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What Should You Say About a Sensitive Issue? Learn from the Confederate Statue Debate

By / Sep 15, 2017 The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. (mcdustelroy/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works knew it had to speak up in the debate over the fate of controversial Confederate monuments. How it crafted its response offers lessons for other associations responding to divisive issues.

After violence flared in Charlottesville, Virginia, and as a handful of Confederate monuments were dismantled or defaced in other cities in the following weeks, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works found itself positioned squarely in the public debate about the fate of the controversial statues.

We are not condoning moral indifference. What we are saying is that we have to remain focused on service to our members.

AIC “is dedicated to the preservation of the material evidence of our past so that we can learn from it today and understand it in the future” and therefore “cannot condone the vandalism or outright destruction of Confederate or other historic public memorials,” the organization’s board said in a position statement [PDF] issued September 6. But with the help of its Equity and Inclusion Working Group, AIC ensured that the statement addressed the debate’s broader context and the different meanings the statues hold for different communities.

It took two weeks of constant communication among the 16 board contributors involved in drafting the position statement, which was issued in response to concerns raised by AIC’s members. “This was not something that was light-handedly dashed off. This was very deliberate,” said AIC Board President Margaret Holben Ellis. “It took a lot of work.”

In the statement, AIC urges that the appropriate preservation measures are put in place before the historic monuments are dismantled. It also condemns the harassment and hostility its members have faced while “carrying out their professional duties.”

While acknowledging the sensitivity that exists in many communities with regard to controversial monuments, Ellis said the group is committed to its mission and its members. “We are not condoning moral indifference. What we are saying is that we have to remain focused on service to our members.”

The statement’s preface, which notes that the Confederate statues “fall at the intersection of conflicting social and political views,” was a recommendation from AIC’s Equity and Inclusion Working Group.

“They were very keen that we placed the position statement more in context and recognize—to a greater extent than we had—the sensitivity of this particular issue,” Ellis said.

The working group also helped the board better recognize the diverse experiences and personal convictions of AIC members in the field. As with past position statements, the board referenced AIC’s code of ethics, mission statement, and other core documents.

In spite of this careful approach, the board has not been immune to criticism from members who felt the position statement wasn’t strong enough. Ellis said she has “learned a lot from it” and has personally responded to each message. “We acknowledge and respect all opinions of our members,” she said.

When it comes to navigating hot-button issues, Ellis said that what is most important is to “always keep your mission at the forefront” and “reach out and listen to your constituencies.”

Ellis added that organizations must be willing to acknowledge and respond to different points of view. “When members are ignored or not acknowledged, I think that’s where you start to get the divisive currents within your membership,” she said.

Thorne McFarlane

Thorne is an assistant editor for Associations Now and a literature buff who loves a great story. Have something interesting to share? Send it his way. More »

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