2018 President's Report

Bree Newsome scales confederate flag pole"Whose histories?"—Bree Newsome takes down the Confederate Flag from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, June 27, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Adam Anderson

On July 1, 2018, I assumed the presidency of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, full of respect for the Foundation’s distinguished history and bringing with me a simple understanding of our work and the lens through which I wanted us to look at it: social justice. I have spent these last months learning the Foundation’s work, taking as my primary charge this phrase from the job description: “In a period of rapid change and demographic diversification, when higher education faces multiple challenges, the work of the Mellon Foundation has never been more important or relevant.” It is my aim to help Mellon adopt a broader programmatic lens and play an even greater leadership role in higher education and the humanities in our rapidly changing educational, cultural, and demographic environment. I am asking foundational questions about the strategies of each program area and the underlying program structures, while staying mindful of the need to steer the Foundation’s thinking forward in a measured manner. I have used this time to both assess and represent Mellon; my goal is to ensure that Mellon continues to work to make higher education, the arts, and the humanities front and central in our broader community mission.

Within our areas of work, I have proposed we layer a series of questions and propositions. For example, if a college education is life-transforming and expanding, how do we think about the question of who has access to it? This justice principle is borne out in our pre-existing community college initiative, our work in four-year degrees in prisons, and our movement outside of the realm of some of our traditional college and university partners. I saw our Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program, which looked toward its thirtieth anniversary, as a jewel in the crown answering the challenge of making the humanities academy more accessible to scholars of color as PhDs, but even more significantly, making diverse perspectives of a diverse faculty central to how we believe universities perform at their excellent best. What have colleges and universities valued at the center, and what fields and bodies of knowledge have been marginalized in resources and in the conferral of intellectual value? Who is in the room and at the table? Who is not? What knowledge are we protecting? What ideas are we upholding? These questions more sharply focus and frame the work and commitments that Mellon has been committed to for decades.

Our country is in the midst of a horrible laying bare of anxieties and violence around who is American and who belongs. In about twenty-five years, more than half of the population of this country will be people of color. Yet those people of color have many distinct experiences. So ethnic studies, which is one of our gifts to world knowledge, as well as our very presence in classrooms as educators and students become a way also to think about a changing country. America itself is a term in need of continual reevaluation and definition. So the challenge to our community is, how do we understand the stakes of precise language when violent deeds run rampant about us? What is the power of your words once we are in the room? How are we responsible for them? What can you do with them and do words move us closer to the hoped-for ideal of beloved community? How do we challenge each other? That doesn’t mean, do we say nice things to each other. Rather, it means you understand that our words are vessels filled with meaning and intent, and that our language is what we live in, and thus, how we collectively express ourselves, one voice at a time.

In Scholarly Communications, some of the justice inquiries can begin with, what do we give the status of “knowledge”? Who has access to it? By digitizing and archiving, what are we trying to save and why? What and who has been deemed precious and worth saving, and how can we critically expand that definition? What has been neglected? And in Arts and Cultural Heritage, as we think about the unique power of art to move us and enable us to imagine  other lives, other worlds, and expanded possibilities, we can begin to ask, how do we make these extraordinary experiences more widely available, and how do we think rigorously about art makers, forms, and traditions that have been under-acknowledged? In our work in art conservation and archiving, the questions echo with those we pose of Scholarly Communications, which cultural heritage? How do we determine what to save, and expand our understanding of what is treasured and of the ages?

The work of justice and labor of visioning a better world is hard work, and so we also will think about identifying the leaders, the scholars and thinkers and justice workers and artists, who do that work on behalf of our society. In particular:

  • I want us to support work that clearly shows the unique power of art to transport and also gives others the experience of enchantment, power, and possibility.
  • I want to support cultural work that helps us more accurately tell the story of a richly diverse America and understand more deeply who we are as a nation, in relationship to the rest of the world, lifting up narratives that have been decentered or falsely cast.
  • I want us to find and support arts and culture institutions and projects where there is active, creative thinking about how to make the work they present relevant and accessible while pursuing the highest levels of excellence.
  • In higher education, I want all of our work to reflect our belief that higher learning is truly transformative, and to integrate those voices, perspectives, and knowledge as well as work with institutions that are thinking critically about questions of access to higher education.
  • I want to support work that takes diversity as a value unto itself as a way of reflecting the essentially polyglot character of this country, and the belief that we learn the most from exposure to a range of eloquent voices and perspectives.
  • I want our Foundation to be more outward-facing in its work, both lifting up the work that we do and also signaling to wider audiences who might not yet be working with us that we seek the best ideas and are looking in places where we have not worked before.
  • I want there to be a justice element to all of our work, within the Foundation itself and in our grantmaking and outside engagement.
  • I want to help more people believe that arts and humanities have an essential place in the world.

This sharpened direction is not new but rather evolutionary from Mellon’s good works. I have gestured toward this road forward by making substantial signature grants out of the President’s Office to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), The Studio Museum in Harlem, Firelight Media, the Academy of American Poets, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. My own stewardship of grantmaking is meant to model thinking outside of the proverbial box, bringing new networks of opportunity to the table. Let me lay out some of that grantmaking in detail, as it marks the beginnings of our direction forward.

Equal Justice Initiative Peace and Justice Memorial

Living in Montgomery for three decades, Bryan Stevenson realized that active historical forgetting of race histories in the South is an enabling condition of unequal treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system, from presumptions of guilt and discriminatory jury practices to disproportionate conviction rates and unusually harsh punishment, including death penalty sentences. He noticed that while the city has several dozen prominent monuments and sites that lionize the Confederacy, no public space in the city acknowledged its major role in the domestic slave trade as a steamboat and railroad destination for enslaved people brought from southern ports as well as northern points of sale, and as a major warehousing and auctioneering entrepôt. By 1860, more than 435,000 African American people were enslaved in Alabama—a full 45 percent of the total population of the state.[1] While several impressive organizations document the heroic aspects of the struggle for civil rights in the city, such as the Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy University, the Civil Rights Memorial, and the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, until recently there were no markers of the long history of slavery that propelled the need for the civil rights struggle in the first place. EJI convinced initially resistant historical organizations in Alabama to allow the placement of three markers of the history of the slave trade at the port site, the major auction location, and one of the large warehouses which, as Stevenson discovered, was the building where EJI had established its current offices. Building on this work, EJI then pursued the creation of two major cultural institutions in the city that memorialize and tell the story of the connections between slavery and the injustice of the modern system of mass incarceration and excessive punishment. Both opened in the spring of 2018.

Stevenson is a compassionate advocate, and the aspect of his gift that is especially powerful is that he is a storyteller. He has put his legal training and genius to work as an advocate for people. It is his gift for storytelling and his understanding of the need to visualize and empathize that carry the work forward broadly so that others may understand the structural and historical forces that have rendered some lives less valued than others, and thus be moved to see this inequality as utterly unacceptable.

The South, writ large, has been largely overlooked by philanthropy. We know, for example, that between 2010 and 2014, the Alabama Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta benefited from just $41 per person in foundation funding, compared to the national funding rate of $451 per person and the New York State rate of $995 per person.[2] Stevenson’s commitment and resolve in building the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, demanding attention alongside other pillars of America’s history—the church where Martin Luther King, Jr. and others planned the Montgomery bus boycott, the First White House of the Confederacy, where Jefferson Davis lived, all alongside nearly sixty local Confederate memorials—is masterful storytelling, making visible our wretched history of racial violence, a history whose implications lead us to today. Without that visibility, the story does not make sense. How did we get here? These structures rewrite Montgomery landscape and history, and commemorate southern history in a new way.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation: The African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund

The number of culturally diverse historic sites in America is difficult to measure precisely, but the most well-informed sources give a clear indication. A minuscule share of sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places represent African American, Hispanic, or Asian heritage.[3] Meanwhile, monuments to the Confederacy and schools named for its heroes continue to proliferate in the American landscape. 

