Newswise — Today is International Women’s Day. As the first female Executive Director of Global Heritage Fund, I am honored to join leaders like Lisa Ackerman at the World Monuments Fund and Jane Seiter at the United States Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (US/ICOMOS) to celebrate the women who protect humanity’s most outstanding places. For the first time, the three most influential international historic preservation organizations in the US are all led by women. The rise of women in heritage preservation comes at a time when there has been a notable shift from focusing solely on restoring and conserving historic structures to empowering the communities who live and work around them.

 At Global Heritage Fund, half of our project directors are women, and they are leading initiatives in countries such as China, Morocco, India, and Greece. These women are changing lives and protecting historic sites through sustainable, community-driven programs. Without their contributions, our organization, and historic preservation more generally, would not be in the place we are today.

 The tangible and intangible heritage of the world faces constant danger from a variety of threats: environmental calamities and climate change, the indiscriminate development of infrastructure and overtourism, agriculture activities, terrorism and warfare. Our mission at Global Heritage Fund, since we began our work 15 years ago, is to protect this heritage for future generations. In a world where great cities such as Venice or Angkor Wat are at risk of being ‘loved to death’, where the line between economic empowerment and the commodification of heritage grows finer with each passing year, the drive to preserve can overpower something equally important: the need to uplift, empower, and respect the local communities who call these places their own.

Our work can unintentionally result in the continued exploitation of vulnerable communities. Economic empowerment means little if the solutions we provide are not tailored to each people and place. Community development is for naught when it is divorced from the reality on the ground, and our efforts to preserve sites are ultimately thwarted when we focus them solely on the sites themselves.

To make preservation last, we must center our efforts on the people that will sustain it for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years, and on the marginalized voices that have far too frequently been drowned out, whether in society or in the heritage sector.

Women’s contributions are integral to the continued flourishing of our organization and of the heritage sector as a whole. When we focus on their work and their voices, we gain an immeasurable richness in perspective that would otherwise be lost. When we bring them to the governing table, we are capable of creating a truly holistic relationship between people and place that transcends the bounded nature of a single project.

Yang Xianshu is a community leader in the village of Dali in China, and with the help of our project director, Kuanghan Li, Yang is revitalizing her village’s unique textile traditions for a new generation. Young women are excited to learn their heritage, finding a sense of belonging and place as they make a living.

Dr. Salima Naji, an architect, Chevalière des Arts et des Lettres of the French Republic, and our project director in Morocco, has worked tirelessly to develop heritage-based economic opportunities around conserving ancient granaries. A testament to the stunning resilience and isolation of Berber communities, these structures are a lesson of sustainability against scarcity and an excellent economic opportunity for local communities to lift themselves out of rural poverty.

Sustainable development such as this is crucial to combat the poverty and provide opportunities that endanger many of our world’s historic sites. Our many female colleagues around the world help eliminate looting and stop local exploitation of heritage sites, and their work promoting community-driven heritage preservation lifts countless communities with new economic pathways. Recognizing that investing in women and educating girls is critical for sustainable development, we work to engage communities and foster local ownership by educating future generations of strong women.

At Global Heritage Fund, we truly believe that change is possible. Though initial investing and capacity building, we foster local opportunities and empower communities around historic sites to become both stewards and beneficiaries of their unique historic sites and cultural traditions.

International Women’s Day reminds us to reflect on the contributions of women to their communities and the world. Today, and everyday, we support women and empower communities to protect their historic sites and traditions.

We know that women can change the world and protect our most outstanding places. We hope you agree.

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