On NCPH 2020, H.B. 481, and not passing the mic

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Black and white photo of a midwife walking to a call down a dirt road in Siloam, Greene County, Georgia, 1941. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Midwife going on a call, carrying her kit, in Greene County, Georgia, 1941. Photo credit: Library of Congress

On May 7, Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed H.B. 481, the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act,” into law in the state (to take effect January 1, 2020). The law, one of several state “heartbeat bills” passed recently, would effectively prohibit women in Georgia from accessing their right to a safe and lawful abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, at about six weeks of pregnancy. It is one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States.

Following the signing of the legislation, we received communication from members of the NCPH community via Twitter and email asking us to consider moving our 2020 conference from Atlanta to another state as part of what is being referred to on social media as #BoycottGeorgia efforts. This is not the first time we’ve been asked to consider such a move; most recently, in 2015, the NCPH board of directors discussed relocating our 2017 conference following the enactment of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which the board feared might result in discrimination against LGBTQ+ attendees visiting the state. We ultimately decided not to do so after the law was amended to contain explicit protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

What does H.B. 481 mean for NCPH 2020?

In the wake of the signing of this legislation, NCPH staff prepared information for the board of directors about H.B. 481, its potential impact on our attendees, and the potential impact of moving the 2020 Atlanta conference—including financial consequences, the effect on our staff and committee volunteers, and what it would mean for both local and national members. The board considered this information and has concluded that moving the conference at this late date, just ten months before the event, is simply not feasible. Moreover, it may not be in the best interests of our public history community, in Georgia and elsewhere.

The financial considerations are substantial. NCPH signed a contract with the Westin Peachtree Plaza in the summer of 2017. Per that contract, if we cancelled the conference today, NCPH would be responsible for paying the Westin 50% of the expected income from our room block in cancellation fees. This figure would be as high as $89,000, which amounts to a quarter of NCPH’s annual operating budget. For additional perspective, $89,000 is the equivalent of two of NCPH’s three staff salaries. Paying this amount in cancellation fees, on top of the financial burden of signing a late and disadvantageous contract with a new venue, would be catastrophic for the organization. We have event cancellation insurance and all NCPH hotel contracts contain force majeure and anti-discrimination clauses enabling us to cancel events without penalty under certain circumstances—for example, labor strikes or discriminatory legislation like the original version of Indiana’s RFRA—but this specific law is not likely to qualify under either clause. We would rack up substantial legal fees trying to make our case, and the extreme uncertainty of the future of this law would be a further barrier to the success of the case for cancellation.

There are also other considerations. Local planning is well underway. Our 2020 Local Arrangements Committee has been meeting regularly for nearly two years and has almost completed organizing a slate of tours—labor we value highly and are grateful for. We believe that the robust community of public historians and public history students in Georgia deserve professional development opportunities and a national spotlight on their work regardless of decisions made by their legislators. And finally, with only three full-time staff members, NCPH does not have the capacity to identify a new conference venue, sign a new contract, and begin local planning efforts from scratch ten months before the event.

Where does NCPH go from here?

Folks within NCPH’s leadership and staff find H.B. 481 to be deeply troubling legislation; some of us have been pregnant, have miscarried, or have had abortions ourselves. Legislation that so limits the reproductive rights and bodily autonomy of people who are pregnant or might become pregnant puts lives at risk and is likely to be found unconstitutional, judging by the stays on similar laws in North Dakota, Iowa, and Kentucky. However, should it still be in effect when we meet next March, we will prepare resources for attendees who have concerns for their health and safety while in Georgia.

We’ll be signing more contracts and making more purchases for the annual meeting in the coming months. We’re already making plans to prioritize businesses owned by women, non-binary people, and people of color wherever we can. We have also reached out to the Westin Peachtree Plaza and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau to register the concerns of our members and share that this legislation could impact our desire to bring future business to Georgia. These groups do business in the state on a scale that far exceeds NCPH’s conference, and they are better-positioned to demonstrate the full scope of the law’s financial consequences in terms of lost revenue and contracts.

We believe in the power of boycotts or other collective action, and we do not rule out the possibility of moving conference venues in future years under different circumstances. This can be an effective means of applying pressure. But in this instance, while we hear the concerns of members who do not wish to spend their money in Georgia, we are also aware of calls (particularly from women and people of color in the state) asking that organizations like ours come to Atlanta and support the community in their work rather than leave the state altogether. The conference gives us the opportunity to come to Georgia, have important conversations loudly, demonstrate solidarity with local workers, give money to local businesses we believe in, and tip well.

In 2020 the United States will be commemorating the 150-year anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which conferred the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. We’ll also be commemorating the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, which conferred on women the right to vote. There will be conversations at our 2020 conference about rights, given and taken away; advocacy for racial and social justice; and activism and community organizing with and within disenfranchised groups. We believe that the public historians of Georgia—a state that not only passed HB 481 but is also being investigated for voter suppression—will have a lot to contribute to these conversations and may need access to them more than just about anyone else in our membership. As the National Council on Public History, we exist to serve all public historians and support them in the work they do.

This is neither the first nor the last time NCPH will face the question of should we stay or should we go? Contracts are signed three or more years in advance of our conference, and a state’s political landscape can change dramatically in that time no matter how thoughtfully we approach site selection or how carefully we craft cancellation clauses in our contracts. With the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, we have seen many states prepare test laws like H.B. 481 in order to challenge federal precedent on abortion rights, labor laws, immigration laws, and anti-discrimination protections, and we’ll see more. Unfortunately, at present, there are only a handful of states, territories, and districts where we would be unlikely to face comparable issues that potentially put the lives of our attendees at risk. We do not wish to cut off public historians in entire regions of the country from professional development opportunities like our conference, nor would we wish to meet exclusively in relatively expensive areas like the coasts—so we must take every situation on a case-by-case basis, carefully weighing the rapidly changing particulars. We promise to keep our members and attendees involved and informed when we consider how legislation will impact NCPH as an organization and as a community, and how our leaving would in turn impact our host communities.

We hope to see you in Atlanta. We have an amazing opportunity as a national public history organization to speak to Georgia while sitting in their yard. For nearly a week next year we’ll have the spotlight and the mic. Will we pass it, or will we speak?

~ Ashley Bouknight is co-chair of the 2020 NCPH Annual Meeting. Meghan Hillman is NCPH Program Manager. Brian Joyner is co-chair of the 2020 NCPH Annual Meeting. Marla Miller is the president of NCPH.

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