Never One Person
Writing and Advocacy at the AHA
Regular readers of this column are by now familiar with the substantial increase in statements and letters recently issued by the AHA. I’ve explained why this activity is central to the Association’s mission, how it fits within a broader advocacy agenda that has changed over time, the reasons we’ve been so prolific, and why we need support from members to do this important work. What I haven’t done, however, is explain how these texts are generated.
This question arose recently in conversations with colleagues about AHA statements that generate disagreement. Such controversy is not new, of course. Our letters defending the academic freedom of historians in other countries have not infrequently roiled the waters of nationalist politics, in one case to the point of a pointed response from the office of a nation’s chief executive. More often, the objections come in the form of commentary on Twitter (sometimes civil, sometimes not). Statements focused on domestic controversies, especially those that some readers consider too “political,” are the most likely to generate email, usually accompanied by a request for membership cancelation. I respond to nearly all such correspondence from members, setting aside only those that completely lack substance (and therefore offer nothing to engage) and the very few that are so ill-tempered as to suggest little opportunity for thoughtful engagement. More than once, an extended email conversation has even resulted in a change of mind and an expression of surprise that strong disagreement would engender substantive dialogue.
Rather than contesting the decision to issue a statement, some object to specific aspects of the AHA’s argument. As one might expect, for example, our June 2020 Statement on the History of Racist Violence in the United States was bound to generate debate on social media and in private correspondence over decisions about what we included in just 793 words and the many important issues or events that were left out. Our recent critique of the decision (since postponed) of the San Francisco Board of Education to rename 44 public schools, based on research that had no input from professional historians, generated concerns (in private email) about whether the statement had a “superior tone” that could detract from constructive dialogue. This was a thoughtful and reasonable critique, but also one that easily could lead to the proverbial decision to “agree to disagree.”
Recently, a more difficult situation arose over significant interpretive aspects of the March 2021 Statement on Violence against Asians and Asian Americans, issued in the wake of the murder of eight people, six of them Asian or Asian American women, in Georgia (see pages 7 and 8 for the full statement). Some disagreement relates once again to interpretive issues—in this instance, the relationship between race and ethnicity as historical constructs, as well as what could and could not be included given the many examples that might be appropriate, and the decision to limit examples to domestic policies and incidents. Disagreement on the use of concepts of race and ethnicity (and one might add nationality) related no doubt to imprecise wording on our part. More generally problematic, however, was a loud silence: the failure of our statement to include the word “racism.” “Racist misogyny” refers to the issue, but does not explicitly identify the centrality of racism to the statement’s narrative. As the executive director of the AHA, I take full responsibility for this omission.
By the time this significant absence was brought to our attention, more than 40 other organizations had signed onto the statement, and the text had been sent to 4,000 local newspapers across the country. The text could not be revised, but I hope it generates appropriate debate among readers of the statement.
How are these advocacy statements written?
How can this happen? How are statements written? (This column focuses largely on statements, rather than letters; the two modes of commentary are closely related but not identical.) Unlike some other professional associations, our statements are not signed. So who actually writes these statements?
Never one person. Sometimes two. Often more. These pieces are difficult to write, requiring a combination of substantive expertise with experience in a peculiar genre. Here is how it works.
The first draft is nearly always written by someone who knows something of the topic or issue. Optimally, this is a member of the AHA Council or senior staff; if we don’t have appropriate expertise, we recruit a former AHA officer or an established scholar in the field. That draft is reviewed and revised (sometimes substantially) by an ad hoc drafting committee comprising the executive director and one or two Council members, often including the president. The document then goes to either the full Council or the Executive Committee, depending on whether time is of the essence.
Whether the document goes to the Executive Committee or the full Council for approval, members of that body often weigh in on content or wording. Generally I coordinate that editing process, by drawing on the email conversations and revising as discussion proceeds. Between the initial drafting committee’s work, and then the input from the Council or Executive Committee, it is not unusual for a single advocacy statement to go through drafts that number in the double digits.
This all sounds very smooth. But it’s more complicated than this narrative would suggest. This work coincides only occasionally with our semiannual Council meetings, so much of it is conducted through email. According to the law in Washington, DC, and many states, a nonprofit governing board voting to approve an action via email must be unanimous, with everyone voting. Most statements are discussed via email for two to four days, depending on the level of controversy, and with 16 historians at the table, commentary is likely. In some cases, the Council’s admirable culture of collegiality and task-orientation generates compromise and, if necessary, individual willingness to accede to a near-consensus. The result can be a statement that is too mild or diplomatic in tone for some tastes, but one that is more likely to represent the diversity of perspectives among our membership.
We want statements to inform local reporting and to generate debate in as many places as possible.
Once the Council or Executive Committee has reached consensus on a statement, we send it to AHA affiliated societies and to our peer organizations in the American Council of Learned Societies for endorsements. Because every association has its own, often complicated, procedures, we accept these endorsements on an ongoing basis.
We work hard to keep advocacy documents short. We want statements to inform local reporting and to generate debate in as many places as possible, including history classrooms. Some statements have even been invoked in civic spaces such as city council meetings. We want to speak with authority as professional historians, but also provide the basis for the kinds of conversations that historians seek in our classrooms and other education venues.
For this reason, the interpretive disagreements and the controversies that statements can evoke are useful. So too are the flaws. Perhaps a teacher can distribute an AHA statement and ask why a historical perspective is useful to public consideration of this issue. What is the relationship between facts and interpretation in this statement? Why should anyone care what the American Historical Association thinks?
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
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