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.

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

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

Extraordinary People Hidden in Plain Sight

In the Mouth of the Wolf

“In the Mouth of the Wolf” by Rose Zar and Eric A. Kimmel

Last week was difficult.  The horrific shooting on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh shook many of us to the core. Coming at the end of a week of attempts at mass political assassinations, it called into question assumptions about our nation’s values. As a historian I know that anti-Semitism and bigotry are as old as our country, in fact as old as recorded history. Thankfully, stories of courageous response to bigotry are just as old, yet often not as well known.

The Overlooked Obituary project of the New York Times is designed to recognize extraordinary people overlooked by the editors of the paper in their day. People like Rose Zar, the remarkable mother of my National Trust colleague Howard Zar. Rose Zar’s overlooked obituary appeared in the Times on the anniversary of her death in the Jewish lunar calendar.  That happened to fall during this past week, bringing a story of hope and determination amidst a flood of bad news.

When she was 19 and living in the ghetto in Piotrkow, Poland, Zar—who had been part of the Jewish resistance prior to World War II—begin to feel the Nazi pressure on home and family.  Zar “grabbed her suitcase and forged passport and left her family behind,” moving around Poland for the next three years as a Roman Catholic named Wanda Gajda.

“When an SS commander summoned her to his office for questioning, she felt certain that it was the end. She answered his queries, telling about her experience as a nurse and how she had learned to speak German fluently. Several days later, she was introduced to the commander’s wife. The encounter she had feared turned out to be a job interview. She spent the final years of the war as her father had advised, hiding in plain sight in the home of a Nazi commander as ‘Fräulein Wanda.’”

After the war, she married her teenage sweetheart, a concentration camp survivor. They lived in Poland before moving to the U.S. (where they shortened their last name to Zar).  Before that move, she again had to respond to bigotry.

“When violence broke out against Jewish refugees in the Polish city of Kielce, Zar and her husband decided it was time to leave. They helped smuggle 139 Jewish refugee children with them through Czechoslovakia and into southern Germany, where they helped set up a school run by the International Refugee Organization and the United States Army.”

In that school she taught the children of their Jewish heritage. Many were later resettled in Israel, aboard the famous refugee ship Exodus.  After moving to South Bend, Indiana, Zar continued her life of service and wrote a memoir, “In the Mouth of the Wolf.”  Published in 1983, the book won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Book Award and is taught in schools across the United States.

Rose Zar

Rose Zar (courtesy of Howard Zar)

Zar’s co-author recalls her saying,

“Of course we must talk, we must tell the stories. Otherwise, they will be forgotten and the enemies will have won. I must talk about it. It is my duty to talk about it. If I don’t tell my story, who will?”

The conventional wisdom is that leaders must be charismatic and eloquent. That is certainly one type of leadership. But as Rose Zar’s story shows, there are extraordinary people hiding in plain sight who lead through perseverance and inner strength.  It reminds me of the words of President Obama as he was celebrating the creation of the Pullman National Monument in Chicago.  He said this place should be saved so that children in the neighborhood—as well as around the world—could see and learn that “extraordinary people can come from ordinary places.”

It gives me hope that I know of exceptional stories of life and leadership from colleagues who may not have the strong personality to stand out in a crowded room. They include Peace Corps volunteers. Writers and poets. Social workers. Teachers. You probably know similar individuals who, because of their life experiences or skills developed over the years, lead in the unconventional sense.

Challenges from mundane to horrific will be with us forever.  To respond, consider the ordinary.  Look in plain sight.  What you might find to emulate—as seen in the life and story of Rose Zar—could well be extraordinary.

More to come…

DJB

To Avoid Stress, Stop Screwing Up

Willpower

Willpower

I had a “What the heck?” moment recently when reading a book on willpower.  I came across the line, “The best way to reduce stress in your life is to stop screwing up.”  As my children might say, “Well, duh…”  Of course, if we didn’t get ourselves into stressful situations, we could reduce stress.

But if you’ll bear with me for a moment, I think authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney have a good point.  They were arguing that we should think about ways to set up our lives so that we have a realistic chance to succeed.  “Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last-ditch defense to stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.”

The entire book is built around the premise that all of us—even the most successful—have a limited amount of willpower to expend every day and that we use the same resource for many different things. So it is important to think about how we can use our willpower to set ourselves up for success.

