Fighting for History: Behind the Scenes at the NCH
Fall is the season when we solicit annual contributions to the National Coalition for History (NCH), and 2017 will be a critical year for the work we do. We cannot predict election outcomes or their impact on issues of concern to historians in particular or the humanities in general, but we do know that there will be a new administration in the White House, newly elected members of Congress, and a great deal of staff turnover on Capitol Hill—all of which will require that we establish relationships and make our case to people unfamiliar with our issues.
Lobbying often involves preventing something: an amendment that dies in the forest does not make a sound.
We continue to press for funding for K–12 history and civics education and other federal historical, archival, humanities, and preservation programs—an effort that will remain at the core of our agenda. Membership in the Congressional History Caucus, which we helped found a few years ago, is vibrant and growing. But the coalition is now poised to expand beyond the nation’s capital, making it a truly National Coalition for History. This year alone, we have worked closely with a member organization, the Civil War Trust, to preserve land associated with a Revolutionary War battle in Princeton, New Jersey. We spearheaded a successful effort to save the history office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and are now monitoring the work of the commission on the creation of a National Women’s History Museum, whose report is due to Congress in mid-November.
Quantifying the NCH’s value to our organizations and its members proves difficult in one important but intangible way. Lobbying often involves preventing something: an amendment that dies in the forest does not make a sound. Compounding that inaudibility is the fact that advocacy work is based on maintaining sometimes delicate relationships through dependability and mutual respect. Many times, the language in a bill or an early draft of a regulation gets changed or deleted based on a phone call that must then be treated with judiciousness and diplomacy, hardly the watchwords of an aggressive PR campaign.
The NCH is not a lobbying behemoth. Former board member George Bain of the Society of Ohio Archivists described it this way: the NCH is, “to state it bluntly, a bare bones operation working on a no frills budget.” We have a budget of less than $200,000 and a staff consisting of me and one part-time graduate student intern. (By comparison, one of our larger member organizations determined that hiring a lobbyist at a law firm would cost around $200,000. By that measure, an investment in the NCH is a comparative bargain.) In an article for the Ohio Archivist, Bain described the NCH as “analogous to a small community fire department.” I might be the fire chief in this analogy, but the NCH would not have accomplished so much in recent years without the strong participation of its member organizations and, by extension, their members.
Every January, NCH’s policy board holds its business conference as part of the AHA’s annual meeting and sets an agenda for the coming year. Ideally, I will spend that year working to accomplish the goals set by the board. But issues pop up unexpectedly like brush fires, leaving the NCH spread very thin—especially when Congress is in session. We strive every year to be proactive, but we must necessarily be reactive as well. Not one of the three issues mentioned above was anticipated in advance.
The AHA remains the foundation on which we are based, but the NCH has diversified its membership over time, and a true sense of collectivism has emerged. The NCH is now made up of a diverse number of groups representing not only historians, but also archivists, researchers, teachers, students, documentary editors, preservationists, genealogists, political scientists, museum professionals, and other stakeholders. This broad coalition across the historical profession and beyond has strengthened the NCH and the work it does on behalf of its members.
Keep up with our work in the pages of Perspectives on History, check out our website at historycoalition.org, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. I look forward to hearing from and working with our member organizations, as well as individual historians who are curious about what we do, over the coming year.
Lee White is executive director of the National Coalition for History.
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