How do we measure the social value of our work?

From April 26-29 I, and thousands of museum workers, attended the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. The theme of this year’s conference was: The social value of museums: Inspiring change.

I attended many insightful sessions about immigration, telling American Stories, museums as conveners, museums as sites of activism, and measuring/evaluating social change. Of the many things I left pondering, one of the most significant is: How do or how should I measure the social value and impact of MY work activity?

In a session addressing museum evaluation, Deborah Schwartz of the Brooklyn Historical Society invited us all to

Engage. LISTEN. Exchange

I have been sitting with this advice for almost two weeks now, still wondering how one measures this.   In order to think about the social value and impact of our work activity, we must look at HOW we work and not just WHAT work we do. A better question than measure might be: how to do we know if we are being successful in engaging, listening and exchanging?

I don’t have a complete answer yet, but:

1. People now tell me about any Panamanian in their life. I find this amusing and wonderful.  I love that those around me feel comfortable talking to me.  These declarations of Panamanian association usually lead to questions about food, music, immigration, language. Really though, the conversations can lead through any number of interactive activities. Engagement, listening, and exchange.

2. I have noted that about 10 people have emailed me about the premier of the Panama Canal Stories/ Historias del Canal at the Inter-American Development Bank tonight. Some asked if I am going. Some emailed just as an FYI in case I hadn’t seen it. Some knew I would be there and asked if I wanted to meet.   Bridging the Americas: Community and Belonging from Panama to Washington, D.C.  may be a small show, but the community participation and exchange of ideas have created a network well beyond the exhibition’s square footage.

Forwarding an email message may seem like a trivial act not worthy of note or measure. I disagree.

We all know how easy it is to delete emails, read or unread.  The fact that people not only thought of me when they heard of this film and read their email message, but further, took the extra minute to send me the information knowing I would be receptive gives me hope.   I am helping create an engaged network concerned not only with her/his own activity but also the knowledge and activity of US.  While I am not yet certain how to measure  or report my impact or activity, the social value of my work is exponentially increased by engaging with, listening to, and exchanging with the communities I serve, in big and small ways.