Confessions of a Southerner (Like a Southern Drawl, This May Take a While)

You may know that I’m from the South.  It takes about two seconds for my Tennessee accent to let the cat out of the bag.

Coming out of that great American “family” holiday of Thanksgiving,* I’ve been thinking recently about “where I’m from” and its impact on my life and work.  Place and storytelling are so central to life in the South that it is not surprising that many of the early and influential historic preservationists came from the region, beginning with South Carolina’s Ann Pamela Cunningham who led the campaign to save Mount Vernon.

I have always lived below the Mason-Dixon line; have worked to preserve many of the region’s buildings, towns, and landscapes; and have long been fascinated by Southern storytelling. To state it clearly, I love the South. But the region comes with a troubled history, including slavery and racism, that continues to inflict damage on our civic life today. I’m asked on a regular basis about the appropriate response to saving places and communities that were first taken from Native Americans and then often built on the back of enslaved African-Americans at unfathomable cost to those men, women, and children; not to mention the enormous moral cost to our nation.  The monuments to the false narrative of the Lost Cause that exist all across the country are also highly problematic to those insistent on understanding and honoring the more richly layered American story. Retired General Stan McChrystal just addressed that particular challenge in a pre-Thanksgiving Washington Post op-ed that called for the nation to move beyond icons like Robert E. Lee and move toward our full potential.  Next year is often recognized as the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown.  But as Dr. Michael Guasco has written, focusing on this date and place creates another false narrative:

“. . . the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day. . . .

We shouldn’t ignore that something worth remembering happened in 1619. There are certainly stories worth telling and lives worth remembering, but history is also an exercise in crafting narratives that give voice to the past in order to engage with the present. The year 1619 might seem long ago for people more attuned to the politics of life in the 21st century. But if we can do a better job of situating the foundational story of black history and the history of slavery in North America in its proper context, then perhaps we can articulate an American history that doesn’t essentialize notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (in the broadest possible and various understandings of those words). That would be a pretty good first step, and it would make it much easier to sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.”

These are tough issues for all Americans, and as a Southerner I find them especially challenging.  It is important to get the narrative right, or as right as we can in this day and age.  Narrative—or storytelling if you wish—sits beside place in my mind as the other key component to preservation. Storytelling is also another constant in the South.  A recent New York Times article entitled “What is a Southern Writer, Anyway?” speaks to how many of those who tell stories about the South today are also at work to shape a better narrative. The author, Margaret Renkl, asks “What if being a Southern writer has nothing to do with rural tropes or lyrical prose or a lush landscape or humid heat so thick it’s hard to breathe? What if being a Southern writer is foremost a matter of growing up in a deeply troubled place and yet finding it somehow impossible to leave? Of seeing clearly the failings of home and nevertheless refusing to flee?”

Renkl, who edits a website on Tennessee literature (yes, there is such a thing!), notes that she may be wrong.  “For one thing, Southerners don’t hold the copyright on a close connection to home, and there are many exceptions to the rule anyway. Historically, African-American writers tended to leave the South as fast as they could, and for obvious reasons.”  I don’t think Renkl gets it completely right, but I think she’s on to something about why people—in the South and elsewhere—care about the past and tackle hard issues in order to shape the narrative in a way that is relevant today and into the future.  Her take of these writers loving a damaged and damaging place is similar to Dr. Mindy Fullilove’s observation that “emotions flow through place.”

The editors of The Bitter Southerner note that there is a shame that comes with recognizing that too many Southerners are still “kicking and screaming to keep the old South old.” That is balanced in knowing that “many others, through the simple dignity of their work, are changing things.”  It is that work that is so important.  I would argue that it isn’t the refusing to flee part that is critical to Renkl’s definition, but it is, instead, the unwillingness to paper over the troubles of your homeland.  I’ve spoken all across the country about the fact that my beloved grandmother—she of the way with words that still rings in my ears—was a lifelong member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and subscribed to a false story about history.  When I’m working to tell the full American story, I feel it is one way I’m making a small contribution to begin to undo the wrongs her “Lost Cause” narrative brought to so many.

