My job is somewhere between digital strategist, art historian and a black history historian – all of that and then some.
I do the work I do because it brings me joy. I’m also a big proponent of having a seat at the table in organizations. As a queer, black, woman, interrogating predominantly white spaces, it’s important for me to add my perspective as someone from a marginalized background, and have it shape the work that I do. I do this work because I feel like representation matters! In the museum field or social media field you think of young white men who are usually heterosexual. I do this work because my voice matters and those who have a background similar to mine, whether it’s queer, woman, black – our voices matter.
I was born and raised in Germany. I come from a military family. My dad was in the army and stationed there with my mother. Growing up I always felt pretty encouraged to study what I want and do what I want. I come from an upper middle class background so I feel I’m privileged in the sense that I never really had to worry about support emotionally or financially from my parents. I was in Germany until I was 16 but then my dad got stationed at Walter Reed in Maryland. I did my last two years of high school at a really small private school in Maryland. Even going to a private school played into my background a little bit. It was a very strict environment and I think it made me want to rebel! I ended up staying put in the Maryland area for school.
My background is in museums and black history. That’s what I went to school for. I’m currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Maryland College Park in the American Studies department focusing on their museum studies track looking at museum scholarship and marginalized communities with a focus on the role of access and privilege. I just started the doctoral program. I’m only going part-time, one class a semester because with my two jobs it’s not really feasible to do more right now. And it’s funny because I said, “I’m never going to go to grad school!” and then I quickly realized that if I wanted to get a job I might need to go to grad school.
My first museum job was with the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. I just had my B.A. and I was working there as an education specialist. I realized that I wasn’t making the amount of money I wanted to make and that the job really wasn’t for me. At that time I didn’t really see the museum field as a viable career for myself. So I left that job and briefly went to L.A. and tried being a yoga instructor for a few months. But that didn’t last long and I came back to the Maryland Historical Society and this time I worked as was more of a research historian. I looked at a lot of Maryland’s history after the war of 1812. But I was working almost full-time, about 37 or 38 hours a week, and I wasn’t getting benefits. There was only one full-time staff member but everyone else on staff was almost working full-time. Meanwhile everyone was telling me that if I wanted to have a higher paying position at the museum I needed to get a graduate degree so I said, “Ok, I’ll get a graduate degree!” I applied to different programs. While I was applying to these different programs I thought I really needed to get more museum experience so I applied to the internship program at the American History Smithsonian archive center. Ultimately that internship wasn’t a good fit but it did lead me to networking with lots of people and learning about contracting with the federal government in D.C. After leaving that internship I came back to American History as a contractor. Coming back as a contractor I was able to negotiate the salary I wanted for myself. My first contract was 7 months. I was able to renew for an additional four months. After that I decided to reach out to another museum and got a curatorial contract position at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’ve been contracting there ever since. I’ve been there two years now.
I’ve definitely been contracting longer that I’d like. Everyone says that if you contract it can turn into a more sustainable federal contract, but that hasn’t happened for me. As a contractor you’re always an at-will employee. No matter what, you can be fired. You also run the risk of the contract not being renewed or the funds running out. You’re put on a deliverables timetable and get paid after the product is done. So if you’re someone who isn’t good at money management, which I used to not be, you’re going months without pay and going into your savings. Whereas if you’re working as federal employee, after three years in the federal government you’re tenured and can’t be fired and you’re paid every two weeks.
The big problem with contracting I’ve found is that there is stigma that contractors are overpaid. Contractors who want to go federal want to match the salary they are making as a contractor. But a few of the people I know who go from contractor to federal have been willing to make salary cuts for themselves for the sake of being federal and having that stability.
Technically, I have two jobs right now. I have my contractor job with African American, and I also have my contractor job with the Department of Navy. For the Department of Navy I was hired as a social media curator to revamp their history office. Both of those contracts don’t come with benefits! It’s tough. I spend my days on my laptop, on Skype meetings, on the phone hustling because unfortunately having a contractor position, you never know if it will be renewed.
Being a contractor I work mostly from home. Sometimes I’ll be in a museum in an office but that depends on if there is office space for me! I usually wake up every morning at 7 a.m. I open my laptop and get right to work on research for upcoming exhibitions. I’m on e-mail and I’m on phone meetings all day.
Right now the Department of Navy, under their office of historians, there is a big push to bridge Navy medicine and digital history together and make it accessible nationwide to all Navy participants. My job is to use Slack, Google Analytics, and Millbook (the Department of Navy’s version of Facebook) to make it interesting and accessible in about 140 characters or less. Every week I run my analytics to see how successful my campaigns are and how people are interacting with them. As someone who was not interested in medicine or Navy history at all before this job, I do feel like in a sense I’m the best person for the job! Because I know how to make it interesting to someone like me!
