In late January, Preservation Pennsylvania welcomed Bonnie McDonald, President & CEO of Landmarks Illinois, to give the keynote talk at our 2021 Honor Awards. The Relevancy Project is a forward-looking effort to catalogue the issues and challenges of the preservation field as it exists and to instigate change to help build a more relevant and just movement.
As Preservation Pennsylvania kicked off its 40th Anniversary celebration year, our focus is as much on the future as our history. Our presentation of The Relevancy Project is intended to be engaging and thought-provoking.
Introducing Bonnie McDonald
In her role at Landmarks Illinois, Bonnie advances the vision, mission, and programs of Illinois’ only statewide preservation nonprofit organization. Her transformative thinking about preservation has led the organization to focus its work on people and their important connection to historic places. She’s currently spearheading the organization’s evolution as it celebrates 50 years and to create a national model for justice, equity, inclusion and diversity in preservation practice. Bonnie is a collaborative leader and, together with her board, team and volunteers, they’ve nearly doubled LI’s staff, opened its first regional office, passed vital state legislation, and played a visible role as thought leaders during her nine years as president.
From 2018-2021, Bonnie served as board chair of the National Preservation Partners Network, the national nonprofit representing preservation organizations, and she is proud to have been awarded the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation Mid-Career Fellowship in 2020 to write a guidebook to relevancy in the preservation movement. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed Bonnie co-chair of the Chicago Monuments Project in 2020 to help lead a truth and racial reckoning process in the city around problematic artworks. Bonnie received a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History from the University of Minnesota and a Master’s Degree in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University.
We hope her talk leaves you feeling inspired!
About The Relevancy Project
How can the preservation movement do a better job? Be more relevant? Work smarter? Address societal issues from climate change to social injustices? Between 2019-2021, Bonnie McDonald spoke to 130 individuals – both within and outside of the preservation field – to explore these questions and more. With over 300 pages of notes, she’s still gathering feedback and distilling all she’s learned into a resource guidebook.
The Relevancy Project | Key Findings
1. Building an Inclusive / Accessible Movement
2. Equitable Preservation
3. Solving Critical Issues
4. Sustaining a Future for the Work
Please watch the presentation and let Bonnie and/or us know what you think. What ideas do you have about how preservation can do a better job and face present-day challenges?
To download a pdf of the slides from this presentation, click here. Scroll down for a transcript of the presentation.
Learn more at the Landmarks Illinois website
Skyline Council: Committee of Young Professionals at Landmarks Illinois
Overview pdf: Be Fearless by Jean Case
Book: Be Fearless: Five Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose by Jean Case
“In Pursuit of Bookish Things: Audrey Niffenegger on Building Artists Book House a Home in Evanston,” Chicago Gallery News.
Website for Artists Book House, the former Harley Clarke Mansion.
Tonika Lewis Johnson, The Folded Map Project (creating dialogue around place and social inequities)
Transcript of Bonnie’s presentation on The Relevancy Project
Below is a [lightly edited for readability] transcript of Bonnie McDonald’s talk about The Relevancy Project.
It’s a true pleasure to be here with you and to be talking about a project that I’ve been working on for several years with many, many people.
So that word “relevance.” It comes up quite a bit in our daily life, we hear about things being relevant or irrelevant. And depending on what it is at any one moment, it could be relevant at one time and the next day it is deemed irrelevant. That is usually in the context of social media or if we’re talking about the latest trend, but the project that I’ve worked on is really not about trends. And it’s not about even being socially acceptable as you see in this definition here.
What is “relevance”?
• relation to the matter at hand;
• practical and especially socially applicable.
Something is relevant when it improves your life in some way – a solution to a problem.
Why I wanted to look at preservation is to see truly how applicable it is going to continue to be in the future. I do believe that preservation has been a relevant practice for the 100 plus years that we have been helping people save places around this nation, and of course, around the world. But I’ve observed in my own 20 plus year career in historic preservation the challenges that we continue to face. Some of those that you’ve heard about in the [awards] video today, and I’m sure that you’ve seen in Preservation Pennsylvania’s news alerts and newsletters as well.
