(The Skyline Council of Landmarks Illinois partnered with People for Community Recovery for a heart bomb at Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens on February 12, 2022. Altgeld Gardens and the Philip Murray Homes were added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 2022. Photo by Lewis Purdy.)
JUNE 23, 2022
By Bonnie McDonald, President & CEO, Landmarks Illinois
Hello, and thanks for taking the time to learn about the Relevancy Project. Let me introduce myself: I’m Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of statewide nonprofit Landmarks Illinois and immediate past Board Chair of the National Preservation Partners Network. My 24-year preservation career includes working for national and state preservation nonprofits, lobbying coalitions, state and local government, historical societies and house museums (here’s a link to my credentials). Having devoted half my life to preservation, the Relevancy Project comes from a deep dedication to our work and fears for its future viability. Please note that when I use the words “we”, “our” or “some” in this post, I am referring to preservation professionals and people who identify as participants in the preservation movement.
Pre-pandemic, my day began and ended in an overcrowded train. Audiobooks became a guiltless way to unplug and simultaneously learn something. Jean Case’s “Be Fearless,” my April 2019 listen, lit a fire in me to make visible the problems I see in preservation and join with others to do something about them.
I believe the historic preservation movement is facing a relevancy crisis 2. Something is relevant when it’s seen as a solution to society’s problems. Who you work with and how you identify, evaluate and solve the problems creates relevancy through engagement. Rather than being hailed as a solution, we’ve seen preservation criticized, challenged, marginalized and even vilified 3. We need to be seen as problem-solvers, not problem-creators. Relevancy will give us credibility, access and a viable financial future.
It’s challenging to see your life’s work discounted and rendered unimportant and, worse, inequitable. Some feel this criticism is unwarranted and only see our intentions as benevolent and our impact as positive. Others believe we are woefully lacking in self-awareness about the inequities in our field and that a reckoning is long overdue. Despite the widespread recognition that change is needed, there’s little consensus on what to do. But if we don’t begin to change, decisions will be made for us and not by us. Through the Relevancy Project, I will publish a series of blog posts exploring the topics raised by those I interviewed and provide ideas for actions we can take to make preservation more relevant. It’s time to move beyond assessment and into action.
What is the Relevancy Project?
The Relevancy Project started as a vital component of the visioning process for Landmarks Illinois’ future. In 2021, Landmarks Illinois celebrated its 50th anniversary and our board and staff saw this as not only an opportunity, but a mandate to explore making our organization more relevant. Landmarks Illinois formed a think tank, our 50th Anniversary Task Force, to reimagine preservation’s future in Illinois and create a bold organizational vision. The task force was made up of people both inside and outside of preservation, representing community development and organizing, transportation, planning, housing, architecture, law, construction, small business, policy and preservation. This diverse group created a set of guiding principles to inform the changes we need in preservation.
Working over a 14-month period, the task force realized that Landmarks Illinois could be a testing ground for ideas that enhance preservation’s relevance to an audience that extends well beyond Illinois. As part of this broader reach, I launched a national peer environmental scan, called the Relevancy Project, to talk with others about preservation’s challenges and opportunities. Were they seeing the same things that we are in Illinois and Chicagoland? I interviewed 130 people about common concerns, best practices and innovations. Their ideas will be shared in this series of weekly blog posts culminating in a publication, “The Relevancy Guidebook for the U.S. Preservation Movement.” It’s intended to inspire individual and organization-level actions that collectively will move preservation towards relevance.
- Relevancy Project Interviewees generously gave hours of their time to inform the project. I sought out interviewees representing the preservation movement’s diversity, from location (rural, suburban, urban) and community size to types of organizations and agencies, paid and volunteer preservationists and people in different stages of their preservation career or journey. These are people who consider themselves preservationists and non-preservationists, both inside and outside of traditional preservation practice. Almost half of the 130 interviewees are people whose voices have been underrepresented in the preservation movement and that we want to amplify, including those who are, or identify as, Black, Latina/o/x, Indigenous/ Native American/American Indian/First Nations, Asian American and Pacific Islander, LGBTQIA+ and those under 40. Aware of the likelihood of unconscious bias toward my own beliefs, I’ve included interviewees that have different opinions from my own.
- Landmarks Illinois’ 50th Anniversary Task Force was previously mentioned, as well as the members’ representative skill sets. All Landmarks Illinois staff members have been involved in the 50th anniversary planning, the task force and the Relevancy Project. I also thank our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Collaborative for their encouragement, idea workshopping and feedback. Everyone but Landmark Illinois’ staff that participates are volunteers. They’ve donated their perspective and expertise to benefit the preservation field as a whole.
- My interview travel and lodging was partially paid through a National Trust for Historic Preservation Peter H. Brink Leadership Fund grant. This money was received and matched by Landmarks Illinois. The James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation awarded me, personally, a 2020 Mid-Career Fellowship. This grant is being used for interviewee honoraria, to compensate me for unpaid furlough days as I undertake to write the guidebook and for hiring a graphic designer for the guidebook layout.
Your input is vital
Your feedback is not only welcome, it’s essential. Read the blog posts and discussion questions, then leave your comments, ideas and critiques on Landmarks Illinois’ Facebook page, Twitter or email
them to me at email@example.com. You can also follow my Instagram posts about project interviewees (#LetsFixPreservation) and comment there. You’ll be given credit for your unique ideas or comments used in the guidebook.
QUESTIONS FOR CONTINUED CONVERSATION:
- How is preservation viewed where you work? Is it celebrated, criticized or both?
- If you set aside your own feelings, what rings true within these criticisms?
- What problems are most pressing in your community? How can preservation be a part of the solution, even indirectly?
- How would preservation need to change to be a part of the solution?
- What tools would you need?
- What is the future of preservation? What could you do now to change that future?
- What are you personally willing to do to ensure preservation becomes more relevant?
- How ready are you and your organization to make change?
- Who do you need to talk to or share this blog post with?
- What are some key critiques of the ideas I’ve presented that you’d like to share?
Stay tuned for next week’s blog post coming on Thursday, June 30, 2022: “What is ‘Relevance’ and Why Aren’t We?”
1 Website of the Case Foundation, publisher of Be Fearless by Jean Case, January 2019, accessed on December 13, 2020. https://casefoundation.org/program/be-fearless/. The audiobook is available for download via Audible and Amazon.
2 The context for the Relevancy Project is the historic preservation movement in the United States of America. I do not address heritage conservation / historic preservation as a global field of practice.
3 Beyer, Scott. “Historic Preservation Is Great, Except When It Isn’t”, Governing: The Future of States and Localities website, 28 September 2020. https://www.governing.com/community/Historic-Preservation-Is-Great-Except-When-It-Isnt.html accessed on 3 January 2020.