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Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum, joins the program to discuss her own diversity story and how it led her to her current work. Discover the history of the museum and the work that they are doing to challenge existing narratives and tell stories from multiple perspectives. Christy also shares practices and ideas for creative a diverse talent pipeline, and how to create an organization culture that supports and values all employees.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Christy’s diversity story and her interest in how to make history relevant (6:00)
- How the merging of two institutions led to the creation of the current museum (15:00)
- How widening our historical lens created a richer narrative (19:00)
- The feedback that the museum is getting from the public (29:00)
- Why the truth is more important than balance (31:00)
- How to develop a diverse talent pipeline (37:00)
- The importance of representation in a variety of roles (39:00)
- Create ways to nurture diverse talent (41:00)
- How to create a culture that supports employees (45:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Christy, welcome to The Will to Change.
CHRISTY: Thank you so much for having me, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: I felt a really strong kinship when I heard you speak at Kat Gordon’s 3% mini con in DC a couple months ago. And I also felt a kinship because I wanted to be in the museum world years ago, actually.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it’s true. I got bitten by the art history bug, and emphasis on the history part. And I know you probably agree with that too.
CHRISTY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JENNIFER BROWN: It just opened up a whole world to me of understanding society and culture, and engaged my brain in this metaphorical place that felt so satisfying. Art tells us so much, and history tells us so much. So I’m really excited to have someone from the museum and the art world on the podcast. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who’s a museum director.
CHRISTY: Well I feel honored.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And with your particular role, in this particular institution. So I’m just really excited to let our audience know who you are, the kind of work you’re doing, and how you’re really revolutionizing the way we speak about our history as a country. So I thank you for your leadership in forging that path for us. But I want to start with our personal diversity story. We like to say on The Will to Change, everyone has a diversity story. Sometimes these are unexpected. What would you share in terms of letting our audience into, who are you, what shaped you, and how do you view your diversity in this world?
CHRISTY: Well, I would have to say that, being raised by two ’60s babies, my parents certainly are the greater influence of understanding, not only the power of a historical narrative, but the responsibility to serve. All of those kinds of things have been drummed in me from a pretty early age. And they always challenged me, when I was coming through school, to push myself and my teachers to look beyond what was in the textbook. I think that’s probably the most profound to me.
And then there are little things, like the things I enjoyed growing up. I was telling someone, the other day, the story about how, when I was a little girl watching reruns of the original Star Trek series, how powerful that was in terms of the full representation. It was absolutely showing black people in the future, and in this particular case, the first words that any alien civilization would hear would come from the mouth of a black woman. And that was extraordinary to me.
JENNIFER BROWN: For a young girl to see that … We still don’t have enough role models around us to see it in order to be it. So fast forward, the museum and the art world, so unlikely, right, for you to become interested in. What captured your imagination and your heart, as a child of these parents, having been exposed to what you were exposed to, where you grew up, your connection to the South in particular? How did that passion start to awaken, and the clarity that you would get to say, “This is the work I want to do”?
CHRISTY: Well I have to say it was a rather bumpy road. I mean, I’m not one of those …
JENNIFER BROWN: I can relate.
CHRISTY: I didn’t wake up and say, “Ooh, I want to be in museums.” It’s not quite how it happened.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
CHRISTY: But my parents always took me to museums, me and my siblings. But when we moved to Williamsburg, Virginia for my dad’s job, I got to see sort of behind the scene things there because so many people that I went to church with worked there, or that sort of thing. So you always got that sort of extra special. If you were just riding your bike through the historic area kind of thing, you didn’t really need a ticket.
JENNIFER BROWN: Cool.
CHRISTY: Well, because we were residents of the community, so it was that kind of thing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
CHRISTY: But one summer when I was in high school, I saw living history interpreters. These were people who were hired specifically to portray people of the past. And I was so enamored by it. And also, very much theater has always been a part of my world, and so I was just struck by it. And so I decided I’d audition, got a job at 17, and thought that that would sort of just be my summer gig while I was going through college and other stuff. After trying a few other things, it became clear to me that not only was I good at challenging narratives, I was great at it. And I had a great mind for really thinking about how to make history more relevant, versus nostalgic. And that was the key for me.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so important, and we know how important that is in today’s world.
