Should the History Community Lobby?


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nycapitolShould the New York State history community lobby in Albany and if so, for what? These questions occurred to me as I recently participated in two days of lobbying. The events were arranged by Parks & Trails New York and the Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York Parks on Park Advocacy Day, and by the Tourism Industry Coalition for Tourism Action Day.  The former is works essentially on behalf of NYS Office Parks Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYSOPRHP) while the latter consists of 23 organizations including 9 counties, 2 cities, New York and Syracuse, one region, the Finger Lakes, and hospitality organizations.

The Park Advocacy Day was very well organized. There was an initial briefing for participants and then we divided into our squads. My platoon was assigned the Taconic Region since I am from Westchester. NYSOPRHP uses the Hudson River as a dividing line so instead of a Hudson Valley region as other statewide organizations have, we were divided into the Palisades region to the west and the Taconic to the east. Our platoon leader was from Parks & Trails and she navigated the six of us through the legislative buildings. Since our platoon leader formerly had worked for Assembly Majority leader Sheldon Silver she constantly was greeted by people she knew.

We more or less kept to our schedule with only one cancellation in the nine meetings (including two at the same time). This was a large number of meetings. Sometimes we met with the senator or legislator, sometimes we met with the legislative chief of staff, and sometimes their staff. Meetings might only last 15 minutes so time management is essential. There was just enough time to convey your talking points, leave your materials, and try to make a personal connection (typically you are meeting the elected official of someone in the group, or with whom someone has had a previous collaboration), and then it is on to the next stop. We tended to repeat ourselves at each meeting, although it’s possible to learn from session to session to improve one’s pitch. I tended to focus on education and historic sites and leave recreation to others.

One of the concerns was the funding for repair and maintenance of the parks. As previously reported in The New York History Blog, the Senate budget rejected the $92.5 million in funding for state park and historic site repairs and upgrades which had been included in the Executive and Assembly budgets. This was the very item we were lobbying for. Robin Dropkin, Executive Director of Parks & Trails New York, and Erik Kulleseid, Executive Director of Open Space Institute’s Alliance for New York State Parks, both of whom were at the morning group meeting, issued a statement opposing that action. As The New York History Blog piece noted, no similar statement had been issued by any historian or advocate for history or historic preservation in New York State.

I have written about the weak, divided, impotent history community in previous posts and what I saw spending time in Albany really drove the point home. While the Parks advocacy groups were platoon-sized, there were regiments of teachers and librarians walking the floors as well as numerous other groups. Lobbying here is not the individual lobbyist wheeling and dealing in private meetings, dinners, and conferences in exotic locations, but the nuts and bolts where size matters, numbers count, and the silent voice is no match for the squeaky wheel. In this regard, the history community rates a zero and no wonder it gets crumbs at best.

The second lobbying experience for the Tourism Action Day was different. The welcoming meeting was longer this time, with a series of short presentations. The major difference was in the composition of the group. In the Parks group, we were from all over the state and were organized into squads with a prepared meeting schedule. The Tourism lobbyists tended to be professionally connected and were on their own to set up their schedules. I didn’t realize this until the last minute so I spent the Friday before the Tuesday lobbying contacting the offices of the people I had just visited a few days earlier. The serendipity of this unexpected juxtaposition enabled me schedule seven meetings at the last minute, plus I saw my own senator in passing.

My reasons for participating were two fold. First I had the opportunity to speak alone to people in seven different legislative offices about history and tourism (and education – the Common Core really is a touchy subject). Secondly, I had the chance to see Cristyne Nicholas, Chair of the New York State Tourism Advisory Council, and Ken Adams, President and CEO of Empire State Development responsible for ILoveNY which runs the Path through History Project. While I did not have an opportunity to speak with Nicholas who has been mentioned in previous posts, I did have the chance to speak with Adams about the Path through History. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Overall the two lobbying days were worth it as a learning experience for me, regardless of the particular outcome of any vote. I saw lobbying groups in action. I was on the floor of the Assembly. I developed connections with people in multiple legislative offices. I saw people who could make a difference for the history community like David Holder, Syracuse CVB, who gave an enthusiastic presentation and had an impressive handout. I saw how removed the tourist big shots are from the facts on the ground for the historic sites even though they are in charge of the Path through History. I also began to develop my own grass roots strategy to create a voice for the history community, which I’ll be writing about in the near future.