“Each day may start off with your stock of willpower fresh and renewed, at least if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast.  But then all day things chip and nibble away at it….Consider some of the things that happen in a typical day.  You pull yourself out of bed even though your body wants more sleep.  You put up with traffic frustrations.  You hold your tongue when your boss or spouse angers you or when a store clerk says ‘Just one second’ and then takes six minutes to get back to you.  You try to maintain an interested, alert expression on your face while a colleague drones on during a boring meeting.  You postpone going to the bathroom.  You make yourself take the first steps on a difficult project.  You want to eat all the French fries on your lunch plate but you leave half of them there, or (after negotiating with yourself) almost half.  You push yourself to go jogging, and while you jog you make yourself keep running until you finish your workout.  The willpower you expended on each of these unrelated events depletes how much you have left for the others.”

If I put things off or set goals for myself that are unrealistic, pushing me into situations where I have to expend my stock of willpower, that’s not a recipe for success.  Instead, I’ve increased my level of stress.  However, Dutch researchers have shown that people with good self-control “mainly use it not for rescue in emergencies but rather to develop effective habits and routines in school and at work.”  People with good self-control generally have less stress.

“They use their self-control not to get through crises but to avoid them.  They give themselves enough time to finish a project; they take the car to the shop before it breaks down; they stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets.  They play offense instead of defense.” (emphasis added)

Consider how you would (re)structure your life to avoid putting yourself in situations where self-control is an emergency rescue reaction.  What changes would be necessary for you to play offense instead of defense?

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Perseverance and Passion

Grit

“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth

If you are like me, you may have been told “You know, you’re no genius” at some point in your life.  During her childhood, Angela Duckworth heard that phrase over and over again from her father.  Years later when she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship—often called the “genius grant”—she was able to savor the irony of being told that she wasn’t smart enough, and yet being recognized on an international stage for work that was cutting-edge and transformational in the field of psychology.  Duckworth was compassionate enough not to lord this over her father.  But she did write a book based on her studies which makes the case that for those who have a calling, who challenge themselves every day, who get back up when they are knocked down, perseverance and passion matter more than talent.

Grit:  The Power of Perseverance and Passion is the 2016 book that resulted from Duckworth’s life and studies.  The fundamental insight that guides her research is “Our potential is one thing.  What we do with it is quite another.”  Early in the book she recounts the time she left a job at the high-powered consulting firm McKinsey to teach seventh grade math in the inner city.  There Duckworth came to see that we are all distracted by talent.  She was naturally attracted to those students who were “quick studies” and seemed to have the intellect and skills to succeed.  But as marking periods went by, these were not necessarily the successful students.  Duckworth became interested not in what made people smart, but what was needed to be successful in life.

What she found is that people who are successful over time have a passion.  A calling.  It may take time for that passion to evolve, and they may explore several pathways before landing on the one that sticks.  But having an inner compass, the “thing that takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be” is critical to success.  And then you have to persevere, in the face of the inevitable failures, to reach your goals.  Duckworth notes:  “Enthusiasm is common.  Endurance is rare.”

There’s a lot to unpack in Duckworth’s book, including how experts practice differently from others, with a deliberative focus.  They make it a habit, with daily rituals.  Or how pessimists have permanent and pervasive explanations for adversity that “turn minor complications into major catastrophes.”  Hope and modeling a growth mindset, it turns out, are keys to perseverance.  Duckworth looks at how to grow grit from the inside out, ways to build an organizational culture that focuses on perseverance and passion, and parenting for grit.

Skyscape at Villa Panza

What is your calling?

Basketball coaching legend John Wooden captured the need for both perseverance and passion when he said:  “Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”  One of my favorite stories in the book is from another sports coach who, as a philosophy and English major, has a special appreciation for the power of words.  Each year he has his team memorize three different literary quotes, handpicked to communicate a different core value.  The first team value is “We don’t whine.”  The corresponding quote, courtesy of playwright George Bernard Shaw:

“The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Duckworth challenges us to cultivate our interests.  Develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice.  Connect our work to a purpose beyond ourselves. And learn to hope when all seems lost.

That seems like smart—perhaps even genius-like—advice to me.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB