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.