May 7, 2015

How to Save a Place: Manage Your Personal Expectations

I’d known that I wanted to be a preservationist for two years by the time my history professor asked me what I was going to do with my degree. After I told her, she said, “You’d better get yourself a black dress because there are going to be some pretty tough fights and you can’t win them all.”

Whether we are pursuing preservation as a profession or just trying to save a historic landmark in our neighborhood, we all share a passion for old places, and that passion can absolutely make a difference in our communities. That said, given how complex and uncertain preservation projects can be, it’s important to prepare yourself for all the possibilities ahead.

Here are four tips on how you can manage your personal expectations before, during, and after your involvement in a preservation project.

1. Educate yourself on preservation.

It’s always helpful to have a sense of the policies, procedures, and terms ahead of you. You can bring yourself up to speed a few different ways:

  • Start reading. Check out the National Trust’s Essential Preservation Reading List for a beginner’s guide to preservation resources. You can also browse the Preservation Tips & Tools series for more information.
  • Go back to school. If you would like to pursue preservation as a professional, consider getting a degree or certificate in the field. Most programs admit students from various educational backgrounds and age demographics. This level of study will give you the technical and theoretical knowledge and experience you need in preservation.
  • Seek out training. The National Park Service’s Technical Preservation Services website has information about webinars, online training, internships, and other programs related to preservation education.

Educate yourself on preservation by reading related resources, seeking training, or pursuing a degree.

2. Educate others.

After building your own knowledge, it’s time to spread the word about what you know -- not necessarily about the detailed ins and out of preservation itself, but more about the inspiration that fuels your passion.

  • Slip in a side of preservation. In your everyday conversations with family, friends, and colleagues, take advantages of opening where you can share project updates, exciting current events, and fun facts surrounding preservation.
  • Continue the conversation on social media outlets and connect with preservation organizations online so that you and your network can stay informed. You never know who you might hook or whose perspective you might change.
  • Discover what people care about. When speaking with potential supporters of your cause, address the aspects of the issue that they will identify with most. This might tie to economic development, safety, education, community revitalization, or more. The point is to tie your preservation project to people’s own interests.
  • Stay positive. Share the exciting and pleasant side of your preservation experiences with people. A shift in your mindset can help change the way the public responds to you.
  • Keep it simple. Preservation is complex, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of nuance and detail. If you’re trying to educate others, however, do your best to keep your message clear and straightforward. Discuss the major points that you think will hit closest to home.

3. Arm yourself for conflict.

No matter how enthusiastic you are about a historic place or how many benefits there may be to saving it, not everyone is going to be on your side. Here are some ways to prepare yourself for inevitable conflict:

  • Rally your supporters (individuals, businesses, organizations, etc.). While everyone might have their own approaches, in the end you’re all working toward the same goal. Help build consensus and community among your ranks.
  • Assess your group’s strategy from different perspectives -- that of the interested outsider, for example, or of the opposition. Refine and improve your strategy as necessary.
  • Take a different tack. If one approach to get the public engaged doesn't work, there's always another way. Reach out to a different audience, pick a new communication channel, or adjust your message. With enough experimentation, you’ll start to learn what resonates with your target audience.
  • Make it personal. Take preservation out of the textbooks and put it in terms that speak to people’s hearts. Talk about the places you’ve loved and/or lost. Share your dreams for your community. Envision with others what you want to leave for future generations. Appealing to our shared humanity is a powerful too.
  • Keep reminding yourself why you do what you do. Your passion and commitment will speak volumes, and supporters will be drawn to your vision.

Rally your supporters and assess your group's strategy from the outsider's perspective.

4. Know that you can lose the battle, but still win the war.

Just as my professor said, you can’t (and won’t) win every battle -- but you can win the war. Here are some useful tactics to keep in mind:

  • Take some time for personal TLC and reflection. Remember you’re only human and that, even if the final outcome isn’t what you are hoping for, your effort is rarely in vain. Even campaigns that end in loss bring the issue of preservation to the public eye, and that education can help in the long term.
  • Use the loss of a special place as fodder to further the preservation dialogue in your neighborhood and network. Continue to cast preservation in a positive light; this way individuals who were on the fence about supporting you in the past will be persuaded to join you for future campaigns.
  • Consider mobilizing your supporters into a more formal group (a nonprofit, for example) so that they will be accessible and organized around the next preservation issue.
  • Connect with broader advocacy groups like the National Trust and state, local, or federal agencies to create policies and laws that are preservation-friendly. (More information on potential partners coming up in the next toolkit!)

Continue a positive preservation dialogue in your neighborhood and network.

Together, these four approaches will help keep your perspective realistic and positive throughout the course of all your preservation work.

This post was adapted in part from A Minnesota Guide to Community Action, Preservation Pennsylvania’s The Crisis Handbook: A Guide to Community Action, and "10 Tips for Introducing the Public to Preservation."

Jamesha Gibson was an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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