CHRISTY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JENNIFER BROWN: Who gets to write the history, whose storytelling, what details are left out, what stories are left out, how history is memorialized.
JENNIFER BROWN: And amazing that you said, “This museum world is for me.” I don’t know how … And the theater-
CHRISTY: Well frankly, come on. When I was growing up, the majority … If you weren’t going to an ethnic specific institution, the majority of the big institutions rarely, if ever, talked about black people. And if they did, it was sort of dismissive, as if we were background. Let alone any other people of color.
And the same is true in the art museum world, where I think there’s a recent study that said, of the major art museum collections in the US and around the world, something ridiculous like 83% of the artwork that’s displayed is work by white males. That’s extraordinary to me. Because art is really a reflection of who we are and what we dream, so that the absence of those other voices is really an erasure that is detrimental, I think, to the larger conversation about who we choose to be as nation states in a global community.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re right. So people presumed, maybe, that you would end up in a certain kind of museum job, right.
CHRISTY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JENNIFER BROWN: So it was unexpected-
CHRISTY: Some of them still do.
JENNIFER BROWN: And still do.
CHRISTY: Some of them still do, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Still do. Yes, indeed.
CHRISTY: “You’re black, so you must work in a black museum.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
CHRISTY: Well I have absolutely done that, because I love the institution, but I’ve also clearly worked in others, and certainly that was the case when I came to Richmond to run the Civil War Museum. That was just mind-blowing to people.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh. And tell us about, what are some of the things you did … I know I was reading about your stint as director of public history for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us, I know you tell this story probably a lot, but tell us about a reenactment that you did, and what happened, and what did you learn from that process? And perhaps it connected a lot of dots for you, for what you would do next subsequently after.
CHRISTY: Yeah. So that was back in 1994. 25 years ago, it’s so crazy. But 25 years ago I was new into the director position, and at that time I was serving as the director of African American programs for Colonial Williamsburg. We reenacted an estate sale, which included the sale of slaves, as a part of that, and I portrayed one of the women in that. It was powerful, and evocative, and caused quite a bit of controversy, because people weren’t sure what was going to happen. The rumors were ramping that we were going to be selling staff to tourists and all kinds of really silly stuff, and because of the fear of how this very sensitive and very real history was potentially going to be portrayed, people responded from a threat perspective, versus the opportunity to, “Maybe we’re going to do this right.”
So when we did it, and it was powerful, and it was moving, and it provided the dignity to those souls, but at the same time you could see how dignity was stripped of them in those moments. It really changed the game, in terms of not only what we were doing at Williamsburg, but the impact that it had on colleague institutions that said, “Wow, if they can portray something that powerful, and do so successfully, the least we could do is talk about the presence of enslaved African peoples and their descendants on our properties.” For that I feel really remarkable.
In terms of a lesson as a leader, the lesson was really more one of, never be afraid of risk, but make sure your risks are well calculated. I was young and simply wanted to do good history, and even though I did get out and meet with people in advance to explain what was going to happen, to try to allay concerns, at the end of the day I just wanted to do good work. So there was a part of me that was just like, “Why are you people losing your minds behind this? We’ve been talking about and doing excellent history here about the black experience for already 15 years, so what is the problem, man?” So I really underestimated, I think at that point I fully underestimated, how people would respond.
At the end of the day it was the right thing to do. We learned a lot, and I think it made me … Not I think, I know, it made me an even better administrator, museum administrator, because it made me more conscious, I think, of differing empathies. Does that make sense?
JENNIFER BROWN: It does. Differing empathies. But you didn’t want to hide it.
JENNIFER BROWN: You said in one article your goal was to turn over the tapestry to see the threads on the back side.
CHRISTY: That’s correct.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that, because how else are … And maybe the literal visual reenactment of something like that enables us to truly understand it in a different way, to generate the empathy in a really unique way, and there is information in the anger and the resistance, right, and the discomfort.
CHRISTY: Yes, absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right, absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m curious about Confederate monuments. How do you look at that whole conversation that’s occurring? It would almost make sense that someone like you, with your philosophy, would want to perhaps … Would you preserve monuments, but educate around them in a different way? Or would we delete them? What do you think the right answer is for that?
