Embedding OF/BY/FOR ALL in a Brand-New Museum: How Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center Built Community Trust

In October 2018, 21 diverse organizations joined the First Wave pilot of the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network. We’re sharing stories from their journeys to become of, by, and for the communities that matter most to them. These stories were written by Titania Veda in partnership with the First Wave teams.

In May 2018, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (NFURHC) opened their doors after ten years of planning, researching, and fundraising. Opening a new museum came with its own set of challenges, such as staff time and focus since many of them are part time. Some members work from home and others only work weekends because they hold full-time jobs. But the team sees a flip side of the part-time coin. 

“Because we’re part-time and work other gigs and have other projects, we have connections to outside communities and can bring them  in. There’s lots of overlap. There are others on our staff who also work for the National Heritage area, which is part of the state parks and advocates for telling histories. It’s changing the way people think about all of their work. It’s bringing new ideas to a whole region, it may be a benefit that we’re spread so thin,” said Emily Reynolds, Director of Marketing and OF/BY/FOR ALL team champion. 

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center Freedom Gallery (Photo: Kim Smith)

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center Freedom Gallery (Photo: Kim Smith)

Adopting OF/BY/FOR ALL Policies

Since joining the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network, the team has shifted their organization in two ways:

1 . Programing co-created BY their community. They moved away from doing top-down programs to have programming coming from ideas generated by target audiences. This was a challenge as they  were first opening because they had not yet built the relationships necessary to do this work. Participating in the Change Network gave them concrete strategies to begin making these connections. They worked to build partnerships and focus on dialogue.

One of their most successful programs is the Heritage Center’s signature Freedom Conversation Tour, which is a facilitated dialogue tour intended to connect the history of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls with contemporary movements for social justice. Consistent feedback from visitors informed them that the Freedom Conversations were resonating with their target audiences, helping them decide to consolidate their focus on them.

“Freedom Conversation Tours are the tool that allows us to motivate visitors to take action to help ensure an equitable society. The facilitated dialogue technique used on the tour counters ingrained biases, fosters empathy, and opens the lines of communication necessary to expose the often unacknowledged racial fault lines in the bedrock of our society,” said Chris Bacon, Interim Director of Education. 

2. Hiring practices to build representation OF their community. The organization removed or decreased degree requirements for staff and focused on bringing in the right people who are connected with Niagara Falls and feel passionate about the city, its history, and the museum’s social justice messages. For example, for their Visitor Services Manager position, the team considered locals who work retail management at the nearby mall instead of from the museum studies school in Buffalo.

“ There are people from Buffalo who are mostly white and have good experience but may not be a good fit for us. A big realization that came out of the OF/BY/FOR ALL visioning session is that we really need to be an organization that helps empower the citizens of Niagara Falls. Using this history to help people get that power back, that’s not achieved from hiring people with great pedigrees and are from Buffalo or elsewhere,” said Emily. 

An interactive display about Cataract House Waiters at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (Photo: Kim Smith)

An interactive display about Cataract House Waiters at the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center (Photo: Kim Smith)

Engaging New Communities in New Ways

As part of Change Network, each organization was asked to focus on a particular community. One of their board members, Charles Walker, felt the organization had not obtained enough stakeholdership with informal leaders, many of whom are from the faith-based communities in Niagara Falls. On top of the changes to programing and hiring, they also had to develop different community involvement strategies. They used two key strategies to engage local African-American faith-based communities.  

1. Face time. The outreach strategy that worked best with the faith-based communities was face-to-face time. What did not work was non-personal correspondences such as emails or flyers with an expectation that locals will come on their own. 

Saladin Allah, one of the Heritage Center’s Visitor Experience Specialists, plays an integral part in engaging the church community. He is a local who grew up connected to church communities, making it easier to engage its members due to shared social norms and values. He is also engaged with the youth within this community as an early childhood educator and facilitator of a pre-adolescent after school program.

“A relationship was already present, so I simply built upon that to inform the community of our Heritage Center, programs, and activities” said Saladin.

“This was proof that hiring within the community is the most important step. If we didn’t have Saladin on our team, we’d be lost because he’s the one who has connections in that community,” said Emily. 

2. Narrowing the Programmatic Focus. Being new also meant the museum was not carrying legacy programs. Instead of putting on different programs for different audiences, they chose to focus on one thing to bring in revenue - the Freedom Conversation Tours (since all their other programs are free) - and doing it really well. The Heritage Center holds two facilitated Freedom Conversation Tours every day. 

Over the last three months, the popularity of the tour picked up. More people are talking about it and getting the community to participate. According to Chris, the Freedom Conversations are popular because they are authentic and people-focused.

Visitors comment that the tours are meaningful and insightful, introducing them to unfamiliar stories with a positive focus, featuring personal stories of black agency and empowerment from the perspective of those who were formerly enslaved and who took action to gain their own freedom. 

