September 22, 2022

Addressing the Future of Preservation with The Relevancy Project

In the lead-up to their 50th anniversary in 2021, Landmarks Illinois formed a task force to create a new set of guiding principles to help them move preservation forward. The goal: to share their work with others in the preservation movement nationwide. However, as Bonnie McDonald, president & CEO of Landmarks Illinois, says, “To be relevant to other organizations, we needed to understand what they were experiencing. Were they observing the same things that we were? How were they responding? Were there models to emulate?”

These questions were the basis of The Relevancy Project, a multi-year effort by McDonald and Landmarks Illinois to address many of the major concerns of the practice of historic preservation. In 2022, McDonald began sharing her results through a series of articles on Landmarks Illinois website, and is available as a guidebook for download through Landmarks Illinois.

To better understand The Relevancy Project, we interviewed McDonald about the inspiration behind The Relevancy Project, its methodology, and more.

What inspired the Relevancy Project?

The Relevancy Project (TRP) is one way that Landmarks Illinois is taking action to address our concerns about preservation’s future. These concerns have grown after years observing challenges to preservation ordinances, incentives and funding, and demolition trends—prompting us to be continually reactive, not leaving room for proactivity, and being left out of imperative discussions about our communities’ futures. We also see inequities in our work—that our field does not fully represent our nation’s diversity in all its forms. All of this is leading to burnout and resignations by current and future leaders. Our field needs to act now to address our relevance or decisions about our work will be made for us and not by us.

Two photographs of Bonnie McDonald and interviewees with preservation professionals Katie Keaotamai and Danielle Del Sol in August 2019.

Can you talk us through your methodology for the project?

The intent behind the project was to conduct an environmental scan of the field to inform the creation of an organizational model for preservation’s relevant future. I led the effort to bring the information back to our task force. The information gathering centered around in-depth conversations about preservation’s issues—and the underlying causes—across varied geographies, tenures in the field, organizational types, and scales. Landmarks Illinois approved a two-week research sabbatical for me in August 2019, which was supported in part by a National Trust Peter H. Brink Leadership Fund grant.

During that first trip, I met with 23 preservation professionals in 14 central U.S., West and East Coast cities. Interviewees answered the same six questions and raised consistent concerns about the field’s lack of diversity, inclusion, and equity and the opportunity to do more around affordable housing access and fighting climate change. Two things surprised me during these visits:

  1. How appreciative colleagues were to talk about these issues; and,
  2. How many model programs existed that I had not heard about.

The second research leg took me to Seattle, Portland, and Boise for another nine interviews. Interviewees kept recommending others to talk with, including people outside of preservation who engage with our work.

In February 2020, the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation awarded me a Mid-Career Fellowship to write and design a relevancy guidebook based on my research findings. Then came the pandemic, which enabled me to interview a more expansive cross section of people who engage with preservation, thanks to Zoom.

Eleven topical blog posts covering the research findings are now available at Landmarks Illinois will publish a relevancy guidebook in November 2022, which will include the blog posts, interview notes, and a list of tactical ideas to enhance preservation’s relevance.

Your blog posts tackle some familiar ground for those that are looking critically at the field and some of its challenges. What makes TRP different?

The Relevancy Project wasn’t designed to be entirely different. The posts reflect preservation professional’s concerns. If this were familiar ground, which several topics are, I would expect leaders in the field to raise them. The first set of posts cover interviewees’ greatest concerns: equity, justice and inclusion, affordable housing, and climate change. These words came up between 100 – 200 times across 130 interviews. Though some of the topics are familiar, there may be a slightly different way of expressing the problem or topic, or an additional resource to add. It is also important to reinforce that these issues are important for those who may not be looking critically at the field.

That being said, The Relevancy Project is different in a few ways. Some of the posts explore topics that are less familiar, like the culture of preciousness, job creation, storytelling, health, burnout, and how to fund change. The project also includes voices from outside the preservation field and the different ways that they see the issues.

The interview notes are accessible to any reader ensuring transparency and so that people can come to their own conclusions.

What are some of the key things you want readers to take away, or act on, after reading through your findings?

Landmarks Illinois believes in freely sharing its resources with our community and we are excited to add another resource to help move preservation forward. The issues our communities are facing are so complex that deciding which steps to take can be overwhelming. The Relevancy Project blog posts aim to cover several complex issues at a high level, offer new information or questions to consider, and provide talking points. I hope that readers come away with a reinforced, expanded, or new understanding of the challenges we face.

Preservation is a collective movement working at a grassroots level. We can play to our strengths by having a national framework guiding change, such as the National Impact Agenda and Preservation Priorities Task Force issue briefs, while also providing smaller, tactical actions that preservationists can tailor to local needs. I hope that this project helps to prepare and inspire preservationists who want to make change to be prepared, to be fearless and to take action.

You mention the Preservation Priorities Task Force and the National Impact Agenda. How does The Relevancy Project compliment that work?

When I began this project, there were several others already working in this area of relevance including scholars, nonprofit workers, policymakers, and regulators. In the three years that TRP has taken to research, analyze, assemble and publish, the National Trust for Historic Preservation published a nationwide opinion survey, held a series of topical town halls in 2020, in which I participated, that influenced the idea of creating the National Impact Agenda.

While chairing the National Preservation Partners Network in 2020-2021, I was proud to work with the National Trust to create the Preservation Priorities Task Forces to explore these issues further. Even though TRP’s research wasn’t published, the interviews contributed to these important efforts by informing the discussions and presenting new ideas or different viewpoints.

The Relevancy Project does provide something additive to these other efforts: small-scale, actionable steps that individuals and organizations can take toward greater relevance. The Preservation Priorities Task Force issue briefs and National Impact Agenda have relevant next steps, yet a person may not understand how they can influence policy objectives. I believe that we can have a greater impact if we break these steps down even further.

What’s next for The Relevancy Project?

With all of the blog posts published, I’m now writing the guidebook’s remaining elements, such as the Executive Summary, resource guide, and list of tactical actions. Expect the guidebook’s publication at by mid-November. I am eager to continue Landmarks Illinois’ TRP work in several ways, including partnering in policy development and engaging more people in this conversation through a podcast or TEDx Talk.

It will be important to have a platform to continue publishing resources and tactical ideas for action, though that may another organization’s repository. Exploring assessment metrics for relevance also seems like an imperative. I especially want to support our community in their changemaking efforts and continue voicing the urgency around relevance.

Rhonda Sincavage, director of content and partnerships at the National Trust also contributed to the framing of this piece.

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