I can do my part in the work to change the narrative about places in the South and, in the process, keep the past engaged with the present as we look to the future.  I see that work in changing narratives to ensure that the history of contrabands is central to the story at Fort Monroe.  In saving the sacred places at Shockoe Bottom.  In recognizing the extraordinary Pauli Murray, who grew up in the most ordinary of houses in Raleigh, and keeping both her story and home alive and relevant in the 21st century. In honoring those marchers who gathered in Memphis’ Clayborn Temple with their “I Am A Man” placards. In raising up the story of Bunk Johnson from the gardens of Shadows-on-the-Teche.  There are so many extraordinary places with rich, layered stories to tell, and I’m humbled that I get to work with my colleagues in this endeavor.

Pauli Murray Mural

Portrait of Pauli Murray, on a wall in downtown Durham, NC

 

Pauli Murray House

Pauli Murray House before restoration (2015) and after exterior work (2016) (Photo credit: Pauli Murray Project)

As I stand and look around our office, I see many whose connection to their place is very different from mine.  But it doesn’t matter if you come from upstate New York, New England, Los Angeles, or are a child of an immigrant to the U.S.: there is still work to do, in your time and place, in “giving voice to the past in order to engage with the present.”  I believe with Michael Guasco that only when we do that can we “sink our teeth into the rich and varied issues that continue to roil the world today.”

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

*Of course, the narrative around Thanksgiving in America is also deeply flawed…something General McChrystal notes in his op-ed.  But coming out of this weekend you probably knew that.

Our Year in Photos – 2018

Family along Monterey Coast

The Browns along the California Coast

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I continue my tradition of posting family photographs from the past year on More to Come…. We have much for which to be thankful in 2018.

This was yet another year unlike any other in the recent history of our country. The level of vitriol coming from some of our so-called leaders has put many on edge and has driven others to do unspeakable horror.

In spite of the turmoil in the world and some significant changes in our lives, we were blessed again this year with good health and good friends. Each of us is doing well.

Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, Candice and David traveled to Providence to hear Andrew solo with the Brown University Chorus in Messiah.  While there, we took advantage of the trip to visit some of our favorite haunts in this food-friendly gem of a city.

CCB at Ellies

Candice at our favorite Providence bakery and cafe: Ellie’s

Of course, each December brings a special celebration of Andrew and Claire.  The twins’ birthday is always a major highlight, but given that they reached the 25-year-old milestone in 2017, it was a special event for all of us.  We also celebrated the holidays together in Washington, seeing good friends and visiting special places like the evocative Museum of African American Culture and History on the National Mall.

25th birthday celebration

Celebrating 25 years of Claire and Andrew – one of the great achievements of 2017!

We all have our passions.  David has his sports and writing; Candice her cooking and friends; Claire the outdoors and children; and Andrew his music and travel.

Nats Jacket

Sporting a New Jacket and High Hopes for the Nats

 

Claire at Lake Tahoe

Claire with her roommates at Lake Tahoe

 

A typical pose for Andrew

A typical pose for Andrew

 

Caps Win the Cup!

Caps Win the Cup!

Summer brings baseball (and more baseball) along with the Bach Soloists Festival in San Francisco.

2018 All Star Game with Andrew

2018 All Star Game with Andrew

 

Cathedral Tour

Andrew, on his stained glass window tour of the National Cathedral

 

Claire at A's game

Claire joins her roommates at an A’s game this summer – rooting for a team that actually MADE the playoffs!

 

Bach Festival

Andrew and fellow musicians at the San Francisco Bach Festival

We loved our vacation time together as a family at Pacific Grove, California.  It was a respite from the hustle of the year.