“The stories that the community relate to the most are the everyday people who did some extraordinary things to aid in the freedom of others. Oftentimes people don't believe in their capacity to be agents of change. Change is also the countless parents, guardians, caretakers and educators who have brought countless youth to our museum to learn more about this amazing local, national, and world history,” said Saladin.

Freedom Conversation Tour with regional Walmart Executives (Photo: Ally Spongr)

Freedom Conversation Tour with regional Walmart Executives (Photo: Ally Spongr)

The museum is also getting more group bookings such as a local church or a family reunion. They are hosting the Walmart corporate offices from the region who are bringing their managers to do training about race and social justice issues to the Heritage Center. 

“The community is beginning to really trust what we're doing and understands the stories we're telling are theirs,” said Emily. 

The Heritage Center’s OF/BY/FOR ALL team at the Change Network annual retreat: Emily Reynolds, Charles A. Walker, Christine Bacon, Saladin Allah, and Ally Spongr (Photo: Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center)

The Heritage Center’s OF/BY/FOR ALL team at the Change Network annual retreat: Emily Reynolds, Charles A. Walker, Christine Bacon, Saladin Allah, and Ally Spongr (Photo: Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center)

Is Your Organization Ready for Full-Scale Change? Check Your Readiness Now.


Last month, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation invited me to an energizing event about the civic role of the arts in Manchester England. Speaker after speaker shared powerful projects that deepened inclusivity and relevance. Then, one of those speakers--Matt Fenton of Contact Theater--made a crucial observation. "You can’t just mythologize projects," Matt warned. "Structural inequality only changes when you address and change the structures behind the projects.”

At OF/BY/FOR ALL, our goal is to help institutions change the structures behind the projects. The Change Network provides tools, coaching, and accountability for systemic, inclusive change. Institutional change is complex. It doesn't happen through individual projects alone. Sometimes, an organization can take on a single visionary project, but after that project is over, the vision fades. Like a rubber band, the organization “snaps back” to its traditional way of working. In the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network, we’re trying to equip teams to go further: to change mindsets, policies, and ways of working for the long-term.

Having led full-scale change at the MAH in Santa Cruz, I know it takes years of changes to policy and perspectives--and many leaps of faith along the way. But what does it look like at the onset? What indicators signal that an institution is ready to change?

Today, we're releasing the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network readiness check. It's a 3-minute quiz you can use to get a sense of how ready for change your organization is (and whether you are ready to consider joining the Change Network).

This readiness check is grounded in research on the effectiveness of the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network. We've asked Slover Linett Audience Research to help us evaluate the effectiveness of the Change Network as we pilot and grow. We’re now in our second wave of Change Network piloting, working with 38 diverse organizations in 9 countries. One thing we’re researching is what factors lead to a team being successful--or struggling--in the Change Network.

What makes an organization ready for institutional change?

Based on our observations and Slover Linett’s research, we’ve identified six key indicators that an organization is ready to make systemic change:

  1. Institutional change is driven by urgency. The organization needs a “why” that feels critical right now. A sense of urgency and clarity about why this change matters. You may not know how to proceed, but you know that you must.

  2. Institutional change can’t happen alone. You need a team of individuals from across the organization--from different departments, positions, and levels--who are committed to change.

  3. Institutional change requires leadership. You need a brave individual (maybe you?) who is ready to be the team’s champion. The champion coordinates the work, holds space for change, and fights resistance along the way.

  4. Institutional change requires support from the top. The top executive and the board must endorse, or ideally, directly participate in the work of the team.

  5. Institutional change takes time. The team needs to be able to commit time to this change alongside their “regular” work. This is a capacity-building effort. It takes time and space for people to practice new ways of working with community.

  6. Institutional change takes money. The team needs to commit funds--both to participate in an organizational development program (like the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network) and to initiate new work with their community. This money often comes from a change-motivated leader, trustee, or an activist outside funder.

You can make some change without all these things. Sometimes you have all six within your own department, but not on the scale of the entire institution. Sometimes you have three or four of these but not all six. We encourage you to get moving--and changing--regardless of how many boxes you can check.

But if you want to change your whole institution, or if you feel stuck and siloed in your efforts, consider which of these six may be missing. It may be more valuable to your change efforts to do the internal work to build readiness rather than doing yet another wonderful project that will get ignored or sidelined. That’s why we encourage anyone interested in the Change Network to first do the internal work to build the team, the resources, and the will to participate. You will go further, and make more permanent changes, if you have all six.

We created this readiness check to help you evaluate your position and to help us build a prioritized waitlist for the Change Network program. We’re planning to open up a limited Third Wave this fall. When we do, we will offer Third Wave spots to organizations that are ready to make deep, lasting change with our support. Are you ready?

Putting on a Black Play Doesn't Break Down Barriers: How Trinity Rep Creates Community Dialogue

From October 2018-March 2019, 21 diverse organizations participated in the First Wave pilot of the OF/BY/FOR ALL Change Network. We’re sharing stories from their journeys to become of, by, and for the communities that matter most to them. These stories were written by Titania Veda in partnership with the First Wave teams.

