Historic and cultural preservationists design the future of tangible and intangible heritage. Our ways of working and knowing—and making them more just and sustainable—include practices and pedagogies of architecture, planning, history, law, anthropology, and archaeology. We also work toward multivocal, multigenerational, multicultural preservation praxis—a labor of love at odds with the measures of work worthwhile in academia and these professions. While engaging communities affected acutely by injustices of these disciplines and professions, we find joy connecting with what’s been left behind by engaging with who has been left to care for it.
Fallon, The Community Steward
Long before academia recognized or rewarded community-engaged scholarship, I researched places and properties with the people shaping histories and futures of these locales. The pandemic supercharged these engagements in ways I could’ve never predicted when I started research consulting to community-based organizations as a grad student of architectural history in 2006. Once seasonal and local in New England and then in New Orleans, my engagements with stewards of Black heritage became year-round, national, cooperative endeavors—especially once I began research and outreach under a National Trust for Historic Preservation grant to the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. The list of engagements ran the gamut: I helped heirs of property owners contest demolition orders, advised legacy businesses seeking renovation permits, and reported heritage vulnerability and sustainability drivers to policymakers and planners, among other endeavors. And I ran myself ragged.
I’ve learned an important lesson in aiding community stewards to navigate harmful institutions and helpful incentives for community survival. When scholarship involves stewardship, the research engagements are more enriching and enduring than exhausting. I’ve found it’s not enough to have faith that “joy comes in the morning,” as written in Psalm 30:5. Scholarship performed by “other-ed” stewards of culture and communities that identify as Black, Latina/o/x, Asian, MENA, Indigenous, or immigrant requires caretaking—not just self-care, but also planning for rest, even the final rest, of individuals, initiatives, and institutions that preserve heritage at risk.
Teaching real estate, preservation, and design professionals to document and develop a community’s architects of resilience—not just its architecture—is one way I prepare for these eventualities. So too is building capacity and raising capital for culture bearers and community stewards to advise each other on how to combat economic disinvestment, environmental disasters, infrastructure degradation, regulatory disparities, taxation-induced dispossession, and market-driven displacement. Academia rarely rewards “doing the work” to prepare the people who preserve places for succession and success, but ever rewarding is working with and learning from octogenarian stewards of their descendants’ joy.
Andrea, The Time Traveler
I spent the last year reflecting on my past eight years of engaged scholarship with historic Black communities, seeking not just the academic metrics of progress but also the joy of the work. Amid loss, COVID, and the racial uprising, some of the joy got lost, and this has been a year of reclaiming. What’s surfaced is a need to elevate the hidden past (no matter how it complicates conventional wisdom about race and place), while finding new ways for the past to inform the turn toward futurity among younger scholars. In short, I started to identify less as a historic preservation or planning scholar and more like a time traveler. If we recall early Black futurists like W.E.B. Du Bois, we realize that this search for meaning, impact, and transcendence isn’t new. What’s different is the power we have through technology to convene and connect deeply and honestly without forced performance, with the vulnerability that it’s been dangerous to operate with in academia.
To operate in joy and vulnerability is to contest that and to foster hope and confidence in those with whom we collaborate. My joy has emerged from The Texas Freedom Colonies Project volunteers, many of whom have flourished and grown their own public history agendas throughout rural Texas. Through our virtual and in-person training on oral history interviewing, these volunteers have taken what they have learned about documenting freedom colonies and applied it to create their own museum projects, lead local trainings, and collaborate with descendant communities from neighboring freedom colonies. Is it all because of me, no. But I do think that I did contribute to making them feel less alone and more supported, which in turn affirmed the validity of their local knowledge, which is so often not the case in local preservation. Building capacities and reciprocities. That is when justice is happening. That’s where the joy exists.
Michelle, The Intersectional Educator
I find joy in my classroom as I teach a graduate course on race and ethnicity in historic preservation at the University of Maryland, where I’ve developed learning modules that coincide with heritage celebrations. This includes a site visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek, Md., during Black History Month. I also focus on nominations to the National Register of Historic Places written by BIPOC scholars and on BIPOC communities, including one for the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site here in Washington, D.C., written by Amber Wiley.
For assigned readings, I am elated to include Dawn Mabalon’s Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California (Duke University Press Books, 2013) and George Lipsitz’s How Racism Takes Place (Temple University Press, 2011). Both of these scholars were pivotal in shaping my own work and how I navigated the field of historic preservation as a scholar. I worry about teaching critical race theory in how students may perceive its contents but highlight tenets of intersectionality in my readings where I incorporate examples of NRHP nominations of diverse layers of histories, like the Japanese YWCA in San Francisco, which included Japanese American, Black, queer, and gendered perspectives.
I believe in sharing personal perspectives of BIPOC preservationists in my teaching. For example, as students read Mabalon’s text, I also had them watch the documentary, Little Manila: Filipinos in California’s Heartland (2013), so they got a chance to hear Mabalon’s voice (as she passed away in 2018).
A key takeaway moment was when a student shared with me that he taught other students about Mabalon and Lipsitz, and he was thrilled that he could apply it to other readings and assignments. Joy in this recollection is when I felt like the lessons resonated with the students and were reflected back to me.
Reviewed by Pedro Cruz Cruz, Nina Fernandes, Stephen F. Gray, Lisa C. Henry, and Jess Zimbabwe.
This article first appeared in the October 2023 issue of ARCHITECT, which was guest edited and designed by Dark Matter U.