Welcoming the stranger

In a restaurant in College Park, Maryland, near Washington, DC, the supervisory archivist and team leader smiles at the camera, surrounded by records declassification colleagues who work with her at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  As do I, she likes shades of blue, including aqua. Her amber necklace complements the aqua in her jacket.  The woman in a photo taken around 1998, four years before her death, is my twin sister, Eva.

The men in the photo with Eva, whom she supervised and mentored at the National Archives in the 1990s, are Joe Scanlon and Chuck Hughes (seated) and Jay Bosanko (standing).  You see me with Jay at the National Archives 15 years later, after AOTUS David S. Ferriero named him Chief Operating Officer of the National Archives.  Joe now is NARA’s Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Officer, Chuck a manager working for Jay, the COO.

Eva and I never were able to meet the mother our Mom had to leave behind the Iron Curtain as a refugee from Europe when World War II split our family asunder.  But in our youth, our grandmother sent us gifts of amber jewelry at times, including the necklace in the picture.  Eva often talked to her colleagues at NARA about visiting our Mother’s homeland, Estonia, for the first time in 1992 when it regained sovereignty after decades of occupation by the Soviet Union.  By then, our grandparents, whom we knew only through family stories and photos and letters sent to my Mom, were long dead.

One of Eva’s colleagues, Neil Carmichael, once aptly described Estonia, a tiny country overrun successively by two totalitarian powers in the 1940s (Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union) as a “speed bump on the map of Europe.”  I was with Eva the night she died in December 2002 in a Washington area hospital, as were two of Eva’s friends and NARA colleagues, Neil Carmichael and A. J. Daverede. Tim Mulligan, a cherished family friend and NARA colleague, also came to see Eva and me at the hospital that night.

My Mother, who had come to the hospital with me and Eva when she was transported by ambulance earlier that evening, went home briefly to catch a bite of dinner.  By then, Eva was receiving end of life “comfort care” and no longer was aware of who was there.  The doctors told Mom and me she most likely would die the next day.

When I called to tell Mom as she finished her delayed dinner that Eva had died, a day earlier than the doctors had predicted, Mom told me she had just said goodbye to a visitor who had made a unanounced visit to the house.  One of the equity holder reviewers from the Department of State who worked with my sister at NARA had come by to deliver a note of support for my sister, along with a gift, a framed photo from his travels abroad.

The man, a retired State Department foreign service officer, as many such reviewers were, had never met Mom but sat with her a while.  Mom found it a comfort to hear him share stories about working with Eva at NARA, not knowing she would die that night.  As did her colleagues, he knew from Eva, who was candid with friends and family, that her cancer was terminal.

When you start a new job, you get an orientation briefing.  An officially designated employee works with you–a supervisor, a manager, an executive.  If you’re lucky, the work environment is not abusive in its legal definition, and perhaps even supportive, and you learn what you need to do your job.

But you also need to know the unwritten rules of the workplace.  And what is the culture of the organization and the subculture within your work unit.  This can require navigating challenging areas, especially when the workforce composition tilts strongly one way in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Depending on the workplace, the new employee sees the extent to which they can be themselves and where and how they have to wear a mask.  As Stacie Williams, an archivist who has worked as an intern supervisor observed, the majority group too often expects minority employees to fit in by adopting their standards, rather than being open to learning and adjusting themselves, by welcoming and trying to understand others’ diverse needs, humanity, and aspirations.

The luckiest employees find good guides, in their supervisors or in unofficial workplace mentors.   I first saw the impact of who that person is when I went through a two-year period of rotating detailee assignments in the Career Internal Development System program at the National Archives.  This version of the employee development program included classroom and hands-on training.

I was grateful to learn the basics in the National Archives units through which I rotated:  records management (appraisal and retention scheduling on site at various Federal agencies); archival processing (audiovisual, textual); reference; conservation; and policy.  But I also learned  the impact of the people handling supervision, training, work assessment.

The purpose of the long-term immersion training was to teach new archivists what the work entails and how different components in the agency contribute to its archives and records mission.  You learned how the units fit together.  Because you rotated through offices periodically over two years on assignments of varying length, lasting from weeks to months, it felt like starting a new job over and over again.

In some instances, the person handling unit orientation and project assignment clearly had given some thought to how to match the work to what was known about the person coming in on temporary assignment.  In other instances, it felt to me as the newbie as if my being there, while understood in organizational and bureaucratic terms, was a nuisance.  Not personally but because the people had to set aside time to choose projects for successive new employees rotating through from our National Archives home units.  That was rare, fortunately, and I was grateful for the units where the regular staff genuinely welcomed the newcomer.

This past Friday, May 11, 2018, I came out to the National Archives at College Park (A2), one of the two NARA buildings where Eva worked until her death in 2002.  Prior to the National Archives Foundation event that took place from 10:00 a.m. until 1:45 p.m., I had a brief, joyous reunion with David Mengel, Acting Director of NARA’s National Declassification Center. I first met him when he was a new archives technician, one of the people Eva helped settle into the declassification unit (“Declass”) where she was supervisor and team leader.

Seeing one of my sister’s NARA Declass friends and colleagues, someone who has done so well through the years, made me happy.  You see Dave Mengel with Eva in 1996 and with me over 20 years later overlooking the place where the first photo was taken.  After chatting with him in the lobby, I walked to the 1400 atrium where the Deputy Archivist, Debra Wall, and the Chief Innovation Officer, Pamela Wright, were due to give opening remarks for the NAF event.

