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How to talk about a shameful history

Individuals and organizations all have things from their past that they wish hadn’t happened or had been handled differently.  This can be as minor as that eighth-grade haircut or as serious as middle school bullying.  It can be as horrifying as knowing your ancestors owned slaves.  It can be as shameful as learning about racist policies and procedures implemented in your organization’s past.

America is embroiled in mass protest. All on eyes are on the Supreme Court for the next ruling on religious liberty and Civil Rights. Students and organizations sued Harvard for violations of freedom of association and sex discrimination. History isn’t over. Organizations are tackling (or being tackled by) big issues that affect our lives.

Somewhere in an organization’s history, there was a member that said this policy or this exclusion or this ritual isn’t right. That hero can be found and can inspire the members of today. But only if you reject shame and embrace your organization’s story in the right way.

While it is easy to wish that these things were absent from your organization’s narrative, they are not, and ignoring them adds salt to old wounds.  Knowing that, how do you convey your organization’s history in the current climate?  Perhaps more importantly, how do you learn from past actions to create a better future?

As an historian who has explored thousands of archives, I am familiar with the range of historical events and actions that many would prefer be deleted from memory.  But if the past is gone, how will current or future generations learn from it?  At HistoryIT, we’ve worked with organizations to create strategies to process, save, and share their histories in order to bolster their current mission.  As part of this work, we have developed three key tactics when working with the shameful parts of an organization’s past.

The following three steps demonstrate how we work with the rich histories of fraternal organizations, but the same tactics apply for any organization or industry that must acknowledge — or suffer from choosing not to — a history that is rife with racism, classism, homophobia, and other prejudices.

Implementing these three steps is necessary in order to acknowledge the past and build a better future.

1. Acknowledge and Learn

Most people instinctively try to bury and ignore the less than pleasant aspects of their past.  Reversing this instinct is never easy, but it is a critical first step to healing and learning.  Begin by looking “behind the curtain”.  What have people been hiding and why?  Remember, what we save is what we learn from.  Start by making a list of problematic policies, actions, and events from your organization’s history, then locate – and preserve – those materials in your archive that document this information. The goal is to build a comprehensive digital archive, not simply a cherry-picked version of your history.

Understanding your organization’s history with exclusionary race policy 75 years ago can help you navigate racial unrest today. Understanding how accepting (or not) your organization was of gay and lesbian members 25 years ago is important to understanding how single-sex organizations best welcome transgender members.

2. Name Both Villains and Heroes

For every villain in a story, there is a hero.  In the case of social change and progress, there are many.  For every racist policy enforced, there are students who rebelled.  For every national policy or action that displayed systemic racism and homophobia (to name only two), take the time to look for the agents of change within your organization.  Who stood up in protest?  Who left the organization?  Which chapters decided to close rather than remain within an organization that did not exemplify their values?  What eventually caused the organization to shift?  These are the stories to celebrate.  At the time, the national Greek organizations (including yours) might not have been happy with or proud of chapters or members who spoke up against their policies, but now their enlightened perspectives provide them with an (albeit overdue) opportunity to celebrate and honor those actors.

Often, you members can’t find these heroes without your help. They may all know about the worst of your past, but it’s up to you to unlock the stories of that chapter that pushed back and that national leader that pushed forward.

3. Share Your Story

To avoid whitewashing history, be careful to discuss both the bad and the good when sharing your stories.  Any story of change should be told in the context of the situation that needed to be changed.  Develop a strategy for educating leadership this year, your membership the following year, and then the general public about the true history of your organization.

  • Hold workshops at leadership academies and alumni events to help people examine current and future actions so that they can continue to make progress.
  • Create a series of articles in your publications and online spaces that own and discuss your organization’s true history.
  • Encourage conversations about how that history has shaped your organization and its members.
  • Invite younger members to consider how they want to shape the future now that they have a more accurate view of the past.

Small steps are still steps. If your organization isn’t ready (or doesn’t have the support) to share the story broadly, start with leaders and key members. The public plan can come after that. But, most important: don’t do nothing just because you aren’t ready to do everything.

As you build strategic goals for the future, your organization will be bolstered by a greater knowledge of what has happened in the past.

Having hard conversations is the only way to heal. They are also the only way to grow and remain relevant in today’s world.  So realize that your history isn’t “over” and it’s such good learning material for events of today; your members need your help to find the heroes from your past so they can be role models for your future; and the time to start this project is now because the only way to fail is to do nothing.

Let’s begin with the past. We’re here to help.

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