Teachable moments: Lessons to take to heart

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A teachable moment at the 2017 AAM Conference

Early Tweet about controversial figures at the AAM 2017 conference. Screenshot used with permission of @Their_Child

In walking through the expo hall at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference in May, a friend of mine and I came upon one of the vendor displays that showed the figure of an enslaved black man shackled to a pole and a grey (white) auctioneer figure standing as if to accept bids. This display immediately brought to my mind thoughts of slavery and contemporary racial power dynamics and stereotypes. Over the next few hours, a Twitter hashtag, #aam2017slaveauction, went viral and emotions ran high. 

During this time, a lot was happening behind the scenes. With a theme of “Gateways to Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion in Museums,” it was clear to me that both expectations and sensitivities would be higher than usual at this year’s conference. I quietly applauded AAM for its intentionality in choosing a theme that addressed issues that are particularly relevant in our contemporary society even as I wasn’t surprised that attendee sensitivities were heightened. These reactions reflected myriad personal and professional temperaments and knowledge bases. Some museum professionals are well-versed in topics and themes related to equity and inclusion, while others have not engaged deeply, or perhaps have even avoided, such issues. AAM’s conference generally, and the vendor’s display specifically, presented an opportunity for a (needed) field-wide conversation.

Within approximately twenty-four hours of the vendor’s display triggering reactions, AAM staff: had a lengthy discussion with the CEO of the company that created the display; fabricated a white board for attendees to leave their thoughts; changed pre-planned sessions in order to provide a space for debriefing; spoke with conference venue staff; and wrote a statement that went out to the membership. And, the CEO committed to driving to St. Louis the next morning to speak with conference attendees. However, also during this time, the vendor made the decision to cover the figure of the enslaved man with a black cloth while the white auctioneer was left uncovered. Without making assumptions about intention, the impact of this “cover up” only led to more criticism. The next morning, the CEO came to the expo hall where approximately thirty people stood waiting for him.

Almost from the start, each “side” grew more defensive and less able to actively listen. While there seemed to be an initial absence from AAM, this wasn’t quite true. As I stood next to one of my friends, who is on the AAM board of directors, an AAM staff member began quietly talking to my friend. This staffer said that someone needed to step in and facilitate. They agreed that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a staff or board member to do it. Then, my friend turned to me and asked if I would facilitate. Did I step up? Of course.

While I do not make light of the turning point, my role in it, or the productive dialogue that followed, my focus was (and continues to be) on how and why it ended more successfully than it started. I believe the moment ended as well as it did because we paused, making room to breathe, validate everyone’s feelings and refocus on what lessons we might individually and collectively learn. As the dialogue came to a close, I counted over 100 people in attendance.

Dina Bailey acting as facilitator for a discussion between AAM 2017 attendees and the CEO of LifeFormations. Image credit: Juilee Decker @RITmuse

What We Should Take to Heart

Today, the impact of this dialogue continues to ripple out. And the lessons grow even more clear. First, the CEO didn’t have to come, stay, or accept responsibility for decisions made. Yet he did all of these things and we should acknowledge this. Second, AAM acted on what it heard from its members and did so with significant speed. We should acknowledge that not many of our organizations would have been able to do this as quickly and completely. Third, the moment would not have ended productively if there hadn’t been people who were open and willing to stay, listen, and participate. And, finally, the teachable moment would not have presented itself (in this way) without those who initially spoke up through Twitter and other platforms.

The moment didn’t end there—what can we learn? We have all made mistakes along the way, we will make more mistakes in the future, and we are all responsible for how we engage with and react to any particular moment. Perspectives are inherently unique; my perspective may be completely different from that of the person next to me. Perspectives can only ever be partial. Only reading the Twitter thread or being there in-person can’t tell us the whole story or the nuances and complexities of the moment. Further, we will never know all of the actions that have rippled out from this moment. For example, I have been in contact with the CEO and I know the deep, genuine, and concerted actions that he and his staff have taken in the past several weeks and intend to take in the next several months.

Each of us still has work to do. We each have the potential for growth and we will all make mistakes. We need to have faith that we aren’t intentionally bruising each other. We can’t be truly inclusive if we are excluding people by saying “white people need to” or “the vendor should have” or “why didn’t AAM” or “of course, it was a woman of color who had to step in and facilitate the dialogue.” I hope that we become more aware and more sensitive to what may happen despite our best intentions. Context matters: even when something like the slave auction display is “decontextualized” by being moved into a conference exhibit hall, it has actually been placed into a new context and this new context will have a different (but just as relevant) impact. And, as a field, I want us to courageously have even more difficult conversations in order to embrace even more teachable moments.

~ Dina A. Bailey is the CEO of Mountain Top Vision. Dina can be reached at [email protected] and @DinaABailey.

This is a personal reflection of the 2017 AAM conference. My views are my own and are meant to encourage further reflection by NCPH stakeholders.

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