 

18 thoughts on “Should the History Community Lobby?

  1. Miguel Hernandez

    Thanks Peter. Your report underscores that the reason the Historical community gets no respect in Albany is that it has no presence there.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thank you Miguel. There are two grassroots efforts in Westchester which may be of interest to you. One is to develop an American Revolution in Westchester Path through History. Iona College is hosting a meeting May 10. A second is to bring together the history communities in the Sound Shore and along the Hudson River with our state legislators. I will be writing about the effort in the future.

      Reply
  2. Bob Ulrich

    You already noted the connection to the tourism industry. That is huge, as there is a lot of money generated by out of staters coming to visit all the publicized sites of the Hudson Valley. A guest from Kansas once commented to me after a visit to the Vanderbilt Mansion, “they were dancing and celebrating high society here while we were still fighting Indians out West !”

    Perhaps a similar synergism with the history teaching organizations from grade schools thru Universities. Marist has it’s HRVI, “Hudson River Valley Institute”; there’s a place to start a partnership, or to at least compare notes for a united front. Declaring the Hudson Valley a “National Scenic Heritage Area” was big. The Interstate Highway signs from every inbound route remind us of that as we approach from all directions. At least the DOT is helping.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thanks Bob and congratulations on your adult education class on Dutch history in New York with over 100 registrants and a visit from the Dutch Consulate. Yes HRVI could be the conduit for such a grassroots effort probably in partnership with GHHN which just held its annual conference at Marist

      Reply
  3. William Hosley

    This is my favorite topic and was very much to the point of my recent essay in New York History blog http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/04/02/bill-hosley-localize-national-humanities-funding/
    There is no interest group on earth even half the size of the heritage community that doesn’t advocate for itself – very much to your point about being divided. What this enterprise needs is its own Martin Luther King – a personality who will galvanize action and a sense of self-worth needed to stand up for ourselves and advocate for our interests. It matters because this work matters. We are an army with outposts in 10s of 1000s of communities. My fantasy – a million man, woman & child march on Washington – not to bail out NEH, IMLS and the National Trust – but for our localities, our sense of place and our conviction that America’s journey of freedom is too important to be neglected. Our stories must be captured, shared, and a part of the everyday learning experience in schools across the country. All history is local and it is at the local leveL that history matters most. May the revolution start RIGHT NOW!

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Your exuberance is welcomed and appreciated and thank you for your recent post to New York History as well as to all your kind words about my posts. Martin Luther King sets a tough standard to match but your observation about the history community being an army with outposts in every community: it is in every community but it is not organized into an army. I used the words “platoon” and “squadron” when writing about the lobbying efforts in Albany because that’s the way the forces were deployed by each lobbying group. In the real world, I don’t foresee something quite like happening.

      Reply
  4. Jason Kramer

    I have been professionally involved in NYS government for 20 years, including 10 years as a lobbyist. I also work as a director of a not-for-profit academic association dedicated to advocacy and as an adjunct professor of history.

    The absence of the history community is conspicuous, but understandable.

    First, we must recognize that our state government is massive. A quick perusal of the groups registered to lobby will demonstrate that nearly every interest group imaginable is represented in some way. Given the number of advocates, thousands of bills, and reams of requests and demands, policy makers have no practical opportunity to focus on issues that are not consistently pushed in front of them. Quite literally, out of sight is out of mind.

    Defining the history community itself must precede defining the agenda of said community, assuming one exists in any coherent form. Historical tourists, hobbyists, historians and scholars, faculty, preservationists, and more, will all have particular interests albeit with some overlap. Who is interested enough to be part of an active community?

    From there, an agenda can be developed. This quickly leads to two problems: how to prioritize the agenda, and how to support the advocacy. I assume that very few people are willing to put financial resources into lobbying. I also assume that the diversity of political views among the history-minded is remarkably varied.

    The need for resources to support advocacy cannot be emphasized enough. Granted, I have a bleak view of the culture at the capital. However the byzantine nature of the institution, the undemocratic processes that dominate the legislature, and the intense competition offered by well-heeled professionals, renders amateurish efforts relatively pointless.

    These are just some of the challenges. They can be overcome, but we must have a clear view before initiating any effort. Know too that there are supporters among the elected officials and staff.

