Content warning: the first paragraph contains references to traumatic events, both recent and from the past 20 or so years. I have elected not to name certain events and refer to them by date so if you need to look up what happened, please do so with care or perhaps ask a friend first. Please take care of yourself – skip the first paragraph or this whole essay if necessary.
I had a different draft started for this time of year, but I’m having trouble finding my usually levity in the wake of the events of May 14, 2022. Similarly to the week after December 14, 2012, I’ve spent most of the last week surprised that the world is still turning. Surprised isn’t the the right word: as a millennial, my adult life has been characterized by “unprecedented” events and witnessing events of mass violence unfold in real time from 9/11 to mass shootings. I’ve watched evil people and merely ignorant ones fan the flames of racial tensions in the US and had to come to terms with the fact that what we were taught in school was simply false – in truth those flames were never really doused. So, no, I am not surprised. I don’t know how to name the emotion.
As an American art historian I can typically look back into past centuries and remind myself that every generation has their fair share of trauma, violence, shocking events, times that it seemed the world would end, and that’s what makes me able to remain a stubborn optimist. Generally, as Rutger Bregman writes in Utopia for Realists, “in the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of the world’s population was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick and ugly.”*(see footnote). We have so many small freedoms and amenities that make life better and easier that our ancestors and elders could never have dreamt of. Tragedies and loss are as much a part of human life as love and joy; we can’t expect to live fully free from pain.
Working in museums, with objects created hundreds of years ago, always helps keep things in perspective for me. But lately I can’t help but feel like the 872 Marvel movies we’ve watched over the last 15 years have infected our brains into believing that the good guys always win no matter the odds. It seems like we’re resting on the idea that nobility and intelligence will save us instead of fighting. Like we’ll be able to keep people alive by merely doing the right thing.
I believe(d?) that the way we tell stories and represent diversity and the way we craft spaces to be inclusive can help shepherd us towards a better, safer world. I do still believe it. I just don’t know what people are waiting for – which is saying a lot for someone who is a broken record with saying change takes time. Maybe I’m being clouded by a few particularly bad weeks but it feels like instead of small steps towards incremental change, I see people choosing inaction or doing nothing. I know lots of folks read this post earlier this week but Nonprofit AF shared a resource on how nonprofits can get serious about fighting white supremacy instead of simply paying lip service to the ideology of anti-racism. Who else is having this conversation in plain language instead of couching it in socially and professionally acceptable rhetoric? We’re still trapped between tweets and keynotes, between hashtags and hegemony. We let ourselves get bogged down by the day-to-day and many people in our field think about these conversations as outside of our daily tasks instead of intrinsically intertwined.
This is probably why I had an immediately aggressive reaction to this tweet when I saw it on Friday:
I had already had youth on my mind. I was planning to write about how to combat ignorant comments and questions about your art history degree for the new grads. There are other resources that already exist (and if you’re a college student reading this, you can reach out to me and I’ll talk your ear off about it). My perspective when thinking about these grads, entering the field a decade or so after me is – what can I give? How can I help? In contrast, when people talk about “the youth” “giving them hope,” what I hear is, “we will not really focus on solving problems – the next generation can do that. Excuse the language but after everything we’ve been through in the last two years and the last two weeks alone, it just feels like such a fucking cop out.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was a “youth.” Just seven years ago when I started my official, paid museum career, I was a.) already 26 and b.] not finding a warm reception for my activist-leaning suggestions – I didn’t have a chance to be starry-eyed and make my supervisors warm & fuzzy. By contrast, today, the topic of “relevance” has trickled up to museum leadership, and “engaging Gen Z” is the hottest trend since STEM to STEAM. Seven years ago, all I wanted was mentors who would help me understand what actions would truly make a difference, what actionable steps we were taking to to engage different demographics of our community, what battles to choose, what exhibition and acquisition plans we had in the pipeline to call attention to mounting social issues. I wanted to be listened to, but I also wanted a two way street. We won’t get into what I found instead at my first job. Suffice to say I felt very seen by this Leadership Matters post.
