[10 on Tuesday] 10 Tips for Introducing the Public to Preservation

Posted on: September 4th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Written by Dana Saylor

This week's 10 on Tuesday toolkit comes from one busy lady -- Dana Saylor, an active preservationist, historian, genealogist, and artist in Buffalo, NY. We had the pleasure of working with Dana on Buffalo Unscripted in 2011 and have long been in awe of her passion and commitment. Read on to learn her tips for spreading the preservation love throughout your own community.


Dana Saylor (second from right, front) poses with fellow local preservationists at the Lyth Building in Buffalo, NY.

The word "preservation" induces a variety of responses, depending on who you're talking to. Some people feel all warm and fuzzy about saving historic places; others get the sense that a small group of cranky old people wants to obstruct all progress.

If you want to share the concept of preservation -- and get an enthusiastic "How can I help?" response -- you must first engage the public and show them the importance of preservation in our society.

As I plan the event CITY of NIGHT, which will take place September 8 at Buffalo's "Silo City" grain elevators, I have considered ways to encourage everyday citizens to get involved with history and saving our built environment. Here are the approaches I have found to be successful:

1. Start small. Rome wasn't built in a day! You have to start with a "small group of thoughtful, committed citizens" (thank you, Margaret Mead!), make sure they're all on the same page, then build your effort from there. Heck, starting with just yourself is ok, too; sometimes, all it takes is one person to leads the charge.

2. Speak the language. When speaking with potential supporters of your cause, address the aspects of the issue that they will identify with most. This means selecting universal themes that apply to most people. For example, if you are trying to convince your neighborhood to help prevent developers from tearing down historic landmarks that they allowed to become blighted, describe the injustice of uneven codes enforcement. Neighbors will think, "It IS unfair that some rich corporation doesn't get fined for long grass and broken windows, but if I let that happen, I'd be hauled into housing court!"

3. Be a light in the darkness. We live in an oft-times depressing world. Share the exciting and pleasant side of your preservation experiences with people, and they'll respond positively. Try turning negatives such as "This thoughtless company doesn't care about our waterfront history" to "Think about how exciting this place will be when we have tons of people and heritage tourism dollars pouring in!" A shift in your mindset will change the way the public responds to you.

4. Try, try again. If one approach to get the public engaged doesn't work, there's always another way. Maybe you need to reach a younger segment of your audience? Reach out to social media gurus. If your calls for action are falling on deaf ears, maybe you just need to adjust the message. Try a variety of techniques and modes of communication, and you'll reach many more willing supporters.

5. Assign homework. Show volunteers and potential supporters how important they are to you by giving them useful, meaningful tasks. No one wants to show up and realize they have no way to contribute. Make a list of your contacts' skill sets and experiences, and reach out -- even to those who haven't offered to help yet. If you tell them you need them, you'll be surprised at how quickly and ably they'll respond.

6. Celebrate successes. While much of the media demonizes preservation, we who are involved know how important our work is. Gather your crews of assistants, board members, volunteers, and supporters, and celebrate the wins, no matter how small. Group cohesion is essential in improving morale and gaining additional outside support. When new people to the effort learn that it's a fun bonding experience to work on preservation issues, they'll want to be a part of it.

7. Channel the Information Age. Everyone says that the key to a productive and happy life is a good education. And educating the public about current events, especially preservation-related ones, is hugely important. One-on-one communication with friends, neighbors, colleagues and even the media is necessary to gain understanding and support. Keep making small talk and gently share your views to ensure the people in your circles have a grasp on WHY we fight and WHAT we're fighting for.

8. Make it personal. We all share our hopes and dreams with friends and family. If you discuss preservation concepts through the same lens, sometimes it's much more effective at changing people's minds. Talk about what we've lost since you were a kid, what kind of place you envision living in, and what you want the world our children will inherit to look like. You'll immediately find common ground.

9. Pare it down. The complexities surrounding many preservation battles can be incredible. However, if you speak about all of these to a potential supporter, their eyes will glaze over and you could lose them. We all have busy lives. Think about the major points -- things that will really hit home -- and discuss those. Whether you're appearing on the news or talking to the person serving your coffee, this technique will serve you well.

10. Build a community. In Buffalo, there is a strong sense of unity among many in the preservation scene. While we all have our own methods and approaches, we understand that we're fighting for the same things in the long run. Those who find themselves (intentionally or not) in leadership roles must build consensus and community among their ranks. Reward volunteers with praise. Try hard to set aside your ego. And keep remembering the reasons why you do what you do. It will speak volumes to the public and they'll want to be a part of preserving our shared experience.

What have you learned about engaging and teaching others about preservation? Share your tips in the comments.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

10 on Tuesday

One Response

  1. Meagan Baco

    September 12, 2012

    Tip #5 is how Dana gets so much good work done! Not only in organizing an event but in maximizing impact. Good ideas are to have letters ready to personalize and sign at advocacy events. Have phone numbers ready to hand out on business card sized pieces of paper so people can call the elected officials with ease. Bring the ideas and the supplies.

    Tip #6 is essential. Many of us hear the call for meetings, protests, etc, but rarely are they recapped so that those that could not attend, know what happened. Share and celebrate the post-event high (or low). For example, check http://www.cityofnightbuffalo.com where Dana is meticulously recapping the great grain elevator event last Saturday.

    Dana is an exceptional leader and I have learned so much from here about making preservation even more accessible and integrated to the greater public…including those tips above.