Great Advocates: Kathleen Roe

Back in March, we asked you to nominate “Great Advocates”–SAA members who inspire you with their advocacy efforts. Thanks to your nominations, we have a fantastic slate of Great Advocates.

You are cordially invited to join I&A’s gathering at SAA in Atlanta on Friday, August 5 from 7:30-9:00 am (it’s early, but there will be donuts and coffee!) for an engaging Q&A with leaders of advocacy efforts from SAA’s recent history, reflecting on their work and the future of advocacy within SAA.

To get everyone in the advocacy spirit in these weeks leading up to SAA, we’re publishing Q&As with each of our Great Advocates (including some who won’t be able to join us on August 5th).

To submit questions for the in-person session and follow the event, please tweet at @archivesissues using #GreatAdvocates or email archivesissues [at] gmail [dot] com.

Once they’ve all been posted, you’ll find all of the Q&As in the series here.

Great_Advocates_5Great Advocates Q&A with Kathleen Roe

How would you define advocacy?

Advocacy is giving a focused and purposeful message to a targeted audience to effect positive change for your cause.  We use that definition in the Advocacy, Archives and Archivists workshop that David Carmicheal (State Archivist of Pennsylvania) and I have done a number of times for SAA and for CoSA.   It’s based on the definition Larry Hackman provides in his book of advocacy case studies Many Happy Returns and definitions we found in the literature of other professions who do a lot of advocacy work.  

The purpose and audience for advocacy can range from working to gain support from one’s colleagues and management for change in an individual institution, to efforts to increase use of archives by a group of researchers, to political and legislative action with local, state or federal governments, and of course efforts to effect change in our profession.

What was the very first lesson you learned about advocacy–either how to do it or why it’s important?

I was fortunate to be at the NY State Archives when then State Archivist Larry Hackman worked with a group of local government officials (a very powerful group in New York) to develop a plan for legislation to create a revenue stream focused on addressing issues of local government records management.  The lessons in that effort were the incredible importance of working with those who will benefit, doing so in a respectful manner and being flexible in crafting approaches that reflect their needs and that they can support, and then stepping back and letting them be the ones to do the primary advocacy—because they can speak most compellingly about their needs.  And all of that was supported by a lot of hard work in the background, gathering data and examples, assembling materials that focused on a legislator’s district and interests, and simply working, working, working to achieve the goal.

Describe your most memorable experiences with advocating for archivists and archives.

One of my memorable experiences with legislative advocacy is the very first time I met with a Congressional staffer to advocate for some legislation.   It was 9 a.m., the staffer came in, grunted what I hoped was a hello, and then dropped his head over his coffee so that all I could see what the part in his hair.   I felt like an immediate failure, but pulled out the materials I had prepared for the Congressman he worked for, and figured I would give the part in his hair the full treatment.  After I’d finished my allotted 15 minutes, with only a few grunts and nods from him, I left (he did give me a copy of Roll Call on my way out.)   I headed off to my next appointment feeling like a monumental failure.   Then we got a call ten minutes later from him, in which he said “I’ve spoken to the Congressman. We’ll sign on to the bill as you requested.  Great presentation.” And then he specifically mentioned some of the reasons I’d laid out in my verbal request.   I was dumbfounded—and resolved to give every effort my best shot, because you just never know…..

If you could encourage archivists to do just one thing to help advocate for the archival profession, what would that one thing be?

Speak up, speak out, and constantly speak on behalf of what the archives profession can and does contribute.  That means pushing ourselves to find the words that we can comfortably use to explain our contributions (not just what cool stuff we have), and tell the stories of how archives have had real impact on the lives of individuals, groups and communities.

What strategies and skills would you recommend archivists use when they are advocating for something in their local context (for example, for additional funding or personnel, policy changes, etc.)?

We all need to plan in advance and really think through what we are going to say and the approach we are going to use. We need to find out who the person/group is we are talking to, and what kind of message will resonate with them—it might be a compelling story, it might be strong data that speaks to an issue, but it needs to be something that makes sense to that particular person or group.   And it needs to be tailored to the audience—we can’t tell the same story and expect it will reach everyone with equal impact.  To be effective, it may take time to do some background research into the person/group or issue, and to assemble the best arguments and examples.   Advocacy takes time, preparation and patience.

What is an archives issue that means a lot to you and requires advocacy?

There are several issues that mean a lot to me and for which I would love to see advocacy take place.  One is advocating for archives and the archival profession to ensure that our bosses, our users, our communities, and our governing bodies understand the essential role of archives. And that connects to another issue, the generally mediocre/poor pay and status of archivists, reflecting the lack of understanding of our essential role and contributions.  

Addressing the issue of an uneven historical record is a complex, but essential need that will involve careful, thoughtful advocacy to convey to undocumented/underrepresented communities and individuals that there are safe places and safe ways to document their voices in the experiences of this country—and we may need to advocate with our own colleagues and institutions to expand an understanding of how archives are managed to respect and support those communities in ways that don’t mean using a traditional university/historical society/government archives approach.  

And there are some critical legislative issues and behaviors on the federal, state and regional levels in the current political environment that drive toward feigned openness and transparency when In fact they push toward more suppression and restriction of essential information that it is the right of the public to access.

And there are lots more, but this is not a dissertation or ten year advocacy to do list!

What motivates you to continue when the going gets rough?

Archives change lives.  I believe each of us has a responsibility to our fellow/sister human beings (wherever they are) and to paraphrase John Wesley  “do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can, for as long as ever you can.”   My way of acting on that imperative is to strive to bring people and groups together with archives and archival records to help them accomplish the positive changes they want to see.

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