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Caroline Klibanoff of ‘Made By Us’: “You need support from your team and people to collaborate with”

It might seem obvious, but the first step is finding inspiration. I found mine while I was studying to become a public historian and working in the democracy-reform sector. Studying history, I saw powerful examples of people in the past who made lasting positive change — and all around me, I saw my generation doing similar work […]

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It might seem obvious, but the first step is finding inspiration. I found mine while I was studying to become a public historian and working in the democracy-reform sector. Studying history, I saw powerful examples of people in the past who made lasting positive change — and all around me, I saw my generation doing similar work as part of that continuum. I was inspired to see how a better understanding of the past could shape the present.


As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caroline Klibanoff.

As the program manager for Made By Us, Caroline’s work bridges the civic engagement sphere with the public humanities, using digital tools and collaboration practices from each field to reach new audiences and tap into a renewed civic spirit. Caroline previously served as the project manager for exhibitions and the opening of a brand-new building at the MIT Museum, and has worked at other cultural institutions including Longfellow House — George Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, Northern Light Productions and the Cambridge Historical Society. Originally from Atlanta, she holds an M.A. in Public History and Digital Humanities from Northeastern University, and a B.A. in American Studies and Film/Media from Georgetown University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?

I grew up in a family of storytellers — my dad was a newspaper reporter and editor and my mom can hold any crowd captive with a story. My dad’s side of the family are Jewish and from Alabama and my mom’s side are coal-mining Catholics from Pennsylvania, so I never saw American history as anything less than complex.

Growing up, history was always presented to me as a rich expanse of stories to get curious about. It wasn’t just big wars or presidential facts. It was our own family stories of immigration, small business, love, recipes and traditions — and everyone else’s, too. My favorite books were the Dear America and American Girl series, which really helped me to see myself as part of history. I also visited many historic sites and museums as a kid.

At the same time, I grew up in the emerging Internet era. I really embraced the web, even from an early age. I was fascinated by the potential of unlimited connection to information and other people.

From the past to the present, I was able to see myself as part of an expansive story — both part of history and part of the future.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I previously worked for two democracy-reform organizations, Big Tent Nation and the Bridge Alliance. With those organizations, we created the American Civic Collaboration Awards (“Civvys,”), a program that highlights exemplary cases of people working together across divides that became models for others to replicate.

It was the highlight of my year each year to read the nominees because I learned so much about the amazing work that can emerge from group collaboration, even in a climate of scarcity. Whether it was an alliance of immigrant and refugee parents working with the school board in Colorado, or 50 newsrooms in Ohio sharing data to better report on crises, I witnessed case after case of people pooling their resources to make magic happen. This cemented my belief that collaboration is a strength and still informs not only the work I do at Made By Us, but the way I approach most relationships.

You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?

Made By Us is working on bringing history to younger generations in innovative and meaningful ways, so that they can power the future. Young people today are engaging in important dialogues in classrooms and on social media about the nation’s past, present and future, and history museums can add critical context to inform these conversations.

We achieve this through a broad coalition of history museums, historic sites and civic engagement organizations joining forces to develop new tools and experiences that meet the needs of Gen-Z and Millennials in timely and relevant ways. By collaborating, we can share a fuller American history, pool our best ideas and data and create actionable, inspiring moments at a nationwide scale.

Although traditional history formats, like curated exhibits and academic publications, play an important and irreplaceable role, they do not go far enough to engage younger audiences. This has become even more apparent during the pandemic. Made By Us takes a digital-forward approach to our programming so that we can meet our audiences wherever they are — online and on mobile phones, across the country, anywhere and everywhere.

Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?

Several years ago, a group of major history museum leaders from the National Archives, the Smithsonian, Monticello, the New-York Historical Society, Heinz History Center, HistoryMiami, Missouri Historical Society and the Atlanta History Center felt a growing concern about the widening gap in their fellow Americans’ understanding of our collective national history. While younger generations were becoming more engaged than ever in what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, their knowledge of the context and depth of our founding ideals — equality, liberty, opportunity and democracy — was on the wane, as was their understanding of how government and democracy work.

Recognizing history’s power to provide meaningful context for change-makers, and the power of collaboration across institutions, these leaders decided it was critical to work together to empower the younger generation. Many other museums and historic sites have since joined the effort, recognizing that no site alone can tell the full story of U.S. history — it has to be “Made By Us.”

While I was in graduate school studying public history, I was still working freelance in the democracy-reform sector. I would attend my classes and hear about how museums needed to connect history to current events, become lively civic hubs and adopt digital tools. I would then attend meetings and conferences in the democracy sector and hear how they sought to ground current events in past precedent, to find ways to convene people and ideas and to share new digital tools.

To me, bringing these two fields together seemed like an obvious win-win. Every civic initiative would benefit from more context and history, and every history program would benefit from including a modern-day civic application. I’m thrilled to have the chance to make this happen through Made By Us.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

This past spring, we were all set to launch our first major project — a website called My Wish For U.S. that invited all Americans to share their vision for the nation’s future, and browse wishes from other Americans and historical figures. We had elaborate plans to go live on March 30, 2020, but the pandemic threw all of our plans up in the air — just like it did for everyone else.

