The Erasure of Ego from the Black Cultural Institution

To the ancestors, Black cultural and memory workers, and the beloved Weeksville community:

Consider this open letter the burning of sage — an offering to purify, heal, and to clear the path so that Weeksville Heritage Center (WHC) and all those who step foot on its sacred grounds to commit their spirits and labor to preserve its Black liberation legacy be fortified in fulfilling their own personal missions while centering that of Weeksville’s founders. May you be protected and treated with the love, respect, dignity, and equity endowed to you as a human being and child of God. Let your honorable contributions be valued in thoughts, speech, and most importantly, deeds. If the prerequisites are not fulfilled, speak your truth to power.

We are a collective of former WHC staff representing only ourselves, and not WHC. Because we do not support any erasure of cultural workers’ labor, we must start first by giving thanks, by celebrating and amplify the mostly women cultural workers whose labor saved Weeksville Heritage Center day in and day out over the past fifty years and that contributed to the successful 2019 “Save Weeksville” campaign, which was the catalyst to secure its now CIG (Cultural Institutions Group) status. No one person can and should try to take credit for the efforts of a community.

This letter is a call for the respect and acknowledgment of collective work and the organizational structures that support this ideological concept. Deading the great man of history trope, we proclaim: The future will be birthed by way of collective leadership. Since the table has been set to discuss so-called leadership erasure at Black cultural institutions, we want to boldly affirm that the legacy of those that came before has been carefully preserved. To affirm what actual leadership looks like within Black cultural institutions, we will share what is being passed off as leadership. We’ll name it, ego-driven leadership which could characterize Rob Field’s tenure at WHC.

We acknowledge that erasure is, in fact, a real thing. The erasure of Black narratives, Black contributions, Black trauma, and Black life. As Black cultural and memory workers, we are especially familiar with erasure as we encounter it in the archives, our professions, our institutions, and most recently in the rewriting of the narrative of the “Save Weeksville” campaign.

In his April 8th video, former Weeksville President and Executive Director, Rob Fields, proudly claims that the April 6th NYTimes article, How Weeksville, a Center of Black History, Fought to Survive, reads as if WHC had no leadership during the campaign and that his labor has been erased by the exclusion of his name from the article. Rob goes further to claim that the NYTimes is the “historical record” for the nation, making this exclusion particularly egregious.

The article opens,

Screenshot from the original NYTimes article, April 6, 2021

According to Rob in a blogpost found on his website, “this comes across as “Weeksville”–the institution, broadly speaking–launched a crowdfunding campaign.” If we pause here, one might ask, is there anything wrong with saying “Weeksville” — an institution with highly-skilled Black cultural workers on staff and a community of local members, artists, creators, public officials, and other collaborators — “launched a crowdfunding campaign.”? To us, this reads as if this was a collective effort to “Save Weeksville,” which we know to be true of the crowdsourcing campaign and which is also not surprising considering Weeksville’s history of collective self-determination.

Now we acknowledge that a line as simple as “under the leadership of the former ED” or “succeeding the former ED, Rob Fields” should have been included, and perhaps would have been sufficient for Rob and perhaps would’ve prevented this moment of distraction from the point of the article — Weeksville’s perseverance. It’s also important to note that the embedded text above hyperlinked to another NYTimes article that did name Rob as the Executive Director. So let the official “historical record” show that Rob Fields was the Executive Director from September 2017 to January 2021, during which time WHC had several successful programs and exhibitions such as Weeksville Weekends/Wednesdays, The Legacy Project, In Pursuit of Freedom Now, and Meals As Collective Memory to name a few and also suffered a financial crisis, but survived thanks to the collective efforts of all of the Weeksville staff and leaderships over 10+ years.

Rob’s video and sequential statements, tweets, blog posts, articles, etc. were upsetting to many of the individuals that contributed significantly to the “Save Weeksville” campaign, to put it plainly. As ED, Rob “led” Weeksville Heritage Center and the campaign, but the staff also played an invaluable role in the continued existence of a community and institution that to them was more than just a job.

While Rob as the former Executive Director seemingly worked externally to garner support for the center during the fiscal crisis in 2019, his internal leadership was at best fractious and divisive with staff during the majority of his tenure. As a result, 7 employees (5 women) left the organization, some through their own volition while others were terminated. Note, WHC had just 9 remaining staff members (3 of which were Facilities staff). Rob’s divisive leadership was made abundantly clear with two notable examples: the 2019 “Save Weeksville ‘’ campaign and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Rob and the board decided to launch the “Save Weeksville” campaign before even discussing it with the staff. It was determined that the campaign would be launched in less than a week’s time. When the staff pushed back against the hasty decision and unrealistic timeline, at the time there was no clear strategy or funding goals, Rob went as far as to say that if the staff did not agree to launch a campaign, that he would do it with or without us. This was commonplace working with Rob who didn’t know how to function as a member of the team. He constantly pulled rank, made commitments without consulting team members who would be responsible to carry out the work, preferring quick products without an understanding or appreciation of process, and announced to staff that the organization was “not a democracy”.

During the 2019 fiscal crisis, the way he disseminated the pay cuts limited the options that staff could take regarding supporting their livelihoods. Despite the fact that in October 2018, after a last-minute statement of a payroll shortfall was received, the staff collectively met with him to request that if payroll were to have another shortfall, giving at least a month’s notice would help, as many staff wanted to continue working at the center and supplement their income during the difficult time. Staff also cited the extensive process of preparing staff for cuts that the former Executive Director went through during the furlough in 2016. Under Rob, this attention to detail or care regarding the staff did not happen.