So my observations are really that preservation is not always the right solution to a problem. And I think Jeff noted in his acceptance speech that sometimes we have that noble loss instead of the compromised victory. And at times, as I’ve noticed in my career, preservation could even be part of the problem. And that has deeply concerned me as these observations have just cumulatively pointed out the change that is needed in preservation, in my belief, and truly what I have come to feel is a relevancy crisis in preservation practice.
So in this presentation, I do want to give you some specifics. As we talk about strategy, I also want to get into the tactical so that you can understand even further my concerns.
This is an example of a project that we worked on at Landmarks Illinois called the Harley Clarke mansion, located in Evanston, Illinois. (Some of you may have heard of that – the location, Northwestern University.) This building is a local landmark. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and it’s owned by the city of Evanston itself. And here we were facing the city trying to demolish its own landmark when it became vacant. And the city really lacked creativity, lack of drive in trying to find an adaptive reuse. And it’s just indicative of, as I said, this cumulative list of things that I’ve noticed over this history in my career. Some of those include, for example, not only seeing cities trying to demolish their own landmarks, but cities devaluing or actually denigrating their own preservation ordinances; some of them trying to abolish them entirely. We see places trying to delist historic districts. The decimation of our incentives. As we know we’ve had to fight to keep the federal historic tax credits several times. We lost the 10% non-historic tax credit. We also have seen the budgets cut at our State Historic Preservation offices, at least in our region here in the Midwest, and many of our preservation partners have really struggled to make ends meet financially. And from that we have a large degree of burnout unfortunately, in our field as well.
Add these together over time and it leads one to be concerned. I just want to say this is not a presentation about hopelessness, not at all. I’ll end on a hopeful note, but it is to say that I was inspired to do something about it to the degree that I can. It’s the people that I work with that truly inspire me to take steps forward. Those people – like Sydelle and Jeff and Mindy and Margaret – who decide to take steps on their own, to be bold, to be brave and to fight for the things that we feel are important to people – people’s right to place, essentially.
And here I list out one of the advocates for the Harley Clarke mansion, Carl Klein, who is a member of our Skyline Council at Landmarks, Illinois, which is our Young Leaders Group. And thankfully we were able to get the support of our Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Blair Kamin from the Chicago Tribune who said, “Hey, Evanston wake up. You can do better than this.”
Through a long advocacy campaign over five years, we were able to save the Harley Clarke mansion, and now it’s being reused by author Audrey Niffenegger as something called the Book House. So this one has a very positive end, but it just illuminated those challenges that I mentioned to you.
And so, as I mentioned, we each need to step forward to do what we can to address these challenges in preservation, to find ways for it to evolve, if we believe that indeed these problems are real, and to do what we can to find the next evolution for it to be relevant.
You know, for me, what inspired me is not only you know, sitting back and counting these things, but saying that I have a responsibility to do something about it. Though these challenges are huge, and sometimes really difficult to think how you might actually address affordable housing crises, how you might address the the political matters around historic preservation ordinances, what can you do to take a step forward?
So I just want to say that I was really inspired by this book, and I would encourage you all to read it if you haven’t. It’s called Be Fearless by Jean Case of the Case Foundation, and it’s about leaders who have gone beyond their comfort zone to do incredible things, to be bold and to be fearless, like Sydelle and like Jeff. So this work really matters. And if we are going to do something about it, we have to be bold. And so I really developed a thought of how I was going to do that and I’m going to pepper into this presentation some inspirational quotes from this book, and I hope they’ll continually inspire you to take your own steps forward.
What I decided to do to move forward was really to identify if I was the only one seeing these problems. I didn’t want to assume that every place has the same issues in preservation or that everybody sees what I saw. So I said, I’m going to go talk to people and thankfully, this was our 50th anniversary (in 2021). We were preparing to celebrate this anniversary. And our board of directors and my team said “yes, we want to use this moment as a mandate to look at our future and to find out what we need to do to evolve as an organization.”
I asked if I could take a two week sabbatical and was fortunate to receive a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Peter H. Brink Mentoring Fund. For two weeks, I traveled to 14 states and interviewed 23 people to ask these questions. Are you seeing the same thing? Is this solely in the Midwest or is this on the East Coast? The South? Is it in the Northeast?