CHRISTY: I don’t think there is a right answer to that. I think what is most important is, first you’ve got to educate people about them, what they are, for sure, so that they can make informed decisions themselves. Because a very distinct group of people decided to put them up, and communities decided to accept them for whatever those reasons were. And I think that every community that has them has a right and a responsibility to ask themselves whether or not they are reflective of what the community believes and values today. I think that’s reasonably healthy.
I think that there is a false analogy, a false equivalent, when people say, “You take down the statute, you’re being just like ISIS. Well that’s not true. That’s not even remotely true. As Americans we have taken down and stripped all kinds of cultural artifacts throughout our history, and some of them sacred to other people, and they have been stripped and destroyed. I mean hell, just what, two or three years ago, and it’s still happening, there are people who think it’s perfectly okay to run oil and gas lines through sacred native land, where ancestors were laid to rest. They think that’s perfectly okay, because they don’t have traditional burial sites, in a European sense of the word. So again, I personally find that to be a false equivalence, to say that you should not take them down.
They were put up as propaganda, and that’s how they need to be viewed. So if you want to talk about the power of propaganda, and the power that certain individuals had to craft it, then by all means, interpret them. If you have been so damaged by that propaganda as a community that you no longer can have that in your midst, then that’s for that community to decide. If your decision is to make them additive, to correct the narrative, or by making adjustments to what’s there on the landscape, then so be it. My view is, it all has to start with really understanding the item, the thing, that you’re dealing with, and when you understand it, you can make the decisions that are right for you. And I would not dare be so presumptuous as to say I know what the right answer is. I just won’t do that.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s an excellent analysis, one of the best analysis I’ve heard. It’s really so clear. It’s so clear.
CHRISTY: Thank you. Well I’ve been thinking about it for a while now.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure, many years. And your boundaries are continuing, probably, to be tested, and your belief in how change happens. In the role you would eventually land, the American Civil War Museum. So tell us, what was the history of that institution? And you’ve been there for five years, I believe.
CHRISTY: Actually I’ve been here in Richmond running Civil War Museum, dealing with the Civil War here in Richmond, for 11 years.
JENNIFER BROWN: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CHRISTY: So the American Civil War museum, as it exists today, is actually six years old, and it is the result of a merger by two seemingly unlikely organizations. I was a CEO of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, which when it opened to the public in 2006, was among the first, if not the first, museum to explore the American Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives, with the idea that they were going to tell the whole story of a conflict that still shapes our nation. So their mission was not only about the past, but the past’s impact on the present.
The other partner in the merger was the Museum of the Confederacy, which absolutely was founded in 1896 to propagate the lost cause narrative of the war from the Confederate perspective. In the 1970s it transformed into something more, into something else, and really became more of a museum. They professionalized, got a professional board and staff members, and at that point in the mid to late 70s through the 80s, became an institution that wasn’t for the confederacy, but rather about it.
The two organizations partnered very closely in 2010 and 2011, and through 2012, in the beginning of the sesquicentennial, or the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, but here in Richmond we went further than that. We said, “This is the point, we’re going to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and emancipation.
So that changed the conversation in Richmond significantly by community-wide programming that were done, and we had a really strong partnership, that organization and ours. In the late fall of 2012 one of my major donors said, “Hey, what would happen if …” And I was like, “No, there’s no need to do that. We’re good, we just raised a lot of money for an expansion. We’re flush, we’re in the black,” yada-yada-yada.
But he’s a donor, someone that I respect very much as a wonderful businessmen and a human being, I said “I’ll think about it. We’ll think about it.” But I really had no intention of doing it, and I know that my colleague, Waite Rawls, didn’t have any intention of doing it. And we came back to him and we told him all the things that would make it an extremely difficult enterprise.
And again, here’s a man who’s quite accustomed to mergers and acquisitions, and this, that, and the other thing, and he looked us both in the face, he says “Okay, how much would it cost if you did? What’s the big picture if you did it?” And we both threw out roughly the same number, and he says “Okay, I’ll give you half of that.” So it was no longer an intellectual enterprise. And we really sat down and started thinking about it, and frankly when we got out of our own way, and really looked at the possibilities, as well as all the threats to something like this, it became clear that the opportunities really outweighed the threats. And that the threats, if we did it right, could be managed. That’s when we publicly announced in November of 2013 that we were going to merge these two organizations.
