The Rockefeller Archive Center’s Board of Trustees recently approved the organization’s new Mission, Vision, and Values statements. As our Board member Alondra Nelson said, though, the process of developing these statements is as important as the results themselves, and so we want to share that journey with you.

While the Mission, Vision, and Values statements drafting process itself took a relatively short time using a guided-conversation approach that involved the entire staff, it came at the end of a three-year arc of work by the RAC’s staff to examine and strengthen our own commitment to the issues of equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging. What began as EIDB knowledge and capacity building led to an organization-wide review culminating in a new mission statement, a vision for the future, and a clear declaration of our values.

Getting Started: Culturally Competent Archival Description Campaign

Like every type of organization and institution in the country, the societal upheaval that began in 2020 – first with the COVID-19 pandemic and then with the national reckoning on racial and social justice issues prompted by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others – the Rockefeller Archive Center’s leaders and staff undertook a multi-year process of reflection and dialogue about our own roles and responsibilities to each other, to the communities our work touches, and to society at large.

You’ve already read about the work of the RAC’s Processing team to develop and lead an initiative around culturally competent archival description. The first phase of the work developed an organization-wide learning program to build understanding and skills, with the second phase being a revision to the RAC’s Processing Manual to build cultural competency into our everyday work.

The RAC’s DEI Committee and Virtual EIDB Training Workshops

Concurrently with this cultural competency initiative, the RAC also established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee composed of representatives from each of the RAC’s staff teams, thus ensuring representation from across the organization. Among the many contributions made by the DEI Committee during this phase was helping the RAC’s leadership understand that the work we needed to do could not be guided by a staff committee alone.

The DEI Committee then helped the RAC identify and retain the services of Future Work Design, an organizational strategy firm, to lead the entire RAC staff through a series of virtual workshops designed to prompt conversation and understanding around issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. Supervisors and senior leaders in the organization received further support in our roles as people managers, and the entire staff received additional training on recognizing and interrupting microaggressions.

The work with Future Work Design and the conversations it prompted enabled us to confront issues of siloing, the challenges of being a multi-generational workplace and all that that means in a cultural heritage setting, the desire to strengthen trust and collaboration across (and up and down) the organization, and the need to improve the ways in which we communicate with each other and our external stakeholders about our work. As a result, we embarked upon a full organizational review, in collaboration with the independent consulting firm, Third Settlements, with a continued focus on building knowledge, understanding, and capacity around the issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

The RAC Organizational Review

This RAC Review, as we call it, was intentionally designed to be staff driven. Led by the cohort of Assistant Directors who head the RAC’s various program teams, the approach taken by this RAC Review Committee and Third Settlements was to engage robustly with staff at all levels using a variety of methodologies to ensure both anonymity and honesty. Among the techniques utilized were surveys, artifact reviews of RAC policies, websites, practices, and even the buildings we occupy, and individual interviews conducted and anonymized by the Third Settlements team.

The result of these activities was a comprehensive report as to the state of the RAC organization through the lens of EIDB. There were some hard truths that were delivered in that report. There’s no denying that. Those of us in senior leadership who read the report appreciated the honesty and integrity of the process, the willingness of the staff to share their views and feelings about both personal and professional challenges in our workplace, and the hard work of the RAC Review Committee to not only manage the review process but to synthesize the Third Settlements report into a set of final recommendations to senior leadership.

The very first recommendation made by the RAC Review Committee was to develop new Mission, Vision, and Values statements in which EIDB were firmly rooted so as to guide and provide a unifying approach to our work and decision-making. The question, then, was how to do this in a way that was not top-down and that was fully inclusive of the entire staff. Again, we turned to consultants who were practiced in this area and who would completely understand us as a cultural heritage institution. Fortunately, Anne Ackerson, of Leading By Design independent consulting, and Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, were available and willing to take on the task of facilitating this work.

Bringing the Staff Together

Anne and Dina recommended that we gather the entire staff together for a day of focused conversations around the RAC’s mission, vision, and values. To prepare, they provided us with some resources to review prior to the all-staff day. These included the Definitions and uses of mission and vision statements (BoardSource) and Simon Sinek’s video, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Dina and Anne also suggested that a Values statement “represents the core beliefs of the organization that inspire and guide its choices in the way it operates and deals with people. These values should be imbedded in both the mission and the vision and part of all internal and external communications.”