    I would be happy to continue this conversation off-line, or in some other way that is more than me just shooting from the hip. It is a problem worth addressing and I would like to be a part of the solution.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thanks for sharing your insight on the Albany reality. Depressing as it may be, it is the reality we will have to deal with if anything is to change. I am starting at the grassroots level with my own state legislators. I hope what we do here can be a model for elsewhere so there will come a time when we can a have a voice/lobbyist in Albany to represent us in all our diverse agendas/interests. I will be writing about this in future posts. In the meantime, perhaps it would be possible for the Schenectady Historical Society to host a meeting of the Schenectady County history community at Mabee Farm. If they can draw over 100 people on a cold dark night for a lecture, then of how people might attend in the light of day.

      Reply
  5. Antonia Petrash

    Dear Peter,
    Thank you for your efforts on behalf of those of us who struggle to keep the history of NY State alive. I have been traveling all over Long Island lecturing about the woman suffrage movement, and have discovered that, while many of those who come to my lectures know little about the movement (including the struggles and tribulations of the men and women involved) it engenders great interest and curiosity.
    With the centennial of voting for NY women coming up in 2017, it is vitally important that the history of this first civil rights movement in the US is kept alive and shared as much as possible. Thank you for trying to create an environment that will make this goal easier.
    Antonia Petrash
    Author, Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement

    Reply
  6. Mike Riley

    Peter,
    I have been to the Capital twice for Lobby Days, which are usually on a Tuesday. I attend as part of the Soil and Water Association, which my work is a member of. A couple points;
    1) It is nice to see how the sausage is made. We try to make the point that of course, we can visit our Assembly-person or Senator at home, but it is nice to make the effort to visit them at their work place.
    2) As you did, I go as part of a much larger organization. They set up the visits, tell us what to say and ask for, give us the material for handouts. I don’t know who would fill this role in the “history world”.
    3) There is a cost. Being from central NY, we get a hotel room and have to buy food for a couple days. There are parking fees, gas, etc.
    4) it is exhausting. You need to run from the LOB to the Capitol and then back, depending on how many visits you have. As you said, you have limited time, and you meet with whoever happens to be there. That being said, it is a great opportunity to educate the Albany office staff, who are very much removed from the home offices.
    5) Unless there was a bill or budget item being considered, I wonder what you would be there to promote. When I went, it was to say thank you for this and that, and please consider co-signing on this bill. We need your support!
    6) This would make a good presentation for APHNYS.
    7) You will be amazed at all the people there asking for the same thing you are; money! The halls are packed.
    Mike Riley

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thanks, Mike, for sharing your experiences. You mention some good points. Someone needs to organize the visit. Typically that is the organization promoting an agenda. At this point the history community doesn’t have an agenda or anyone to organize a lobby effort if we had one. There can be expenses involved if people are descending upon Albany from all over the state. And if the scheduling of visits isn’t done right, you can be running around all over the place. I learned from the first lobbying day how to schedule my own efforts on the second to minimize that. As it turns out, it is often easier to use the stairs than the elevators.

      Yes, APHYNYS could organize a lobbying effort but to ask for what? It certainly would have been easier if it was done as part of the conference in nearby Saratoga. Same for the historical societies, museums, private, state, and federal, but there is no one group that encompasses them.

      Yes, it is crowded so if go out for lunch and try to get back through security afterwards, be prepared for a long line as everyone is coming back for the afternoon meetings.

      Reply
  7. CKP

    “Should the History Community Lobby?”

    Probably so! I wonder whether there are any other states where the history community has been successful at organizing lobbying?

    Reply
  8. Olivia TwineOlivia Twine

    Peter, the fact that you showed up in Albany should be a message that there are those of us out here in Historyland who are very much interested in our state’s heritage. There’s the 2017 suffrage centennial, for example, that I’ve been writing about. New York should already be in the process of planning this highly significant event.

    Citizens and taxpayers want leadership in this area, not a last minute sign erected on the thruway. it’s an extraordinary opportunity. Travelers to our state who have seen all the regular historic sites crave something new. How about the New York State Museum putting the “Spirit of 1776″ suffrage wagon on permanent exhibit as a symbol of our 2017 suffrage centennial. After all, New York is the “Cradle” of the women’s rights movement in the United States. Would you please put women’s history on your “to do” list when you’re out there tapping on people’s shoulders for their attention? And keep up the great work!

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Olivia, You are certainly correct that New York should do a much better job of branding itself both for tourism and for remembering our historical legacy. I have been collecting a number of sources on the women’s rights movement in New York including your own posts (and for NYS canals as well), but I have just haven’t been able to put it together yet. But I will.