So here we are, almost six years later, and right off the bat the key was unifying on vision, unifying on a mission. And our mission was really wanting to go beyond what either of us had ever done, with this extraordinary collection that the Museum of the Confederacy had, but it had only been looked at through one lens.
When we did that, our mission became clear: that we were going to be the preeminent center for the study and exploration of the American Civil War from multiple perspectives. Because it wasn’t just union and confederacy and black people. There were native nations that were engaged in this conflict. Everybody in the South wasn’t unified with the Confederacy; neither was everyone in the North unified around supporting the United States. You have immigrant communities that are being impacted. You have foreign nations and allies and all of that, that are engaged.
When you put this fuller picture back together the way people actually lived it, the narrative is, to me, far more compelling than what just happened on a battle field, or what happened in the halls of government. Excuse me. It becomes an extraordinary tale of a nation truly at war with its ideals and its practices.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. Oh my goodness, so powerful. I’m so curious about the objects that have been curated, and have multiple lenses that you’ve been able to utilize to present them. Can you tell us maybe about a favorite object that takes on a whole different multiplicity of meanings in this new lens?
CHRISTY: Sure. One of the simplest ones that I can give you is that, we have a very large collection, actually larger than the Smithsonian’s collection, of Civil War battle flags. Now when you say a Confederate battle flag, most people will presume that they all are this red background with the big cross, blue cross with white stars in the middle, right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
CHRISTY: The truth is, there were a variety of them. Some actually had words on them, like simply saying “Home”. Some had, actually, images of Pocahontas. So it raises the question of, well why do they look like that? But the one that allows us to kind of flip considerably is that we have also in collection probably over 100-plus flags that were captured battle flags, that were given to the museum in 1905 because they didn’t have a particular regiment’s marking on it.
Then subsequent research over the decades made clear who, because the US government knew exactly where they had been captured and by whom, and so just doing the additional work, was very easy to find out which Confederate regiment it belonged to. And that is how, for decades, they were displayed, by which group fought under that flag.
With our new mission, we now could ask the question, who captured it? Two of the flags that we have on display, one of them was actually captured by United States colored troops at the Battle of the Crater in 1854, just outside of Petersburg, Virginia. This is critical, because it was a slaughter what happened to those black men, but they still were able to not only capture this flag, and claim that moment of victory, but it allowed us to go deeper into who those individuals in that regiment were, and then to discover that several of them were runaway slaves from Virginia who had become a part of the United States Army, and who were claiming their space and place. That’s a powerful story. Excuse me, I need to stop this phone.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. So powerful.
CHRISTY: Okay, another story about one of our artifacts is another Confederate battle flag on display. This particular one was captured when Richmond fell, or was liberated, depending on one’s perspective, in April of 1865, and the next day Abraham Lincoln walks the city with his son Tad. Tad Lincoln, it was his birthday, and he was given this flag as a way to celebrate what had just happened in the city of Richmond.
When Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox, Tad Lincoln and his dad are back in Washington, and Tad Lincoln flies this flag outside of the White House, from a window in the White House in Washington. When his father is murdered, he folds it up and never takes it out again. The flag would eventually go to the War Department, the War Department would eventually send the flag to the Museum of the Confederacy, since it could not at that point ascertain which particular state it had come from. Because they had returned all of these flags to various states in 1904 and 1905. So there you have it.
Those are just two examples, but we have many others in the collection that help us turn the lens. There is a beautiful set of china that we have that was used in the White House. Actually it was referred to as the Davis Residence or the Executive Mansion at the time, it was never really referred to as the White House in the Confederacy, but nonetheless, that’s how people think of it. But there’s a beautiful set of china.
Well the china was a part of the household, and we now display that china with Mary Richards, also known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. She was a free black woman who had been born and enslaved in Virginia. As a child she was granted freedom, sent up north for education. At the start of the war she comes back, and she is placed in the White House as a spy within the Davis White House, and she will work in that house throughout the war. Trading information, getting information, with her partner in crime, a wealthy Richmond woman named Elizabeth Van Lew, whose family actually owned her when she was a child. But these two women would become a vital spy network, and this black woman is working in the house, handling that china. You see what I’m saying?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh!
CHRISTY: So we have the power to tell different stories simply by asking slightly different questions of the object.
JENNIFER BROWN: So good, there needs to be a TV show about that pair. Can you imagine?
