Fifteen.

Five years ago I wrote about a fairly naïve, 23 year old who started her first post-grad school job thankful to be working professionally as a historian. I was grateful for colleagues, mentors, and an organization that enabled me to grow with time.

On August 14, I am marking not only 15 years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but also 15 years as a public historian. In the intervening years, a lot has changed—teams, expectations, job roles, and the organization itself—and I find myself reflecting on how those changes have changed me.

When your parents move out of their house of 30+ years you find the weirdest things at the perfect time. I started my new job seven days before my birthday. What a lovely welcome.

Consider the words at the start of this piece: Thankful. Grateful. Two words that I have been hearing a lot about, at a time when the intersecting and overlapping nature of work has shifted due to a virus that fundamentally altered how we see our lives. For many, this past year revealed that organizations and companies do not owe their employees anything. Whatever loyalty and commitment we have, it may not be reciprocated—an attitude I commiserate with—particularly in light of the series of layoffs within the museum and history field due to the pandemic.

Five years ago, I wrote about how important it was for me to be working in a field that I love—that if most of my life was spent at an office, I would rather work with passion, than with indifference.

However, today I think my words are more measured. I am still happy about the path my life has taken, and am finding, as always, my career at the National Trust to be meaningful, invigorating, and valuable. I collaborate with some amazingly smart people and am so glad that in my role as associate director of content I get to support, shape, and communicate their work out into the world. In the last five years there are opportunities that I earned and fought for, but also some very real moments of grief and frustration.

Having said that, I also learned a lot about adaptation, managing expectations, navigating difficult situations, and my own emotional well-being.  And I find myself restless.  Obviously, I am not planning on leaving my job, but this anniversary really demands an inward audit, a reflection on what I really want for the next five years.

Specifically, I require an understanding about how I define success: Is it money and a title? An attitude? A tangible product that says “hey you are at the top of your game?” Or is it a combination of elements including something more ephemeral?

Photo from my sabbatical in 2017 which took me to England, Prague, and Italy fulfilling my dream to see Shakespeare’s hometown, travel with my sisters, and walk the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This view is from Capri.

Success in the first decade of my life as a public historian had to do with proving to others the viability of a career-choice I had made at eighteen. Today, it is about proving something to myself, and more importantly really considering how my work within the auspices of the National Trust, without as a public historian, and as a human being can truly be meaningful.

At the start of this year I talked about living with intention, and this anniversary is a big part of defining what that really means for the next phase of my life.

But for now, yes, I am thankful and grateful for 15 years in this field and at this organization. I am thankful for all my team members both past and present that continue to inspire me with their kindness and expertise. I am grateful for my sabbatical, which in 2017 allowed me to consider the way in which I practice history and to really think about the role storytelling plays in preservation and public history.

An experience that only made me better at my day-to-day work.

A view from the roof of NTHP’s former home in Dupont Circle. Taken December 2013 | Credit: Priya Chhaya

I am especially proud to be at a place where our focus on telling the full American story and working toward equity is crystal clear, and am determined to do my part in making that vision and priority a reality (both internally and externally).

Above all else, I am proud of myself. I know that like many I am always worried that I am falling short—especially at a time when it is so easy to feel overwhelmed—so I think I owe it to myself to type that out as a reminder. At the end of the day, it is not the longevity at a single organization that is the accomplishment, but rather the recognition that I bring value to every conversation, every project, every interaction, and that I do that with compassion, integrity, and a clarity of vision all my own.

Fifteen(ish) Stories

Even as I wrote the words above, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I have actually done in my years at the National Trust.

Since 2006 I have been an assistant that worked on preservation leadership trainings, the lead on developing preservation leadership trainings, a facilitator, a password re-setter, a listserv manager, a bookseller, provided membership support (I never want to fold paper renewals ever again), a website developer and designer, a problem solver and resource sharer, a project director, a community manager, a career center specialist, a curriculum planner, a conference content lead, conference staff (would you believe I miss our 6am meetings?), a live program producer, a supervisor (I had two amazing people as staff over the years, in addition to many wonderful interns), an email builder, social media marketer, a brainstormer, a grant manager, a podcast developer, a strategic planner, webinar tech support, a DEIA leader, a cheerleader, a reminder-er, an editor, journal co-editor, a writer, a storyteller, and probably central to all of these jobs, a listener.

I know I am missing something but this is just one way to consider my years at the National Trust.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of my current position of associate director of content. Due to the nature of the internet, the stories only go back to 2013, but I would like to acknowledge that those first seven years were not necessarily about creating things from scratch, but rather about building relationships and a broader understanding of what it meant to be a preservationist. I wanted to share a range of pieces that show not only my evolution as a writer, but also projects that I worked on that are near and dear to my heart. So below are a list of things I wrote, produced, and co-created as part of my job, with only a teeny bit of editorializing.

But before we really dig into that list I want to give a shout out to my teams—both past and present—#PresRes4Eva and DMT you know who you are. Thanks for keeping me sane and, as always, for your trust and support.

Onward.

