Announcing the Department of Inclusion and Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society: Part I

Over the last several months, we have been in touch with Chris Taylor of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) and are excited to share with all of you the tremendous work that has gone into the creation of the Department of Inclusion and Community Engagement (DICE) at MNHS! This is the first department of its kind that we’re aware of. In this first post, Chris recounts the series of events that have led to the formation of DICE and in his second post, he will expand on the vision and plans of the department. Chris will be at the AAM Annual Meeting this year, so keep track of your questions; you might be able to ask them in person!

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THE DEPARTMENT OF INCLUSION AND COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT (DICE) supports the Society’s goal of sustained engagement with diverse communities. The DICE will help guide internal and external strategies across all historic sites and museums to embed inclusive practices in our work to ensure the diversity of the state is reflected in all MNHS activities, including collections, programs, staffing, volunteers, historic preservation and governance.

This is the mission statement for a new department created in August to support the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) strategic priority at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS). It has been a long journey to get here, but we are very excited to see where it leads. I came to MNHS in November of 2005 as the Diversity Outreach Specialist. At that time, I had the only title in the organization that included the word “diversity”. This position existed to provide outreach primarily to students in grades 6-12 working on the National History Day program, a national competition that engages students in grades 6-12 with in-depth research projects based on an annual theme. Diversity Outreach, a program area in the Education Outreach department, provided support for school districts with high diversity enrollment, mainly the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public schools. Over the next 7 years our program area, expanded to 5 staff. Although we still engaged in support for National History day, we also developed our Museum Fellowship program to facilitate the exploration of museum careers for diverse undergraduate students.

2012 Museum Fellows meet with founding director of National Museum of History and Culture Dr. Lonnie Bunch.

2012 Museum Fellows meet with founding director of the National Museum for African American History and Culture Dr. Lonnie Bunch.

This is not to say that Diversity Outreach ran the only programs focused on diversity (as defined by the American Association of Museums). We have talked about diversity at MNHS for a long time and developed quality programming that delivered content that diversified the historical narrative, as well as intended to engage diverse audiences. The issue was not an absence of programs, but an absence of cohesive strategy. We focused on parts of the museum system, not the whole system. We lacked an overarching strategy and long-term vision for what sustainable D&I looked like as an institutional initiative. The various departments offering programming did so out of their own silos, with no coordination with other programs occurring across the organization. To this day, we do not understand which communities each department works with or when and who the various contacts are within communities. We do not have trust built with communities to form the foundation for healthy, sustainable relationships. Those individuals or departments that offer “diversity programs,” such as our Family Day programs (Dakota/Ojibwe, Kwaanza, Dia de los Muertos, and Asian Pacific Heritage) offered through our education department, our internship programs for college and high school students offered through the volunteer services department, or exhibitions focused on diverse content, were all pulling in different directions.

In 2011, our new director and CEO, D. Stephen Elliott, laid out a new strategic plan for MNHS. One of the strategic priorities within the larger plan was that “The Society is continuously engaged with communities of color and American Indian nations, and the diversity of Minnesotans is reflected in the Society’s collections, programs, staffing and governance.” This is the third strategic plan that I have worked under at MNHS and all of them included diversity in some way, shape or form. This time, however, “diversity” no longer was the responsibility of the program staff, but became an institutional priority that should shape how we do our daily work in all aspects of the institution.

The creation of a D&I committee followed and was composed of staff from across the organization participating on top of their regular full-time job. In our initial meetings, we took inventory of our activities related to inclusion. We talked about programs and contacts, but we also talked about long-term goals. These activities coincided with my developing interest in Organization Development, a field that focuses on sustained, planned change within organizations. At some point near the end of 2012, I came across the concept of a systems approach to change. Essentially, a systems approach looks at all of the various functions within an organization as interrelated parts if a system. No one function can operate independently. It became clear that we were talking about viewing MNHS as an open system and for sustainable D&I to work, we needed to create lasting change within that system. It also became clear that in order to do this, we needed more than a committee: we needed a comprehensive vision that would help catalyze a systems approach to change.

When I began doing research that could help us with setting a comprehensive vision, I discovered that much of the museum literature covered case studies about specific programs and discussed what we SHOULD be doing. My moment of epiphany happened when I began reading about diversity in the workplace and best practices for D&I within the corporate world. Here, diversity was discussed as a fact, something that’s naturally occurring in an organization, but inclusion was framed a choice. My research into corporate practices prompted me to think about cultural competency, talent management, inclusive workplaces and other concepts that had not been introduced in the museum readings. I discovered that by changing our internal work processes to be more inclusive, that would shape our content (programs, exhibits, etc.) as well. Our society is becoming more diverse, whether we are ready or not. Developing an inclusive mindset, organizational culture, and work habits will allow us to leverage the benefits of this diversity.

Based on this research, I wrote an 18 page proposal to create a new department for Diversity and Inclusion at MNHS. While the D&I committee was making great progress, it became clear that to have a sustainable effort, MNHS needed full-time staff dedicated to developing and implementing an institutional strategy for D&I. After feedback and discussion from trusted colleagues, I presented the proposal to the administration at MNHS that approved the formation of this department. In September 2014, the Department for Inclusion and Community Engagement (DICE) was officially announced and formed.

I would like to thank my administration, my boss and my colleagues on the Diversity and Inclusion committee for supporting a pretty bold step in this direction. In my second post to The Incluseum, I will outline the vision of the department.

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Chris Taylor is the Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society. He earned a BA from the University of St. Thomas in Social Studies and Secondary Education, a MA from the Cooperstown Graduate Program for Museum Studies, and is currently pursuing an Ed.D in Organization Development. Once a historian, he has evolved into a Diversity and Inclusion practitioner over the last 9 years at MNHS. He is invested in creating a more inclusive Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) and museum field in general. Chris’s work is driven by a Confucius quote, “The man who moves a mountain, begins by carrying away small stones.” You can contact him at chris.taylor@mnhs.org.

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One comment

  1. […] of Inclusion and Community Engagement at the Minnesota Historical Society. You can read Part I here. You can also access DICE’s Mission, Vision, and Values document here for more detail. What […]

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