CHRISTY: Yeah, right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’d be so good. We’re big fans of Gentleman Jack, the show that’s capturing this lesbian woman in the 1800s who ran her family’s estate, and married her wife in secret, and lived a very authentic life, and had no words for herself and her identity. I think that it’s so powerful, even though it was hundreds of years ago. It’s still so … It sort of reminds us of the role models we deeply crave, is to see, first of all, a pairing like that is so incredible, and so unlikely. And then the fact that they were embedded together.
CHRISTY: Imagine how minds blow when they come in and they actually see photographs, period photographs, of women who dress themselves as men and serve. Not a lot of them, but maybe about 400 or 500 of them did this on both sides of the Army. The story’s of the woman who was passing herself as a man, and they only discover that she’s a woman when she becomes pregnant, and so it raises the question of, did the father know she was a man, or did he keep the secret that she was a woman, in the course of the war. Again, there’s lots of extraordinary stories that we’re able to turn the lens on. Anyway, there you have it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Incredible. You mentioned, so you’ve set this vision for the museum; what have you been overjoyed with in terms of the reception and the energy that you’ve tapped into? When you mentioned threats a bit earlier you said, we had our eyes open to what was going to go well maybe for this, and what would maybe not go so well.
JENNIFER BROWN: Did that all turn out in the way you predicted? Or tell us about-
CHRISTY: Pretty much.
JENNIFER BROWN: Really? Oh, good.
CHRISTY: The threats certainly were, would our individual donors and supporters reject this. The majority of them said yes, but there were far more people that we lost that were a part of the museum of the Confederacy, that really wanted that place to be for them. And so we anticipated that we would lose about 40%, we ended up losing about 46% in the first couple of years after the merger, and we had to build new audiences, but since we’ve opened, which we opened in May of this year, we opened the new facility, everything that we had hoped for has come to bear.
I will tell you, we did a visioning and a strategic exercise several years ago before anything was built, or we were conceiving the building, where among the exercises, the staff and management and board were asked to imagine the headlines when we opened. It was just this sort of warmup exercise that people sometimes do, these facilitators will get you to do. And we did that, and I kept all of those responses. And revisiting them, after opening and comparing them to the headlines from news outlets and so forth, we got it right. They are saying exactly what we imagined.
Now the question becomes, did we imagine deep enough? But I’ll accept where we are, because we imagined greatness, and that is the feedback that we’re getting, and what we’re seeing. Where we were going to have a diversity of audiences coming through, where we were going to have experiences that were unlike anything anybody else expected, it was going to resonate with people, all of those things we are seeing happening.
And I’m delighted to say, the level of cultural and ethnic diversity that we are seeing coming through our doors is actually beyond imagining, frankly. Every day I walk out there and I just have a big old grin on my face when I look at the age differences, and the visible ethnic differences, even though I have no idea for sure, but of seeing families and older folks, just seeing every spectrum that is America coming through our door is extraordinary to me. And the fact that they’re walking out happy, and they’re walking out, many of them, with memberships in hand, or donations in the box. You can’t ask for better. And that, to me, makes it all work. It just makes it work.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, and while this topic of diversity and inclusion obviously has caught fire, and is hot, and I’m so grateful for that, we’re having conversations that we haven’t had in the past, have you always gauged everything and every choice in the right way, achieving that right balance of how you’re tackling the topic? Have there been things that you’ve learned that you wish you had maybe set up differently, or touchy topics that were difficult to navigate even for you and your team?
CHRISTY: Yeah, there certainly have been challenges along the way as we’ve tried desperately to find our balance, but the truth is, we really weren’t looking for balance. We were looking for certain truth. We wanted the voices of the past to lead us on this journey, and that’s what we did, and we stuck with that. If we just listen and see what the artifacts are telling us, the story started to write itself. And we realized that being linear in the telling of the story wasn’t going to work, that there were these recurring ideas and themes that were playing out throughout that four-year crisis.
So that’s how we ended up framing it. Certainly there are things that are chronologically important that we’ve laid out, but we decided that, for example, building a war machine, neither nation had a sufficient army, or supply chain, or weaponry? So what did they do? What was the impact? And they were constantly doing this throughout the war, trying to supply soldiers with everything from food to munitions to weaponry, to medical care, to even where they’re going to bury them, was an ongoing challenge. So we look at that, along with a particular battle, or battles, that really drove that particular theme home. That’s how we ended up building out the exhibition, and it absolutely works.
