Recently I wrote about my lobbying experience in Albany and offered a number of suggestions about what needed to be done. Those posts generated responses on the difficultly of lobbying and the need to have an agenda. The likelihood of the history community organizing around a single agenda seemed slim.
I am pleased to report however, that there is proposed legislation in the New York State Assembly which would mark such a giant leap forward. It’s so good, I can scarcely believe it exists. The legislation is from Steve Englebright (D- Setauket).
At present the bill is in committee and not ready to be brought to the floor. The New York State Senate version was introduced by Senator Jose M. Serrano (D-South Bronx). The bill was introduced in March of 2013, so it has been around awhile without gathering much attention. You can read the full bill and track its progress online, but here are some of the highlights and my thoughts.
1. It defines the state historical assets as “major educational, inspirational and economic resources.” Note the inclusion of the word “educational,” a reminder that historic organizations are chartered by the Education Department and not the Tourist Department. The opening paragraph of Section 825, the first section to the legislation, does reference the sites as world class destinations, but it does not limit itself to tourist concerns. (Suggestion: I would prefer the additional mention of historical assets as community assets just like libraries and schools which also are chartered by the Education Department.)
2. The remainder of the first paragraph of the section identifies the detrimental effect of divided responsibility among various government agencies for these historical assets. Therefore the legislation proposes the creation of a Commission on New York State History to advise the Governor, the legislature, and the agencies on the best use of these assets. So there is no reorganization or consolidation here but the creation of a potentially powerful voice on behalf of history throughout the state.
3. The second paragraph provides a welcome alternative to the past 18 months. The legislation calls the historical assets “fundamental to the education of the citizenry and our concern for the quality of life of the residents of the state.” Amen, brother. How many posts have you read touting the role of the history organizations as essential to the fabric and health of the community it serves? This is the exact message we need to deliver and finally there is a legislator seeking to deliver it. The legislation calls for the recognition that the historical assets of the state “enhance the education, health, safety and welfare of the people of the state and their overall economic and social well-being.” Hallelujah! This is exactly what the Path project should be doing but doesn’t.
4. The next section provides definitions of the terms to be used in the legislation and it is in Section 827 when the Commission is defined. It would include
Commissioner of Education
Commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation
Chair of the New York State Cultural Education Trust
Director, State Museum
Director, State Division of Tourism
Representative from the Native American Tribes
and 6 appointed members by the Governor, Senate president, and Assembly speaker. There is a great opportunity here to reflect the historic community of the state. A minimum of quarterly meetings are proposed. (Suggestion: One notices that municipal historians are omitted from this list, but that could be changed in Committee before the legislation is sent to the floor.)
5. Section 828 permits the hiring of staff (plural) including a director. (Suggestion: In my opinion, the State Historian should be the director of the commission. I see no constructive purpose to be served by creating a two-headed history leadership position. This legislation provides an excellent opportunity to redefine the position of State Historian.)
6. Section 828 encourages the commission to take an active, even pro-active, role in interacting with other agencies at the federal, state, and local level. It’s mission is “(t)o stimulate action by public and private organizations on issues, problems and opportunities that affect the historical assets of the state including, but not limited to, conferences, meetings, and workshops.” Implicit in this charge are the funding and staff sufficient to get the job done. It is this central staff which will have the task of promoting cooperation and coordination among the historical assets of the state. This could include training, citizen education, and assistance in the preparation of grants.
7. Section 829 calls for a statewide cultural and heritage resources management plan. Despite the bureaucratic jargon, it means the opportunity to examine the big picture instead of constantly being overwhelmed by the crisis of the day.
7. Section 830 calls for a free annual state history conference. Again funding is required to make this happen. Since the state historian is now taking an active role in the planning of the conference, this is another reason the state historian should be the director of this commission.
8. Section 830-A calls for a fellowship program to be established to coordinate, recruit, and train volunteers to help not-for-profit organizations at no cost. Let’s call this the Bruce Dearstyne Section.
As might be expected, I do have some suggestions to build on what has been proposed and in addition to the ones noted above.
1. Education is mentioned but I would like to see a mandate to encourage the teaching of local and state history at the k-12 level, the teaching of local and state history at the college and graduate level for teacher certification and for teacher staff development afterwards.
2. Municipal historians, an unfunded mandate from the state, are ignored in the proposed bill. I would like to see funding for a free annual state conference for municipal historians and for support for shorter conferences at the regional and county level.
3. Historical assets as a community resource is mentioned but could be fleshed out. Libraries and schools are funded in part by the state through the Education Department. Historical organizations which are chartered by the same department are not. In addition, there should be more recognition of the role of the local historical organizations for the civic health and well being of the community. These organizations need to have as their mission the development of a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community in the municipalities they serve. Now more than ever we need organizations which have the potential to bring the residents of a municipality together by telling the story of that area from the Ice Age to Global Warming that includes the entire community.
4. New York is a big state and statewide conferences, meetings, and workshops aren’t enough. Without specifying details or overburdening the legislation, I would like to see more recognition of and support for the counties and regions. Even though Path, NYSOPRHP, and APHNYS among other organizations use different regional divisions, the point is they all have regions. The charge to rotate the annual state conference in the legislation implicitly recognizes this reality. Attendance is effected by location and one should not have to wait for the cycle to be played out before being able to attend a conference. Regional and county conferences mitigate that geographical challenge. Despite the internet, there still is a benefit in bringing people together and even a free state conference may mean traveling hundreds of miles and being away from home for several days. So I would prefer to see more recognition of the local as well.
It should be easy to see why I was so happy when I read this. Think of the fanfare when the Path project was rolled out in August 2012 and how quickly the excitement turned to disgust and dismay. The project has degenerated into a giveaway to advertising agencies and an effort to generate high “body counts” on the Path weekends. Listing events the history community normally does is not an achievement worth bragging about. Only within the Capital bubble would such efforts be considered exemplary.
No effort was made to support the history infrastructure, both human and physical, necessary for the historic organizations to fulfill its tasks or even to create paths that could be given to tour operators. The people on the neglected advisory committee to the Path project knew practically from the start and know today that the project did not have the resources to get the job done. The proposed New York State History Commission does, or will have, if it is passed. Now there is hope. A better way is being considered in committee. Let us lobby so that it may see the light of day.