Lone Cypress

Candice and DJB at the Lone Cypress in Pebble Beach

 

Yoga with Andrew and Claire

Yoga with Andrew and Claire at Pacific Grove

 

Claire and Blair at the Bixby Bridge

Claire and Blair at the Bixby Creek Bridge along California’s Highway 1

 

Claire Whale Watching

Claire Whale Watching

Fall brought transitions in life for everyone.  We gathered with long-time friends, saw Andrew off to graduate school in London, and said good-bye to David’s boss of the past 8 years.

DJB Fly Fishing and casting

A fly fishing beginner learns to cast in the Yellowstone River

 

Andrew tattoo composite

Andrew with his tattoo, along with the inspiration

 

McCain's Funeral

Andrew singing at Senator John McCain’s state funeral

 

Whirlwind weekend

A whirlwind weekend: the McCain Funeral, a special evensong, and then off to London

 

Staunton Friends

Staunton Friends – Bizzy, Mary, Margaret and Candice – at the National Gallery of Art

 

DJBwith SKM

David and National Trust President Stephanie Meeks at the 2018 PastForward conference in San Francisco (credit: David Keith)

 

Candice and Tom

Candice and our friend Tom Mayes at the PastForward 2018 Conference in San Francisco

 

DJB at PF Final Luncheon

David speaks at the Final Luncheon of PastForward 2018 in San Francisco (credit: David Keith)

 

At Filoli

David, Candice, and Claire enjoying the Holiday decorations at Filoli in Woodside, CA

 

MAAHC Visit

At the Museum of African American History and Culture in December 2017

Our family continues to be blessed, and for that we are incredibly thankful.  We remain grateful for each of you and the friendships we share.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.

More to come…

DJB

Be Thankful Every Day

Why do we often wait until an individual or team completes a major project to offer thanks?  Last week’s PastForward 2018 national preservation conference in San Francisco certainly falls in the successful major project category in my work, and I do want to thank our core team of Susan, Farin, Rhonda, Colleen, Alison, Nicky, Lizzy, Diana, Michelle, Reagan, Sandi and Priya.  They helped lead us through an inspiring week.

I’ve often thought we shouldn’t wait for a holiday such as the one we are celebrating this week in the U.S. or only at the end of a project like PastForward to recognize others.  A few years ago I became intentional about saying “thank you” to someone every day.  It is one of the smartest things I ever did as I get so much more out of life since I began that practice.  If for no other reason, it reminds me how much I depend on the kindness of others.

I believe there is a distinction between gratefulness and thankfulness.  If we are fully aware, fully mindful, we will often be grateful when we see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves, to a sense of belonging. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness.

My brain was nudged from gratefulness to thankfulness after seeing so many colleagues and friends in San Francisco last week. I hope I say this more than once a year, but now seems like a good time to pause and reflect upon how much I depend on the work and kindness of my colleagues—specifically those on the Preservation Division staff at the National Trust. First, I am thankful for our management team.  These individuals support me and all our staff in ways big and small, and when we are successful I know it is because of the work they do every day.  Thanks to those who manage our 27 historic sites all around the country.  Being at Filoli this past week reminded me once again (if I needed it) what remarkable places these are and how lucky we are to steward these buildings, landscapes, and collections for a few short years. Our team in Field Services is amazing, doing the hard, long work of saving incredible places—and then they often deflect the praise to others when we take an amazing step forward as we did last week at the Natatorium on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. The really smart people in our Research and Policy Lab and Government Affairs offices are working at the forefront of the 21st century preservation movement.  I was so proud to see that work highlighted again and again last week. The staff in Preservation Resources takes our work across the country and shares it with others outside the National Trust every day…not just the week of the conference.  The Business Operations Team literally keeps us running on-time and on-budget.  Of course, we couldn’t do this without the collaboration of our colleagues in every other division—Development, Finance, Law, Marketing, and the Executive Office, as well as our NTCIC and National Main Street Center subsidiaries.  It truly takes a village.

Holidays at Filoli

Pool and Garden House during Holidays at Filoli (credit: Claire Brown)

Take time this week, dear friends, to be fully mindful of the things beyond yourself.  I suspect you’ll also see that thoughtfulness become thankfulness.

Happy Thanksgiving.

More to come…

DJB

Measure What We Value

We measure a great deal in the modern office environment, and the nonprofit world is no different.  Finding the right measurement to capture what is truly important, however, takes time and thought.  Profit for a business is easy to track, but in the mission-driven world of nonprofits the right outcomes can be hard to quantify.

I was thinking of this while wrapping up James Williams’ Stand Out of Our Light:  Freedom and Resistance in the Attention EconomyIn looking for ways to set boundaries for attention-grabbing technology, Williams turns to measurement as one key.  He begins by noting, that “Our goal in advancing measurement should be to measure what we value, rather than valuing what we already measure.”

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

How do we, both as individuals and as staff members of a large organization, do this work?  How do we measure what we value?  Williams has a suggestion on the organizational or corporate scale:  measure the mission.  If we “operationalize in metrics the company’s mission statement or purpose for existing, which is something nearly every company has but which hardly any company actually measures,” Williams suggests we can begin to measure what we value.

 That strikes me as an important step toward understanding what organizations should measure, and how we are succeeding in reaching “what we want to want.”  As individuals, we can also think about what we measure in terms of our personal missions and callings.  Being a little obsessive, I personally track 11 measurements each day for personal growth. (Yes, you can sigh now.) I know of others who have even longer lists.  As I pondered this while reading Williams’ book, it dawned on me that perhaps I should consider whether I measure what I value (or simply value what I already measure…like weight gain or loss).  You may have similar responses.

Williams ends his book with a call that we—as individuals and as a society—can reclaim our time and our souls if we understand what we value.

“As the mythologian Joseph Campbell said, ‘The modern hero deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the coordinated soul.’ This is true at both individual and collective levels.

In order to rise to this challenge, we have to lean into experiences of awe and wonder. . . .We have to demand that these forces to which our attention is now subject start standing out of our light. This means rejecting the present regime of attentional serfdom.  It means rejecting the idea that we are powerless, that our angry impulses must control us, that our suffering must define us, or that we ought to wallow in guilt for having let things get this bad.  It means rejecting novelty for novelty’s sake and disruption for disruption’s sake.  It means rejecting lethargy, fatalism, and narratives of us versus them.  It means using our transgressions to advance the good.  This is not utopianism.  This is imagination.  And as anyone with the slightest bit of imagination knows, ‘imaginary’ is not the opposite of ‘real.’”

I love the challenge in that last paragraph and the truth of that last sentence.  Let’s use our imaginations and focus on what we value.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Dr. William J. Murtagh: Keeper of the Register, Preservation Pioneer

(NOTE:  My appreciation of the life and legacy of William J. Murtagh was first published on the Preservation Forum Blog on November 2, 2018.)

Bill Murtagh, who passed away on October 28 at age 95, was among the most visible and effective preservation leaders in the middle of the 20th century, when the movement was expanding its focus from historic sites, museums, and teaching to the emphasis on people and community that we recognize today.

To those of us who came to preservation in the 1970s and ’80s, Bill was seemingly in the middle of everything. He served two stints at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, first as President Richard Howland’s assistant in 1958, later returning for several years as vice president for Preservation Services. He was a member of the committee that outlined the principles at the core of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. He was a key figure in the establishment and growth of preservation education programs from Columbia University to the University of Hawai‘i. His “Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America” was one of our first textbooks.

murtagh__002_.jpg
Credit: Lisa Berg

But it was as the first Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places that Bill is best known, and that is where he made such an indelible mark on the field. First, the job title itself was evocative, and Bill worked to live up to the lofty aspirations it suggested. More importantly, he brought a democratic and expansive view of what the federal government should recognize as worthy of preservation. Where others may have been stingy in recognizing the places that matter to communities, Bill approached people on the local level to help them identify places and articulate the meaning of those places to tell the full American story.

