(Originally published on Medium.com)
I believe that to be truly inclusive, we have to be open to talking and learning about the diverse experiences of the people who make our organizations and nation so great. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to speak to and learn from Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, about race and the history and experiences of Black people in America.
Lonnie and I recently sat down together to talk about Black History Month, the importance of understanding the diverse history of our country, and what CEOs and businesses can do to advance diversity and inclusion and combat racism. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Tim Ryan: As Founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, what do you think is the role of institutions, like museums, in combating unconscious bias, racism, and bigotry in society?
Lonnie Bunch: You can tell a lot about a country, about a people, by what they choose to remember — and even more by what they choose to forget. Where do you look to see how a nation defines itself? More often than not, to its public institutions, to museums and cultural institutions where the memory and identity of the nation is enshrined.
As a historian and museum director, my goal for the museum has been to make history accessible, comprehensible and experiential, and to create a museum modeling the fair and diverse nation I was taught to expect. To live up to these ideals, we must first acknowledge the roots of bigotry and racism in the histories of race and difference that have been at the core of how we define ourselves and our national communities. At our museum, we ground these difficult conversations in the real, lived experiences of individuals, families and communities, and in the objects in our collections.
It took many, many years to gather and present the stories that bring our museum to life, including the assembly of nearly 45,000 objects to build our museum collections. Many of the stories visible today in our galleries were hidden for centuries. The stories of enslaved peoples, for example, were rarely recorded and their experiences were sometimes deliberately erased from public memory. When written documents don’t exist, objects have a particular power. In our history galleries, visitors can see a simple block of sandstone from the old US Capitol building — a block of stone quarried near Aquia Creek, Virginia, by enslaved African Americans who built the Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Castle.
This worn piece of stone illustrates that that the history of slavery is built into the foundations of our nation.
To have a conversation about how we as a society want to move forward addressing racism, bigotry and unconscious bias, we have to first see these objects, hear these stories and reckon with the weight of this history together. Unfortunately, it seems more and more difficult to find spaces where we can come together to have these conversations. One of the most important roles of our museum is to connect communities with the museum, to be a place of solace and learning, for reflection and discussions about how we improve our world.
TR: We often hear about the same historical figures and moments when we learn about Black history, but we know there’s so much more we don’t often explore. What stories and people do you think Americans should learn more about so they can better appreciate the diversity and richness of Black history and the African American experience?
LB: One of the most common reactions we get from visitors is their surprise at how much time they spend at the museum — recent audience research at other history museums shows the average visit to be 90 minutes. People are coming to this museum and staying four, five and six hours. Visitors are surprised by the sheer number and variety of stories about African American history and culture.
My favorite stories are the ones that you may not have heard about in your textbooks, the stories that reveal new information about periods of American life and show the power of a single individual’s experience. We are fortunate enough to have on display in our Civil Rights exhibition the actual dress worn by Carlotta Walls on her first day at Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The integration of American schools in the 1950s was a nationwide phenomenon that changed the course of history, but the stories of the individual students don’t often survive the grandiose scale of the narrative.
Seeing the dress reminds us all, black and white, old and young, of the universal experience of the “first day of school outfit.” We can imagine Carlotta shopping for the clothes with her family, eating breakfast, getting dressed, and packing her school bag, all ordinary moments in an otherwise extraordinary circumstance. The reflection inspired by viewing this dress adds a very human and relatable dimension to a moment of massive upheaval in the United States.
The African American experience has been defined by the constant effort to make a way out of no way. Stories like Carlotta’s remind us that history is made up of small, everyday experiences shared by real people like you and me, events and moments that collectively shape the arc of historic change.
TR: Black History Month is an important time to celebrate and recognize the specific history, triumphs, and struggles of Black Americans. But how do you make sure that we celebrate these stories every day and at the same time link them to the history and stories of other groups whether they be White, Hispanic, female, LGBT, Asian, disabled, etc.?
LB: Having the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall is a powerful symbol that shows that we, as a nation, remember and value this history. At our museum, Black History Month is every month. The creation of the museum ensures that Black History is presented on a national stage throughout the year.
I have often described the National Museum of African American History and Culture as telling the American story through an African American lens. We want visitors to see that this is their history, our history, our nation’s history. Seeing our history through different perspectives strengthens the whole, and at the museum and in our collaborations across the Smithsonian we celebrate the intersectionality of African American history with women’s history, Latino history, LGBT history, the history of the disabled and other groups.
TR: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing race relations in America and the Black community today? And what advice do you have for CEOs and business professionals on what they can do to help address these issues?
LB: The biggest challenge is finding ways to encourage people to break out of their comfort zones and enter into tough conversations about race, to get them to come to terms with where they stand and what they could and should do to develop attitudes that make them supportive of the notions of justice and equality.
All the work we do here at the museum — with our exhibitions and our public programs and our publications — all of it is aimed at helping people confront the issue of race, the very thing that has divided this country for centuries. We want them to think about race and develop attitudes that could have them playing a key role in helping this nation live up to its highest ideals.
We could move more quickly in that direction if people in the private sector would offer a series of programs during the workday to help people grapple with the issue of race in corporate America and beyond. I am talking about panel discussions, film screenings, book club meetings and other vehicles designed to get people to sit down and listen to people whose ideas may be different from their own. There is a critical need for a national commitment to fighting bigotry in society or at least the support to call out moments of injustice so that we can illuminate all the dark corners.
TR: We know that diversity and inclusion is key to attracting the best talent for organizations. What advice do you have for corporate leaders to make their workplaces more diverse and inclusive?
LB: Go beyond simple hiring initiatives: incorporate multiple diverse perspectives into shaping your policies and priorities. Reimagine your workplaces as a community of purpose empowered to challenge itself, to have difficult conversations and be open to self-reflection and self-examination. Create or seek out spaces for reflection and learning. Provide time and support to grapple with difficult questions. Recognize and celebrate different perspectives and experiences. Set clear and measurable goals and be honest and open about your progress. Be open and transparent — and open to improvement.