Empathy, Diversity, and Inclusion in Life and in Museums

One of the best things about the history/museum field is coming into contact amazing, thoughtful colleagues. People who challenge me to aspire to be the very best public historian I can be. Dina Bailey is one such person.

Dina and I first met back in 2008 and my life and career is much richer with her in it. She’s helped my own understanding of a variety of things, diversity and inclusion among them. Her insights feature prominently in the Diversity & Inclusion chapter in An AASLH Guide to Making Public History, which I recently excerpted here. Lately, our discussions have turned to the topic of empathy, something sorely missing in public dialog, and something I believe museums and history organizations can help ameliorate.

As you read this, I’d like you to reflect on a couple of things.

  1. How Dina’s life experience and interests intersect with her career. Being able to put those two together is sometimes-overlooked benefit of working in our profession.
  2. Please do not miss Dina’s thoughts on the intersection of Empathy, Diversity, and Inclusion. Her thoughts are cogent and action-oriented (as always).

Share a bit about your background: your education and career trajectory.

When I was young, I knew that I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I had no doubts when I attended Butler University or when I graduated and began teaching. Several years later, I still loved teaching, but I was exhausted by the many constraints I felt. I decided to get my Master’s degree.

I completed a Masters in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex. My focus included genocide/mass atrocity prevention, truth and reconciliation processes, and how communities are going through transformative processes at all times. My thesis focused on how the ways in which an exhibition is developed directly affect how visitors either reinforce or change their thoughts about the content, people, and places referenced.

I returned to the U.S. and began working at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center where I rose from (basically) an intern position to the Director of Museum Experiences; when I left, I had responsibility for over half of the budget and over half of the staff. After six years at the Freedom Center, I was recruited to become the inaugural Director of Educational Strategies for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which had yet to open. I spent two years with the Center building their educational programming, field trips, educational partnerships, etc.

My undergraduate and graduate degrees paired with my work at the Freedom Center and the Center for Civil and Human Rights clarified my interest in working with museums in transition. I became an independent consultant; my company is called Mountain Top Vision and worked with museums on initiatives specific to diversity and inclusion.

Most recently, I was recruited to begin working with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. As their Director of Methodology and Practice, I continue to work with organizations and communities in transition. While I have a diverse set of projects within the Coalition, I now work internationally on projects intended to positively transform organizations and communities.

Why or how did you gravitate to the history/museum field?

I have always loved history. My passion most often took the shape of reading historical fiction and then delving into research about the historical topics I read about. When I was teaching, I taught 11th grade American Literature and Advanced Placement English for seniors.

History has always been tied to both my hobbies and my career. I gravitated toward the museum field because it gave me a chance to work with people more broadly than I had been able to do as a teacher; I still consider myself an educator.

I have stayed in the museum field because I am committed to the idea that making connections between the past and present is vital to the future of humanity. And, that social justice activities can and should be taking place within museums.

What’s the best part about the work?

The best part of the work is that I have gotten to a point in my career where I have both breadth and depth of impact. I am fortunate that I am able to work with organizations and communities across the globe that are simultaneously similar and different. Similar in that all of the groups that I work with are committed to taking steps toward more inclusive practices; and, different in that they all have histories and contexts that present unique opportunities and challenges.

Do you care to share any of your frustrations?
A frustration I am currently working through is that organizations often believe themselves to be more ready to change than they actually are. This is a natural part of the process, to agree to something in theory and then hesitate when it starts to become a reality. So, it is frustration, but not necessarily one that will change or that I would want to change.

You’ve been one of the leading voices for empathy in our museums and history institutions. What is empathy and how do we put empathy into practice?

Empathy is about a person’s ability to recognize, understand and share in the feelings of someone who is different from themselves. We need more empathy in the world; and, that empathy is a skill just like anything else that we must consistently practice in order to gain competency.

Empathy, diversity, and inclusion are linked. Diversity is about difference; empathy is about understanding and sharing in difference; and, inclusion is about acting on the shared feelings, opinions, and thoughts that grow out of diversity and empathy.

When I am working with organizations on fostering empathy, I most often begin with working toward individuals becoming more aware of themselves — their identities, their assumptions, their biases, etc. Once they are more aware of themselves then they begin to become more aware of the differences between themselves and others. Once they recognize the differences (and similarities) between themselves and others then they can work on sharing common values and perspectives and appreciating/respecting different values and perspectives.

Do you have suggestions for how people might put empathy into practice in their own institutions?

When organizations are focusing internally on empathy, they may begin by looking at their core documents and including empathy into them. For example, including aspects of empathy into an organization’s vision statement, values statement, strategic plan, inclusion plan, community engagement plan, etc.

Once empathy is a part of these organizational documents, staff, volunteers, and stakeholders may be motivated and/or held accountable to practice empathy across also aspects of the organization. I also work with specific departments and/or individuals on how to foster empathy through their departmental goals and deliverables even when empathy has not necessarily been recognized as an organization-wide priority. When organizations are focusing externally on empathy, they may begin by inviting more voices to the table so that there is a diversity of perspectives as part of a more inclusive process of planning, implementing, and evaluating programs, exhibitions and visitor-focused initiatives.

You and I have had lots of discussions over the years about diversity and inclusion ands you’ve helped form and shape my own views on the field’s imperative(s) in this area. Share a bit about what you’re seeing.

I there has been forward movement in the areas of diversity and inclusion. I would even go so far as to say that momentum has been building.

Associations are beginning to talk more directly and concretely about concepts such as diversity, equity, access and inclusion; some of this is from a groundswell and some of it is associations being proactive. Overall, I believe that organizations are becoming more comfortable with what these concepts are and how they might work for the field.

That said, I think that a number of organizations are still struggling with how to put these concepts into practice at their own organizations; and, some museums still do not recognize why these concepts are so vital to their own futures.

I genuinely appreciate the work that has been done and that is currently happening; we still have a far way to go, but the most important thing is to keep moving forward.

Tell us a bit about what you’re doing now.

I thrive when I have many different things going on! I am currently working on 6–7 projects at the Coalition, mainly focusing on dialogue and memory. These are both national and international projects.

Additionally, I still have my consulting company active, where I now focus on individual leadership and career consultations (focusing on conflict and transformation). I have two publications in the works. And, finally, I am serving on three association/organization boards at the moment (two national board positions and one local one).

With so many balls in the air, it easiest to catch me by email or Twitter: @DinaABailey.

Dina has an extensive publication record, having contributed not only to my most recent book An AASLH Guide to Making Public History, but others as well. Here’s a selection of books she’s written, collaborated on, or authored chapters for:

· Interpreting Immigration at Museums and Historic Sites
· Fostering Empathy Through Museums
· Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites
· Zen and the Art of Local History
· Leadership Matters
· Museums of Ideas: Commitment and Conflict
· Overcoming Student Apathy: Succeeding with All Learners

I am grateful to Dina for taking time to “talk” with me.

A twenty-year veteran of the nonprofit world, Bob Beatty is founder of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction.