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IDP Blog 5: Our Role in the National Dialogue?

What is Our Role in the National Dialogue regarding Confederate Monuments?

Last week, the American Civil War got a lot more relevant to me. Although I known we’ve never put this conflict to rest, before the events in Charlottesville you would be hard pressed to find me spending many brain cycles on battle plans and troop movements from 150 years ago. But this current struggle over how we memorialize the Confederate Cause creates a gaping, and sometimes terrifying, opportunity to address the battle that still wages.

This battle isn’t about a hunk of metal or an inscription in stone. Our passionate responses never come from the tangible things themselves, but from the intangible meanings we ascribe and the social narratives that rise and fade and rise again from those meanings. So how can we as interpreters help unpack those meanings in the face of such passionate, even violent, responses? Well, when tempers are high we can’t or shouldn’t. People are too entrenched and engaging may be unsafe, unwise, or unfruitful. But for the moments when we can engage, we need to be ready.

To be ready, I see three critical steps:

  • Ensure you and your visitors are safe
  • Understand yourself, your biases and assumption, and your ability as a facilitator
  • Understand your agency’s law, policy, and guidelines, and values

Ensure you are safe: I’m not an expert in this arena – we hope to have training available from the US Park Police available locally and possibly virtually in the coming weeks to help front-line interpreters and supervisors assess personal safety and security. In the meantime, work with your supervisor to find local resources and guidance about how to keep yourself and your visitors safe during potentially volatile interactions.

Understand yourself, your biases, and assumptions: What issues or behaviors trigger you? What causes your temper to flare? When do you need to step away? Understanding your own triggers helps you anticipate and control your reaction during a tense interaction. Even better, understand the assumptions that got you there. Are you making unverified assumptions about the beliefs and motivations of others? What personal experiences and social narratives drive your assumptions? Look for more resources on self-knowledge here. Check here for the new dialogue toolkit about Confederate monuments just released.

Understand your agency’s law, policy, and values: Self-awareness can help you separate your personal agenda from your agency’s agenda, to represent the NPS position more transparently. Before engaging, be sure you know your organizational non-negotiables – what actions and attitudes are unacceptable? We know destruction of park property is illegal, as is denying someone their first amendment rights, as are violent acts against others. But what about our values as an organization? Who are we? What do we stand for, or against?

Secretary Zinke issued a statement about the Charlottesville rally saying, “the racism, bigotry, and hate perpetrated by violent white supremacist groups has no place in America. It does not represent what I spent 23 years defending in the United States military and what millions of people around the globe have died for. We must respond to hate with love, unity and justice.” How this statement drives policy for our organization remains to be defined, and will likely unfold in the coming weeks. But we already have guidance from the American public, in the form of the enabling legislation of each park and a new congressional mandate to interpret and educate (National Park Service Centennial Act). Your enabling legislation can provide a strong foundation for starting a conversation about who we strive to be as a nation. What does your enabling legislation tell you about our values as an organization, and our values as a country? How have we evolved since? Please post responses below.

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  1. Thank you for providing some guidance and reassurance. We at Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial appreciate it.

    One very important factor to remember is our own emotional defenses and coping mechanisms. I phoned EAP (800-869-0276) and they graciously agreed to coordinate a visit from their counselors to staff. It is difficult not to internalize the conflict and the emotional reactions from the public when one is bombarded daily from every side of the political fence. When we take care of our own emotional well being, we are better equipped to support the public’s needs regarding our park resources.

    And the public is coming to us with these reactions because they need us. The most emotionally charged responses we (at this memorial) have been receiving from the public appear to be grieving from those who feel like they are losing something central to their identity. They are reaching to us as a pillar of support. They need something to take pride in. They need our reassurance. Without that, they feel angry, afraid, and wronged.

    This is not to say that we exist to cajole anyone into a sense of righteousness. That point is moot. The visitor is sovereign. We are not here to say who is right or wrong, who won or lost, which cause was just. We are here merely because the public needs us. Enable them to satisfy their needs. Engage them with the tools of dialogue presented in Katie’s post. Embolden them, or make it safe for them, to confront their own assumptions. Help them find pride in something deeper.

    Then let them pass through without leaving their emotional baggage on your shoulders. Remember that you, the human you under that uniform, are sovereign, too.

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  2. This was great. More and more I find myself needing to check myself. Nowadays, just about everything seems to be a hot button issue. I agree with Christopher in that self-care is crucial to us carrying out our duties effectively.

    Often times visitors are just looking to get emotional weight off their shoulders. The Ranger behind the desk becomes a bartender lending an ear. I don’t see that changing any time soon. Proper guidance and training and access to resources is a must. If we’re going to be asking visitors to be active participants in their park experiences, we have to expand our skill set.

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  3. Whether or not one is employed at a site whose enabling legislation is directly related to the American Civil War, the issue of Confederate monuments in public spaces remains relevant to all of us in the green and gray. This debate transcends any single unit or monument and represents an opportunity for us as Interpreters and Educators to represent the NPS holistically, as those places in question are chapters in the same story that our duty stations are a part of. In fact, I was recently in uniform doing a site visit to a contact station of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail on Maryland’s eastern shore in Chestertown when I was questioned by a passerby on the street about whether the NPS was going to join in on the “revisionist history” taking place around Confederate monuments. These questions/confrontations can take place anywhere or anytime and all of us should be adequately prepared to represent the agency in the best possible light when they do, regardless of duty station or interest in this debate.

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  4. While we strive toward a “more perfect Union'”, that Union is made up of imperfect people. Even in the midst of heated and passionate controversy, the National Park Service exists in part to serve the American people. (All of them) In telling our stories, we should incorporate multiple perspectives, even those we may passionately disagree with. We should not promote hate and violence (although many of our historic sites are based on violent episodes of our nation’s history) but we should not shy away from the roots of what caused these attitudes and actions.

    Our enabling legislation simply says that our site exists to tell certain stories. Those stories take place in the backdrop of 19th century America when the nation was experiencing turbulent growing pains.

    In order to understand and tell these stories, all perspectives should be explored, not honored necessarily, but at least explored. Perhaps by confronting our past instead of destroying or hiding it and engaging in true meaningful dialogue that brings in all perspectives, we can begin to heal the nation. We will likely never reach a point where we all agree, nor should we. As long as freedom exists, there will always be disagreement, We can though strive to at least understand other perspectives, beliefs and values, even though we may not agree with or like those perspectives. That is how I see the role of interpretation in helping us navigate these conflicts.

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  5. One case study, published by NAI, that might prove useful is
    http://www.interpnet.com/NAI/nai/_publications/JIR_v21n2_Hvenegaard.aspx

    Its thorough literature review cites a longer professional discourse on “hot interpretation” that is worth looking into.

    If you don’t want to read through it all, the five bullet points that it recommends are:

    Narrative and personal storytelling should occupy a central place in hot interpretation and should provide multiple points of personal connection with visitors.
    Despair should be balanced with hope, providing visitors with a way to deal with their feelings and move forward.
    Presentation of historical evidence and balanced interpretation should leave visitors feeling educated, rather than persuaded.
    Providing a place or space for reflection should encourage visitors to personalize and internalize their learning.
    Focusing on the past to inform the future should provide visitors with a way of learning from the mistakes of others and contribute to building a better future for all.

    The third point about leaving visitors feeling educated rather than persuaded is one for our attention. We must prepare ourselves with the truth as we understand it, but remember that many of our visitors may not arrive seeking truth. Confronting them with it risks putting them on the defensive. As the other points recommend, we must create a safe and contemplative space for the visitor to open up to truths outside of their own.

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