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Equity in Historic Preservation: elevating unheard voices

By Sumeya Hassan and Josh Hauf

Historic preservation has been built and sustained on the priorities and framed primarily from the perspective of white decision-makers. Equity and accessibility within preservation are vital to ensure the end of place-based cultural erasure and to create means for people of non-dominant racial identities to participate and effectively lead preservation practices. There is a notable lack of representation for non-dominant identities in preservation policy work or policy-oriented education programs (Wells, 2021). Are there meaningful opportunities for BIPOC job-seekers in the preservation and conservation field? In order to begin to address issues of equity and accessibility in historic preservation we must engage in conversations regarding who are the current decision makers and who is kept from the table.

Historic preservation has struggled to dedicate time and resources to elevating minority voices, and Minnesota is no exception. One of the most serious issues facing equitable historic preservation is the erasure of minority communities and their places and stories. For instance, the construction of Interstate 35W, which more than 50 years ago, cut through south Minneapolis is the perfect example of inequitable and discriminatory development. The construction of this interstate divided and destroyed parts of an otherwise vibrant community composed primarily of the city’s Black population. Communities perceived as “least resistant” by developers were targeted by this immense infrastructure project. Community members have since suffered several health consequences as a result of increased exposure to air and noise pollution (Kleven, 2021).

Moreover, the Twin Cities metropolitan area is no stranger to housing discrimination and remains one of the worst metropolitan areas for racial disparity in earnings and homeownership. Interstate 94 has a similar history, having essentially destroyed the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul during its construction. If you would like to learn more about the impact of interstates on minority communities from the Twin Cities history, check out the articles from MPR and Minnesota Historical Society. Additionally, Owning Up is a digital exhibit covering this topic and was curated by Denise Pike, one of our Racism in Real Estate instructors. The conversation of equity in preservation needs to include dialogue that addresses the issues of discrimination, displacement, and environmental justice.

Fortunately, there are also some local examples of work being done to address inequitable preservation. Rondo Community Land Trust is working to ensure low-income families have access to affordable housing. The Rondo CLT works to help marginalized populations obtain access to residential and commercial properties, all while building community resilience and ownership. This program affords families the opportunity to place their roots, claiming ownership of property and their history in neighborhoods across St. Paul.

On a national level, there have been some intentional moves forward in advancing equity in the field. On January 20th, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order which aims to leverage federal resources to address racial inequity issues. In accordance with Executive Order 13985, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation created an Equity Action Plan. Similarly, the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office lists advancing equity and fostering inclusion as one of its five primary goals for the next ten years in the Statewide Historic Preservation Plan.

We have a duty to support the preservation efforts of people who have historically been underrepresented in this field. By changing the narrative of what is deemed worthy of preservation, we expand the scope of the stories we tell beyond the traditionally white-dominated perspective, which is and has been heavily influenced by wealth and social class. According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, while 99% of preservation practitioners are White, there is evidence of greater participation by people from non-dominant racial or ethnic identities at the state level. This work has been historically framed by large organizations; therefore, elevating the voices of grassroots organizations is integral. Organizations such as the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, the HOPE Crew, Latinos in Heritage Preservations, and the National Trust for Historic Preservations African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund come to mind. Collaborating in this way succeeds in building community engagement between communities which otherwise might not ever share resources despite their similar interests.

Additionally, by employing more Black and Indigenous people of color, organizations are recruiting the perspectives required to break away from the binary thinking of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ that has limited historic preservation’s position in policy to this day. It is the human impact in a space that creates the stories we celebrate as history years down the line; in practice, this means putting people ahead of place. Getting rid of the binary mindset and creating room for histories that aren’t written, such as oral histories further supports innovation in the workplace. Within this process, leaders in historic preservation need to critically address issues of White supremacy and tokenization as these are detrimental to advancing equity by promoting anti-racism and reinforcing systemic complacency. Historic preservation must do the difficult job of addressing prejudice before beginning the journey of diversity seeking for individual organizations. Some questions to guide DEI decision-making are “Why is it that I want a diverse range of racial or ethnic backgrounds in this space?” and “Does this organization have the capacity to address hard truths and the disagreement that might occur as a result?”

Rethos considers equity and inclusion to be a vital component of our work and is working to create an Emerging Developer Loan program, which is slated to launch in 2024. This program is aimed to assist BIPOC developers who are working to rehabilitate and reimagine historic buildings.


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