Social Impact Heroes: Why & How K David Weidner of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Is Helping To Change Our World
Working with the local government can be complicated. As mentioned before, we are a historic landmark and it can take considerable time to move some initiatives along, especially when they require permits and external approvals. For example, when we were proposing, designing and building our new inclined elevator to increase accessibility to our grounds and bring visitors up High Pole Hill, we ran into just about every hurdle imaginable.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact,” I had the pleasure of interviewing K. David Weidner, Ph.D., executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
Dr. Weidner is the executive director of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, Cape Cod’s oldest nonprofit organization, which conducts business as the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum (PMPM). Completed in 1910 and standing at more than 252 feet tall, the Pilgrim Monument is the country’s tallest all-granite structure and was built to commemorate the place where the Mayflower Pilgrims made first landfall in the New World and signed the historic Mayflower Compact, before sailing onto Plymouth, Massachusetts. A lifelong educator, Dr. Weidner attained his Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University in 1995.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have been fortunate to have had a fabulous career life, and I am very blessed by being able to really engage with people all over the world from different cultures and being part of a more equitable and inclusive space.
I moved to Provincetown in June of 2016, after having had a great professional career, life and residence in Washington, D.C. My husband saw the opportunity for the executive director position and encouraged me to apply. The nonprofit needed someone to refresh the institution with procedures internally and update the narratives we were telling and I felt my background uniquely prepared me for the challenge.
Everything goes back to education. If we do not have educators teaching the correct stories, then we will never have an opportunity to learn the truth. This is what we are trying to do — deliver a message of TRUTH: Tolerance, respect, unity, trust and her-his-their story, in addition to telling an accurate history about the native Wampanoag people and the life and times of the many pilgrims who have landed in Provincetown.
My career path has been varied. I was trained as a public school educator, worked in public schools as a central office administrator, and transitioned to working in the education technology industry with IBM. I received a doctorate in educational administration and leadership. I worked in technology and then went back into a public school service to run technology programs in school districts in Pennsylvania. I then had a chance to broaden my horizons by moving to Washington, D.C., to work for the American Association for School Administrators. I did that for several years until going to work for the British government in ed-tech where I trained instructors and facilitated meetings worldwide through programs sponsored by The British Council. Before coming to Provincetown, I worked with NOAA to develop a marine science and environmental literacy curriculum for middle school students in the Hawaiian islands.
My entire career has been focused on education in the public sector. Today, I still teach at the graduate level at Gwynedd Mercy University outside of Philadelphia in the doctoral education program.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Identifying a problem and being unable to fix it is vastly different from identifying a problem and choosing not to address it. Since arriving at PMPM, we have identified a number of very fixable problems.
When I came on board, the team knew we needed to refresh the institution with procedures and policies, which we have done. But as we began to dig deeper, it grew clear an incredible depth of work was needed to refresh the narratives shared by the institution. We were not a very truthful organization at the time. There was no mention of the native people in the Museum, which disturbed me greatly, in addition to several of the organization’s trustees. And so, it became apparent we needed to begin educating our staff and bringing in the native community to give depth and perspective about colonization and what happened to them as a people.
There was also a major gap in the modern storylines of Provincetown. Provincetown is known as a diverse, LGBTQ+ center of arts and humanities, yet that was not a story that was told at the Museum. It was just erased or was not even brought up. So we worked very hard with the Board to get that new mission established — one that spoke to the LGBTQ+ community as well as the Bulgarian and Jamaican communities that are here in our town. We needed to build a more inclusive narrative that told about all the pilgrims that have come to call Provincetown home from all over the world and for all kinds of reasons.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Outside looking in, I thought this job would be easy. I saw a little nonprofit at the end of the world here at Cape Cod that had been around forever and thought, “It has to be super together and organized.”
As it turned out, there was a lot to do, not only from an administrative standpoint but, as mentioned, the depth and layers of stories that needed to be told. It has been an unexpected transformational journey, and I am immensely proud to be a part of it.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum stands tall for our mission of TRUTH — Tolerance | Respect | Unity | Trust | Her, His & Their story. Every day, the organization operates to further this mission as well as uphold tolerance, acceptance and welcoming pilgrims of every kind — the values on which the town of Provincetown was founded and stands to this day.