A view through the fence at the Montmatre Sacré-Cœur in Paris in 2013. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

2013: Return and Resonance.

Both of these stories came out of two trips I took in the Spring of 2013. They aren’t complicated but remind me so much about how the world has changed, and the fine balance between nostalgia and reality.

2014: Beyond Beauty: Seeing Possibility in All Historic Places

Perhaps inspired by the early work I was doing with Tom Mayes on Why Old Places Matter. I can see a slow evolution my perspective and focus on writing and preservation.

2015: Layers of the Northern California Past

I miss this landscape. My first trip to California I was inspired by the beauty of the landscapes and ocean views, but also an urge to share a broader picture beyond the romance of it all.

2016: “The Host Who Fills Every Want”

This is a piece I return to again and again. I visited this National Trust Historic Site in Colorado in 2016 during a family reunion, and was fascinated by what I found. This was one of my first opportunities to really dig into a story for the National Trust.

Photo taken in the kitchens of Hotel de Paris in 2016. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

2017: Getting To Truth At The Smithsonian’s History Film Forum + Blog Series: When Does Preservation Become Social Justice?

This year, I really felt like I came into my own. After celebrating my tenth anniversary the year before, I took another step towards really thinking about who I was as a public historian. But first, this is also the year I fell in love with a little show called Timeless.

In 2016, my then colleague Jacquie approached me about doing a story about historic preservation and social justice for Preservation Leadership Forum. I cannot remember exactly how the series evolved but we spent a lot of time talking, planning, and producing her vision for the series. While I wrote one of the articles, serving as Jacquie’s collaborator on this project will stick with me for a long time.

2017: Multidisciplinary Storytelling (My Sabbatical)

One of the then perks of the National Trust was the ability of staff, at their tenth anniversary, to take a two month sabbatical to pursue an element of research based on their particular area of expertise. In my case that involved traveling while also thinking about the ways in which we tell stories of the past. I am working on plans to push this forward in the coming years, but for now you can see what I have written on my website.

2018: Women’s Work: Joan Hinton and the Manhattan Project + Documenting the International Space Station + Angelo Back: Bears Ears and Working with Native Communities

These three pieces are examples of some fun collaborative projects I did in 2018. The Joan Hinton piece was intended as a podcast pilot that never got off the ground, but it did teach me a lot about audio production and storytelling. We had great external partners and an internal dream team (Chris, Carson, Julia, Sarah, Nancy, and Jared you know who you are).

The piece on photographing the International Space Station and the interview with Angelo Baca were both done with my then colleague Carson. At the time I focused on content related to preservation professionals while Carson developed stories for SavingPlaces.org. In both cases I spent some time learning video production, while also having the privilege of talking to very cool people doing important things.

2018: Forum Journal: Technology Transforming Preservation

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the first—and only—Forum Journal I edited in the fifteen years that I worked on this project. For the entire course of my career I have been responsible for making sure this journal gets online for people to access. In 2018 in conjunction with our work developing a PastForward conference track related to this topic, my colleague, Reina and I put together an issue considering the role of digital technology on preservation. The idea was to roll up material from the blog, conference, and journal all in the same year and build upon the tools and material available for preservationists to really dig deep into this topic.

Conference Staff must haves from PastForward in San Francisco. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

2013-2018: Why Do Old Places Matter?

While Tom Mayes is the brains behind this series, I spent nearly five years of my time at the National Trust working with him to bring this series to fruition. Along with my former colleagues who are masters of the written word (Byrd and Sandi, I miss your editing genius) this feat of storytelling had a ripple effect in unexpected ways. Tom’s words resonated with many within the field, and even more outside of it.

2019: Women’s History Track at Past Forward

In 2019, I took my conference track planning to new heights, building out the panels and keynote for the Celebrating Women’s History track (along with some other things) which took place at the historic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. I learned a lot about myself during this year, and in a lot of ways this track is evidence of the support, promise, and faith my then supervisors (Susan & Rhonda) had in me. While I am no longer actively involved in conference planning, I am so glad I was given the opportunity to lead in this way. Also I was on C-SPAN!

View from the National Mall during Go for the Moon program in 2019. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

2020: Moon Shot: How the National Air and Space Museum Brought the Moon Landing to Earth + We All Live in the Same House: John Lewis at the 2009 National Preservation Conference

This was the first of three different stories related to this program by the National Air and Space Museum. I couldn’t not put it on this list.  The second piece is my homage to John Lewis and how he continues to serve as an example for my life. There is always so much more we can do, and he gave us a blueprint of how to do it.

2021: Brucemore’s Lost Living Landscape

There are two long term projects that will be shared with the world in 2021, but I can’t talk about them yet. Both are collaborative projects that I hope will change the way we consider public history and preservation. I am so glad I got to be involved with them.

Because I wanted to include a story from 2021, I am choosing to share this piece on the loss of old growth trees at Brucemore, one of the National Trust’s Historic Sites. It’s a weirdly apt piece to end with because like so much we have experienced it is a story of loss, grief, and immense resilience after the unexpected.

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