Forward Together: Building Community in Support of History

November 13, 2023

A version of this article by Dr. Paul Zwirecki, Director of Advancement and Strategic Partnerships, will appear in print in the Winter 2023 issue of The American Historian.

As we near the end of 2023, we can look back with pride and gratitude on what has been a productive and collaborative year for our Organization of American Historians. 

In April, nearly 1,500 of you joined us in Los Angeles for the annual Conference on American History, a return to pre-pandemic levels of attendance. Your enthusiasm was evident in our sold-out tours and crowded receptions and events. In partnership with the Japanese American National Museum, our Sunday public event, “History on Trial: An American History Forum with Educators,” honored the late former OAH President Gary B. Nash. In keeping with our efforts to support educators, the OAH partnered with the Newberry Library to host a day-and-a-half-long workshop titled “Teaching Native Histories: A Midwest Teaching Lab” in November. Our collaboration with the National Park Service entered its 30th year, and the results were several pioneering works of scholarship that will inform education and interpretation at parks across the nation. 

2023 has also had its challenges for us. Personally and professionally, we’ve all faced lingering inflation and difficult economic conditions, and the uncertain economic outlook has led to budget cuts in some of our home institutions. We’ve also faced a renewed push by opponents of good history to distort the past to advance their political agendas. Simply continuing to do the work of history in these swirling economic and cultural climates can feel overwhelming. In the face of these challenges, those of us on staff are regularly renewed and inspired by your work and our allies’ work through various OAH programs. 

The strength of our organization has always been in its ability to provide community and fellowship for historians. We do that through our Conference, our public-facing programs, and the excellent scholarship featured in the Journal of American History. If you’re a longtime member of the OAH, you know the value of being a part of this professional community. You likely remember the first time you attended a conference and began to develop your network of colleagues and friends. Perhaps you’ve now reached a point in your career where you’re mentoring the next generation of historians as they join the OAH. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the gentle push I got from my mentors to attend and present at regional and national conferences.

Our ability to convene friends of history together is only possible thanks to the generosity of our members and donors. I’d like to highlight one such act of generosity and tell you how it inspired us to move forward. 

In early 2024 we will reach the end of the Earl Lewis Challenge campaign. As you likely know by now, during his Presidential Address at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting, Earl announced his $50,000 donation to kick off the most ambitious fundraising campaign in our history. Earl pledged another $50,000 if the OAH could raise $500,000 in five years. Earl’s gift didn’t just launch a specific campaign, though. It also launched a transformation of the OAH as an organization that he helped shepherd during his time as President. As Earl said while announcing his gift, “The OAH must make the case for history and the common good … and we must never forget that what we do addresses the work of freedom.”

This campaign, which wraps up in April of 2024, is meant to reinforce our reserve fund so that we can weather future challenges. It gives us a strong, stable foundation upon which to build a vital and agile organization. As Earl knew when he launched the campaign, the OAH needed to begin evolving into a “community for a broad range of people now interpreting the nation’s past and a hub, host, and incubator for excellent and trusted American history.” Earl’s gift and the incredible support you’ve given to the campaign are helping us meet these ambitious goals, starting with two important objectives we met this year. 

This summer we launched the new following an extensive redesign meant to highlight our new programs, content, and advocacy work. The redesign of the website could not have been completed without the efforts of our OAH and JAH team, especially our IT team, including IT Director James Black and Web Administrator Danny McMurray. Danny is the most recent new hire at the OAH, but not the last. As part of a planned staffing reorganization, we soon expect to welcome a new colleague to direct all OAH marketing and communication efforts. This critical hire will join our team in promoting the work of the OAH and raising awareness of the work of our members. In addition to these new hires, several of us already on staff are transitioning into exciting (and challenging!) new roles to help advance our mission. I’m proud to be a part of that reorganization and to take on my new role as Director of Advancement and Strategic Partnerships. My job is to continue to find ways to match the OAH with supporters like you so that we can move forward together in achieving the goals we share for our field. I’m here to be your advocate and partner, and I’m excited and eager to get to know you better.

Again, you have made this possible through your continued support of the OAH. For nearly 120 years, our operations have been funded primarily through the dues you pay for membership. Fundamentally, we will remain a professional association supported by dues-paying members. However, to continue our evolution and meet the needs of a rapidly changing field, we’re also developing new ways for you to support the OAH. The centerpiece of our new advancement program is the Raintree Society, our planned giving recognition program. In 2024 we look forward to publicly recognizing the first members of this society who have already made significant legacy pledges, and alongside these leaders, providing you with information on how and why these gifts are essential for our organization. We want to open as many avenues as possible for you, our supporters, to support the long-term health of the OAH, to honor the legacy of your mentors and colleagues, and to provide opportunities for future historians.

As you reflect on 2023 and look ahead to 2024, please consider donating or pledging to the Earl Lewis Challenge so that we can all celebrate a successful campaign in New Orleans. If you’d like more information on how you can support any program or initiative at the OAH by making a planned gift or would like to discuss other ways to support your community of historians, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Paul Zwirecki by email at [email protected] or by phone at (812) 855-8726.