Philly’s tour guides argue over whose stories matter

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When Bob Skiba helped found the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides (APT) in 2008, guides in Philadelphia suffered from a bad reputation. A number of newspaper articles had shown that more than a few tour guides played fast and loose with facts – in one of the most egregious examples, telling tourists that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were known to dine together in Old Town.

So Skiba, an experienced guide who is also the curator of the archives at the William Way LGBT Community Center, envisioned an organization where Philadelphia’s storytellers could offer knowledge and support to one another. The resulting organization became APT, Philly’s only tour guide training and certification program. (Years ago, this reporter took—and passed—the APT test for a column, but never became a paying, active member.) The intense tour training designed by Skiba restored the public’s good opinion of the besieged guides and won national praise.

Skiba thought he was continuing that legacy last June when he opposed a proposal to invite the Philadelphia-based American Bible Society to advertise its new Faith and Discovery Center to APT leaders.

The global Bible distributor made headlines in 2017 when it gave its workers an ultimatum, demanding they renounce sex outside of heterosexual marriage — or quit. The pledge was seen by some within the company and many in the LGBTQ community as a way for the organization to displace its gay employees. Almost 20% of the company’s employees resigned.

As the Faith and Discovery Center is sure to become a tourist destination, APT Vice President Marianne Ruane suggested that they have the religious organization as guest speakers at a meeting and vantage point for a “behind-the-scenes tour” of the glittering group new exhibit space at Independence Mall that retells American history with a focus on religious belief.

Skiba recommended stepping on the brakes.

“We need to discuss this, but count me out,” he wrote to the board in an email. “The American Bible Society has many problematic policies.” He sent a message to his colleagues about the 2017 ultimatum.

Ruane and APT President Judy Smith were quick to dismiss Skiba’s concerns.

“We don’t have to agree with their policies,” Ruane said, adding that tour guides would still benefit from a visit.

Skiba told tour guide group leaders they were demonstrating “white, heterosexual privilege.”

“I felt I had to defend my community,” said Skiba, who persisted in his protests, emailing the board who eventually didn’t respond.

Skiba resigned soon after, but later changed his mind. He wanted to improve the organization he had helped build.

When his fees were not accepted, the respected LGBTQ historian, the only openly gay member of APT – and one of Philly’s most prominent tourism industry advocates – realized he had been banned.

Tour guides across the city, including outside of the APT, say Skiba’s fall was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

The group of around 150 tourist guides and amateur historians represents only a fraction of the city guides, and the members have long counted themselves among the crème de la crème.

But the group’s makeup has never included more than a handful of people of color, Skiba said. Even in a city rich in black and LGBTQ history, the APT remains overwhelmingly white and straight.

“There is an extremely vibrant community of people working to change not just the narrative of Philadelphia, but the entire American narrative of what we digest in terms of folklore and mythology,” said Rebecca Fisher, co-founder of Beyond the Bell , which offers walking tours of Philly’s marginalized communities, peoples and histories.

“But these people are rarely encouraged by our conventional places in tourism, including the APT.”

It’s a failure for which Skiba takes his fair share of the blame. He helped found the APT, served as its president, and edited its first handbook, showing only a fraction of the landmarks of black history in Philly.

The group’s black membership rarely exceeded much more than 10%, Skiba estimated.

“Which is totally unacceptable,” he said.

Prior to COVID, he sought to increase equity and diversity in the organization, including lobbying the board to issue a statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, organizing a panel of black tour guides at the Independence Visitor Center, and launching a new training series called “ Other voices. Other stories.”

Even so, Skiba said he rarely received real buy-in from the group’s leadership — and often saw black and queer guides sound out events but never returned.

Fisher, 27, attended an APT event with her business partner Joey Leroux, 26, in 2018 when the best friends had just started their business – which offers “The Badass Women’s History Tour” and “The City of Pride Trolley Tour” – and looked for a network.

Instead, Fisher felt belittled.

“As a younger person, someone without a master’s degree and a queer person — it was quite an unfriendly environment,” she said. “We were quite taunted — that there would be an audience to talk about people who weren’t Benjamin Franklin or William Penn or other white men.”

Kalela Williams, 43, is a writer and founder of Black History Maven, which offers tours and events on black history and women’s history, including the historic Seventh Ward along South Street, the heart of Philadelphia’s early civil rights movement.

Williams believes a lack of involvement in how the city promotes its history extends beyond the APT to include museum souvenir shops with few distinct titles — and delayed promotion of smaller tour operators.

Too often, Williams argues, stories about the diverse people who shaped Philadelphia are treated as “auxiliary issues” to be touched upon, rather than stories that “should be wrapped up in any Philadelphia narrative.”

“What are we afraid of?” she asked. “Why can’t we tell this story?”

That’s why it’s all the more important that the APT champions all guides, Fischer added – not just those telling the same old stories.

“It would be really amazing if the APT took that role seriously – what it means to really support people,” she said. “But the distrust is so deep now.”

In the end, the APT’s idea for the invitation and the behind-the-scenes tour of the Bible Society fell flat. But skiba is still forbidden.

In a recent interview, Smith, who took over in 2019, said Skiba — with his critical comments and refusal to give up access to the group’s Facebook page and mailing lists — was responsible for his own downfall.

“It was a private matter,” she said, “it was a single person who got angry and caused chaos.”

In a later conversation, she added that the incident provided a point of reflection for the APT.

“We realized that we have to be better listeners,” she said.

Ruane said that since Skiba’s departure, the board has created a new diversity committee – an idea Skiba had promoted – and is preparing “action steps”. They also host lectures and reading groups on more diverse topics, she said. Membership has increased, she added, but couldn’t say if the new members were more diverse.

“All of us on the board are still learning,” she said.

For his part, Skiba says the experiences at his main job at the William Way Center have taught him to understand his own privileges – and to listen to and appreciate the experiences of others, even if he doesn’t initially see how a comment or suggestion can hurt someone.

Even if he can’t return to APT, Skiba hopes they see the schism has an opportunity to rebuild and correct past mistakes.

“I think it’s a real opportunity, a real chance, to make APT the organization it should have been, a diverse and welcoming organization that truly represents the people whose stories it tells and the communities of Philadelphia.” , he said.

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