Monica Rhodes (MSHP’12) had just finished a master’s degree in African-American Studies at Temple University and was about to begin a doctoral program when she decided to take an internship with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Funded through the National Park Service’s Preserve America program, the internship took Rhodes to small Pennsylvania cities like Scranton, Indiana, Meadsville, and Williamsport, to research the lesser-known histories of Black communities in the Commonwealth. The experience, she said in a recent panel hosted by the Weitzman School, was “life-changing.” Now, as director of resource management for the National Park Foundation, Rhodes is working to make historic preservation a more inclusive practice, better at complementing the formal and informal preservation practices already underway in diverse communities.
“Valuing the cultural authority of Black communities is crucial,” Rhodes said. “Conversations are already happening without using the term ‘preservation.’ We need to be able to speak multiple languages, and understand that all communities have a desire to be anchored in place and know the importance of their history.”
After completing her master’s in historic preservation at Weitzman, Rhodes worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. There, she founded the HOPE Crew, a program that gives young people “Hands On Preservation Experiences,” like helping to restore the childhood home of singer, songwriter, and pianist Nina Simone in North Carolina. Now at the National Park Foundation, the official charitable partner for the National Park Service, Rhodes said she is working to diversify the workforce at the Park Service, and “leaning into digital engagement and storytelling” during the pandemic.
“Our parks are a gift we all share,” Rhodes said. “Part of our mission is that all people see themselves in national parks and feel welcome in these places that belong to us.”
Mason said that the field of historic preservation, like society more broadly, is facing a reckoning over structural racism, white supremacy, economic inequality, the climate crisis—“and, closer to preservation perhaps, the culture wars we’re weathering at the moment.” That reckoning requires preservationists to push past incremental reforms to society and their own practice, he said.
“The question is not just adapting how preservation is done, but really fundamentally changing who does preservation, who makes the decisions, and who drives the field into the future,” Mason said. “We really have to dig deep and look broadly for help, and also for where we can help in carrying out a much deeper change than we’re used to.”
The new Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites, Mason said, is designed to be an academic partner for individuals and organizations that are already working to preserve stories of the Civil Rights Movement. In response to a question from a panel attendee, Mason said that CPCRS’s conception of civil rights—a term that can encompass a range of struggles—is focused on the Black experience in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. Preservationists have two roles, Mason said: to create and protect an archive of the past and to act as agents of change for a better society.
Rhodes, who is serving as director of partnerships for CPCRS, said preservationists can do a better job in both of those roles by taking cues from communities and individuals involved in exploring civil rights history, instead of trying to tell them what’s important and how to save it.
“The sites that we preserve and the stories we uplift in 2020 will say more about who we are to future generations than anything else,” Rhodes said. “In this moment of reckoning in our country, preservation will have missed an opportunity if we don’t seriously interrogate our methodologies and tools.”