A lot of my job consists of driving to go meet with people including lieutenant colonels or colonels and asking them what they envision for the Office of Historian for the Department of the Navy. I ask them things like, “how do you see social media and history coming together?” Because although we are in 2017 now and it seems like digital media is everywhere, there are still many organizations that are still scared by it and they are still working on how to move through it so they bring someone like me on board. It’s been my job to build the brand.
On this contract with the Navy I’m working with all digital objects, which is new for me. My job is to figure out whom we are marketing to and what we want to convey and what information we need back from our audience. My job is to help craft a clear and concise message for the Navy. I’m basically creating this job as I do it which is stressful in the same way being part of a start-up might be because in this job I’m basically building from the ground up.
Being able to advocate for my work. I used to think I didn’t have any experience and that I should take whatever job I could get and be happy. I remember during a time when I was on a contract at American History many years ago someone said to me, “you should just be glad for a job, whether or not it’s paid, because experience is invaluable.” Hearing this was so disheartening to me. To me, making a statement like that is just so heavily coded. Unfortunately as I’ve been in the museum profession I’ve come across people that argue you should be glad to have an internship or contract for little money because there are so many people in line who would take the same position.
I remember I had an interview once for a contract where one of the people in the interview said, “How old are you? When did you graduate college?” And I thought that that was so inappropriate. I’m a woman of color. I’m a queer woman. I really had to get really good at advocating for myself and calling people out when they were being ageist or suggesting I should work for free. I had to know my value. I get very frustrated when folks really try to cheapen me! Sometimes I’ve had to take calculated risks. There have been contracts I haven’t taken because the pay is so horrible it wouldn’t have been effective for me. For example, as a contractor I don’t get taxes taken out because I’m independent. So I have to almost make double what I want to earn so I can pay my taxes.
One of my now dear friends, Omar Eaton-Martinez, is in charge of the intern and fellows program at the National Museum of American History. He shared with me the role of contracting. I had no idea about it! Omar basically told me that if I wanted to go into the contracting role I needed to sit down and look at my overhead costs, health insurance and other benefits. All things I didn’t know. He suggested I go on the Small Business Administration website and what I ended up finding out there that there is extra funding and tax credits if you’re a minority owned business. I ended up making myself a limited liability company, Camille Bethune Brown Consulting. So I’m technically a business even though I’m my only employee. I had no formal education in this!
I don’t know where I’d be without Twitter. I posted on my Twitter feed, “Hey guys, I’m trying to figure out more ways to make myself marketable because I feel like sometimes there are more people than jobs! What can I do to make myself stand out?” This was maybe about two years ago. One of my now really good friends, Kai Frazier, she is at the Holocaust Museum as their social media specialist. She didn’t go to school for social media and is a former teacher but taught herself how to do the job. So I reached out to her to ask how she did it and she shared with me all the websites to go on and learn! She was wonderful at answering any questions I had. She taught me everything I know about Google analytics, Slack, Snapchat and Twitter so I could then go to a museum and say, “Hey, I can make your museum marketable!” The wealth of knowledge that she shared with me was seriously invaluable. Without Twitter and meeting her, it just wouldn’t have happened.
And it can be hard to ask for help! Even outside of grad school I think I struggle with imposter syndrome and having to pretend I have it all figured out. But I knew I didn’t have the answers and didn’t know what to do! So it was just wonderful how many people reached out to me to offer skills I could learn or let me know they would tell me about jobs they saw for me. I really would not be where I am how without the goodness of so many people offering their time to me, listening and answering my questions.
When I was working on my M.A. I felt frustrated that some of my peers really just thought they’d come out with the museum degree and fall into some awesome curator job. I had that viewpoint once too but now I feel like most days I spend my time applying for fulltime jobs with benefits. If I could have a decent full-time job with benefits and not work as a contractor I’d do it in a heartbeat.
My sister is an engineer for a living and she likes to say I sit around and play with artifacts all day! Every now and again I really find myself advocating, this is a real profession. And just because I work from home doesn’t mean I lay around all day!
I think I have a really good work/life balance in the sense that I set core hours for myself when I’m working. I work 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. everyday. I make it a point to do that. After 5 p.m. I teach yoga three times a week here in D.C. and I also make it a point to practice yoga. It’s important for me to still do things that offer me happiness to get out of my head, out of the chaos of work.
Have realistic expectations! There is no such thing as too many skills to have under your belt. For the longest time I lived on a linear track. I said, “I’m going to be a historian, I’m going to study black history and it will be great!” And I realized that unfortunately while that’s a nice idea, I needed to have other skills too. So I eventually learned coding, how to do social media analytics and how to do web development.
Find your community and be okay with asking for help. And I would tell anyone coming into the field to get on Twitter! It’s free. There is no wrong way to do it. There are so many people on Twitter and I’ve never had anyone tell me no when I ask for help. For the most part in the museum community, everyone has been where I am in my life where they just don’t have the answers. And we have this social media boom where we can share information at lightning speed. When you need help, just reach out.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
Martha Graham, choreographer
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