Optimism Is the Only Practical Solution

This article originally appeared as the President’s Message in the November/December 2021 issue of Archival Outlook.

One of the SAA Council’s responsibilities is to develop and implement a strategic plan. As I write this, the Council is sched­uled to meet in November to refresh the strategic plan.

I’ll admit it: I love strategic planning. This is owed fully to Carolyn Hart, who headed strategic planning at one of my first professional jobs at the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library. Carolyn knew how to make strategic planning fun, but she also knew how to appeal to people like myself: people who enjoy creating, but are tied to the reality of day-to-day work and finite resources. Dreams can be practical.

Although Carolyn’s method had a positive impact on me, I am less impressed by the roots of strategic planning—in the military. “The art of the general” refers to how one deploys their troops and remains a major criticism of the process. Too much strategic planning is done by senior leadership who do not care to understand the jobs/lives/fears/dreams/needs/pain of those at other levels in the hierarchy or the communities they intersect with on a daily basis. That lack of care is how we are crushed by hierarchy.

I’ve been made miserable by both the process and the result of poorly led strategic planning. I have sat through too many sessions where the goal was clearly to tack on new work that took away from day-to-day operations and existing commitments, to elevate shiny ideas still half-baked, and to ignore the truly powerful function of strategic planning: the diagnosis of—and treatment for— structural problems.

Also as I write this, a Council working group is collating and reviewing member feedback (gathered online through comment, via email, and in two online forums) on the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA) Work Plan. The results will be in the revised strategic plan. This is the culmination of a great deal of work, started by a report and recommendations prepared by the Diversity Committee, and informed by the “Black Lives and Archives” listening sessions held in July 2020.

DEIA is not a new strategic direction, but descriptive of one of our fractures. Over the years, many members diagnosed SAA with structural problems that make our organization exclusive rather than inclusive and that privilege the few over the many. The work plan is the Council’s method for addressing those structural problems by taking the recommendations of expert members, requesting wide feedback, and setting goals for ourselves via the new strategic plan. This is leadership addressing one of the dimensions of our problems. It does not excuse individual bad actors.

Addressing structural problems must be the work of senior leadership in any organization. I recently read a commentary by Amy Davidson Sorkin of The New Yorker noting that you can’t address structural problems if you are “trying to restock the pasta.” In my job, I am not paid to do the operational work that moves our programs forward; I am paid to lead and facilitate that work. As president of SAA, I was not elected to do the operational work of SAA staff or our members that move our programs forward. I was elected to lead and facilitate the improvement of our structural problems.

I’m a leader in my job, but I’m also a staff member. I’m a leader in SAA, but I am also a member of the Society. I will never be a part of a strategic plan that isn’t considerate of the work already being done, of our collective concerns, or of our pain. We will make decisions that take into account the resources of SAA, the voices of our members, and the flaws in the structure.

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