Our grant to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to establish the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, in addition to our grant to EJI’s visionary memorial and museum, gestures a new commitment in the Foundation’s work to a project we might call “rewriting the American story in space and structure.” Through this new work we begin to interrogate what—and who—is deserving of memorialization in our contemporary culture. It is a wonderful responsibility we bear as grantmakers to steward extraordinary resources—we now take it as our task to ask ourselves, whose histories have we consistently attended to, and who do those histories serve?

Academy of American Poets

If we believe in the power of words, and that words matter and if we believe that words carry not only meaning but also carry something human, that shared language and the exchange of language is one of the things that makes us human and if we believe that precision with the word matters, that  striving for absolute precision with the word is one of the ways that human beings can communicate deeply enough in order to overcome that which is not understood between us; if we believe also that there is too much language in the air right now that is imprecise, false, harmful, operating not to bridge understanding but to create misunderstanding, to divide and that there is very precise if inelegant language that is being used for the purpose of misnaming and dividing us, we might think about poetry and its possibilities and purposes as distilled and precise language.

Poetry is language designed to bridge and can uniquely hold complexity and contradiction. Poetry creates language that can sustain irresolution and create the time it takes to live with that lack of resolution and perhaps let it shift a little. Poetry is the art form in words that is most accessible, which may seem surprising because it is seen as esoteric.

According to data from the National Endowment for the Arts, recent years have seen the highest on-record poetry readership over a fifteen-year period. The Academy of American Poets (AAP), a membership-based organization founded in 1934 that tracks trends related to poetry, cites a number of contributing factors: the growth of social media, where poems are well suited for sharing; the maturation over the last twenty years of the poetry slam and National Poetry Month; the contributions of decades-old groups such as CantoMundo, Cave Canem, and Kundiman that support poets of color; a proliferation of poetry websites and digital publishing projects; and new, energetic leadership. Perhaps most importantly, in a current social and political context that is marked by attention to pressing issues and debate about core freedoms—including of expression and the press—poetry encourages empathic ways to restore meaning, elevate debate, and contribute to a functioning democracy.

AAP’s president and executive director, Jennifer Benka, would like to empower poets laureate of states and cities to host a greater number of events that would enable communities to know them, and inspire the creation, performance, and reading of poetry, particularly by young people. Benka proposed to launch a competition that would make awards for these purposes to ten to twenty poets laureate across the United States. Applicants are current poets laureate who propose local or statewide projects that engage people with poetry and address pressing issues in their communities.

Poetry is small, it is portable, it is revered the world over and understood in other societies. And it is an art form underserved by philanthropy. It is not an art form that necessarily needs extensive philanthropy, but it is a philanthropy bargain for the power of what it can achieve.

painting with group of African Americans seated reading in library reading roomJacob Lawrence, The Library [now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture], 1960, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 2019 The Estate of Jacob Lawrence/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Studio Museum in Harlem

For over half a century, the Studio Museum has helped artists of African descent from all over the world achieve the recognition and success that more traditional art museums were initially hesitant to extend. Since 2014, the Studio Museum has pursued a building project that will give it the space and quality of facilities commensurate with a program that has grown dramatically in size and ambition since its century-old commercial building was adapted for the museum in the 1980s. David Adjaye, the architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has designed an 82,000-square-foot building that will occupy the museum’s historic site at the heart of Harlem. And provide a world-class home for this singular, inspiring art space.

The Studio Museum is not only an unequaled center for the generation and promotion of art by artists of African descent in the United States, but also a truly unique museum in the world. Recognizing the Studio Museum’s outsized contributions to African American and African diaspora art and to diversity in the museum profession, the Foundation has since 2011 awarded three grants of $1 million each to strengthen the museum’s curatorial work and training capacity, providing enhanced staff support and funds for curatorial fellowships, research, and travel. With these resources, the museum has also expanded the scope of its exhibition program to engage in more sustained projects with emerging artists and curators.

