2011 National Preservation Conference Opening Plenary Speech: Stephanie Meeks
Those of you who joined us in Austin last year may remember that in my remarks, I talked about my conversations with hundreds of people involved in preservation. Again and again, I heard about the need to make preservation more visible; more clearly relevant to a broader group of people; and more fully funded.
We took these challenges seriously, and they are at the heart of the new strategic framework the National Trust announced last month. I would like to talk today about one aspect of that framework in particular, which we believe holds tremendous promise for all of us.
Over the past year, we have undertaken some of the most extensive market research ever conducted about the Trust and the broader market for historic preservation, and what we found was some very good news. There are in the United States right now roughly 15 million Americans who share our values and are already taking action on behalf of preservation.
They are ready to hear our message. And by reaching out to them, we can begin to address all three of those key themes that I mentioned.
To put this in context, the Trust has 127 statewide and local partner groups, and altogether, altogether, we have roughly 250,000 members. We are a formidable grasstops network. But as all of you know, there simply are not enough of us. We must find a way to reach a much wider audience if we want to get to the next level of visibility and effectiveness and build the movement.
We believe this research can help. It has quantified the fact that there are literally millions of grassroots preservationists already out there—a full 7 percent of American adults in fact.
Just like us, these people understand that preservation makes life better. And more than that, they are willing to take action to save the historic places they love in their communities.
I imagine you may be wondering how so many potential supporters could have gone unnoticed. That is certainly a fair question, and one we have asked ourselves. I think the answer is that we have not so much missed them, as misunderstood them.
We have all known these individuals were out there. They are the ones living in historic homes, speaking at planning commission meetings or writing letters to the editor to save a local icon.
What we perhaps have not fully realized is how many of them there are, or how much preservation work they are actually doing.
Now, in fairness, they have been flying under the radar. They rank preservation lower on their list of charitable interests than all of us—more like number five rather than number one. They also tend to think of it in a larger context, as a subset of their commitment to culture, community and sustainability.
Perhaps as a result, they are not joining preservation organizations in vast numbers or affiliating in obvious ways with the movement. But, when you look at how these folks actually spend their time, we have a surprising amount in common with them.
In our research, we asked people about 11 different preservation-related activities—things like signing petitions, restoring historic buildings or visiting museums to learn about history.
Local preservationists told us they took part in seven of these 11 activities in the past year. National Trust members participated in eight. And Preservation Leaders—all of you—participated in nine, just two more than the local preservationists.
Clearly, they are kindred spirits. They share our preservation values. They support our work with their time and energy.
But right now, they do not necessarily think of themselves as preservationists, and the vast majority of them are only loosely connected at best to the formal preservation movement. For instance, just 12 percent have heard of their statewide preservation organization.
Imagine what would happen if we could bring even a fraction of them more fully into the fold. We are talking about millions of potential supporters here. And they are new supporters, in the sense that they are not currently official, dues-paying members of local, state or national preservation organizations. They are the proverbial rising tide that can lift all our boats.
Background on Local Preservationists
I hope I have piqued your interest. I would like to take a few minutes now to tell you more about who these 15 million people are, and what they are looking for.
I suspect most of you already know from experience that these local preservationists may want what we want, and love the places we love, but they do not look exactly like us.
For starters, they are younger than we are. Half are under the age of 35. By contrast, the average age of preservation leaders is 51.
It perhaps follows that they are more plugged in to technology. They are far more active users of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media, and they use these tools to communicate with one another and to engage in the causes they care about.
Most are not in their peak earning years yet, but we have found that they are actually more willing than our current members to volunteer and help raise money.
And finally—and perhaps most importantly—they are far more diverse economically, culturally and in their level of education.
It is especially worth noting that one-third of this group is non-white, as compared to 7 percent of the preservation leader community and just 5 percent of the Trust’s membership.
We cannot overstate the importance of bringing more diversity to the preservation community. America is fast becoming a multi-ethnic nation, and if we are going to remain relevant in the decades ahead, we need bold action now to make our work more inclusive and accessible. Engaging more of these local preservationists is an excellent place to start.
So now I would like to depart from the science of research for a few minutes, and enter the art of marketing. To help us get our arms around these 15 million people, we have divided them into five broad profiles, to help us think about ways to engage with each group.
I have a short video montage to show you that illustrates these profiles, using footage of people we met here in Buffalo as part of our Buffalo Unscripted documentary project (buffalounscripted.org). We started this documentary initiative last year in Austin, capturing the thoughts of local people on the topic of preservation and place.
The Buffalo Unscripted team spent nine days in the city, holding meet-ups and events to talk to people about what makes Buffalo unique. More than 500 people showed up.
The five individuals you will see here are all talking about a place that defines Buffalo for them. Their comments say a lot about what draws them to preservation.
Now I would like to go through one-by-one and look at each of these five segments. First we have the Young Activist. These are the people I hope my kids will grow up to be—confident and full of energy, optimism and big ideas for making their communities better. They spend a lot of time on social media and they are looking for ways to get engaged.
Next is a group we call the Green Go-Getters because of their passion for sustainability. They spend a lot of time outdoors and can be great champions for us in making the case that preservation and conservation go hand in hand.
All that is missing from our third clip is the ‘future preservation leader’ t-shirt for that cute little guy in the video. We are calling this group the Community-Conscious Parents because they are modeling lifestyle choices that teach their children to value the past and a strong sense of place.
Buffalo is especially blessed when it comes to our fourth category—a group we call the Architecture Lover. These are the people filling up Buffalo’s heritage tours; the ones who plan their vacations around cities with great architecture and get involved, like the woman in the video, in restoration projects that teach them something about great buildings.
And finally, we have the History Buffs, otherwise known as the parents who drive their kids crazy pulling off the road at every historic marker. They know that history is everywhere. It is in our backyards all the time, and it is up to us—all of us—to protect it.
Engaging Local Preservationists
Now that we know a bit about who these local preservationists are, the big question is “what can we do to engage them?”
The answer is: quite a lot. But there is a catch. We must be willing to go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.
We have started looking for ways to do that at the Trust. We expect our new focus on National Treasures to generate far more awareness for preservation. We envision publicity campaigns around dozens of Treasures every year, raising attention for them individually and for cultural resources collectively.
We are also re-imagining preservationnation.org and our social media channels and blog to provide more readily accessible content for this group. We are putting together preservation toolkits on issues like “how to save your local historic school” and “how to rally your community in support of important historic places.”
And in light of their interest in sustainability, our Preservation Green Lab is continuing to develop tools that make the environmental case for our work, such as research on the life-cycle of buildings and the hard data that proves the good environmental choice of rehab over new construction.
We just launched the second chapter in our wonderful partnership with American Express. Last year, American Express announced a new $10 million commitment to Partners in Preservation, and we just completed the sixth round of the Partners in Preservation in Minneapolis/St. Paul. As I think you know, this program gives people a chance to have a say in how $1 million in bricks and mortar grant funding is distributed.
Thousands of people just voted on Facebook for their favorite historic places in the Twin Cities. All told, the program has engaged hundreds of thousands of people over the past six years, and when this year’s grants are made, the program will have distributed $6 million to more than 100 historic sites. We are looking forward to bringing the program to four more cities over the next four years and engaging hundreds of thousands more Local Preservationists in voting for their favorite places.
I am also pleased to announce today a new cause-marketing initiative called An American Postcard, which will be a photographic record of American life today—a modern analogue to the image libraries of Matthew Brady and Dorothea Lange and a fun way to build on the Trust’s collection of more than 20,000 historic postcards.
We will ask professional photographers to document 25 historic-themed trails across the country, and then supplement their images with amateur photographs capturing the places that matter in communities nationwide. We are especially excited about a Smartphone app that will make it easy for people to turn their pictures into postcards that they can share with friends. Ultimately, we are hoping to gather 1 million photographs as a companion to the professional images, and we will feature the collection in a variety of exhibitions. We think the project has great potential to encourage a sense of community and connection around historic places.
You and your colleagues have also come up with some very exciting ideas, far more than I can do justice to here. Colorado Preservation Inc. has two fabulous engagement programs: Historicorps, which we will recognize with an Honor Award on Thursday, and the Colorado Youth Summit. Both provide hands on learning opportunities that help to save historic resources.
The Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh has also created some very exciting educational programs that encourage the next generation to get involved in preserving important local cultural resources.
And Buffalo’s ambitious billion-dollar restoration of 48 historic schools will put preservation front-and-center in the heart of many communities, giving young people and their parents a chance to see first-hand how historic buildings can be transformed into inspirational, 21st-century classrooms.
I would like to close today by challenging all of us to think about new ways to find and engage the local preservationists in our communities. Getting to know them better has tremendous potential to make all of our work more visible, relevant and better funded in the decades ahead.
We have a great opportunity now to leave preservation stronger for the next generation, and I look forward to working with all of you to welcome these grassroots champions more fully into our ranks in the months and years ahead. Thank you.