The all-staff day was organized around a series of smaller break-out conversations. The RAC’s staff of approximately 45 were assigned to small conversation groups to ensure as much cross-functional representation as possible. Throughout the day, the staff went into these break-out groups to have four separate guided conversations around specific themes: what resonated in the work already done with Future Work Design and Third Settlements; the RAC’s mission and its reason for being; a vision for the RAC if we met or exceeded our mission every day and the ways in which we would hold ourselves accountable; and what core values, beliefs, and organizational behaviors we want and need in order to embed the principles of equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging in everything we do.

Each conversation began with individual writing time which was a chance to gather our thoughts about the questions presented in the break-out session. This individual time was then followed by small group sharing time documented on flipchart pages. Then all the groups came back together for a brief report-out highlighting the key 1-4 ideas and suggestions from each small group’s conversation to the full group. Everyone was then given time to circulate and to add written comments, observations, and questions to the report-out flipcharts. 

As one of the participants in this all-staff workshop day, I can say that it was personally impactful to me. For one thing, it was the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that the entire staff had been brought together, elevating the importance and priority of the work. The day also had a real “buzz” to it. Everyone was excited to be together, to see friends and colleagues in person, to have respectful and thoughtful conversations and to know their feedback was heard, and to see the culmination of our three-year efforts to collectively reflect, examine, and understand our organization’s past and present and to feel the anticipation that comes with envisioning a new future.

Anne and Dina then spent a few days organizing and compiling the results of all of the individual conversations, which they reported back to us with their observations and suggestions for how to approach the drafting of the new mission, vision, and values statements. Consistent with the RAC Review’s emphasis on the value of transparency, this report was shared with the full staff.

Drafting the RAC’s New Mission, Vision, and Values Statements

The next moment of decision came with the delivery of this report. How were we as an organization of 45 people to go about incorporating all of this valuable feedback into concrete Mission, Vision, and Values statements in a timely manner? We knew that any future actions to move the organization forward were dependent upon, if not waiting for, these new statements to guide our thinking and decision-making.

Since the RAC Review had been led by the Assistant Director level managers and the conversations in the workshop day involved the entire staff, we decided that the most efficient way to produce the statements was for the RAC’s senior leadership (the President and the Directors of the three programmatic areas: Archives, HR and Operations, and Research and Engagement) to undertake this work, while building in opportunities for review and comment by the staff.

The Mission statement, although the briefest of the three, was in some ways the most challenging. In a very tight and concise way, we had to describe what we do while embedding a fresh vision and EIDB principles within it. The biggest hurdle, in some ways, was describing what the RAC collects. Are we about philanthropy and only philanthropy? That wasn’t quite right. How do we indicate that we’re not here to just burnish the reputations of our records creators, but rather to create opportunities for inquiry and interrogation of what the records hold and represent? And how do we articulate that the archival and outward-facing engagement work we do around them is rooted in core values and a commitment to supporting our diverse user communities, wherever they may be?

In some ways, the Vision statement was much easier. The all-staff conversation day provided us with some clear and convincing language as to where the staff wanted to see the RAC go in support of EIDB, not only within the organization, but much more expansively to encompass our collecting, engagement, and research activities and the way in which we contribute to our various fields and professions. The staff clearly saw the pitfalls of a vision that lacked accountability, so the principles of assessment and evaluation were also built into the statement. If anything, we struggled to keep the “vision thing” pointed towards our aspirational future and to exclude elements that were presentist in nature.

Finally, the Values statement gave us the most room to run because that’s where the staff produced the most content in the all-staff day. Indeed, with over 71 different values elements proposed by the staff, there was almost too much content to easily compile and organize in a structured way that was clear, impactful, and not repetitive. So, we went back to the staff for help. Using the expertise that we have built up around user-centered design, we took the values elements and created an online card-sort activity using the Proven By Users platform. Through this exercise, we asked the staff to assess the relationship of these values to one another so that they could be grouped  into overarching values clusters that represent the core values of the institution. Over 50% of the staff participated, and these clusters then enabled us to develop the Values statement.

With all three statements drafted, we then shared them with the staff for comment through an anonymous survey form and to Anne and Dina for their reflections and suggestions. Once we received all the feedback, we revised the statements to produce the final product that was approved at the December 2023 meeting of the RAC’s Board of Trustees. To say the Board was enthusiastic would be an understatement. Indeed, one Board member said that the statements were the best they had seen produced by an archival institution, and the Board unanimously adopted them as written while encouraging us to share them widely.

A Beginning, Not an End

These new Mission, Vision, and Values statements for the Rockefeller Archive Center are not the end. They are just the beginning. We must strive to connect everything we do back to these statements. Only in this way can the RAC be the kind of workplace, the kind of cultural heritage institution, and the kind of leader in our communities and professions that we hope and believe it can be. Only in this way can we live and practice our understanding of and commitment to the values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.