The other thing that we chose to do was, we wanted the visitor to see these folks, not as something that happened so long ago that they’re disconnected from it, but as real people that look like them. And that meant that we were going to have to engage some real talent, and science, to actually take those historic images and colorize them. So in certain areas, where we were highlighting individuals or space or place, that’s exactly what we did.
It’s just been terrific, that’s all I can say, and very, very well received. I was in the gallery one day, and I had my name badge on and I was just kind of walking through, because sometimes I like to just stalk them, to see how they’re responding, what are they looking at.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.
CHRISTY: Because this particular museum building is still relatively new, we haven’t been open quite three months yet, maybe just three months, for the new building, and we operate three locations, so this is our flagship location. So I kind of go in there and I watch them to see what’s resonating. And usually when I do that I don’t have my name badge on, but this particular day I had my name badge on.
This woman walks up to me and she’s got tears in her eyes. And I said, “Are you okay?” And she said, “I just noticed who you are.” And she said, “And I have to tell you, I am just getting started on the exhibit, but I am blown away by the images of the children.” Then she proceeded to tell me that she could not … Because there are a number of images of children throughout, and she just said, “I can’t imagine my 10-year-old child being in the middle of that kind of blood and gore of a battlefield, playing a drum. Or I can’t imagine the little girl who lost her dad, and that locket with her hair that’s in that case over there. Or the little enslaved girl who was beaten because she made a mistake and spilled the milk.” She said, “I’m just getting started, I’m going to be a mess by the time I’m done.”
And I said to her, “Thank you so much.” I said, “But take as much time as you need. Reflect as much as you need. And guess what, we’re not going anywhere, so you can come back if you need to do that.” And so she gave me this really sweet squeeze of my hand, and then she just kept going. It was such an amazing thing. It was such an amazing thing. But that’s what she picked up on.
But everybody that walks in there, one of the things with anybody that works in public history particularly, that we know, is that the audience that comes with us comes with a little tidbit of either, what they know, what they think they know, or what they were told. So there’s an expectation to see it. Then it becomes our opportunity, not only to show them what they think they know, but to expand their knowledge of it. So we do that as well, so one of our little tags is, “Find your icons, but find yourself.”
These are just some of the approaches that we use. Anyway, that’s how it’s going.
JENNIFER BROWN: I cannot wait to see this museum!
CHRISTY: Yeah, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Got to get there. Got to get there. I have a question about growing more professionals like you in the world, and enabling museum leadership and these kinds of positions to be inhabited by more diverse voices. And I’m curious, how do you see the industry? Is it changing? I’m sure you’re called on to mentor and support and guide and give advice constantly from where you sit, so what would need to shift to bring more diversity into leadership positions in arts and cultural institutions? And maybe the best advice you give? I know you went to an HBCU and it was transformative for you.
CHRISTY: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell us a little bit about, what gave you that confidence, what advice do you pass on now, and what really needs to change to enable a more diverse pipeline of leadership in these institutions?
CHRISTY: I think there are a couple of things. In my case, mentorship was really important, that there were black men and women who were in leadership themselves, kind of first or second generation leaders in the museum world, really more first-generation. And they made conscious efforts to be the kind of mentor that you could pick up the phone and call, and it was really about relationships. I don’t think they even used the word mentor, it was just like taking care of the young folks coming along and helping to encourage you. My HBCU Hampton University, we had a museum on campus. So especially when I was working on my Master’s program, that enabled me to really dig more into the art world, and this connectedness between art and history. But in terms of opening the pipeline, you’ve got to ask first, do you have the right pipe?
JENNIFER BROWN: Ooh, I’m going to steal that. That’s good.
CHRISTY: Yeah, I mean ultimately that’s often the problem. It’s like, we’ll get the interns and we’ll do this, well if you’re only thinking that your best interns are going to come from the Ivy’s, or if you’re thinking that you can continue to only offer underpaid internships, well people of color, people of limited financial resources, are not going to be able to work and do that. They cannot afford not to be paid. So you’re cutting off, right at the beginning, your experiences.