Throughout Rob’s tenure, collectively and individually, staff met with him to discuss fair wages. As ED, he made six figures while many staff members made a maximum of $30,000 (some as low as $10/hr) with no health insurance. During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, when cultural institutions were forced to close their doors, many were also forced to make difficult decisions regarding their frontline staff. We witnessed Visitor Services and Education departments being dismantled while others were completely decimated. However, some leaders opted to take pay cuts to keep valuable staff members. When WHC and the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses were closed, staff suggested that Rob take a pay cut to keep the very small team together, to which he refused.

This context is being provided to show our very little faith in the leadership which led to the staff collectively asking for his removal as ED in February of 2020. Rob, in closing his aforementioned blogpost, wrote “… it’s a disservice to the community that expects to have the full story told…”, therefore, we as former staff will share with you the full story. Here is a timeline of events leading towards the end of his tenure:

  • September 2017 — Rob Fields hired as Interim Executive Director

In his article for Hyperallergic published on April 8th, Rob shares his “expertise” in building a resilient Black arts organization. Cultural and arts workers reading both Rob’s article and our letter are all too familiar with the inequities facing Black institutions: systemic and blatant racism in funding, lack of support from boards, serving as not just an arts organization, but also a community center, etc. These are the realities of our organizations. What cultural workers across the board also share is lack of transparency from leadership, pay inequality between leadership and staff, and devaluing of the labor of women and front line workers. These are all things we experienced under Rob’s leadership.

Women on staff were repeatedly disrespected by Rob. He took personal credit for their work with no acknowledgment, refused to listen or implement their ideas, berated them with constant verbal abuse in the form of yelling, cursing, or harsh-toned emails. There have also been several allegations of inappropriate behavior and cyberbullying. For a community established in partnership with Black women 180 years ago and an organization that had female leadership for the first 50 years of its existence, this should not have been the reality.

To again reference his piece, Rob states: “Black arts institutions have had to not only provide access to arts and culture, but also be a place that offers community services. Sometimes before we get to the art and culture, we have to help address the immediate needs: Think food distribution, coat drives, job training, as well as being a place of refuge and gathering. Even more important, in order to have credibility among those our organizations serve, we have to be IN community with them; that is, there has to be a mutual feeling of trust, belonging, safety.” Not only did Rob not insist on any of these forms of community service, but he was completely hands-off or pushed back on the radical Black actions that staff put forth and that Weeksville, the community, and cultural institution were built upon. In 2018 and 2020, members of the Weeksville neighborhood were shot and killed by police officers. Weeksville founders, including Henry Highland Garnett, were abolitionists of all systems. Rob has championed reform — in complete opposition to the mission. Weeksville Wednesdays — established before Rob’s tenure — is an additional day of programming that offers free space to local organizations unable to afford or access a gathering place. Rob demanded staff cancel this offering on days that the center hosted the personal project that he and his wife hosted for years and reformatted to become Words @ Weeksville, leaving four rooms unused on this day designated for community activity. This caused a major fracture in the relationships with neighbors that required time to cultivate.

He goes on to say: “It’s that community — people who know, appreciate and support the mission of the organization — that forms a foundation of sustainability. This real engagement must come through proving value. In my first year at Weeksville, I was able to double visitor numbers thanks to more aggressive marketing and the introduction of new programs, including a literary series and an artist-in-residence program.” There is no ‘I’ in “ED”. The constant use of “I” in a multi-platform campaign about erasure is quite ironic and in this case, not true, so let us correct the record. The increase in visitorship was actually in direct correlation to Weeksville Weekend and the Education program which increased the number of tours per week. The Center also received an uptick in both print and digital press, including a viral video from cold emails and relationship-building with journalists by staff. As a new program, the literary series referenced, Words @ Weeksville had the smallest audience but was made a marquee program without any consultation with staff and received preferential treatment by Rob. It was also never disclosed where the budget came from to support Words @ Weeksville. Unfortunately, the first installment of the Artist-in-Residence program in 2018 was not fully realized because of Rob’s lack of oversight. This left the installation a shell of the original design and delays in the opening led to a fraction of expected viewership.

Rob Fields was hired as Interim Executive Director at Weeksville Heritage Center with no experience in museums, and it was his first time leading a Black cultural institution. This inexperience was extremely harmful to the workers and because of this, we think it should be his last role in leadership. Now, his pivot to becoming an “expert” in a field that he has very little knowledge of is an affront to the nameless cultural leaders and workers at WHC and beyond that have dedicated their lives to shape and sustain Black institutions.

Many people have made invaluable contributions to the preservation of Weeksville Heritage Center and its rich legacy that were not identified in the April 6th NYT article. In general, many of the people doing the work of sustaining Black cultural institutions have been nameless and thankless. While acknowledging this, we are not demanding or desiring our names to also be included. Our anonymity is not only because we are vulnerable individuals in this power dynamic, but it is also intentional because we are not seeking singular praise. If you want to thank us for our labor and contributions, please continue to celebrate and support this sacred space and the Black cultural and memory workers who steward it. We request and hope that we can all redirect our attention away from this one individual and back to the celebration of this collective triumphant moment of WHC entering a new and exciting chapter in its journey.

Please join us in uplifting Weeksville Heritage Center, other Black cultural institutions, and Black cultural workers in the following ways:

  • Support Weeksville financially, become a Board member, volunteer, or participate in its programs, many of which are free to the community

In solidarity and love,

The Humble Hunterflies

A call to accountability in solidarity with Black arts workers,