What I found is that yes, the things that I was seeing, really, other people were seeing, but they also had challenges that went beyond what I saw in my region. They also had very creative solutions to these problems. And as I learned, they didn’t know what somebody in Pennsylvania was doing in Los Angeles, or in New York City what was happening in New Orleans – because we’re spending so much time as preservationists trying to solve the issue, we’re trying to put out the fire, that we don’t have time to look for the solution oftentimes, and it’s such a big problem at times it makes us wonder how we can even chip away at it.
So the lesson I learned was that it would really be helpful to this field if we had a location – if we had a guidebook to the solutions that people were using to solve these issues. So I asked if I could continue this work. And thankfully, the James Marsden Fitch Charitable Foundation out of Columbia University awarded me their 2020 mid-career fellowship and that was an incredible gift – to be given the the sanction essentially that this work was important and the resources to continue this research. And I will tell you, the people I talked to were so generous. They continue to identify who else I should speak with. It’s like, well, they talk to people and they call two people and you need to call this person and eventually 23 interviews turned into 130 over a two year period.
Certainly COVID-19 gave us incredible challenges and difficulties in the nonprofit sector. But what it did do for me in this project is it introduced me to Zoom. I didn’t use it before and it helped me to actually talk with far more people than I would have if I had to fly hither and yon to talk with every person. Plus, it’s a much more environmental solution.
So I’m just giving you a snapshot of some of the people that I spoke to, but I want to say thank you to the 130 people who donated their time to this to this project and for spending hours of their time with me to discuss how we can evolve preservation. I’ll go through some of the key findings in just a moment coming out of these interviews. So additionally, I want to let you know who was being interviewed – so you saw some photos of them. I just wanted to say that it was important to me to talk to a wide range of people who were, let’s say inside and outside of preservation, because it’s not only what we think about ourselves, it’s also what others perceive of us that is going to drive the future of this field.
I also wanted to craft this as a way to hear from voices that are often not heard in preservation, those who have been marginalized in our work, oftentimes people of color, LGBTQ community, young people, people of different socio-economic status. So I tried to make sure we had equal – so about half of those voices are people we might not hear from, or haven’t driven decisions that were made in the past.
You might ask – and it’s a very good question – about something called confirmation bias. If there are any social scientists out there, I’m sure you’re writing that in the chat right now. Confirmation bias is essentially when you pick out interview subjects that are just going to confirm what you already think. And so it’s important to me to be cognizant that that exists, and talking with people to make sure that I was identifying a range of perspectives.
So in this project, there are those who believe preservation is very good as it is and might need a few tweaks and those who go all the way to the other side who think it needs to be completely dismantled and we need to start all over again. So there was everybody in between to ensure that this was really a wide ranging and as unbiased as possible look at preservation. But ultimately, to a person, everyone felt that there were changes that needed to be made in our preservation practice.
The Relevancy Project | Key Findings
1. Building an Inclusive / Accessible Movement
2. Equitable Preservation
3. Solving Critical Issues
4. Sustaining a Future for the Work
So I wanted to spend the majority of my time talking about these key findings and getting your feedback from this process. What it continuously leads to, of course, are more questions. I just want to say this project is not done and what I learn every time I talk about it is that there are just more questions that we need to answer.
But what’s important is that we just get started. It is important to take steps forward and to take what we’ve learned through your feedback and find ways that each one of us can take a step forward.
So the findings really fall into four different areas that I’ve listed out here for you. And essentially what it comes down to in my mind is that we need to expand who is involved in making decisions around place in our communities that we need to ensure that this work is done fairly, justly, and that it meets people where they are – not necessarily where we want them to be. That we need to be more of a solution for the critical issues that are facing humanity. This is not to say that we are not a solution, but we believe, many of us, that we could do more, we can be more and partner with more people to solve these humanity crises that we have. And, finally, that we need to build our next generation of leaders in preservation. There are many who are retiring in in our field and we don’t have time to do succession planning. So I’m going to cover some of the specific points that have been raised. And just note that this is coming from 130 different people, but 300 pages of notes from those interviews. So there’s a lot in there that I won’t be able to cover as well, but I think these are the most important things.
Building an inclusive and accessible preservation movement.
We note, if you have ever been a manager, for example, that the most diverse teams are the strongest, that we can actually make better decisions when we have different perspectives around the table. And I believe that’s absolutely true in preservation – that the diversity of our field is actually going to make our impact stronger and that we’ll be able to do, I think, what many of us want to do, which is help people save the places that are special to them – that are about their history and their identity – and that may be a place that’s very different from one that’s been surveyed before.
We need to find more information, have help identifying places that are important to others, expand the definition of preservation, and also engage people in making decisions about what they feel is important. So it was identified, you know, early surveys that were done in preservation were oftentimes just based on architecture, based on what we could see – that’s what the windshield survey was. And oftentimes, we’re missing that time to go and do the historic research so that we can learn what stories may be embedded in the place.
And also that the the lexicon of importance, architectural and aesthetic importance is coming from a Western mentality. And that may not be indicative of what other communities feel is beautiful or important. So how do we expand our definition of what is significant?
We need to embrace more people in this process to ensure that there’s a future for the the incentives that we have, the regulatory, the public policy – because more voices around the table help to improve that legislation so that everybody can be involved.
And we recognize not all of those regulations are understandable. Not all of them are accessible. That language can be Byzantine when you try to read it. And they oftentimes need people like Preservation Pennsylvania or Landmarks Illinois, to help understand what it all means. And to do a much better job, we need to break down that system so it’s much easier to understand, so people don’t need to go through us – even though we want to be helpful – that they don’t need to because we end up being gatekeepers oftentimes to resources.
So that language and communication is important. Words matter. And I wanted to give you an example of this that was very prominent in the last year and a half here in Chicago, for example. So the very words that we use can be detrimental and offensive to how people view historic preservation. I’m showing you a picture of the proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is proposed for Jackson Park, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; it’s an Olmsted landscape where the 1893 World’s Fair took place. Here, the proposed Obama Presidential Center is, of course, seen as a real boon to this city and especially on the south side of Chicago where President Obama made his mark as a community organizer. There has been a regulatory review process through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. And the point of that is to bring lots of people together to talk about the the impact, positive and negative, of proposed projects. So here I was at a public meeting where it was noted that this is considered an “adverse affect” to the historic park. And there was a public comment about how offensive that language was, not recognizing, of course that, to us, that’s language that’s just something we use on a daily basis in regulation, but that by calling something so significant to a population of people who elected President Obama, that actually that was a negative connotation automatically for historic preservation. Language matters.
Building an Inclusive / Accessible Movement
• Diversity will be our strength
• Who decides?
• Embrace what people find important in their communities
• How accessible and applicable are our resources and to whom?
• Language and communication
Creating an equitable preservation movement.
To build an equitable preservation movement, there needs to be recognition that basic human needs need to be met before preservation can be a priority. I just had this conversation with a former preservation planner here in the city, recognizing that we may want to come in and make preservation the priority, but if housing needs are difficult and challenging, and there isn’t access to safe and affordable housing, that is most likely going to be the priority.
How do we contribute to a solution so that we can build a preservation solution around housing for example. Affordable housing and preservation oftentimes can go hand in hand.
• Basic human needs must be met before preservation can be a priority
• Meet people where they are
• Access and self-determination
• Expand definitions of significance and integrity
• Our toolbox needs to adapt and expand
• We don’t have a right to people’s history
• Preservation’s tie to unjust land use policies
Meeting people where they are.
Just talking about that conversation about adverse effect is recognizing that that preservationists tend to have a lot of jargon. That it can be Byzantine to go through our regulations. How do we help simplify that process? Not dumb it down, but just make sure that the language is clear and that people can find information on their own as well.
Self determination in the community about what they want to preserve.
Oftentimes, it’s planning departments, the State Historic Preservation Office, or it may be the zoning department that is looking at how the future of land use is going to be in a community and not the community itself that’s making a decision. So that’s very important to many of those that I interviewed.