This generous view of what makes America unique is what I remember from first meeting Bill Murtagh while working as a preservationist in Virginia in the 1980s. Bill, who had enormous national and international influence, worked tirelessly with his neighbors to ensure that the historic buildings, landscapes, and streetscapes of Alexandria, Virginia, were preserved, protected, and loved. He also served on the board of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, providing instant credibility as we advocated for the importance of historic places to the commonwealth’s economy and future.

Bill was always looking forward. In the fall 1999 issue of the Forum Journal, he took the time to contemplate what preservation would look like in this century, calling for renewal, retraining, and recommitment.

The National Historic Preservation Act is now more than a generation old. A renewed commitment to human resources is still needed. In my considered opinion, that includes retraining existing professionals and improving the training of newcomers to the field even in many of the programs that now exist in academia. … Of primary concern is that there now seems to be a thin or non-interested grasp at all levels of government as to why our 20th-century preservation laws even exist and to what stimulated their passage. Preservation concerns still need to be part of the curriculum at the preparatory school level. ‘Civics 101’ needs to be reintroduced into school systems.

Bill was ever hopeful for the day when America would have a national land-use policy and a cabinet-level post of cultural affairs to help recognize and protect our heritage for future generations. He encouraged us all to think about what mattered in our communities—and to find ways for the private and public sectors to protect and reuse those places. We all stand on his shoulders, and he will be missed.

More to come…

DJB

Boundaries

Stand Out of Our Light

Stand Out of Our Light by James Williams

Understanding the reality you face is often the first step toward personal and organizational growth.

Consider the oft-heard complaint about our lack of time in this period of ubiquitous technology.   While most of us think of this as the “Information Age,” the reality may be that it would be better characterized as the Age of Attention.  In an age of information abundance, the scare resource is attention.  Technology companies make money when they monopolize our time.  Netflix’s CEO has made this clear in noting that the company “is competing for our customers’ time, so our competitors include Snapchat, YouTube, sleep, etc.”

Let that last one sink in a bit…your sleep is seen as a competitor by Netflix.  If you had any idea that technology companies were looking out for your best interests, this should dissuade you of that notion.

I’m currently reading Stand Out of Our Light, a book written by a former Google strategist turned Oxford-trained philosopher.  James Williams’ career arc was enough to get me to buy the book, but I was equally intrigued to read his take on how “technologies compete to capture and exploit our attention, rather than supporting the true goals we have for our lives.”  From endless games of solitaire to never-ending clickbait to Facebook news feeds to YouTube recommendations that entice us to watch just one more video…we’ve all seen how digital technology eats up our time by capturing more and more of our attention.

Williams believes that the goals of technology companies don’t match our best interests (individually and as citizens), making it imperative that we set our own boundaries.  He quotes the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who said, “Who will be great, must be able to limit himself.”  Williams is focused on the capacities that enable us to “want what we want to want,” capacities such as “reflection, memory, prediction, leisure, reasoning, and goal-setting.” We have to apply boundaries in order to “channel our activities toward our higher goals.”

Smart Phones

Smart Phones: Competing for Your Attention

While technology could help us deal with these challenges, that’s not the way of life in our current age.  As  you reflect on that, realize that,

“…notifications or addictive mobile apps may fill up those little moments in the day during which a person might have otherwise reflected on their goals and priorities.  Users check their phones an average of 150 times per day (and touch them over 2,600 times per day), so that would add up to a lot of potential reflection going unrealized.”

There is much we can do in response, and the book looks at steps we should take individually and collectively.  I decided some time ago not to use notifications with my technology, believing that leaving on the email notification feature is like letting the post office rush in and drop a letter on your desk every time you receive an email or text.  Start with the mindset that your email in-box – and essentially all technology – should be for your use, and then work from there.  Such a perspective may help you see the reality a bit more clearly and spend more time on what you want to want.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB