January 04, 2008
By Elisabeth Grant
Among the dozens of Annual Meeting sessions held yesterday was a unique panel on "Historians, Advocacy, and Public Policy ." This session, highlighted in yesterday’s morning overview, focused on a topic that many historians don’t pay much attention to: advocacy. Both sides of the advocacy process were examined at this session, beginning with John Lawrence, Chief of Staff for Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who offered the perspective of one inside the legislature. He has worked on Capitol Hill for over thirty years, and noted that his PhD in American History from Berkeley and his training as a historian has offered him a “unique perspective.” In his talk he urged that “we all need to take renewed action to support the study of history,” and he pointed to importance of the Teaching American History grant program and National History Day, and how both programs continue to fight each year for funding.
The three speakers who followed John Lawrence offered the other side of the coin, the lobbyist’s point of view, and included Jamil Zainaldin, president of the Georgia Humanities Council; Lee White, director of the National History Coalition, and Jessica Irons, director of the National Humanities Alliance. Jamil Zainaldin spoke on the obstacles of advocacy at the state level, pointing to the disconnect between historical institutions and organizations and how that separation makes it difficult to “isolate specific historical policies” and have them addressed at the state level. Lee White emphasized how important access to records is and noted the NHC’s efforts to overturn Executive Order 13233, a frighteningly restrictive order “which gave current and former presidents and vice presidents broad authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely”. He went on to encourage historians to take a more active role in what goes on in D.C., to make sure issues of interest to the history and archival professions don’t fall through the cracks. Jessica Irons wrapped up the session with some specific ways historians can take a part in advocacy, including: picking candidates who value history programs, keeping representatives informed of your concerns (this can be easily done through action alerts and sites like the Humanities Advocacy Network), following up with representatives when they take action, and coming to D.C. to lobby Congress (like on Humanities Advocacy Day, part of the NHA conference).
Both the National Coalition for History and the National Humanities Alliance take part daily in the fight for history education, project funding, and open access to records, but despite their many gains they still need the help and support of individual historians.