’re not sure moving the house to a museum is the best choice.
The story aired on Monday night. And then they kept running it.
I had become the face of this particular historic preservation crisis. In the last few weeks, there have been dozens of conversations with people that want to save the house (and then realize the cost), people that have family that lived in the Cedars, board members, neighbors, and preservation friends. Though I know I have done other things this month (like have some important conversations about the growing homeless issue in Dallas. Or conversations with the board about growing our budget. Or important staff training.), I feel like all I’ve done is think about this lonely, threatened blue house.
In all honesty, I don’t think this particular preservation crisis wouldn’t have gotten the media attention if it hadn’t been for its location. It’s very visible from a major interstate, and it just looks totally out of place. It’s a gateway to the neighborhood–but also a symbol of all of the abuse the Cedars has endured over the years.
Though the media flurry has calmed down a bit, there have been other articles in recent weeks as we move towards the all important Landmark Commission meeting on Monday. My favorite might be this one:
We’re definitely still in the middle of this. But as I reflect on this month that didn’t go as planned, I know that dropping everything to work on this was the right decision. Even if the house ultimately comes down (and I don’t think it will), it will still be a victory. For once, a historic building in Dallas didn’t come down in the middle of the night. People across the city are talking about historic preservation, the Cedars, Dallas Heritage Village and Preservation Dallas. There’s a rising push to do more for the historic fabric that’s left in this city.
One of my recurring jokes is that there are no history emergencies. The stuff is already old, and it’s just getting older. But these events have reminded me that sometimes we have to act quickly to save the past. David, my colleague at Preservation Dallas, knows this quite well, but these aren’t the kind of battles that history museums typically get involved with. But maybe we should? It certainly seems like an important part of being a community anchor, even if we can’t save the house ourselves. Working side by side with David on all of this has been a great learning experience for me. He knows how to build the arguments about history relevance. He knows what to do in a crisis. We’ve worked together before, but this whole incident is taking both our personal and institutional partnerships to a new level. Very soon, I think we’re going to need to have an adult beverage. Or several.
So here it is, almost the end of January. Somehow, I’ve managed to complete the do-or-die portion of my to-do list, but other big projects remain on the back burner. And I’m so very tired. I was supposed to be rested as we head into spring. Oh well. I guess this is the life of an executive director in a changing neighborhood.
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.