As an organization, the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum’s purpose and mission is to preserve and tell the story of Provincetown’s history. Through exhibits like the Hat Sisters, partnership with the Generations Project and their An Anecdotal LGBTQ+ History of the Last Century of Provincetown, and notably, the Wampanoag-created Our Story, among others, PMPM is telling a truthful, transparent version of Provincetown’s rich history and culture.
Provincetown embodies the term “culture” and “social justice.” The Museum is committed to sharing and representing those stories with accuracy and truth, as well as saluting the members of our community who have helped make the town who and what it is. Since COVID started, PMPM has begun honoring those integral groups of the community by flying various flags, including the Pan-African, Portuguese, Jamaican and Pride flags.
The 252-foot tall Pilgrim Monument itself commemorates a significant component in American history — the first landing of the Mayflower and the signing of the historic Mayflower Compact in what is now Provincetown Harbor. The story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, their first landing (commemorated each year with our Annual Lighting of the Monument) and their meeting of the Indigenous Wampanoags are key elements of the very fabric of American culture. The Mayflower Compact is one of the first written documents of governance in the New World and was ratified in Provincetown Harbor in 1620 — before the Pilgrims stepped ashore.
PMPM also shares Provincetown’s history and values through education. It welcomes school groups, enables scholars and researchers access to historical documents and information contained within its archives, and educates the public through its well-read blog. We have published articles on important cultural and historical topics like Indigenous Peoples Day, the contributions of the Jamaican community, autism awareness and Juneteenth. Throughout its existence, Provincetown has been a cultural destination for some of the most iconic names in thought, theater and voice. Tennessee Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Eartha Kitt, among others, have all spent time in the town for its attitude of acceptance and welcome. Former Board member, Courtney Hurst has highlighted a few of these stories and others in her articles about Women’s herstory and Black history in Provincetown.
Provincetown is culture and a haven for social justice. And the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum tells her/his/their-story.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Beyond a single person or group, all the voices and perspectives we are working to elevate in our mission to promote TRUTH and cultural change. We are recognizing problems, acting upon them, and being truthful and transparent in doing so.
Nonprofits must use our privileged platforms to rectify past inaccuracies and ensure a more comprehensive understanding of our collective history. By embracing diverse perspectives and promoting an awareness and understanding of all stakeholders, we can help forge a more equitable and united society.
Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in driving social change and creating a more equitable society. That is why it was critical for PMPM to embark on a transformative journey, update our mission and evolve. In doing so, we hope to help pave the way for a more truthful, inclusive and diverse present and future.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Recognizing that we are the oldest nonprofit on Cape Cod and not part of the town or National Parks Service. It is a common misconception that PMPM is owned by one of those entities, but this is not the case. We have our own elected Board of Trustees, we have our membership and are responsible for the programming and upkeep of the Monument, the grounds and everything around us. This recognition is vital because it directly ties to helping the public understand that we need support to keep our mission alive.
- Expanding on my first point, we need monetary support to sustain our mission and continue to keep the Monument solid and standing tall for tolerance and acceptance. The Monument itself is the largest cultural attraction on Cape Cod. We draw people here to Provincetown to come and visit the Monument, climb its stairs, ride the inclined elevator, see our gorgeous dunes and experience the breadth of where we are. The aging structure needs repairs, and without them, we stand the chance of losing a major beacon that attracts visitors from around the world.
- As a historical site exposed to climate change, we encounter challenges in maintaining and improving our grounds and organizing various events to help fund our efforts. Thankfully, we do benefit from local and regional politicians who understand and are aligned with our mission so that we can work together on creative solutions quickly and keep the forward momentum of progress.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
You can take courses on leadership. You can read about leadership. However, it is not until you are experiencing the demands of the exact position or are faced with making decisions in a moment, can you try to wrap your mind around the full definition of the word and the work.