“Art, at its core, is not a commodity”

“I grew up in a family that only saw art as a luxury item. When we had a bit of money, we went bowling or to a fast food restaurant. Art was for the "other." I always viewed my role as an art maker as a job that was expendable. I understood my place as an art maker from a place of commodity versus from a place of service,” said Joe Wilson Jr.

Today, Joe Wilson Jr. lives and works in full service to the arts. Joe is Trinity Repertory Theater’s Coordinator of Activism Through Performance. Joe has been a member of the resident acting company since 2005, a school liaison, and a community connector in Providence, Rhode Island. Performing, serving on various boards, and teaching regularly at schools, Joe is one of Trinity Rep’s most recognized faces onstage and off.

“Art, at its core, is not a commodity. It is a response to the world around us and our desire to seek truth and justice, and celebrate our common humanity,” said Joe.

Joe Wilson Jr. in Oklahoma!    (Photo: Mark Turek)

Joe Wilson Jr. in Oklahoma! (Photo: Mark Turek)

“Putting on a black play doesn't break down barriers”

Trinity Rep has tried many approaches over the years to involve and reflect their diverse community in Providence. They were early adopters of color-blind casting, which sometimes proved problematic. Trinity Rep also focuses on diverse programming, such as bilingual plays and sensory-friendly shows. But Trinity Rep remains largely supported and enjoyed by older, white audience members.

“Putting on a black play doesn't break down barriers for people who have historically felt un-welcomed in institutions we assume are welcoming communal spaces. Even a great production like Black Odyssey doesn't guarantee folks will have the capacity, the will, or the inspiration to pick up a phone and buy a ticket," said Joe.

Cloteal L Horne, Joe Wilson Jr., and the company of black odyssey.    (Photo: Mark Turek)

Cloteal L Horne, Joe Wilson Jr., and the company of black odyssey. (Photo: Mark Turek)

Indeed, the situation Joe faced in his youth remains prevalent with families today. Theatre, like other art forms, continues to be seen as a luxury item. When it comes to being inclusive to various communities, there are socio-economic factors to consider according to Theresa Moore, a Trinity Rep board member. 

“People have obligation or needs, which means a choice between $40 for a ticket versus something else your family might need. If you’re going to spend that money on a ticket, you want to spend it on programing that's representative of your culture and community. To see things that are of, by, and for your community,” said Theresa. 

“An opportunity for our community to have a conversation”

In 2015, Rebecca Noon, Artistic Associate for Community, presented Joe with the opportunity to participate in a residency called Every 28 Hours, a theatrical response to the killing of Michael Brown and related events in Ferguson, Missouri. The play was brought back to Providence and grew into Trinity Rep’s America Too project, an annual event created of, by, and for the community in response to local issues. 

For example, in 2017, Rhode Island Latino Arts (RILA) and Trinity Rep co-hosted a reading of Just Like Us, a play based on the real story of DREAMers that shows the human cost of ending the DACA program. 

Just Like Us (2017) - Joe Wilson, Jr. and participants.    (Photo: Mark Turek)

Just Like Us (2017) - Joe Wilson, Jr. and participants. (Photo: Mark Turek)

“America Too is an opportunity for our community to have a conversation about the arts. The challenge with Trinity Rep is that it’s still perceived as inaccessible. There’s still a disconnect with the outreach. It’s not about sending an email out but making inroads to have face-to-face communication and building relationships,” said April H Brown, Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading Program Director and a 2019 America Too playwright. 

The birth of America Too and Joe’s new role were one of several strategic steps Trinity Rep made to invest in community engagement and deepen their efforts to shift the lens from transactional to transformational art. 

“The Every 28 Hours plays began the process of me thinking of my work as a writer but also of thinking of my work as a critical way we can engage communities in dialogue. It's not just about me making a play that I hope people come to see but it's about me using my work to make work of, by, and for - that can reflect our community and that can be a way that community can continue to engage in healthy dialogue,” said Joe. 

“The power that I have for positive change”

Trinity Rep aims to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. They also want to resonate with modern society. This required a shift in thinking about the theater’s programming and outreach, asking questions like: Is this building community? Is this furthering the agenda of community? Does this speak to my community? Does my community care about this?

“I wouldn't understand the relationship a play would have with my community unless I was out there, engaged with them,” said Joe. “Now I’m at the point in my career where I fully understand the power of how I can make other people feel, the power that I have for positive change, and the responsibility I have to promote that change and provide a space for that change.”

Rehearsal for  black odyssey  (2019) - Co-Directors Jude Sandy and Joe Wilson, Jr.    (Photo: Maxwell Snyder)

Rehearsal for black odyssey (2019) - Co-Directors Jude Sandy and Joe Wilson, Jr. (Photo: Maxwell Snyder)