It’s ok to feel inspired by the next generation. It’s beautiful to feel that way. But we’re not supposed to lean on them. We’re supposed to leave the world better than we found it. What really compounds the frustration is that often the same folks who admire the fresh emerging professionals from a distance refuse to empower them in practice. As Joan writes, newer employees at the table are more often met with “that won’t work,” than with, “ok, tell me more about this idea.” So don’t say that you “want to engage Gen Z” (first of all do you even know who “Gen Z” is or are you just using it as a substitute for “people in their early 20’s” the way you did with Millennials until they starting having their own kids) or that “the youth gives you hope,” if you aren’t going to put the ideas of young people into action in your daily work.
Often, the truth is that you don’t actually want to listen to the specific causes young people are begging you to give your attention. Often, what “gives you hope” is being able to project how you felt when you were that age, before realizing that senseless tragedy is part of life and doesn’t have a solution. Before you had to commute every day and also meal prep and also bank your PTO to spend time with your family to feel like you still have an identity. You wish you could sustain how you felt when you were fresh out of college and brimming with new ideologies. This is a shitty position to put someone just starting out in the field in. Young people don’t want to be the avatar for your former self. They want you to use your power and experience to help them make actual change, even if it’s incremental.
This is an especially frustrating time to watch this all unfold because we did see change happen when a global pandemic forced our collective hand. The museum field immediately began rethinking accessibility and finding ways to be more nimble. People worked from home and while it presented many challenges, most learned to be more patient and understanding with their colleagues. We marched in the streets in the summer of 2020 because our lives had stopped and we didn’t feel we needed to keep up with the same typical pace. In short, we proved to ourselves that it IS possible to change quickly when we feel there is no other option. I’ve been reading the book version of Hidden Figures and it struck me how similar of a situation the country found itself in during WWII and what an unfortunate precedent it set that many things generally went back to the way they had been before after the war was over. (Sometimes history puts things in perspective for you in a positive way, sometimes knowing about history really pisses you off.)
If you’re someone who thinks things should go back to the “way they were,” you don’t have any business resting your hopes and dreams in the next generation. Relevance, culture, these things are a moving target, and what a lot of established museum professionals (and teachers, and doctors, and businesspeople, and certainly politicians) fail to factor in when they think about “the youth” is that in order for things to change for the better, you often have to give something up. Most likely it’s your right to comfort, whatever that may look like for you – having to schedule calls with your direct reports because they’re working and parenting from home full-time, instead of having them in the office to interrupt when you have a question. Maybe it’s having conversations about skin color and difference with your children that make you uncomfortable, though to them, it’s just another thing you’re teaching them about the world. It probably means taking a closer look at your fund development strategy, board members and high-level donors. It probably means having community conversations especially if you call yourself as a museum a “community center.” If these are not things you are ready and willing to do, please don’t publicly find yourself saying you that “youth gives you hope” because you’re not holding up your end of the bargain. It’s you, who can enable this “hope” to become reality, and Ruth bless the youths that can do and do make huge differences on their own, but for many of them, that “hope” will have to fade away without the support of people in power.
I keep thinking throughout writing this that what gives me hope is watching my loved ones begin to raise the next generation to be kinder, more tolerant, more patient, more worldly, more vulnerable, more emotionally intelligent. It’s watching my peers be incredible parents, teachers, healthcare workers, and embody the notion that we can leave it better than we found it that gives me hope. So, maybe that’s what the person who wrote that tweet meant. Maybe we’ve done something right and that’s why today’s young people and emerging professionals are so concerned with activism and change. All 1,900+ words I wrote today are basically just to say, you better be ready to empower them and give them what they need to fight these fights. You better be recognize to give up your right to comfort to recognize that the power to succeed in making things better doesn’t lie with them.
Here’s a Google doc of community resources you can support in Buffalo:
+ 1 more: blackloveresistsintherust.org
And just as I was wrapping this up, I saw this post by Buffalo’s first-ever poet laureate, Jillian Hanesworth, and I’m going to take it as a sign to keep going. Art makes us human.
*Bregman is writing from a Eurocentric/Western perspective. Many ancient civilizations were technologically advanced, treated members equally, and had abundances in land, food, etc. The tone of Bregman’s writing is light and often tongue in cheek, so this sentence is not meant to be derogatory, simply to illustrate societal gains from a Eurocentric perspective.