But quite frankly I think the most important thing that we can make is, when people walk through your doors, that they are seeing women and people of color in roles other than the people who were cleaning the floors in the place, or guarding the stuff. When you see people doing a variety of roles, as you as a visitor, or you as a potential donor, or you as a member, and you see that reflected in the board, in the leadership team, in the front line, it makes a difference, and you will begin to attract. And we have been really fortunate in that regard. Really fortunate in that regard.
And frankly the intersectionality of having those different voices at your table is invaluable. But you’ve also got to empower them, and that’s one of the things that I’ve worked really hard in every role I’ve had, is to empower my staff to believe that they are equally invested in what happens here, and that their ideas are valid, and how to help them walk through to make them real, or to help them understand what other work would need to be done to make it real. All of those things have consequences, all of those things can bring you greater programming.
And also thinking about, frankly, sort of internships within the organization, or intraships. When I was working in Detroit, one of the things that I loved about being in that institution, because most of the people that came to work at that museum, that was their first museum job. But even a person who was working on the facility staff was taught how to become an exhibit tech, meaning they, through their job that started off as cleaning the place, then would learn how to handle things. They would learn how to properly care for a case, how to properly dust it and clean it. And then they would, through this idea of training on site, it just kept going and going as their skills and interests allowed. So pretty soon you could have someone that may not be degreed in a particular thing, but has the skills. And if you’re not open to looking at that within your organization, or looking into that as a way to bring new talent in, you’re missing half the boat. Sometimes it’s just that simple. It’s just that simple.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. And for a world that needs to resonate with the outside world more than ever, and I think sometimes is viewed as failing miserably at doing that, because it’s very white, very male, there’s a wealthiness to it, there’s elitism to it, all of those things, it really needs to change. It’s so wonderful to learn about your institution, Christy, and you’re so inspiring to so many, I know, and how do you pace yourself through being so front-of-the-charge? I read somewhere that it wasn’t always so easy for you, particularly when you were in the limelight with enactment that you did earlier in your career. That was probably a little bit of a tough moment. Lots of scrutiny, and really tested your values and your convictions.
As advocates and people who are often on the front lines of conversations like this that are making others uncomfortable, how do we pace ourselves, make sure that we’re healthy in the work? How do we know how much we can take on and push ourselves? Because we don’t want to burn out, because we really are a voice for a lot of others, every single day.
CHRISTY: Right. Yeah, I’m really conscious about that, even if I’m not always good about that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Me too. That’s how I answer.
CHRISTY: I’m always telling my team, “Have you taken your vacation time? You really need to get away.” And then I have to catch myself and go, “Ooh, you’ve got 240 hours that you haven’t used.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Ooh, you’ve got to lead by example.
CHRISTY: “No wonder you’ve got that knot in the middle of your back.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh boy.
CHRISTY: And the balance and the realness really comes from the support of the family, right. So I have a 13 and a 17-year-old, and nothing will keep you more grounded than that, as not taking one’s self so seriously on certain things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I’ve heard.
CHRISTY: But yeah, self care is something that I’m becoming more … Again, I’m working on it. I came to this position, which was a much smaller museum than those I had been used to running when I came here in 2008, and I did it for self-care. I did it for my children, because they were so young at the time, and I wanted to have a kind of work life balance, and at the time that meant that I needed a smaller place, that was close to my extended family, to help provide the support we did not have when we were in Detroit, by coming back to Virginia. So that worked really well. It’s that detour that I think is the one that men and women, but mostly women, have had to navigate the most.
I will say, as wonderful as my husband has been through that, the decision to make that kind of change for us definitely was a family decision, with an 18-month-old and a four-year-old right, when we came to the city. But I knew that I didn’t want to, and I could no longer, do the 14-hour days with two little kids. Just couldn’t do it. I mean I was one of those people who waited really late to have her kids, so that I could build a career and have options. I would love for us to get to a place where young families don’t have to make those choices.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
CHRISTY: I would love that. And so as a leader in this institution, I am really working hard to make sure that my team, should they choose to stay here or go someplace else, that they have that value with them as well. That you shouldn’t have to do that, there can be balance. So for us that even meant things like, rather than having fixed sick time, or fixed vacation time, based on a certain number of hours, when you start working for us, we just have an open PTO. You use it as you need it. So if you’re sick, fine. If your kid’s sick, fine. You want to go to the kid’s play, fine. In the middle of the day, fine. You’ve got to take care of your ailing parents? Go. You need a mental health day. Take it.