When I think of leaders, it does not mean you have to be the CEO, president or executive director to be a leader. Leaders exist at every level of organizational life and good ones work closely with their teams.
In any leadership role, you have to know when is the right time to make decisions. You can make decisions based on training, expertise and experience, but you must also take into account the perspectives of stakeholders.
At the heart of leadership is education, learning and trying to build a continuum. And you also have to know when it is time to pivot or assign it to someone else so they can lead in a new way.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- Working with the local government can be complicated. As mentioned before, we are a historic landmark and it can take considerable time to move some initiatives along, especially when they require permits and external approvals. For example, when we were proposing, designing and building our new inclined elevator to increase accessibility to our grounds and bring visitors up High Pole Hill, we ran into just about every hurdle imaginable.
- Living and working in a small town is unique and not without challenges. The Monument is a literal pillar of and central point of our small-town community, so many people feel like they should have a say in each decision. You are under the microscope every day, 24/7.
- Anticipate the unexpected. We had many wonderful things in progress, and then COVID hit. As you can imagine, this impacted revenue, resources and our staff. Just like the rest of the world, we had to make pivots, shift timelines and explore creative ways to keep our mission and institution going.
- Similar to number three, instead of saying “it can not be done,” uncover the things that can be done that will make an impact and find creative solutions to achieve them. We needed to uncover the urgent need to create an inclusive and accepting environment while showcasing the important untold narratives at our Museum. The organization took this commitment to heart and began diversifying our Board of Trustees to be more representative of the community that we serve. From there, we began identifying the gaps that hinder inclusivity, and piece by piece are actively addressing these gaps to foster an atmosphere where everyone feels valued and accepted. As a result, a more truthful and factual version of our town’s storied past is told.
- This role will impact all facets of your life. My time at PMPM has been and remains profoundly rewarding, and I am honored to be part of this incredible era of transformation, though I did not realize the depth of impact this would have on my life.
There were many hearts and minds to change over the past five years as we evolved our mission and set forth a plan for radical change. It goes without saying that in a role like this, you become a very public figure in a small town, so anywhere you go, you’re actively representing the organization and fielding questions.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Education is where we need to put the most resources we have. Many people say to put it into healthcare or infrastructure. While those are all important initiatives, if we do not put money and resources into teaching and learning, as a society, we will not have the scientists, physicians and surgeons on the healthcare side or the engineers, builders and construction folks to create infrastructure because you have not put the money upfront into education.
The inspirational thing for me is to see people have that “aha!” moment. Whether it’s “aha! I did not know the Mayflower landed here,” “The native Wampanoag people were taken as slaves?” or that our 252-foot tall monument requires a multi-million dollar investment to preserve its structural integrity.
I am passionate about the work that we do here because we are sharing a mission with stakeholders and on a path of truth. Without information and perspective, we cannot move on and progress as a society. We need to pause and reflect on what is important; understanding the layers of community and acculturation to keep the humanity in each of us alive is what is important. And, at the root of it all is education and learning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Say what you mean and mean what you say.” This quote came from one of my principals years ago, when I was a new elementary school teacher in the inner city. It is a life lesson that I take with me today.
Another quote, which is more historical and has similar messaging, comes from former Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. He used to say, “You are a master of the words that you don’t say and a slave to the words that you utter.” I keep this in mind and the gravity of those words, regularly. In this life, there are both things you can and can not control. What you say is one of those things you can control. So, if you say something, you better be sure it is thoughtful and meaningful.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
This is such a difficult question. Of course, many names come to mind from a historical standpoint: Harriet Tubman, Chief Justice Marshall, Julia Child. If I had to choose only one from today’s era, it would likely be someone in the culinary world, as cooking is one of my great passions. I would love to meet Gordon Ramsay, Ina Garten or up-and-coming English chef, Edward Delling Williams. Chatting about their lives and desires to create cultural connections through food would be fantastic.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Please visit PMPM’s website, https://www.pilgrim-monument.org/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How K David Weidner of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum Is… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.