      Reply
  9. Lynne Belluscio

    Lobbying is an interesting experience. And it needs to be an organized effort. My experience was through a bus trip to Albany for tourism. We were all assigned groups and group leaders and although I was there to represent museums and historic sites was told that the initiative was to push for casinos in Niagara Falls. So it is obvious to me that the history sector needs it’s own advocates so we aren’t overlooked or are perceived as only tourism driven. We are after all preservationists, educators, archivists, as well as tourist destinations.

    I was also involved with Museum Day in Washington, and although I could not afford to go, I was receiving all the posts that were going out to folks. Of course that is orchestrated by AAM and from my perspective, unless you are a big player, it’s hard to make any impact. But we were able to grab attention to a federal gun law that would have impacted re-enactments on historic sites. We also had a say about an animal issue that would have impacted rare breeds – -a law that would have mandated that all animals be destroyed if certain diseases were found within a certain radius. We had seen some serious consequences in England with the outbreak of hoof and mouth disease that would have destroyed the only breeding herd of a particular type of animal. Things that only museums would be interested in. Unfortunately money speaks and the only way historical sites can catch any attention is to show the financial impact and thus we seem to be forced to work through tourism. We end up selling our souls. We are grouped with attractions, casinos, racetracks, theme parks, golf courses and sports events. Those are strange bedfellows. We are better suited with education. After all most of us are charted as education institutions by the Board of Regents, but that strikes fear in our hearts because the schools are getting short changed and in my mind, misdirected. We are finding out that we have been left out of the new curriculum. Even education has abandoned us. We are being encouraged to “be haunted”, “entertaining”, “controversial” and to deal with “contemporary issues.” And did I mention “haunted?” Yes, we should lobby. But as you point out, what are we lobbying for? In my mind, we are lobbying for the recognition that we are the caretakers of our culture and our heritage. No one else is doing that. As school curriculum abandon local and state history – - -our heritage and culture – - – the responsibility comes to rest on our shoulders. It is indeed a heavy responsibility. It shouldn’t be cheapened by having to look for ghosts in our galleries.

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      Thanks for sharing your lobbying experiences, Lynne. If I may focus on the NYS effort, two considerations stand out. First the logistical preparations seem reminiscent of what I described and I suspect somewhere there is an unofficial guide to lobbying. The second is to make sure the history community isn’t swallowed up by other considerations like casinos and tourism. One of the great dangers of the Path through History project is the emphasis on defining historic sites on the basis of tourism instead of as community resources like schools and libraries which are also chartered by the NYSED. Given all the attention on tourism, one of the greatest challenges if there is a lobbying effort by the history effort will be to convince the Governor that the first responsibility of the historic sites is to the community it serves and generally where it is located. Obviously some sites do have state and world significance, but they are the exception; every site can’t be the pyramids.

      Your use of the word “haunted” is especially appropriate. I just found out there is a haunted trail that focuses on the supernatural and UFOs. I am trying to find out more about for a future post. Even though is it not history as we mean it, it shows a degree of cooperation and collaboration among sites and tourists departments in multiple counties that is completely lacking in the Path through History project.

      Reply
  10. Peter Evans

    Peter – I have participated in a Lobby effort on behalf of NYS History. It was part of the APHNYS State Conference program in 2009 when we met in Albany. I felt very much like a fish out of water as I made the rounds of the various offices of our representatives. I did it anyway because that is the only way I’ll learn and many of the reps I know well….some even came out of meetings to at least say hello for a brief moment.
    The whole effort needed to be better organized to be effective. I came away with a better understanding.
    I doubt I’d do it again without better planning and preparation.

    Do I think it is necessary…without question. This topic needs much more exploring.

    Peter

    Reply
    1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman Post author

      You remind me of an interesting point someone once made about these statewide conferences: they should be in the Albany region so a lobbying effort could be built into the conference since people from all over the state would be there already. I know that the APHNYS conference next year may not provide such an opportunity but it certainly would be appropriate for the organization to have a political liaison committee.

      One critical point which you didn’t mention is what was APHNYS lobbying for. A key component of the lobbying effort is to have specific goals or bullet points and to leave materials with the legislators. I can think of some things I would want to include in an APHNYS lobbying agenda but I don’t know if the organization is at that point where it is ready to lobby.

      Reply

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