Ignite talk - Elissa Frankle

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media type="youtube" key="0niIskfLpdE" width="560" height="315" Video: “Pay your F-ing Interns” by Elissa Frankle (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), an Ignite talk for the Openlab Workshop Unconference, December 1, 2015, in Crystal City, VA. Published on Jun 27, 2016

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Elissa Frankle


Hi! This is my untimed slide. I’m Elissa Frankle, and I wanted to make it very clear before I start that I am not here on behalf of my institution.

I wanted to put my thank you slide at the beginning because these things get so often lost at the end. And these ideas don’t belong to me, they belong to a much larger community. So I wanted to thank some of the people and movements who have contributed to the ability to give this talk today. Thank you.

Pay your dues. Museums seem to love this phrase. And I really hate it. Pay your dues, we say. Do an unpaid internship or 5. Work 6 part-time jobs after grad school. Heck, go to grad school. How many more barriers can we put up? I’ve got a better pay phrase: How about you pay your interns? Consider the amount of good we could do for the future of the world and our field if we open access to the field to classes of people who have not typically been granted access to it.

Historically, unpaid internships disproportionately lock out people of color from entry into the museum world. This means we don’t hire people of color full-time into museum work, and our institutions wind up only telling a white narrative. Paying your interns can be the first step to ending legacies of oppression, tokenism, and appropriation in your museum.

To me, a lot of this comes down to a question of value. Museums publicly express their value in a number of ways through what they collect, what they display, what’s in their mission and values, who they hire, and where they spend their money.

Consider for a minute AAM’s core documents for museum accreditation: a mission statement, a strategic plan, a statement of institutional ethics, a disaster preparedness plan, and a collections policy. All of these documents deal with how we treat our collections. None of them deal with how we treat our staff.

Which begs the question: do you value your objects more than you value your people? We may say that we value diversity, that of course we want to treat our workers well, but do our core documents and budgets reflect that fact? Does this question make you uncomfortable? Well change it.

And if you’re sitting out there thinking “well, the law says it might be okay not to pay my interns in a non-profit in the US,” remember that laws are only the floor of your house, but we’re trying to build a home big enough for all of our workers. So do you really want to build a fabulous floor? Or do you want to build a home big enough for everyone?

Finally, to my fellow DC-area staff, middle managers, and CEOs, I charge you to think about the way that we could use our power in the nation’s capital to change this entire country. I’m putting out a call today for us city-wide, to put together a policy of paying all of our interns. Let’s change the world.

So paying your interns is just one step, I’ve got 9 other ways that you can go into practice for improving all your labor practices.

Number 1. Step 1 is admitting that you have a problem. At the Museum Computer Network conference, Nikhil Trivedi challenged us to think about how our institutions have benefited from slavery, genocide, colonialism, and war. Commit to taking some time tomorrow to talking to somebody at your institution about your founding and the basis for your collections.

Number 2. Hiring more diverse staff is about more than just the words we use in our job descriptions and the spaces where we advertise our jobs. It begins well before that: with the culture of our institutions, and our welcoming or unwelcoming spaces. Reflect tonight on the culture of your museum, then talk to someone about it tomorrow.

Number 3. Take a minute tonight, and re-read your institution’s mission statement. Are you living up to those ideals when it comes to your workers at all levels? How can you be the change you want to see in the world in the way you hire and how you treat your workers?

Number 4. Listen. Create a safe space for people at all levels--from your volunteers and interns on up--to talk to one another about their needs as workers. Listening means being open to changing: you need to be able to act on what you hear.

Number 5. If it’s already too late by the time we hire, then only listening to our workers isn’t sufficient. Go out to the people who aren’t coming to your museum, and find out why. Then, again, fulfill the contract of listening: act on what you hear.

Number 6. One of the biggest problems in jobs nationwide today is job misclassification: the idea that people are doing the work of full-time employees but being called contractors, so we don’t have to pay them benefits, or being called interns so we don’t have to pay them at all. Before you create a contract job, think long and hard about why. Are you making it easier for yourselves, or for your workers?

Number 7. How many of you have advertised an entry-level job as requiring 3-5 years of experience? Let’s commit this year to actually making our entry-level jobs truly a point of entry into the museum field.

Number 8. Let’s talk about grad school. Think about the proliferation of graduate programs, and the expense these programs require. Do you really need someone with a master’s degree for your job? Universities won’t get rid of those cash cows. But we can change our behaviors instead.

Number 9. Ask your doctor if a union is right for you. Side effects may include feelings of being heard, higher wages, less turnover, higher employee engagement, and a more productive workplace. Take two paid sick days and call me in the morning.

Number 10. Pay your fucking interns. Let’s create safer, more open workplaces in the year ahead. Let’s open this amazing field to more people of all backgrounds. Let’s live our values in how we treat our workers.

If this resonates with you DC folks come join us December 14th at the Octagon. Thank you so much!