Preservation is tied to land use policy. And, of course, it’s an overlay zoning for most historic districts, if that’s how, how they’re called in your community. So here I am bringing you a photo of a social justice artist named Tonika Lewis Johnson. She is working on the south side of Chicago in the Englewood neighborhood to identify what was an inequitable and illegal practice of land sale contracts. I won’t go into the definition of those, but it was essentially the plunder of Black wealth in Chicago and elsewhere. She wanted to landmark one of these buildings as indicative of the significance and cultural history and beginning to repair this – having reparations for this unjust practice, illegal practice, essentially. She was told by some of the commissioners on the Landmarks Commission that it would not be eligible because of our criteria. So she created a land marker system – that’s what you see here. She’s putting up a land marker so that she can identify this is significant. And right there is an example of how we would want historic preservation to embrace the cultural relevance of this practice and help to repair that history.
Solving critical issues.
The one that comes up the most of course is how we can contribute even more to combating climate change and the practice of environmental justice for those who have been systematically targeted for polluting practices, for example. That has a land use implication, and oftentimes, those are historic neighborhoods as well.
Looking at any way that we can provide better access to housing through historic preservation and looking at how we may contribute – do we contribute to displacement and gentrification? Many of those I interviewed either have evidence or believe that historic districts may contribute to displacement in our communities. So we need to know the facts of that and then address it from a policy standpoint.
I also want to bring up these are not all urban issues. I talked with many rural communities. I spoke with tribal representatives. Depopulation is a significant concern that has an impact on the historic building resources in a community. It’s something that threatens the built environment and, of course, people’s interaction and connection with that built environment. So in what ways are we contributing to combating depopulation or helping to ensure that the intellectual capacity – that brain drain that happens – you reverse that so that rural communities have a fighting chance as well.
I just wanted to point out one issue that we deal with here at Landmarks Illinois that’s climate change related is with the Farnsworth House, by Mies van der Rohe. We have an easement on this property. The easement of course is protecting the building but it’s adjacent to the Fox River which continues to flood and actually is flooding more frequently at the 500 year flood mark. So there’s conversation about lifting it out of the way, do you move it, etc, etc. And this is just indicative of conversations I know that are happening all around the coasts, as water/sea level rise is happening and what do we do to protect the culturally significant and historically significant resources that are going to be underwater? That’s just one of the aspects of preservation that we feel we need to address to be more relevant.
Solving Critical Issues
• Climate change
• Justice – environmental, racial, economic
• Dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy
• Income equality
• Housing availability, access and affordability
• Displacement and gentrification
• Depopulation in rural and urban communities and corresponding issues
Sustaining the future of our work.
And finally, we identify that we need education for all ages, from little kids to adults. And talking about the significance and importance of place to people and why preserving place is significant. We don’t always communicate that in a way that’s effective, unfortunately. Hopefully, we can get more people interested in this work, because we need to build a bigger constituency around preservation so it’s not seen as a luxury, it’s seen as a necessity.
And training more people in doing the work. So even if we’re able to preserve a place, we may not have somebody skilled at that thing that needs to be done. So working on preservation trades training, which is a significant aspect of the National Impact Agenda, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And also the National Preservation partners are working on preservation trades training policy as well.
We have to address funding, because this hand and mouth approach for preservation organizations just leads us to make decisions that are based on resources and where we can find them. We don’t always make the most strategic decisions if we’re always just looking for how to pay our payroll.
In addition to that, the Historic Preservation Fund, which pays for our State Historic Preservation Offices, our National Register program, our Certified Local Government program, is funded by offshore oil lease revenues. How sustainable is that funding source in the long term future? So that is a conversation I know that is being had at the federal level and we need to continue to talk about a replacement source of funding for our preservation policy and regulators.
Finally, I talked about burnout. We’ve seen a number of executive directors, the rest of our team during the Great Resignation, bowing out of preservation work, and they’re not alone as as more and more people retire out of the field as well. How are we planning to ensure that that institutional memory is passed on to somebody else and that we light a fire in the next generation to take on this important work as well?
Here’s a picture of our Skyline Council Landmarks Illinois. This is how we’re trying to contribute. We have this incredible group of of emerging or young professionals that have agency within our organization to make their own decisions about what they want to do, what they want to preserve. Here they are in front of the Harley Clarke Mansion I mentioned, going back to the beginning of my speech, where they held a heart bombing. A heart bombing is where they show some love for a vacant building and help to demonstrate that there was a significant amount of support behind preservation, thus leading the city to understand that they had political pressure to reuse this building.
