When I first started out in the nonprofit museum field, I spent most of my time feeling out of place.
I was raised a blue-collar kid, with parents who didn't put much stock in 'extras' like museums, the arts, or cultural events. I was put on a softball field at 7. I was baking in the county fair at 8. I was reluctantly allowed to join the band at 11, but there were no symphony tickets or museum memberships, no 'nice art', or NPR on the radio.
Still, I had fallen in love with music and creative pursuits and had shocked my confused family when I went away to college and studied - music.
Some 20 years later after stints living in other parts of the country and with 3 kids in tow, I would land back in my hometown, still receiving confused looks from my family. Happily, I'd become employed by the local museum I had only ever visited on my 5th grade field trip: Passionate about it, but still embarrassed by my (lack of) pedigree.
By then I'd studied education, had been very successful in my east coast city as a music teacher and band director, and I had a curriculum and instruction master's degree within my grasp just before the birth of my 3rd child. That was the same time that I went into hiding after my abusive marriage reached an apex and I knew I was no longer safe. I left behind the teaching job, community anchors, personal and professional connections, and just about everything else.
In the year and a half before the new museum job, I'd lived a life that was shocking, difficult, and traumatic. But museums had been a bright light for me. I'd raised my own kids differently than I was raised, taking advantage of the museum offerings in the major metropolitan area that was near where I taught. Long before life was so difficult, the children's museum, art museums, and the science center had been fixtures for my own children: and when life became hard, they were a little glimpse of normalcy, a glorious mental escape, and often offered a safe haven I couldn't otherwise access.
I'd come to love them deeply - and see the power in their education, environments, and experiences. I didn't have the money to take my children to France, but they'd seen French Impressionism. I couldn't take them to Japan, but they'd marveled at Samurai Armor. We watched the first Mars rover land on a giant screen where a museum educator took my little girl's hand and helped her navigate a robotic arm that was just like the one the rover was collecting samples with. From these community fixtures, I watched my children learn chess, record their own newscast with ‘Arthur the Aardvark, and make countless artistic, STEM, and cultural connections.
I’d also learned what was and wasn’t good about spending a day in a museum. What made a good exhibition experience, a good admission experience, a good food and beverage experience, a good map/navigation experience, and even what good restrooms looked like and where they were located. I was a defacto environment expert based on hundreds, if not more, of hours spent inside these facilities. I’d learned what (and who) was welcoming - and wasn’t. I had a lot to offer my new employer.
But I didn’t know how to share it.
How could I explain that I knew about the library pass admission system because I’d been the number one user of them in my former county system (as told to me by the librarian who was exasperated that I kept checking them out)?
That I did so because I was broke?
How could I explain that not having seating for nursing or changing tables in bathrooms (issues I’m so happy have largely been addressed these days!) would make things nearly impossible if you were a single parent and that I knew that because on more than one occasion my older daughters milled a questionable sidewalk while I sat on a bench nursing their brother?
Or why, even if you didn’t ‘have’ to have a gender-free bathroom, it made parenting a child of opposite gender so much easier – because I would forever and always worry about my little boy needing me in a men’s bathroom?
How would I explain that creating more walking space and quiet concentration by ‘banning strollers’ or ‘banning cellphones’ might not seem like a big deal unless you walked 6 blocks from the bus stop with an infant and 2 other kids to try and spend quality time while waiting for the call to learn if you were going to get a room at the shelter that night or not?
I knew the magic – and what was behind the curtain. I’d been kindly welcomed and also brutally called out during my time when museums were the last anchor to a life that had evaporated before my eyes. If I was brave enough, I could help my new employer – and improve things for another struggling person looking for a respite in a seldom thought-of space for it. I had experience few would have…
During my tenure there, I shared a lot more than I thought I would be willing to. Sometimes I was heard, sometimes dismissed but I learned quickly that my perspective was unique and I also learned to seek out the other unique perspectives. I started to see gifts in places I’d previously seen only as embarrassments or failures. There was real power there.
Over my years of leadership, including as a nonprofit executive director, I developed an ability to look for the perspective, the experience, that my team members might not believe they should or could draw on. I wanted to draw that out, hear and understand it, and see the power and value in it. As a consultant now, I find it to be true everywhere I go – someone around the table has a solution, a project, a viewpoint that is entirely their own – it is frequently steeped in something difficult – but it is looking for a way to become something transformational.
And that’s why I work in trauma-informed practices. Because I know how to craft a setting that isn’t just about functionality, but about the ability to allow our teams to bring their whole-selves into a space. When their experiences – all of their experiences – are heard, seen, and valued, that’s when change happens. That’s when teams bond. That’s when problems really get solved. And that is the tool that turns trauma into transformation.
If you’re wondering how I can help your team or organization using trauma-informed practices, reach out and schedule a free call. Let’s work together to leverage the wealth of knowledge and talent you have around your table. Build up your people, and I promise, they’ll build up your business.