Dawn DiPrince is on a mission.
After joining History Colorado nearly a decade ago, DiPrince beat out 100 applicants earlier this month step into the executive director role of the 142-year-old organization.
She joined the organization as the assistant director at El Pueblo History Museum in Pueblo. She later became its director before taking on a senior management role for all of History Colorado’s community museums. She moved to Denver in 2019 to become History Colorado’s chief operating officer.
DiPrince is the first person from Southern Colorado to take on the role first held by retired lawyer William C. Ferrill in 1896. She is the third woman to hold the title, having been preceded by Barbara Sudler, who served from 1979-1989, and Georgianna Contiguglia, whose tenure lasted from 1997 to 2007.
When Colorado Politics caught up with her just ahead of her Sept. 1 start date leading the organization, DiPrince said she was proud of History Colorado's accomplishments during her tenure and was excited to bring history to life for the state's youth.
Colorado Politics: Let’s start off with a little bit about you and the journey you’ve taken to arrive where you are today. Have you always known you’d like to make a career in the field of history?
Dawn DiPrince: I never really thought about history as a career. I love so many aspects of history but didn’t always love it in school. Because history, as traditionally taught, only encompassed a single type of story. I didn’t think that it was for me or about me. I am passionate about the stories, recipes and traditions I learned from my elders and my community. Now, I know that all of that is history too! I will admit that as a kid I did try to build an adobe museum in the backyard of my home growing up. It was sadly not successful. But, I now get to help run several adobe museums across Colorado.
CP: Is there a moment that resonates with you where you knew you were on the right track career-wise?
DiPrince: When I first started working for History Colorado, I had the opportunity to work on the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Ludlow Massacre (in 2014). I served as the co-chair of the Governor’s Centennial Ludlow Commission, and I led the development of an award-winning exhibit, Children of Ludlow, which is still on display at History Colorado’s El Pueblo History Museum. This was when I knew that I didn’t want to do anything else. I still feel electric when I think about it. The history, the knowledge building, the community organizing, the storytelling around this essential Colorado history was so deeply meaningful to me. As it does for a lot of people from southern Colorado, this history continues to shape who I am.
CP: You’ve been with History Colorado since 2012 and served in a variety of roles in your time with the organization. Can you point to a couple accomplishments you’re most proud of during that period?
DiPrince: We transformed community museums — our museum network across the state. We did this by rethinking the audience. Museums across the country, just like ours, have long believed that the primary audience is tourists. It didn’t make sense to me that History Colorado would have museums across the state to only serve tourists. Our museums should serve their communities first. If they are dynamic and animated institutions for the people who live there, the tourists will also come. To do this, I developed a number of programs that used history to meet community needs. For example, some of our museums are in communities with a four-day school week. I created Hands-On History to provide a fifth day of education. It is history-based, completely fun and interactive. Best of all, it meets the needs of working families, while helping young people to feel connected to their history and know they belong in their community. This program and this approach has been wildly successful. Our community-centered museums doubled visitation and revenue in just over a year. And Hands-On History is still a growing program that is serving more communities.
CP: That near-decade of experience gives you a pretty complete view of History Colorado so I’ll ask the flip side of the last question as well. Where do you think the organization has fallen short during your tenure?
DiPrince: We are making great strides in being a more inclusive institution, but we certainly have more work to do. Our goals are to be more inclusive in the stories we tell and the materials we collect, but we also have to be more inclusive and accessible in how we do our work. We cannot continue to just use traditional museum tools if we want to connect to people that our organization has excluded in the past. In the years that I have worked here, I have pushed our organization towards a model of co-authorship. Co-authorship honors and recognizes the knowledge that exists among the community. We seek to facilitate ways that we can collaborate with Colorado communities and residents to build new knowledge and understanding of our shared past. History Colorado staff developed anti-racism guiding principles to shape our work moving forward, including: co-authorship, being in community, and shared destiny.
CP: You’re the first southern Coloradan and third woman to lead History Colorado. What do those perspectives bring to the role?
DiPrince: I am exploding with pride in my roots in both La Junta and Pueblo. Women's history from this part of the state is my very favorite history. I continually feel inspired by the women of Boggsville, El Pueblo, coal mining towns, Purgatory River valley, etc. I am a fourth-generation Coloradan, and Colorado's history is personal to me. I come from steelmaking, Pueblo chiles and the Arkansas River Valley. As long as my family has lived in America, they have lived in southern Colorado. I think about my great grandmother Bettina Trapaglia who immigrated to this country in 1916. She raised five daughters practically on her own. She worked in the lime quarry. She never became an American citizen because she couldn't read or write English. But she understood the power of education. She used to do my Dad and Uncle's chores so that they could do their homework. Both of them—and many of their cousins—became teachers. So my great grandmother was ultimately a matriarch of educators who continue to serve in Pueblo schools. What an incredible contribution to our state! Colorado communities have been built by women just like Bettina Trapaglia, and I am committed to making sure that stories like hers are also part of the state’s historic record.
CP: History Colorado has only had 13 executive directors since 1896, so I think it's fair to expect you to be leading it for some time. What do you want to accomplish and what’s highest on the priority list?
DiPrince: In all of my work at History Colorado, I have done it with my arms open as widely as possible. I believe in the power of history to transform communities, make meaning in the world, connect us to each other, and enable us to chart an informed destiny. We are going to innovate and develop exciting ways to ensure that every Coloradan has access to history’s power and knows that they belong in our state’s shared story. We must confront and understand the dark chapters, while celebrating the beauty and the resilience and strength of our state. Together, with Colorado residents, we are going to build a dynamic history that is deeply inclusive and animates an equitable and just future.
CP: What challenges stand in the way of achieving those goals?
DiPrince: I don’t see any pervasive challenges to these goals. Our superpower as an organization is that we know how to build bridges to move us forward and to overcome any obstacles that may stand in our way.
CP: Fill in the blank for me: When you look back at your career, you’ll consider your tenure as executive director to be successful if ... ?
DiPrince: Every single Colorado kid — just like I once was — sees themselves in our state’s history, feels connected to their roots, and knows that they will one day be the leaders and builders of Colorado’s future.
How old are you? 47
Where did you grow up? La Junta, Colorado
Favorite non-work-related activity? New York Times crossword puzzles
First job out of high school? Worked in the craft room at the Girch Center, which served adults with developmental disabilities
Favorite takeout spot during the pandemic? TacoMex on East Colfax