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Landmarks at Risk, Culture at Stake

The Challenge

When we talk about climate change, we often envision faraway melting icecaps, or polar bears stranded in an empty arctic tundra. In reality, climate change is already affecting many of us close to home, and touches not just our future, but also our personal lineage and our shared history. In 2014, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report called “National Landmarks at Risk,” which illuminated how rising seas, floods, and wildfires are “threatening some of the United States’ most cherished historic sites.” Whether the site is Fort Monroe in Virginia, Ellis Island, or the California coast, climate change will fundamentally alter how you can relate to that place, or in extreme cases, whether that place will even exist.

More than simply report on this heightened risk to our most cherished places, UCS wanted to take action. The next year, UCS invited Public Conversations Project to facilitate a two-day gathering of experts in historical preservation, archaeology, tribal history and culture, and environmental scientists, among others, to discuss the need for collaboration in facing the future together. Somewhat ironically, the first day was ushered in by a snowstorm. Think that dampened this crowd? Nope: of the 30 invited participants, 27 showed up.

The Action

Public Conversations practitioner Mary Jacksteit led a conversation among leaders from across disciplines and continents about shared concerns around environment, heritage and culture. Included were representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Society for American Archaeological, the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the International National Trusts Organization, the World Monuments Fund, as well as the Head of State of the Gullah Geechee nation, and a member of the Native American Bar Association. The diverse group shared their concerns about losing places of meaning to their families, their communities, and their institutions, and grappled with the implications of climate change for their work.

What made the day a success? To start with, the right people were in the room, thanks a planning committee that had also helped to shape the agenda. The tight time frame and array of perspectives required skilled facilitation. UCS partner Kate Cell particularly valued the “very thoughtful ways that Public Conversations structures conversations to make space for what needs to happen” asking questions like, “in three years from now, what [in the fields of cultural heritage or climate policy] has changed as a result of this meeting?”

Mary asked everyone to bring an object that represented what each hoped to preserve and maintain in a warming world. Archaeologists brought a particular stone from a certain era; one participant brought an 18th century postcard of a 17th century picture of a 16th century event that connected him to his ancestors. Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee Nation brought a sweetgrass basket full of Sea Island rice and cotton. She talked about how her people have survived and thrived in their place through years of enslavement and beyond, picking the cotton, and growing the rice.

The Shift

Ultimately, the diverse group decided to create and pledge to a statement that expressed their shared commitment to maintaining cultural heritage in a changing climate. The group worked through a difficult conversation that arose about how to even define "cultural heritage," a term that has different meanings for many different entities, and has sometimes been defined without the involvement of those whose “culture” is being considered.

Together, the group had to balance crafting language that the government officials among them might be able to sign, while maintaining enough specificity to hold everyone accountable to agreed upon actions and outcomes. The statement remains open to signatures and the participants continue to work together towards the goals delineated at the meeting.

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The thing that always feels like magic to me - and I’ve used it in several meetings that I’ve had since - is how the practitioners start by setting out pacts or agreements.

Kate Cell, Union of Concerned Scientists

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