The Relevancy Guidebook
So the next steps in The Relevancy Project, the project that I’ve talked about, is essentially to take all of this data – this information – and continue to analyze it and put it forward in blog posts so that I continue to share this to gather feedback, constructive criticism, and then integrate that feedback into the creation of the relevancy guidebook. The guidebook is going to essentially have a number of practical solutions that a person can take – small steps that you can take forward to addressing these big issues. Otherwise if if you feel like it’s a big, hairy problem that’s so big, you can’t tackle it, we are going to be paralyzed from moving forward. We just have to take a step forward.
And so there are many wonderful organizations that are working at the policy level to change preservation – between the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions that Mindy is on the board of; the National Trust I mentioned and their National Impact Agenda; the Partners Network with their Preservation Priorities Taskforce.
We have academics that I want to say thank you to: Erica Avrami, Jeremy Wells, Fallon Samuels Aidoo in New Orleans, as well as Randy Mason at the University of Pennsylvania – who are all working toward that policy solution.
What I hope to contribute with this guidebook was really some small steps. Instead of policy level, how do we pair that with the practical, where you can take a step based on where you are in your organization? What’s the readiness to move forward with these items? Just publishing some ideas for people.
So at this point, I’ve got about 120 ideas in a running list and it just continues to grow as I analyze those interviews with the interviewees.
I just wanted to show you a couple of those that we have started to take at Landmarks Illinois that are very possible to move forward with.
- Publishing our values: We put together something called our Guiding Principles that we’ve published on our website that you can see.
- Building boards and staff that are representative of the communities we serve.
- Evaluating our procurement practices: we did something called a spend diagnostic looking at where our money goes, and how we can use even our small amount of money to encourage the growth of diverse contractors who can continually contribute to the intellectual capital within preservation for example, both the knowledge base and those working in preservation.
- Just a couple of others. I know Sarah Marsom, one of my interviewees, would want us to say “pay your interns.” It’s very important to make sure that there’s pay equity in preservation. That we’re paying our interns and also, she would say, make sure we’re publishing the salaries on all of our job descriptions as well.
- But further, making sure we have diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility training and certification that we’re offering.
- Joining the climate heritage network, which is a very easy step you can take.
So these are all individual concepts that you can move forward with at your organization or as an individual.
The Relevancy Guidebook
1. Justice, Equity, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity
2. Climate Change and Climate Justice
4. Income Inequality
6. Regulations and Review
7. Incentives and Resources
9. Health / Public Safety / Livability / Resilience
10. Transparency and Accountability
12. Succession Planning
I’m looking forward to publishing this, hopefully later this year. So that together we can take steps to fix preservation. As I worked toward publishing this information, I had a hashtag called #letsfixpreservation. It was my way to say that I do think preservation is fixable. I do think that we have the capacity to evolve into the next relevant version of what preservation needs to be if we all take steps to do that together.
I’ll end with this proverb which is in the book Be Fearless:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb
We all have to work on this together. It can’t be one person who changes a movement; we need to be a movement who are changing ourselves. Because if we don’t, somebody else will. But I’m very hopeful that together, we will be able to do this as a community and, ultimately, help people save places that matter to them.
So I want to thank you very much for this opportunity. I’m really looking forward to hearing your questions and your feedback. I just want to say thank you. This is a moment for me to give credit to our annual corporate sponsors who sponsor everything we do at Landmarks Illinois, and they really deserve credit amongst those who are individual donors to our organization, that those donations are so important to us. And I just want to put a pitch in to please support Preservation Pennsylvania, with your gifts. Mindy and Sabra and the Board need your support so that they can continue to implement that new and exciting strategic plan that they just talked about.
I’m ending with this slide. This is my contact information. And I’m happy to hear from you. I’ve got my Twitter handle [@LIPresident]. I have my cell phone, my email address. You can find this information on our website as well at landmarks.org to share your feedback. If you want to consider this – contemplate it a little further – I will give the presentation to Sabra so she can publish it as well and you can come back later with your comments if you’re not ready to do so today.
So again, thank you so much and I’m looking forward to the Q&A session. Mindy. Thanks.