May 4, 2022

Learning to Listen: Building Equitable Hiring Practices from the Ground Up

Ally Spongr

By Anna Musun-Miller

Staff diversity is a major issue in cultural attractions – in fact, it’s such an issue that organizations like the Association of Minority Zoo & Aquarium Professionals and Museum Hue have been formed to try to address some of the systemic problems in our field from the outside in. But for change to be meaningful, it has to happen within institutions themselves. Ally Spongr, Interim Director of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center, shares lessons learned from their young museum’s efforts to build a staff from scratch.

When we talk about developing a culture of equity within cultural institutions, where do we start?
I want to start with the importance of listening. When I came onboard, I knew very little about the Underground Railroad and not that much about non-profit management either. I took an open heart to learning about the stories – I wanted to learn as much as I could. As I met the board of directors and the historians involved in the project, I also learned about their discontent with the process. They were working with a design firm that had not been listening to them, even when they were very clear that they wanted to tell Niagara Falls stories and not generic ones, that they wanted to have the waiters at the forefront of the stories (learn more about the waiters of the Cataract House Hotel in this short video). Despite years of work together, the firm would still not do what was asked, and this was a continuation of a long history of people of color not being listened to.

How did you address the team’s concerns?
Our team made the difficult decision to end that relationship and start fresh. That was such an important moment, because I saw the strength it took for people who were fighting for having the stories be told right to make the decision to walk away from time and money spent in order to do it justice. But that comes back to listening – we listened to each other, and decided it was important for people we were working with to show that they were listening to us. And that listening has become part of who we are and what we do as a team. That has built the Heritage Center to be what it is – a place that uplifts Black voices and Black stories – and that was the foundation for the next thing, which was to build out a staff

Describe the process of building out your staff with a focus on equity.
At the beginning, the only staff we had were the three folks (including myself) from the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area managing the Heritage Center build-out. We knew from our experience in museums that if we only advertised the jobs to the museum field, we might not receive a diverse pool of candidates. Instead, we looked to our local colleagues who were working on the project to get the posting in front of the immediate community of Niagara Falls. We also intentionally did not include requirements that would normally be barriers to people of color or those who have historically faced barriers to accessing education in these fields. If we required a museum-related degree, we would be continuing the cycle of systemic issues of access to opportunities in the field. One must understand and acknowledge the full picture of the state of systemic issues that exist. So instead of degree requirements, the job description included requirements like lived experiences, interest in African American history or local history, or other specific qualities we would look for, instead of formal training. We also knew up front that we may have to complete double the interviews – that we might have to look at a candidate’s resume and say “I’m not really sure if they are qualified, but here are a couple of pieces that might work, and we should give them a chance.” The more opportunities we created, the larger our pool of candidates that have the natural inclination or skillset to do or to learn that position. But we had to be ready to do the work. 

What tough conversations did your team have during this process?
We had to be open with each other regarding our identities as three white women, and we were the only staff in leadership of a new institution that was intended to put Black stories and voices front and center. Our team of board members and content experts were diverse – but we were the staff. We were very aware that the public might have questions about why we were the ones who got to tell these stories, and not people of color. Having those real conversations with each other was important – to have the tough conversations with each other about identity and what that means to our community and to ourselves. I think institutions need to do that. If a team is not willing to engage in open conversation like that, to be self-reflective and recognize one’s own privilege and identity, it’s more difficult to be more equitable in hiring practices.

You have been leading the organization since its opening in 2018, but your title is “Interim Director.” Tell me about that choice.
I was initially the project manager during the design and construction of the Heritage Center, and as we prepared to open our doors, it became apparent that we needed a staff person to serve as the director. The board decided that they could put their faith in me, and I transitioned from managing the project to operating the new museum. Over time, we did get pushback, and rightfully so, as the three people in leadership were white women. It kept coming up. Therefore, we engaged in conversations and instead of resisting or being defensive, we said, “Okay, we need to be open to this and put our true intentions out there, as we have throughout the whole project.”

We had strategy sessions and decided based upon what we heard through conversations that my title and the director of education’s title should be changed to interim to reflect our commitment to changing our leadership. We had stepped in when we saw that there was a need for immediate leadership and staffing. However, we knew that we would need to work towards a permanent leadership that is representative of our stories and of our community.  As an institution we are working to break down systemic barriers that prevent people of color from opportunities in the museum field. If I stay in this leadership position, I withhold the opportunity from somebody else. While navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and securing alternative funding sources to support a leadership change, we are on track this year to hire a full-time director. It’s slow, but it’s necessary progress towards equitability.

What’s your advice for others who are trying to launch equity initiatives at their own institution?
If you truly want to make change – at whatever level you are in an institution, especially in leadership – you have to be vulnerable. You must go to the community, even if it is uncomfortable or hasn’t been done previously. Early on, I learned very quickly that communities in Niagara Falls are not particularly open to people or entities from the nearby City of Buffalo – and rightfully so, based on a long history. When I began working in Niagara Falls, the reactions I would usually receive were along the lines of, “who is this person, why is she here?” Often, people swoop into Niagara Falls with their own projects and agendas that have nothing to do with the needs of people and communities here, and then they swoop right back out again.

But no matter the skepticism, I would keep showing up. I would go to events, and I would have conversations with anybody who would talk to me. That’s just my natural way of interacting with people – I didn’t approach it or think of it as a strategy at the time. And over time, a trust slowly started to be built. When our community would reach out with a question or for help with something, we would jump in regardless of whether it was mission-related or not, because that was part of building a symbiotic relationship. We went in with no objective other than supporting our community’s work, and that is felt. It goes back to listening and to being present.

If institutions want to do this work, it is necessary to step back sometimes from your own agenda or vision. Sometimes you should go to that barbecue or pop-up festival. Maybe you are going to feel out of place because you don’t know a single person there. Maybe you will encounter a culture or activities you are not familiar with – that’s okay. I recommend challenging yourself to do that hard work. Go to community meetings or events that are already being held – buy the ticket. Support the work already happening that is community-led.

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