The museum has also created new horizons of ambition for other institutions dedicated to art from historically underrepresented and disadvantaged communities. All the while, the museum’s access to philanthropic resources has been disproportionately small in relation to this enormous reach and influence. For all of these reasons, the Foundation’s contribution to the success of the Studio Museum’s campaign will be of signal importance.

Turning from these signal grants, a word about how I am thinking about the public role of the president to shine a light on the ideas that animate our work. As president, my travel has often also signaled expanded curiosities about the potential reach of our work. My first travel as president was to Jackson, Mississippi, a state long-neglected by philanthropy, where I toured the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Art and spoke with the museum’s Center for Art & Public Exchange team, as well as met with a range of civic, educational, and political leaders. I went to Cleveland for the day to see the inaugural Cleveland triennial, as I am interested in city-wide cultural initiatives. In October, I traveled to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, for a New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison conference, signaling a further-developing area of interest for the Foundation.

Finally, at this moment in Mellon’s history we say goodbye to Board chair Danielle Allen, who has served as Foundation Trustee for eleven years and as chair for four.

In addition to her extraordinary scholarly accomplishments, Danielle is modest about her Board service. It is remarkable. In her long service on the Amherst College board, the Pulitzer Prize Board, and at Mellon, she works outside of the day job that builds and strengthens the field to uphold certain values: of truth, or knowledge, or just learning communities, of the joy of hard work and intellectual discovery, the value of books. She upholds the value of an education and of the humanities.

At a “Meet the Trustees” tea discussion at the Foundation in December, Danielle told us that her abiding love of poetry began when her parents moved to France when she was a child and she was allowed to bring two books over the ocean and chose poetry, because she understood then that it would be most sustaining. But I think what characterizes poetry is what characterizes Danielle’s mind: nuance and subtlety. Complexity. Beautifully jagged symmetry—an unflinching eye for truth. The ability to sustain contradiction. The stamina to move a complex argument to its conclusion. Belief that noticing matters and that in the smallest details there are insights, if you attend to them. Belief that your mind can shift and change over the course of a walk, an argument, a poem. That if you listen carefully, you may not understand something fully at first pass but the subtleties will unfold. Belief that language is the finest human currency and that with it, we are society, and that therein is the hope for increased understanding and justice. I think Danielle believes those things, and her leadership at Mellon exemplified those values and qualities of mind and diligence. For that, we thank her.

It seems apt to conclude these thoughts with a poem, a sonnet that I wrote in the book Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.[4] I include it because it gives us the example of an undertold American story, from the nineteenth century, of Prudence Crandall, a white Quaker educator who literally risked her life to educate young black women while slavery was still the law of the land. Despite all that moved to thwart her, she believed that in beauty, and learning, there was liberation.


Teacher is bewildered when packages
and letters come from far to say how brave,
how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast
is Prudence Crandall of Canterbury.
Work, she says, there is always work to do,
not in the name of self but in the name,
the water-clarity of what is right.
We crave radiance in this austere world,
light in the spiritual darkness.
Learning is the one perfect religion,
its path correct, narrow, certain, straight.
At its end it blossoms and billows
into vari-colored polyphony:
the sweet infinity of true knowledge.

These words are apt for what I believe in at Mellon, the values we will continue
to protect, enact, and exalt.

Elizabeth Alexander


1  US Census Bureau, “Classified Population of the States and Territories, by Counties, on the First Day of June, 1860: Alabama,” in Population of the United States in 1860 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1864), accessed May 28, 2019,

2  Ryan Schlegel and Stephanie Peng, As The South Grows: On Fertile Soil (National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Southern Progress, April 2017), accessed May 21, 2019,

3  See Ned Kaufman, ‘‘Historic Places and the Diversity Deficit in Heritage Conservation,’’ CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship 1, no. 2 (Summer 2004), accessed May 28, 2019, https://home1.nps.gov/CRMJournal/summer2004/article3.html;
Ned Kaufman, “Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment: Phase I,” (version as of April 8, 2004), accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tellingallamericansstories/upload/PhaseIReport.pdf.

4  Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color. Text copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane.