In 2017, Elizabeth Alexander, one of the most acclaimed poets of her generation, was in New Orleans for a site visit with Ford Foundation director Darren Walker and his board of trustees. At the time she was director of the Foundation’s Creativity and Free Expression program, focusing on arts and culture, journalism, and documentary filmmaking. Such excursions were not unusual, as trustees often visited places that the foundation had assisted, and in the years following Hurricane Katrina, Ford had provided $45 million in grants toward the city’s recovery.
But this trip was different. Alexander had included a visit to the Whitney Plantation, in Edgard, about an hour’s drive from New Orleans. Now a museum, the plantation is one of the few former estates that tells the history of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved. “You can go to New Orleans and go to Preservation Hall, eat some pralines, and go to other familiar aspects of New Orleans culture, and you could laugh and dance and smile and have a great time,” she said. “But it’s a deep place. It’s a complicated place. So what did it mean to look at New Orleans holistically and deeply? That had to include not just the culture but also a plantation, to understand that aspect of the economy and history.”
At one point during the trip, Alexander read to the group a poem by Lucille Clifton titled “at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989,” about Clifton’s own visit to a plantation, where
nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.
Clifton felt that poetry could help recover history—or, as Alexander puts it: “How do we let the ground speak wherever we are? How do we surface our history and not bury it? How do we not let the lies about the past dominate and live? How do we not sanitize spaces where horrors took place, but also where community endured?”
[Elizabeth Alexander was selected as a 2022 Decider, by guest editor Hank Willis Thomas.]
Since 2018, Alexander has been president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of the arts and humanities, with, at year-end 2020, an endowment of $8.2 billion.
The Mellon Foundation was formed in 1969, the product of a merger between nonprofits founded by industrialist Andrew Mellon’s children: Ailsa Mellon Bruce’s Avalon Foundation and Paul Mellon’s Old Dominion Foundation. It began with assets of $273 million; to date, it has donated almost $6 billion in grants. Initially, those contributions tended to go to elite institutions, like Ivy League schools. “It really shored up the most select strata of institutions and organizations,” said former Mellon president Earl Lewis. But over time the funding purview expanded, and the foundation began leading the way in making higher education accessible to as many people as possible, whether by supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities; making the largest endowment to higher education in prisons; or giving, in 1995, the initial funding to create JSTOR, the digital library for thousands of academic journals.
“The foundation has benefited from strong leadership by a succession of presidents,” Lewis said. During his own tenure, from 2013 to 2018, “I followed up by trying to democratize who was eligible to receive support from the Mellon Foundation. In my five years, we tried to widen the net of institutions, followed by my argument that while talent is evenly distributed across the globe, access to opportunity is not.” It was under Lewis’s leadership that the foundation made one of its most important contributions to the art world outside of grants: the Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey. Published in 2015, it showed a harsh disparity between the country’s population and the makeup of U.S. museum personnel: 84 percent of curators, conservators, educators, and leaders were white.
“What are the stories that we haven’t heard about?”
Alexander came to the organization with a specific mandate, she said, of “sharpening the focus—doing all the work, every penny, through a social justice lens.” That meant asking what she called “sharper questions”: “What are the stories that we haven’t heard about? What are the cultural points of view that have not been centered? What are the units that have not been resourced or uplifted?”
Since becoming president, Alexander has overseen contributions of $11.8 million to help sustain Puerto Rico’s cultural ecosystem, and $125 million to Creatives Rebuild New York, to provide income and employment directly to artists as part of Covid relief. She’s put a new emphasis on collaboration, partnering with the Ford Foundation in 2020 to create the Disability Futures Initiative, which will give $50,000 grants to disabled artists through 2025, and again in 2021 to establish the Latinx Art Visibility initiative, which is distributing $50,000 grants to 75 Latinx artists over five years and will also help support museums and academics in the field. “Historically, Ford and Mellon were not often partners,” said Walker, the Ford Foundation head. “My colleagues and I at Ford benefit from her leadership in the field, and she’s really become a leading light for this idea of the intersection of the humanities and social justice. She’s crafting a new paradigm.” At Mellon, Walker said, “Elizabeth is making transformational change.”
One thing Alexander knew she wanted to do from the get-go at Mellon was to establish an initiative that would look at the country’s monuments—their histories, where they exist, what stories are being told, and what stories have yet to be told. That initiative, the Monuments Project, was launched in 2020, meeting a moment in which conversations that had been ongoing for decades around the monuments we have and what they say about our relationship to history—and, more important, about us—were gaining steam. The Monuments Project is a five-year initiative to which the foundation has committed $250 million and counting, the largest such undertaking in its history.
“It seemed clear to me that the built environment, the monument environment that we encounter every day, is always teaching us, but we’re often not aware,” Alexander said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t stop and think about all the white men in acts of war on horseback, disproportionately littering the environment. But yet that was teaching me something. With many monuments, we are made to feel small in their presence. What are we being asked to hold in awe? What are we being asked to literally look up to?”
Alexander’s approach—to poetry, to teaching, to philanthropy, to life in general—is grounded in community. “I’m not built for individual pursuit,” she said, “even though I understand it as an artist. I exist within community. I exist within a community of makers, of poets, of Black people, of people of color, and hopefully of the world. You make space for others, wherever you go—you fail if you only move forward individually. Ultimately, individualism is fatalism.”
In the mid-1990s, when she was writing and publishing poetry and teaching literature and African American studies, she was a founding faculty member of Cave Canem, a New York–based nonprofit that looks to uplift and support African American poets, who have long been under-resourced within the field—in particular, within MFA programs and mainstream writing programs. “What if we did it to test the idea and the space?” she recalled. “What we saw was that the idea and the space was so powerful and was a community and an idea that was waiting to come.”
The pull toward community started with her family, and a closeness with her mother that helped guide her along a winding path. She was born in 1962 in Harlem, but her family soon moved to Washington, D.C. When she was in high school, she was a serious dancer and always thought she would pursue that as her career. “That’s what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “Then I found out that I was very good, but not good enough. In that disappointment, there was the realization that you can love something, but it’s not what you do with your life.” In college, at Yale, she thought she might be a journalist, and worked for a year after graduation at the Washington Post.
Alexander never thought she would pursue another degree after college (“School was 100 percent over for me,” she said). But her mother, Adele, noticed that she didn’t seem fulfilled. Alexander recalled her mother telling her, “You’re loving your work as a reporter, but I hear you saying that you want to write other kinds of things, that there are limits to that kind of writing,” suggesting she apply to a creative writing master’s program where she could study under one of her favorite writers, St. Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott. Alexander still wasn’t convinced. “In her very wily way, she said, ‘You probably won’t get in, and then you can keep doing what you’re doing. But if you get in, you will have created a choice for yourself.’ So I think that at that juncture it was: listen to your mother sometimes. And also, what does it mean to create choices where you can, because in the yes or the no, you learn a great deal,” Alexander said.
That program was at Boston University, and Alexander completed her master’s there in 1987. She entered the program thinking she would focus on fiction. When she showed one of her professors her diaries, he took a long look and began copying sections, inserting line breaks. He told her, gruffly, “What you’re trying to do—unsuccessfully—is write poems,” she recalled. When she saw how the line breaks changed her prose into poetry, she had a breakthrough. Her professor told her to continue to write poems until she felt ready to show him something. “So then I went to the woodshed; sometimes you just have to put your head down,” Alexander said. “I then discovered that that was the thing I was meant to do.”
Walker described her as being “instinctively a poet. Elizabeth could have done nothing else and been happy. She’s one of these people who had to be a poet in order to be fully Elizabeth.”
Knowing that being a poet wouldn’t necessarily come with a steady income, Alexander went back for another degree, this time a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, based on her love of teaching. Since her dance days, she had a been teacher, leading classes in a community center; and at Yale, during the summers, she taught New Haven public high school students. “I knew that graduate school was a way both to learn and study deeply—I was entranced [by] African American literature—and also that it was going into the teaching space,” she said. With that, she was set “with a life that was about making art and doing scholarship that was mission-driven, because it was a moment when not everybody was reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Not everybody still is reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, but it was out of print at the time and was not considered canonical in any way.”
Alexander took an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago in 1991. The following year, she completed her Ph.D.; her dissertation, Collage: An Approach to Reading African-American Women’s Literature, focused on works by Anna Julia Cooper, Ntozake Shange, and Audre Lorde, taking Romare Bearden’s use of collage as a jumping-off point. She argued therein, she told me, that “collage is a fundamentally Black art form in the way that it mirrors the process of taking from many places and recombining in the new space. That continual cutting and pasting and reinventing, I wanted to use it to understand hybrid texts by Black women. I realized that I was making space for the idea that if you have not been centered, if you have not been culturally resourced, that that actually can be a site of tremendous invention.”
She added, “That makes sense with where I am today.”
In 1996, when she was in New Haven for the staging of a play, Alexander met and soon fell in love with artist and restaurateur Ficre Ghebreyesus. They married in 1997 and soon had two sons. In 2000, she began teaching poetry and African American studies at her alma mater, Yale, ultimately chairing the latter department.
The aughts brought triumph and tragedy. In 2009, Barack Obama asked Alexander to write and recite a new poem for his first presidential inauguration, and she delivered her “Praise Song for the Day” on a frigid January morning. Three years later, Ghebreyesus died unexpectedly, just after turning 50. Alexander published a book about him, The Light of the World, that in 2016 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Writing it “was the only way I could know what was happening to me,” she said in a joint interview with Sheryl Sandberg for the New York Times. “I knew I was alive; I knew I had to take care of my children. But writing was like placing my hand on the earth. It wasn’t comfortable. It was more like living with the steady companion of my life: making things out of experience.”
Since her debut collection, The Venus Hottentot, came out in 1990, Alexander’s writing has been inspiring others. “The Venus Hottentot is so groundbreaking and quietly revolutionary,” said Kevin Young, a poet who is currently director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture. “For me, she embodied a new way of writing about these subjects. I think she inaugurates what turns out to be a whole generation of writing. There’s a tenderness and humor and fierceness in that work that carries through all her work. She gave me, at least—and, likely, a lot of other people—permission to write about some of these topics: history from a personal angle or one’s dream life.”
After Ghebreyesus’s passing, Alexander and her two sons, Solomon and Simon, who at the time were 12 and 11, respectively, moved from New Haven to New York, where she began teaching at Columbia. “That was a very dramatic move, but I knew that it was the right thing for us,” she said. “I knew that for my sons, I needed them to see that other worlds existed and that we could reinvent, for them to see that you don’t have to be paralyzed with fear about the unknown, that we have to be open to change, and that we have to sometimes be a little bit uncomfortable in order to continue to evolve and move closer to how we can live our lives richly and productively.”
In 2016, Walker lured her away from academia for the time being, to serve as the Ford Foundation director of Creativity and Free Expression. Alexander described her move into philanthropy as “pure serendipity—Darren Walker saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
“At the time, the Ford Foundation needed the sensibility of a poet, and we were so lucky to get Elizabeth,” Walker said. “She brought brilliance, a dazzling intelligence, a compassion, and empathy and humanity to the job. She was absolutely an unconventional hire for a foundation, but she was a godsend to the Ford Foundation.”
At Ford, Alexander helped codesign the Art for Justice Fund, a six-year criminal justice initiative kick-started by the sale of collector and patron Agnes Gund’s prized Roy Lichtenstein painting, Masterpiece (1962), for $165 million to Steven A. Cohen. Gund’s $100 million gift was a windfall. “No matter how resourced our foundations are, there’s never enough money to really effect the changes that we want to make,” said Alexander. “There are too many problems to solve.”
Alexander’s Monuments Project at Mellon has a budget of $250 million, a number commensurate with the gravity of the subject. “Monuments,” said Lewis, the former Mellon president, “are not only architectural statements, they’re also statements about power and place, [about] who is favored and who is not. By investing in that area, it begins to remind artists and their communities that the stories we tell about us are some of the most powerful things that connect us as humans. The degree to which we put up monuments that reflected one part of humanity but not all of humanity requires a period of interrogation.”
The first organization to receive money through the project was the Philadelphia-based public art and research studio Monument Lab, which got $4 million in September 2020. The lion’s share of that funding went to creating the National Monument Audit, which scoured hundreds of thousands of public records to create a database of around 50,000 different types of monuments in the United States and its territories. An animating question for the Audit, said Paul Farber, a cofounder and director of Monument Lab, was “How do you go about getting a better understanding of the monument landscape?”
Like the Mellon’s 2015 art museum staff survey, the Audit, with a database easy to search online, gave hard numbers to what most people have long known about who is celebrated and commemorated: “The monument landscape,” it reported, “is overwhelmingly white and male.” The Audit compiled a list of the top 50 most-represented people in monuments, finding that 50 percent of those had enslaved other people, and all but six were white men.
“As a professor of African American studies,” Alexander said, “we’ve been asking for a very long time questions of representation, of how the story of history is told, of how some stories are disproportionately given narrative space, of how history is always revisionist. History is told, for the most part, from the dominant culture perspective, and that doesn’t always give us a full and complete history.”
One reason that full and complete history has been difficult to tell, Farber said, owes to the complexity of the monuments landscape. “Despite the fact that monuments are central to our cultural consciousness and in our public spaces, they’re elusive when it comes to understanding how they all connect because they’re under various jurisdictions—federal, state, local, tribal, institutional.”
Tracking all this down has required Monument Lab to grow—full-time staff, field offices countrywide—which the Mellon grant has enabled. “When I say transformative, I mean it was an investment in us as thinkers and doers, but also meeting us where we were in order to see us carry forward,” Farber said. “We want to learn from the monument data from the Audit and bring it together in new ways. A lot of the information about monuments is carried locally, so how do we anticipate ways to build with and learn from people who are already redefining monuments as we know them?”
Farber said that in the years to come, his organization hopes to collaborate with other groups that have received funding through the Monuments Project, like the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, Mississippi, which received $1.1 million, or the MASS Design Group in Boston, which received $500,000 to create a Public Memory and Memorial Lab. “The Monuments Project responds to a profound call of the moment and is building a generation of colleagues who can build coalitions together,” he said.
The Mellon grant most personal to Alexander to date may be the one made to artist Judith F. Baca. Alexander had invited Baca to be on a panel titled “Expanding the American Story” as part of a 2019 symposium celebrating the foundation’s 50th anniversary. In 1976, Baca began her Great Wall of Los Angeles, a mural that runs along the concrete remains of a section of the Los Angeles River. Through her nonprofit organization, the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), she told Alexander, she wanted to extend the mural to the present, and make it more accessible to viewers. Alexander encouraged her to apply for a Mellon grant. Baca chafes at the word monument: “I probably wouldn’t use ‘monument’ to describe the Great Wall because that calls up visions of bronze men on horseback,” she said. “Instead, I call it the tattoo on the scar where the river once ran.” A $5 million Monuments Project grant to SPARC enables Baca to complete the mural, as well as a viewing bridge, so she can now realize what has long been her vision for the Great Wall: “To transform people’s thinking—that it was going to go into the public consciousness, like a tributary becoming a raging river.”
Alexander felt that it was important to support the Great Wall because of “the ingenuity of putting art in that space in the riverbed, of activating that space with art. I use this phrase a lot, but what does it mean to make the ground speak?”
Michael Royce, executive director of the New York Foundation for the Arts, which administers the funds for some of Mellon’s initiatives, including Latinx Visibility, said that if you look at the ambition of the projects Alexander is spearheading “to see how she is tackling very complex issues [to] be at the forefront of inclusive societal thinking,” you’ll see that “she is sounding an alarm for society to recognize on a much deeper level the importance of artists and arts workers.”
Added Walker, “There’s no doubt that Elizabeth is making transformational change at Mellon. Every organization, if it’s going to be relevant and have impact, must evolve, continue to change, experiment, ideate.”
Alexander is appreciative of such praise—she just doesn’t have much time to focus on it. “I want us to keep moving full speed ahead,” she said. “I’m proud that people already have seen the social justice evolution of the organization. Change can be made quickly and deeply and rigorously, that reorientation and a social justice focus doesn’t have to take 100 years. I feel that I have a very sacred responsibility with this opportunity. I have to do as much with it as I can every single day. I cannot waste a day.”