We waited as long as we could to see how things shaped up before landing on a launch date of June 15. In early June, the nation was again gripped by passionate demonstrations for justice and equality after the murder of George Floyd. It became clear to the Made By Us team that instead of waiting for the right time to do “our plan,” we instead needed to respond to the moment and to join the conversation as it happened.

Sure, asking people their wish for America’s future amid a global pandemic, civil unrest and a polarizing presidential campaign season garnered responses that were shaped by the moment we’re in. But this moment is history — and we knew it was our responsibility to step up and document it. How illuminating would it be to have an archive of everyday citizens’ wishes during the Great Depression, or the Summer of Love?

We went live with My Wish For U.S. and gathered thousands of wishes from across the country that spoke to heartfelt themes characterizing life in 2020: health, justice, schooling, a strong democracy, peace. The project is ongoing and presents a fascinating portrait of American life in 2020.

Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.

It might seem obvious, but the first step is finding inspiration. I found mine while I was studying to become a public historian and working in the democracy-reform sector. Studying history, I saw powerful examples of people in the past who made lasting positive change — and all around me, I saw my generation doing similar work as part of that continuum. I was inspired to see how a better understanding of the past could shape the present.

Second, in order to turn your vision into a reality, youhaveto practice, experiment and get outside of your comfort zone to try lots of different ideas. The Made By Us team uses design-thinking tools to develop our programming, which means we run through hundreds upon hundreds of ideas until we land on one that delivers what our audience needs.

Third and fourth, you need support from your team and people to collaborate with. At Made By Us, our supporters and collaborators include historians, marketing directors, CEOs and professors from 90+ historical organizations in our coalition. For every program we design and every live event we produce, we lean on the expertise, advice and guidance from members of our coalition to create the best possible product for our audience.

Lastly, the best advice I can give is to just get started. You don’t need a PhD to start learning and sharing history, and you don’t need to be in Congress to leave a mark on your era. Take what you have at hand — whether it’s a blog, a social media account, a digital tool or your friends — and start learning and using your voice. When Made By Us first began, we were just a few institutions with a vision. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come.

What are the values that drive your work?

At Made By Us, our mission is to showcase diverse perspectives throughout history, separate the historical truths from the myths, and remain transparent about everything that we do. The fact of the matter is that many voices have been left out of history books for years. It’s our responsibility as history and civic leaders to fill that gap, and to bring justice to the many voices who have been unwillingly silenced by former arbiters of the past.

I’ve also found through my work that it’s important to approach everything and everyone with curiosity, and to listen to the voice of “we the people.” I started my career at the Pew Research Center, the gold standard of public opinion polling, and it taught me to take people’s beliefs and ideas seriously.

My mother likes to tell a story of a business executive she knew who kept a note on his desk for when people came to his office to talk. The note, facing him, said: “Listen to them — they’re smart.” That sentiment is how I feel about the American people. Everyone you meet knows something you don’t, and everyone’s story plays a part in shaping our shared future.

In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!

My vision for the future of the United States is a vibrant country shaped by passionate guardians of our founding ideals — younger generations whose participation in creating our country’s future is powered by their rich historical perspective.

But it’s going to take collaboration and broad participation to get there. Without everyone’s voices involved in the conversation, we can’t build a future that works for everyone.

I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?

Connection to local history, local people and other change-makers could be introduced into many aspects of the educational system. For example, high schools are already a localized community. I’d love to see more assignments like: interview an elder in your town about what their neighborhood used to be like, and how it’s changed for better or worse.

In general, I’d also love to see more intergenerational learning. Young people can learn a lot from their elders, yes, but the older generations can also learn a lot from the lived realities and passions of young people today.

I’d also like to add that learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom. Museums, historic sites, family oral histories, recipes and even historical markers on the side of the road are all spaces for learning. Once you’ve had your eyes opened to the reality of history all around you, it’s impossible to see the world as anything other than one giant classroom where we are all lifelong learners.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that each and every one of us are a part of the story of history. Even now, what we choose to do or not to do is shaping the story and our futures.

Don’t ever convince yourself that your voice doesn’t matter, or that you can’t make a difference. All your cumulative actions and accomplishments add up.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t wake up one morning the President of the United States. He started out running for the House of Burgesses, then writing the Declaration of Independence, then getting elected to the Virginia State Legislature, then U.S. Congress, then Secretary of State, then VP. Finally, at age 58, he became President.

Your history, and our country’s history, begins with a single, small step.

Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to sit down with rapper Cardi B, who is apparently a big fan of Franklin Roosevelt. We’d chat about presidential history and I could pitch her on an idea of hosting a history mini-series contrasting the 1930s and the present day. We could call the show, “New Deal With It.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit historymadebyus.com, subscribe to our newsletters, follow us on social media @historymadebyus and stay tuned for new programs and projects in 2021!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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