How Clarity of Values Saved the Weeksville Heritage Center

Sep 15, 2020

How Clarity of Values Saved the Weeksville Heritage Center
When Rob Fields accepted the position of executive director at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, New York, he didn’t consider himself an activist. In fact, activists were the subject of exhibits and presentations at the museum, not a development goal in his performance plan. However, when a financial crisis threatened to close the museum, an activist was needed and Rob met the challenge.
In 1838, James Weeks and a group of Black investors built Weeksville. United by the vision of charting their own destiny, they grew Weeksville into a thriving community: There were African-American owned businesses and churches, the community supported a home for the aged and an orphanage, the first African-American female doctor to practice in the United States, Susan McKinney, was born there, and many other African-American professionals called Weeksville home. “Weeksville was the opposite result of what slavery and oppression was a safe haven and refuge,” Fields said to describe the period.
By the 1880s, development in Brooklyn absorbed Weeksville into the rest of Central Brooklyn. But in 1968, historian James Hurley and a pilot named Joseph Haynes rediscovered Weeksville through aerial photos and historical records from the 1900s. Their work began a preservation project that lead to the founding of the Weeksville Heritage Center.
When Fields assumed the role of Executive Director in 2018, the Weeksville Heritage Center was faced with an unprecedented financial crisis and closure seemed unavoidable. After being informed of the Center’s financial woes, Fields recounted, “I was only in my role for a year...I expected we would face financial challenges, every Black Arts Institution (BAI) does, but we expected grants to come through and corporate support to materialize.”
To find the best solution to the challenge faced by the Center, Fields examined his personal values. He realized honesty, humility, collaboration, family, and community defined him and how he approached challenges. As a result of the clarity he gained on his personal values, he was able to connect to the values of the Weeksville founders. Fields recognized that the same values that served to form that unifying vision for the founding of Weeksville were just as relevant today. Further, those same values could renew that unifying vision of the future for a global community in the present.
The values connection was a critical element of Fields’s vision for Weeksville and all BAIs. Looking back, he notes, “We were—and still are—at a point in history where denying the past and erasing history is no longer unacceptable. Many people feel like the country is moving backward, and that’s why saving Weeksville became much more than simply saving our individual center. It became about saving both our past and our future.”
Fields shared the vision at public meetings, church gatherings, and other community events. He spoke with passion and authenticity about the center and how it fits into the future of a vibrant and just community. In spite of their own financial concerns, other BAIs promoted the “Save Weeksville” message. They realized that if the Weeksville Heritage Center closed, they wouldn’t be far behind. Fields’s clarity around his own values—one of the important Commitments to Model the Way—helped Inspire a Shared Vision of a better community.
Fields’s conviction resonated with a broader audience than he imagined. Soon the “Save Weeksville” movement was appearing all over the internet. The New York Times ran a piece about the museum’s struggles, which resulted in a crowdfunding explosion. After the story appeared, Rob reported receiving donations from as far away as Eastern Europe. In a few months, the Weeksville Heritage Center met its fundraising goal and developed an international network of supporters.

Today, Weeksville is much more than just a historic house museum. It’s a cultural center, too. Community board meetings, workshops for area schools, as well as training sessions for writers and aspiring artists take place there. And Fields and his staff continue to innovate, recently announcing plans, for example, to expand their community programs and extend their hours of operation in the near future. In 2019, Weeksville Heritage Center became the first new member of the New York City Cultural Institutions Group in more than 20 years and the first BAI to be appointed to the group. The appointment ensures that the Weeksville Heritage Center will be part of the city’s annual budget for years to come.
Rob connected the past to the future by clarifying values. He used those same values to form a vision of the future that many could share. He communicated that shared vision with genuine conviction and built a network of supporters that were able to relate. And in the end, Rob started a movement that averted a financial crisis, stands against the erasure of the past, and is committed to moving forward into the future while honoring all that came before.  

Duane Frankson, Esq., a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®, is a practicing attorney in New York State who has led legal teams for major insurance carriers for the past 10 years. Currently managing a team of attorneys at a well-known auto insurance carrier, he is guided by a desire to live his values and attributes the success he has attained in his legal career to The Leadership Challenge. Duane can be reached at [email protected].

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