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)