Germantown: Focusing On Neighborhood History And Community Outreach

Nina Coffin is the programs and communications coordinator for the nonprofit organization Historic Germantown. She grew up in the community and attended school at Germantown Friends, so she knows the community well. Coffin focuses on community outreach to help citizens remain informed about historic sites and events.

What is the difference between Historic Germantown and the community historical society?

Historic Germantown is a membership organization of sites here in Germantown. The Germantown Historical Society is a member of Historic Germantown. I work for Historic Germantown in a building that some people would say, “Oh, that’s the Historic Society building,” because we are located in the same place.

What types of responsibilities do you have within the organization?

I do a lot of things since it is a nonprofit. Everyone who works here, no matter what their title is, is a very adaptable and committed person. I do a lot of face-to-face outreach. I’m either meeting visitors, offering tours in the building, offering off-site tours at some of our volunteer sites that are understaffed, working with staff at our member sites to collect information about events or coordinating more complicated tours. I also run our Facebook, our website and our newsletter.

Additionally, I’ve sort of adopted the park out front as a pet project. It started because I was looking out of the window when I was sick at looking at my screen and I would see trash but I couldn’t get to the trash because there was poison ivy. So, I actually organized a “Friends Of The Park” group which the city really relies on. There are 110 city parks with Friends groups, and basically the Friends do a lot of the work because the city doesn’t have the resources to send crews to do it. There isn’t much that I am doing that I don’t pick up something I can’t apply to my job. It’s sort of a murky volunteer-to-work relationship since it’s a nonprofit.

What is it like working for a nonprofit organization?

It’s rewarding in the sense that you can point to the things that you are doing and say that what you are doing is important, it’s needed and it has impact. The challenges are that there is never enough time, never enough cash and you’re never going to get a reward in proportion to what you are putting in.

There are also different kinds of nonprofits. I worked in independent schools for a long time which were more exclusive. Now, working with limited resources and also a non-preselected audience, anyone can walk through my door. I come into contact with a broad range of people from all over the community, across socioeconomic and other social barriers. After working in private schools where it is the same kids and the same families, this is a lot more exciting but it is also much more complex.

What have you learned about yourself in switching from more of an exclusive nonprofit organization to your current position?

I feel like I am more of an adult now that I am not working always in the context of adolescents. I think sometimes adolescence is contagious and that you can start reasoning like an adolescent if you are always around them. I think this has made me more mature. The responsibilities here are much more meaningful and the impacts are much greater. It’s not like “so and so is going to go to Yale,” it’s “so and so may not be eating tonight.” I’ve been able to meet people that are either struggling with, or have overcome, challenges that are much more significant than what I was dealing with before.

How do you handle the abundance of outspoken citizens in the neighborhood?

We are fortunate in that we have people that are passionate about living here. It’s a diverse community which means that we don’t have a single set of objectives, and so, things could conceivably feel contentious if one set of interests seems to be in opposition to another. Organizations like ours try to host events where people have a safe forum to talk about hard issues like race and class.

How do you handle covering controversial topics in a predominantly African-American neighborhood?

I’m always trying to be mindful. All of our sites are working hard to be progressive in that we are trying to tell a much more interesting and nuanced story that encapsulates women, children and people of color. I was taught a lot about subjectivity and reflecting on point of view.  I think I’ve gotten some pretty good training but I think the key is just being willing to speak honestly and then if you make an error, being able to recognize it, learn from it and acknowledge it.

-Text and images by Kezia Harewood and Steven Kelsey.

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