How Can We Help?
Advocacy Inside the Beltway and Beyond
Like all membership organizations, the AHA has to think about its constituencies and articulate a value proposition: Why should an individual consider paying dues? Three general categories of possibility come to mind: tangible individual benefits (e.g., publications and discounts); membership in a community; and support for collective activities valuable to that community and beyond, such as advocacy and freely available programming.
Individual benefits are important, and surveys tell us that AHA members (for good reason) value their subscriptions to the American Historical Review, appreciate their print copies of Perspectives on History, and purchase or subscribe to discounted publications. This terrain has shifted in recent decades. Many historians can access the AHR electronically through a library. Thousands of AHA members, and nonmembers as well, read Perspectives online.
Generally historians understand the difference between individual and public value—hardly surprising for a profession dominated by people familiar with the contributions that their institutions make to public culture. We don’t try to convince our colleagues that membership in the AHA is like AAA (the American Automobile Association), where one plunks down a fee and expects a jump start or tow in return. Members of the AHA participate in a community of historians with a central purpose: advocating for one another and for our work as historians. Unlike AAA (autos, not anthropologists), our Association embodies a set of values shared by our members, rather than services offered to them. These values, articulated in the AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, include “critical dialogue,” “mutual trust and respect,” “the integrity of the historical record,” and constant debate and evolution of interpretation (a.k.a. “revisionism”). They inform and provide the framework for the work that the AHA does on behalf of our discipline and, in some ways, on behalf of history itself.
Those values and that work imply a definition of advocacy broader than the traditional set of activities that take place largely on Capitol Hill, with additional efforts in federal agencies still largely “inside the Beltway”—a cliché, but in this case a literally accurate one. This long-standing DC-centered orientation to advocacy was not illogical: to advocate for our constituency implied a focus on sites and processes that allocate the vast resources of the federal government.
That logic still stands. The AHA is the only history organization that plays leadership roles in both the National Humanities Alliance and the National Coalition for History, in addition to participating in the work of the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the Coalition for International Education. Each of these organizations is the primary representative of its constituencies; we try not to call it “lobbying.”
The AHA is also active beyond these important structured collaborations. In December 2020, we joined with the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations, the National Security Archive, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in a lawsuit to prevent the destruction or alteration of presidential records. One month later, as Sarah Jones Weicksel describes in this issue of Perspectives, we collaborated with a different coalition of plaintiffs, including 29 Indigenous tribes, the states of Washington and Oregon, the City of Seattle, and eight local and regional Pacific Northwest organizations to prevent the General Services Administration from selling the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility in Seattle. In both instances, we accomplished our purpose. The Justice Department ordered a “litigation hold” on all White House documents during the presidential transition, and the sale of the Seattle NARA facility has been taken off the fast track and placed on a calendar that severely diminishes its likelihood. In the first case, our efforts helped to preserve the integrity of the historical record; in the second, we are working on behalf of democratic and professional access, enhancing the likelihood of a greater diversity of perspectives.
The AHA embodies a set of values shared by our members.
The AHA has also joined with other organizations to file suit against NARA and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), challenging NARA’s approval of ICE’s records disposition, which would authorize ICE to destroy several categories of records documenting mistreatment of immigrants detained in ICE custody. In a similar vein, we have posted official objections to NARA proposals relating to ICE records disposition, as well as positions taken by the National Labor Relations Board and other federal agencies.
Over the last year, we’ve worked directly with a US Senate office on proposed legislation to strengthen the Presidential Records Act, endorsed federal legislation to recognize the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, registered objections to historical claims and reports generated by commissions lacking appropriate historical qualifications, submitted written recommendations to the Biden/Harris transition team, and taken positions on issues relating to monuments and the abuse of history in public policy contexts. These statements have often been endorsed by other associations (in one case, 96 of them), many of them AHA affiliates, quoted in the media, and even cited in local government convenings. Many of them have also found their way into classrooms.
This work is not confined to what happens in Washington. In recent years, we’ve responded to requests to support the integrity of archives and the academic freedom of historians in Canada, France, Hungary, India, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, along with a broad condemnation of the use of historical sites as targets during warfare and as shields for protection. Even when it seems like we might be tilting against powerful windmills, colleagues in those countries express their gratitude for the support and the legitimacy we provide for their scholarship and activism.
The AHA also supports historians across the United States. Within the past year alone, we’ve intervened on behalf of historians in state university systems in Arkansas and Georgia, and at the University of Mississippi and Collin College; written on behalf of tenure protections and faculty lines at Canisius College, Guilford College, the University of Kansas, and the University of Evansville; and argued on behalf of the University Press of Kansas.
AHA statements have often been endorsed by other associations, quoted in the media, and even cited in local government convenings.
Due in large part to communications and marketing manager Jeremy C. Young, our advocacy has made recent local, national, and international news. Press outlets in India, Poland, Russia, and Spain have written about our statements and letters. A news story about the reversal of India’s controversial new restrictions on online international conferencing referenced the AHA’s statement at length. We’ve driven news and editorial coverage on the 1776 Report not only in many major national media outlets but in local papers in Las Vegas, Colorado Springs, Davenport, Iowa, and Branson, Missouri (the hometown paper of one of the report authors).
Sometimes this attention is less than complimentary. The quantity and quality of response to commentaries on issues in foreign countries vary tremendously, especially when we step on nationalist toes. Domestically, our concerns for democratic processes, the integrity of the historical record, and respect for facts and evidence—very much the province of historians—has been sometimes controversial, with some members declining to renew memberships because of a concern for excessive “politicization.”
There is, however, another realm of advocacy that can be controversial in different ways: advocacy for history as a discipline and the work of historians encompassing research, teaching, and professional practices. This includes our “best practices” documents that relate to such topics as the role of department chairs in improving working conditions for non-tenure-track faculty, the right of graduate students to control the digital dissemination of their dissertations, ethical practices, and even temporary employment-related issues relating to the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and research.
In pre-COVID days, AHA staff spent a lot of time visiting history departments and going to conferences. One aspect of our message was always the same: “How can we help?” When it comes to history, historians, and historical work, the terrain of advocacy has few boundaries.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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