Clara Silverstein is the Community Engagement Manager at Historic Newton in Newton, Massachusetts. A public/private partnership between the Newton Historical Society and the City of Newton, Historic Newton “inspires discovery and engagement by illuminating our community’s stories within the context of American history.” Silverstein has worked for Historic Newton for more than three years now, but the career path that led her there was anything but ordinary.
Before working in community engagement, Silverstein had a long career as a journalist and author. But when journalism became an unsustainable career because of the changes in the marketplace, she decided to apply her research skills and interest in American history in a new field: public history.
“I changed careers when I was over age 40. It wasn’t too late!” Silverstein recalled of her decision to switch careers. She looked at many programs in the Boston area before deciding to enroll in the public history track of the history MA program at UMass Boston. “I liked UMass because it didn’t seem to focus on the MA merely as a stepping stone to a PhD,” she said. “The schedule also seemed flexible for someone who already had family responsibilities and part-time work. Best of all, it was affordable.”
While at UMass, Silverstein worked with the Tracing Center on the History and Legacies of Slavery, which prepared her for her later work at Historic Newton, where she interprets the Underground Railroad and slavery. Utilizing her already strong research skills, she completed the program with a thesis comparing the interpretation of the founding story of America at Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts.
After graduating with her Master’s in History, Silverstein did freelancing and contract work before finding a permanent role at Historic Newton. There, as Community Engagement Manager, she plans and manages public programs, including lectures, walking tours, panel discussions, and an annual House Tour attended by more than 400 people. She also manages Historic Newton’s social media accounts, newsletter, and press outreach. “I like finding creative ways to interest the public in history, whether it’s leading a tour about sports heroes or posting an interesting fact about the city on social media,” Silverstein told us.
Since Historic Newton aims to interpret local history in the context of American history with special emphasis on social justice, there is no shortage of creative opportunities for Silverstein. At Historic Newton, she emphasized, “We like to connect past the past with the present.” In the past, for example, the institution has hosted a panel linking activism around abolition in the 19th century with the current Black Lives Matter movement. Their latest panel event, which took place on November 4th, was a discussion about the history of language around race, LGBT issues, and disability.
A rich and diverse collection supports the Silverstein’s efforts to bring history to life for the public. Historic Newton collects a variety of documents and photos that relate to the history of Newton, plus many objects that relate to the material culture and institutions in the city. From maps and records of abolitionist societies to clothing and kitchen tools, Historic Newton preserves and makes accessible the records and items that give insight into the city’s past.
Despite loving her work, like many public historians in small institutions, Silverstein finds it challenging to manage a mountain of responsibilities during a 40-hour work week. Inevitably, she has to let some things– like social media posting– slide when she is overloaded with event planning. Yet she finds ways to get it all done, making use of the assistance of interns whenever possible (take note, current public history students!).
Maintaining a sustainable work-life balance makes it possible for Silverstein to set aside time after hours for her passion for writing. She just published her first novel, a work of historical fiction entitled Secrets in a House Divided: A Novel of Civil War Richmond. (If you’re looking for something to read over Christmas break, you can find it here!)
Ultimately, Silverstein is glad to have left her career in journalism behind. With an eye to the future, she stated, “I want to stay involved in interpreting American history to the public no matter what form it takes – writing, speaking, planning programs, leading tours. I think I have found my calling in life!”
Her advice to current students?
Take advantage of your proximity to Boston and visit its rich historical resources while you’re in school so you can learn how various sites interpret history. Appreciate the opportunity discuss what you’re reading with professors and mentors who structure your learning. Once you leave school, that’s gone!