January 23, 2018

“We Are the Next” Generation: Engaging Young People in Preservation

  • By: Carson Bear
A student takes a selfie during the Youth Heritage Summit program.

photo by: We Are the Next

A student snaps a selfie at We Are the Next's Youth Heritage Program.

Why does it seem like teens and young adults are unlikely to engage with historic preservation? Is it a lack of effective education in U.S. history? An unwillingness to learn more about the places that shaped our national identity? Executive Director Katie Rispoli Keaotamai at We Are the Next, a nonprofit organization that specializes in educational programs and experiences centered around civic engagement, says that the answer is a lot more complicated than that.

According to Keaotamai, historic sites and house museums have the ability to not only draw young people to their doors, but to capture their interest while visiting and help them bring the insights they gained back to their communities. And after running their own successful programming, We Are the Next is working to equip historic sites with the tools they need to effectively engage America’s future generations. Helping young people become active members of our communities, Keaotamai explains, is key to helping historic places thrive.

I interviewed Keaotamai to learn more about We Are the Next’s current programming, the importance of bringing young people into historic sites, and the best techniques to engage youth before, during, and after their visits.

Tell me more about the Youth Heritage Summit program.

Youth Heritage is ultimately a “Preservation 101” summer camp. It’s designed for teens, and the idea is that students come to a historic place, complete hands-on activities that engage them with the field of preservation, and bring the knowledge that they’ve gained back to their community. I went to Vancouver, Washington, in the summer of 2015 for their Youth Heritage Project [first created by the National Park Service] so I could pick up some tactics to bring back to my area.

What were some successes from this and other programs, like Proud of Where You Come From? What lessons did you learn about youth engagement in preservation?

We wanted students to see themselves in historic sites and in the story of their communities. An effective way to do that is to treat them like consultants, which is how we see students at We Are the Next: They’re a resource we don’t often have access to. We decided to take the students to less popular sites that tend not to engage with folks from this age group. We had the students go through the experience, just like any other visitor. After the experience, they would gauge the content delivered by docents and have a frank conversation with the students about what was and wasn’t working for them. They identified pitfalls or areas with room for improvement, and we decided how to make the sites’ messaging more appealing to a diverse audience.

We now call this program the community storytelling workshop, and rather than just having a conversation about what does and doesn’t work, the students channel their ideas into direct output to create a marketing strategy. Each group of students has a different audience, and they have to create a series of marketing strategies and advertising campaigns to tell the stories of these sites. Then, we compile their strategies into a guidebook and give it to the sites. It helps the students feel valuable and can even raise their self-esteem, because we’re making them feel heard. At the same time, it gives the sites valuable feedback about their audiences.

Why is it important for museums and historic sites to focus on reaching teens and young adults, rather than elementary students?

[In the 1970s and ‘80s], the federal government started looking at how we could encourage students to pass standardized tests on American history. At the same time, a study had come out showing that children under age 10 were highly impressionable. The study was used as a justification for students to visit historic house museums. The government thought that it would be [advantageous] for children to visit the museums at an impressionable age, so they could learn more about the concept of history.

In reality, what ends up happening is students go to historic house museums in fourth grade, they have a nice experience, and then they hit puberty shortly after they go. And like any other person at that age, they want to distance themselves from the things they did as children. So as a country, we’ve isolated exposure to historic sites to single digit age brackets [usually between 8 and 10], right before they hit puberty. And many sites don’t get funding for students at any other age.

A student creates a painting as part of the Youth Heritage Program.

photo by: We Are the Next

Creating something tangible can help young people retain knowledge and bring it back to their communities.

We’ve allowed ourselves to let children and children alone enjoy historic house museums, and I suspect that as they get older this creates nostalgia, which is why so many people in their 50s and 60s tend to give financial support to these sites. But [because of that], students and young adults specifically don’t find history cool. The more these sites are associated with immature subjects, the more teens don’t want to associate themselves with these sites.

Moreover, teens don’t choose majors like history when they go to college and they don’t see themselves working in the field of preservation. But a majority of preservationists found the field through unusual circumstances, and they most likely didn’t start out their careers in preservation.

We assume that students just aren’t interested in preservation, but we haven’t reached out to these teens. You can find STEM, business, and even architecture booths at college career fairs, but there isn't usually a historic preservation booth. Instead, we focus our efforts on fourth graders, rather than the people who are truly deciding what their life is going to look like in the future.

How can historic sites and historic house museums engage with teens and young adults more effectively? How does We Are the Next assist in this process?

It’s important for historic sites to look at youth as an asset more than as a prospective audience. Understandably, the content at historic sites is often geared more towards their most financially viable and supportive audience: People in their 50s and 60s. But to [be effective at getting] young people to your site is to incentive them to come for the first time with volunteer hours, or by partnering with a local high school club [and making a visit to your site] an activity they need to complete.

Once they’re there, three things need to happen: First, you need to talk to them as if they’re on the same level as your usual audience. It’s very helpful if docents treat students like equals and hear out their comments or suggestions respectfully, and stay engaged.

The second thing that’s key is to discuss content that students can relate to. That doesn’t mean that your site has to relate directly to your audience, but every story has a compelling component you can use to reach out to [students’] lives. Stories can be about, for example, a romantic relationship or a dramatic event, rather than architecture alone.

And third, once they’ve visited the site, they should do something hands-on to show that they absorbed knowledge about the site. It can be [creating] a poster, a PowerPoint presentation, or even a marketing plan. Students need to take in content and then translate it into something tangible, or a product they’re emotionally attached to. By giving them a product, they also have developed something they can share with the community.

It doesn’t matter what your historic site’s story is or where it’s located, but if you're interested in reaching those key audiences, considering how to transition into reaching young adults is a really important step.

We Are the Next is interested in creating a model for success in this field, and we’re hoping to move this from a regional to a national program. Right now, we’re working on transforming our work into a toolkit that can be shared across the country. Right now, we are looking for grant funding to make this vision a reality. If we get funding, the toolkits will be available in 2018.

Carson Bear

Carson Bear was an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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