I thought back to Eva’s December 14, 2001 note, where she described the last NARA Christmas party she arranged.  She noted, “We had a nice spread of drinks, food and dessert …was very pleased with the layout and the setting. The atrium certainly gave us more room than Lecture Room A and was architecturally more interesting, airy, less confined.”

She described chatting with colleagues, including Pamela Wright, noting, “PW was hired in the group of archivists this fall when Joe got his job [in another unit].” Eva welcomed the new employees, Pam among them, in the office and at social events, and included them in the conversations with established employees.  You see Joe and Chuck in Eva’s  photo as they chat with Pam, partly visible lower left corner.

Eva, who loved Christmas, sat with them for a while before circulating to chat with others.  She knew it probably would be her last Christmas celebration at work.  And that as turned out to be the case, she would not live to celebrate Christmas in 2002. Her boss, Jeanne Schauble, pictured with her at right, told her it was one of the best staff parties she had seen at the National Archives.

Eva also made sure everyone who had helped received acknowledgement and thanks. She wrote, “AJ asked me how things had gone with set up and wanted names so he could thank everyone during the ceremonial portion. I told him Ivonne, Mary Kay, Pamela, Meredith, Marina, Richard and Ray had helped set things up. I was checking tables and consolidating newly brought platters, when AJ started MC-ing the ceremonial portion, just as the guys got back with the refilled beer coolers. AJ named everyone.”

Soon after that, doctors discovered in January that Eva’s cancer was spreading more aggressively than they had expected.  After March 2002, her visits to the office were sporadic.  Pam was one of the employees who sent her a kind and supportive note with well wishes early in 2002.

In her present job, Pam Wright welcomes strangers to the National Archives, just as Eva did her and so many others.  As Chief Innovation Officer, Pam works to make NARA’s holdings more broadly accessible to the public.  And manages a talented staff as they offer different paths for diverse people to choose themselves, as they access information about NARA and use its holdings.

Hearing Pam greet visitors in the atrium was deeply poignant for me.  I thought about the Christmas party in 2001 and how Eva helped make her welcome as a new employee.  Pam did a wonderful job Friday, guiding the National Archives Foundation’s visitors through the areas where employees work with motion film, maps, and textual materials to digitize them and make them available online in NARA’s catalog.

When your parents arrive in the United States as war refugees, as my Mom and Dad did with nearly nothing, what they tell you as you’re growing up helps shape your view of the world.  Mom and Dad both told Eva and me about coming in to New York harbor, where the Statue of Liberty stands with her words of welcome.  And the strangers who helped them as they made a new life in the United States.  Including the neighborhood friends, less privileged than he, who helped Dad on the job at a construction site in Harlem and enabled him to keep the job he needed as he started anew.

Eva and I grew up hearing about the importance of kindness and looking out for others.  At her memorial service in December 2002, friends and colleagues described her conduct at the National Archives.  Tim Mulligan (pictured with Eva at a hockey game) gave a beautiful eulogy in which he noted she was proud of her work but never took herself too seriously.  Neil Carmichael (now director, NARA Insider Threat Program) described her openness to helping anyone working at NARA, whether they were part of her assigned team or not.  And A. J. Daverede said of Eva, “She took pleasure in others’ accomplishments as if they were her own.”  Eva’s joie de vivre shows in a photo Tim took behind the scenes at Archives 2.

In sorting my Mother’s possessions after her death in October 2017, I ran into a condolence letter sent to her and me after Eva’s death by one of the agency reviewers who worked with Eva in Declass.  He noted that Eva was one of the archivists at NARA who made agency equity reviewers feel genuinely welcome, not just tolerated.  That’s not to say Eva didn’t have strong opinions about doing the work the right way–he also said she “would back down from nobody.”   And that she was a “people magnet” whose laughter rang out from her office, bringing people, including him, to her door to see what was so funny.  And often leaving wiping tears from their eyes brought on by strong laughter.

Eva’s spirit lives on wherever I go in the National Archives.  In the Archivist’s reception room, where David Ferriero (whom I know and admire) welcomes visitors and guests, including newly naturalized U.S. citizens.  You see me with David in Room 105 in 2011 when I had a joyful reunion with my friend and former NARA colleague, Rod Ross.  And in the same reception room with Eva in 1995.  She still is there in so many places.  On the elevators in Archives 1 and in the hallways she once walked with me.  And in the vaults and workspaces at Archives 2.  And, most poignantly, as I remembered on Friday, in the atrium.

The reception room, the physical and virtual reference room, NARA’s McGowan Theater where I now welcome visitors on behalf of NARA and help the Education and Public Programs division staff lectures and book talks, places where the best National Archives officials I know understand how to welcome the stranger.  And, as David Ferriero once observed of stewardship obligations to the people for whom we hold records of diverse experiences in trust, “Our values remain unchanged.”  Including how to pay it forward, generation to generation.

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This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, People issues. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Welcoming the stranger

  1. What a touching tribute to your sister. She sounds like someone I would like and respect very much. That is the kind of boss and colleague I strive to be. And your writing makes NARA come alive for me. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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