Blog Entry 19: Advocating within SAA: Getting a Foot in the Door

Advocacy can occur in a multitude of venues. You may advocate for a particular project within your archives, or within your parent organization on behalf of your archives department, or to government officials on behalf of your organization or the profession as a whole. But, it is important to note that advocacy efforts can also be used to affect change within SAA itself.

In 2012, Courtney Chartier and Erin Lawrimore worked on a survey to gauge perceptions of leadership and leadership development within SAA. They presented their findings at the 2012 Research Forum poster session (An Old Boys Club?: The Society of American Archivists and the Culture of Professional Leadership). Overall, they found that may SAA members find the organization unwelcoming to new members and too monolithic to conquer. One respondent classified SAA as “cliquish” and felt that “many of the processes are dependent upon being part of the group. It isn’t very welcoming.”

Well, if you are interested in advocating within SAA, what can you do? Where can you start? To answer these questions, we asked three current SAA leaders for their suggestions. Here is their advice in their own words:

Jackie Dooley, SAA President, 2012-2013

SAAers often talk about the need for “change” within the Society. I like to see it more as a need for “progress.” Yes, there are always some areas in which a real change of course is warranted, but more frequently it’s a matter of doing what we already do more actively and usefully. For example, we have a fair number of sections and roundtables that are inactive except for the annual push to identify candidates for the group’s steering committee and pull together a program for the Annual Meeting.

The SAA staff and Council devote a perhaps surprising amount of time and effort into supporting all our component groups, each of which has a worthy purpose, so we want to see all of them contribute tangibly to SAA’s success and our members’ satisfaction. I believe that far more members would feel fully rewarded by their affiliation if the groups of particular interest to them were more active throughout the year—if only via active listserv discussions of shared issues and challenges. (Needless to say, some are already VERY active.)

Perhaps that’s the easiest way for any member to effect change/progress: speak up on one or more of the listservs you’re signed on to and ask questions of your colleagues, mention something interesting you’re doing or have read about, or float ideas for how the group could be more active. It’s a great path to becoming known to your colleagues and finding yourself in demand for a leadership position of your own. In short: step up and make your voice known!

Donna McCrea, SAA Council Member, 2010-2013

Be pro-active, positive, engaged, collaborative and visible. Just as in any other advocacy action, network to determine who else might be interested in your issue. Introduce yourself to individuals who already have experience within the organization and share your ideas.

When hoping to get Council to take a position or establish a new entity (such as a roundtable) you need to bring forward a well-articulated idea that is supported by evidence. Keep in mind that almost every new initiative and every new component group requires resources, which is why sections, roundtables, committees are asked to articulate how their work (or proposal) supports the organization’s strategic priorities.

Although the large ship of SAA takes a while to turn, there is a lot of good work being done by the component groups of SAA. Being an active and engaged participant (in a constructive way) at component group meetings helps to get you noticed, as does taking an active role in the component group’s activities (reports, project, etc.), which probably helps to get you elected to leadership positions from which you can help set the agenda of the group’s work and focus. A few specific examples of good work that has been done entirely by component groups are the Managing Congressional Collections publication and the Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning created by the A&A section.

Kate Theimer, SAA Council Member, 2010-2013

I think advocacy within SAA can be approached in two ways. First, if there's an area in which you think SAA is not doing enough, you can find a way to make that happen yourself (rather than, for example, trying to influence the Council to have them direct the organization to do it). There have been several examples of this with sections and roundtables taking on research topics or producing their own resources, as Donna mentioned. (This is the "if you want something done, do it yourself" approach.)

The other way applies if the change you want to bring about is something that needs leadership from the top. There are a couple of ways to approach this: 

  • Clearly articulate your concerns or the change you want to see and communicate this directly and politely to SAA leaders (such as staff, officers, and members of Council). Email addresses are available on the website. If you know a member of Council (or a former member) starting with him or her may be best. Express your concern and ask for advice or assistance. Do not assume that the person you're addressing with be either hostile to your request or sympathetic. Do your best not to be antagonistic or overly emotional, even if the issue means a lot to you. Have a friend read over your message if you're in doubt.
  • If your issue is addressed by a task force or working group, volunteer for it and provide a short explanation of your interest and credentials. For some groups, this approach can be a bit of a long shot if a lot of people volunteer. I know from experience that this can be frustrating if your name is not selected.  But go through the process all the same.  And if you are not selected, look for opportunities to provide feedback to the group and comment on draft reports. From what I’ve seen, groups really do pay attention to that.
  • If you want to be a leader, get yourself nominated for a leadership role. It's hard to get on the ballot for an SAA office if you haven't had a leadership role elsewhere -- in a section, roundtable, or your regional archives organization. But if you have done those things, then nominate yourself and get your friends to nominate you too. If you know someone on the nominating committee (or if you know someone who does), ask them about the responsibilities of the office. Show real interest in running. If a nominating committee member has had some personal interaction with you, it can't hurt your chances. And, of course, pursue chances for leadership opportunities in SAA’s sections and roundtables, many of which could use an infusion of energy and new ideas.

In general, present a good attitude during your advocacy or leadership efforts. For advocacy within SAA, the people you need to communicate with are your colleagues. Everyone involved with SAA wants to strengthen the organization and the profession, even if they appear to disagree with how you think that should be done. Assume good intentions on their part and do your best to communicate productively. That may not guarantee you the outcome you want to see, but it will give you a better working relationships with the people in a position to help. Righteous indignation can feel very satisfying and empowering, and will play very well with the people who already agree with you, but it can have the opposite effect on those you may want to influence. Creating or assuming an antagonistic relationship is not a good start for advocacy of any kind. Effective advocacy is about communicating ideas and arguments, but it’s also about building good working relationships. If you can achieve both those goals, you should be able to succeed.