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Community Engagement as Institutional Branding, Or Why I’m not Brave

At a recent 225 stop that included a long, and what I deemed a productive conversation involving differing views of monument relocation and their meaning on the public landscape, a participant stopped me on our way out. “I just want to tell you, I think you’re really brave,” she said.

I was taken aback—how was I brave? For doing my job? She pressed on: “I couldn’t have facilitated that conversation in this room, with so many southern ladies.” I smiled at her and responded, “Well, I’m a southern lady, too, and if I can’t talk to my folks, then who will?” At the Kentucky Historical Society, our mission is to educate and engage the public in order to confront the challenges of the future.

This mission demands that we use history to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth. Its second part—the forward-looking clause—is the reason I work for KHS and why the woman thought I was brave. I am not brave. I am a historian, doing her job. As my colleague Patrick Lewis wrote a few weeks ago, history is a conversation. The questions we ask, the evidence we pursue, the tone we take and the participants in the room shape that conversation.

Sometimes, the conversation is between the historian and the page. As I write this post (and anything else), I talk with myself: what is the point? Is that the right word? Where is my evidence? Do I trust this source? What does a competing source have to say? These internal conversations are important. Historians’ writings shape the narrative, inform our understandings of the past and set guidelines for educators, policy makers and the public. I went to graduate school thinking the conversation between me and the page was the most important I’d ever have.

Boy, was I wrong. Community engagement is about conversations. It’s asking tough questions and helping audiences find answers. It is about asking people to consider the weight of their words, to interrogate evidence and to be open-minded. It is about modeling good listening skills and providing space for disagreement. Mostly, it’s about being authentic—a key behavior of the KHS and one of the main facets of our institutional branding. What do I mean? I’ve travelled the Commonwealth this year, talking with folks from Ashland to Murray about “what makes Kentucky, Kentucky”—the past, the present and the future. In every one of the more than 30 conversations I’ve personally facilitated, I had to make choices about tone and evidence, about when, where and how to push participants to think deeper or engage with a topic a bit differently.

In recent weeks, my conversations have, unsurprisingly, turned to monuments and memorials, to the history of the monuments themselves and their place in our future. For some, these conversations are uncomfortable and raw and best avoided. For an agency that prides itself on being authentic and has a mission that requires its employees to confront the challenges of the future, these conversations are integral to the job.

We are on brand when we are talking about the past with our fellow citizens in authentic, approachable ways. We shape our agency’s image in the world when we are willing to be honest and real with the people who invite us into their communities and provide us opportunities to speak and listen. Those interactions are the important conversations. We live the mission when we’re talking to real, live people using the best evidence available and helping them work through the uncomfortable so they leave the room with new ways to think about their questions. That’s not being brave. It’s being good stewards of the time, talent and resources found in our beautiful Commonwealth. And of all the reasons I’m proud to call myself a historian and a Kentuckian and an employee of the Kentucky Historical Society, our authenticity and willingness to engage the toughest questions ranks at the top.


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