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Letters from 1919 Found in SWE’s Archives Help Tell the Story of Women Engineers

The Society of Women Engineers built an integrated marketing and advocacy campaign from century-old letters found in its archives. Those materials are now the foundation of a marketing campaign that’s growing membership and driving advocacy.
Swe Founders Day: Letters From The Past

This article about SWE’s Letters from 1919 by Tim Ebner is from Associations Now.

When was the last time you made a visit to your association’s archives?

In the ever-present push to “go digital,” we forget that many organizations sit on a paper treasure trove from the past—and much of it could be membership gold. These artifacts can remind your members of your organization’s mission, purpose, and work.

At the Society of Women Engineers, historical documents are preserved thanks to a partnership with Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library. SWE also employs a historian to maintain photos, letters, and recordings, which can be resurfaced and repurposed into marketing materials.

“It’s a great thing to do throughout the year because we can show the mindset of some of the founding members of the society,” says SWE Director of Marketing Drew Navolio. “We can also use these materials in juxtaposition with where women are now. Sometimes they’re moving ahead. Sometimes it’s still the same.”

In a recent marketing campaign, SWE used archival material combined with modern-day images and videos of members. The campaign, “I Am With SWE,” is a call to action, recruiting new members and engaging existing ones through advocacy.

So far, the campaign is paying off. Last year, SWE grew by 3,000 members, and this year, hundreds of members went to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the STEM workforce.

Letters from 1919 Found in SWE's Archives Help Tell the Story of Women Engineers Letters from 1919

One of the signature elements of the campaign is a trove of letters from 1919 written by deans and professors at major universities, responding to female students looking to form an association for women engineers.

The responses were blunt. As one associate professor at the University of North Carolina said, “[W]e have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department.”

The letters were the fuel needed to ignite an awareness and advocacy effort, Navolio says, because they shed light on the many challenges women faced in history and continue to face today.

“These letters really took off. We rolled them out during Engineers Week, showing where we’ve come from,” Navolio says. “But particularly now, during the #MeToo movement, there are still a lot of things that are relatable.”

The letters not only gained traction with members but also captured public attention, in articles featured in Glamour and The Atlantic and in a video produced by Boeing:

“It was a pretty profound video, and it did really well in terms of [YouTube] views,” Navolio says. “But again, it was because we had these letters and repurposed them, and people really connected in with the content.”

Even if you’re not a historian, Navolio says you can create honest and authentic materials that tap into members’ underlying motivations. You don’t have to be a half-century-old institution either.

“Really, it’s all about taking a more extensive look into what your members are already telling you,” Navolio says. SWE members call themselves “SWE-sters,” and they share a bond that feels more like friends or family.

It’s a major reason why Navolio and his team put out a call for member testimonials, highlighting individual stories about why members entered the engineering field. Those videos were shared on social media, including during a recent commemoration of SWE Founder’s Day.

“This [campaign] was all about the connection members felt,” Navolio says. “It’s a special network of support. Yes, you’re a member, but you’re also standing in line with something bigger—our mission and ideology.”


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