David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our semi-regular column on Key Statements for Success now turns to Vision Statements. In Defining Keys for Success we noted that Vision Statements tend to be motivational, and primarily aimed at those who labor for the organization. Such statements also lay the groundwork for demonstrating worth to financial supports by documenting a significant return on investment. However, such statements also should provide a sense of urgency that the work of local historical organizations cannot wait and subsequently be marginalized. History Matters, after all.
Vision Statements really provide the answer of why what we do is so important to do well. If mission springs from the heart, then vision provides the cold-steel backbone of logic-inspired resolve. The two must work in a delicate balance. Here’s a suggested Vision Statement based on the experiences of about 500 local historical organizations in Minnesota:
Vision: Specifically, this organization:
Informs sound public policy through the direct experience of the past.
- EXAMPLE: In talking with one county historical society in the lakes and resort region of the state, they told me about their plan to be helpful to county policymakers. Apparently local ordinances could be stronger in their definitions on lakefront land use. Some owners used the vague language to their advantage to avoid certain responsibilities, which then caused community tension. The county historical society believed it could conduct an oral history project to help elicit a consensus on definitions that would be useful to the policymakers in revising ordinances. Several other organizations have mentioned similar initiatives to help policymakers improve the rules their communities live by. These are ongoing stories, so it will remain to be seen whether these efforts will bear fruit.
Provides a neutral healing environment for people to address the affects of events on their lives.
- EXAMPLE: The Anoka County Historical Society’s award-winning exhibit, “Vietnam: The Veterans’ Experience” made solid use of Veteran’s Administration counsellors. ACHS staff contacted the VA to be on hand during the exhibit’s opening, and on call in the event the exhibit opened old wounds. Controversies, polarizing events, and trauma can be difficult material to use to tell stories, but done well such stories can be healing. In an age of social justice and urgent social issues, this is one area that history organizations should bring to the fore to show how important history is for the public good.
Empowers people to make solid civic and environmental choices.
- EXAMPLE: The choices we make shapes future identity. Charlie Nelson once mentioned a meeting he attended in a community that was considering tearing down its obsolete water tower. Little progress was made between those that wanted “improvement” and those that wanted preservation, until David Nystuen pointed out that the city’s letterhead featured the tower as a symbol of its identity. There must have been a reason the city chose that icon in the past, and to the credit of Kasson, their water tower remains. History is a part of the civic fabric and is part of the natural environment – consider the ongoing story of the Stillwater Lift Bridge, for example. By retaining evidence of the past, historical organizations can enable people to discover why choices were made, and therefore discover a deeper meaning of the value of history resources in the community.
Enables understanding of today.
- EXAMPLE: The Carver County Historical Society conducted an oral history in 2003 with people involved in the 1997 merger of the cities of Norwood and Young America. Documenting the choices and results of events in history will enable people now and in the future to understand better and respect more thoroughly people. This should be thought of as increasing human dignity across time. Over the years many workers at historic sites and in history museums have mentioned how visitors often arrive with misconceptions about themselves and the past; namely, that somehow we are much more evolved and sophisticated than people now dead. History tells us otherwise, of course. Just as there are nonprofits that combat other ugly thoughts about fellow human beings, history organizations can increase the dignity of people who, in many cases, can no longer speak for themselves. The way that is done is to record history as it happens, or at least shortly thereafter.
History is something that needs urgent attention, and your vision can communicate that to volunteers, staff, and financial supporters who all make the work possible. Can you think of other compelling reasons to do the work?
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