That’s another one of the reasons why I think we have established a culture, a shared culture, that values these things. And we know how different that is. Which, even though we don’t pay as well as we like, we know that that flexibility, that kind of environment that’s nurturing and encouraging and risk-taking, and really pushing ourselves to be innovative, is the kind of environment that was extremely important for me to build. And so in closing I would just simply say, when we have a certain amount of privilege to make a change, we have a responsibility to do so. If we are genuine about a desire to create inclusive, welcoming, and accessible spaces for people.
JENNIFER BROWN: Indeed.
CHRISTY: Otherwise you’re just looking for shading.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re so right, and you’re leading by example. Take those hours.
CHRISTY: Yes, ma’am, I am.
JENNIFER BROWN: Good!
CHRISTY: I actually do have time coming up in less than two weeks!
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay! So happy for you.
CHRISTY: Yeah, so I’m going to take a big old chunk of time, and just get away, and rest, relax, and do absolutely nothing and everything I want.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s the best creative flow time too, just getting away from it. That is restorative in and of itself.
JENNIFER BROWN: Particularly for you, that is like you and your team are holding this vision for a huge change in the way we think, in the way we feel, in the way we understand our history, and that’s a big responsibility. And so you’re right, I think you were just saying that when you’re in that hyper-innovative and change making space, the care of ourselves needs to be equally balanced and prioritized.
CHRISTY: Right, and you’ve got to learn how to share.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
CHRISTY: I have my number one, she tells me all the time, “Are you going to delegate that or what? Come on.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I love people like that!
CHRISTY: And it’s like “Okay, fine.” She’s like, “Why are you doing that?”
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
CHRISTY: So again, it’s really important, and a beautiful thing, when you get these moments. But no question about it, I would not change a thing. The only thing I would change and hope for moving forward is that we begin to value the variety of voices, internally and externally. I think it’s critical for the wellbeing of our institutions and our communities to have that. I used to tell people all the time, when are we going to stop lying to each other? Because at the end of the day, if we don’t get this history and culture situation right, meaning reflective of who we really are and complete, we are never going to get right with each other.
JENNIFER BROWN: Complete.
CHRISTY: It’s just that simple.
JENNIFER BROWN: True. It’s so much more than a museum. Literally the way that you’re looking at what we presume to be facts of our existence and our country, it’s really big what you’re going after, and I hope that it becomes an example of how we have to rethink all sorts of things. Because that is what’s happening right now, we’re having to rethink and question a lot of things that many of us have taken for granted, or always felt unsettled about, but never have had the words to express it.
CHRISTY: And I think that’s part of the reason why you’re seeing so much pushback as well. There are people who are uncomfortable with change, because it means that they will have to reevaluate what they value, or so they presume.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
CHRISTY: So anyway.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s not so threatening now, and it’s sort of, “Come on in, the water’s warm.” It actually will broaden your mind, your heart, in unexpected ways, to be uncomfortable for a moment, and be open to what’s on the other side, which is what you’re creating and walking people through. Christy, thank you so much. Can you tell our audience any details you’d like them to know? I would be interested in special events, for example, you can tell us about on the call, things like that.
CHRISTY: Yeah. If you want to know what’s going on at the museum at any time, our web address is the simplest way to go. It’s, for American Civil War Museum, ACWM.org. Everything you need is on that site. Upcoming events, we have a slate of amazing speakers and public figures that are coming through, we have programming that’s available virtually every day, and again, we do operate three locations, changing galleries, you name it, we’ve got it. So yeah, ACWM.org is the best way to reach out to us.
JENNIFER BROWN: Incredible. And on social media, do you have some particular handles?
CHRISTY: On social media we’re on Twitter, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Facebook. We’re not on Snapchat. Those are the three that are the biggest right now. We used to do Periscope, but the big three are definitely Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and all of them are @ACWMuseum. That’s our handle, for all of those.
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful. Will To Change, folks, get the word out about this incredible institution. And Christy, thank you for everything you’re doing to change our dialogue and make more space, and make sure that we’re telling the truth.
CHRISTY: Thank you so much, Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks for joining me.
CHRISTY: Thank you, take care.
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