Elizabeth Alexander on the Mellon Foundation’s New Direction
The organization’s grants will “focus entirely on social justice.” What will that mean?
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Since 2018, the Mellon Foundation has been directed by the poet and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, the former chair of the African American-studies department at Yale University. The Chronicle Review spoke with Alexander about the foundation’s new direction, the definition of “social justice,” how politics informs grant making, and what poetry she’s reading these days.
What does the Mellon Foundation’s new commitment to social justice mean?
What it means is that every grant we make we’ll think about through a social-justice lens. We’ll ask: Does this grant contribute to a more fair and just society?
People have asked, Is it a litmus test? That’s hardly the case. That’s just not how we roll. But having to answer the question of whether this contributes to a more fair and just society gives you so many ways, particularly in our higher-learning work, to think about the question of access, of what ideas and what knowledge have not been elevated or supported. We’re holding these resources in public trust — they have to be contributing to making the world a better place.
Are there concrete criteria that you use when evaluating grant applications? That you score in a numerical way?
No, nothing like that. It’s a thinking process. If you think about some of the really important work that is coming out of ethnic studies, African American studies, Latinx, and so on — we know that these departments are very much underfunded at almost all universities.
We also know that there are very few humanities centers that are driving their knowledge making from the space of ethnic studies. Those underresourced units are creating knowledge disproportionate to their resources.
In the past, they have not been able to assume the resources from philanthropy or from the Mellon Foundation — nor, sometimes, from the institutions in which they sit. So — I’m just playing out the process for you — that is where we think we can do a good thing but also an effective thing.
What are some projects that might get funded now, that might not have in the past?
We’re thinking more about what’s happening in public libraries and community archives — materials from communities that the communities themselves have kept safe. We have a beautiful project looking at the history of Black schoolteachers.
We’ve been thinking in a critical way about which resources have gone to which institutions, and about what kinds of institutions we have insufficiently supported. We’ll think about disproportional funding to well-resourced universities. We’ll support dynamic projects there, but you’ll see us much more in the public university space.
It’s not simply: They’re underresourced, therefore we’ll give them money. What we’re trying to say is that these institutions have been underestimated as far as the knowledge-production happening there. What we see happening there is extraordinary.
So very wealthy institutions like Harvard or Yale will be forced to use their own money to fund research that in the past they might have relied on Mellon for?
I think it’s actually about saying: “We value this part of what’s happening at your school, and we think you should value it more.” So maybe we come in half-half, or maybe we put in a contingency that says, “We will help for X number of years and then the university takes it over.” You’ve got to have investment.
One grant that I’m just kind of beside myself about is the Million Books Project. I just can’t even believe that it’s really happening. It’s conceived of by an extraordinary poet, Reginald Dwayne Betts.
We see artists as having creative solutions to all kinds of things. Not all artists have administrative acumen — but some who are in institutions can really see around the corner. So there’s that part. Dwayne was incarcerated — he was given a long sentence as a 16-year-old. So he’s not just theorizing about mass incarceration and what it means to be an avid reader and have books set your mind free while you are not free. He has lived that.
This grant is meant to say: This country dehumanizes millions of people, and this offering is a way of helping to restore an understanding of those people as human beings.
One of the obstacles to prison education programs is getting local legislators, wardens, whoever, to agree to abet or enable them. Does that mean that the Mellon Foundation is to some extent in a lobbying role with respect to policy?
No! We can’t lobby. That’s very important. Every day I walk that line with the General Counsel’s office — a foundation can lose its 501(c)(3) status if it lobbies. So that’s the third rail. Absolutely not.
To me, the idea is: What are the most powerful ideas we can put into the world, and how can we put them out with force and articulateness? How do we find grantees who can really lift up a body of work? Dwayne is one of those people.
Our job in giving away money well is to find partners who can immaculately and powerfully lift those ideas in the world. The idea there — an old Mellon idea — is that within the book and learning is freedom. That you can liberate your mind by study and learning. But we’re making an argument: We’re going to go all the way back and talk about denied literacy to enslaved people.
How would you respond to the criticism that the new social-justice rubric represents a politicization of the Mellon Foundation’s mission?
Underresourcing large swathes of the population is political. It’s a choice. Social justice per se isn’t political any more than social injustice is political. Are we talking about electoral politics or politics in the sense of being of the polis? We are really thinking about the civic value of what we do.
In this country, there are fissures, primal wounds, original sins that are unameliorated and bare. It would be irresponsible not to understand our work as an opportunity to create a more just society.
But different constituencies might define “social justice” differently. Is the way that the Mellon defines social justice a political question?
It is mischaracterizing it to say that there is something inherently political about trying to create a more fair and just society. And that there is not something equally political about denying resources or denying the humanity or denying the possibility of so many people.
Less than 1 percent of the art owned by American museums was made by women of color. Does that make sense? What I’m saying is, open the aperture.
You spent a long time in the academy as a faculty member and as a department chair. What did you bring from the academy to your work at Mellon?
My years in university classrooms have proven to me the power of learning through culture. I’ve taught at schools that are majority white but in mixed classrooms, and I’ve learned that teaching African American literature, culture, and history — the hard questions it poses, as well as the exhilarating beauty it offers — that those hard conversations in mixed racial groups can be had. Nobody died! We got through hard things.
I’ve sent thousands of students into the world with the critical understanding that African American studies offers: Don’t just look at who’s in the room and at the table, but ask who’s not in the room, not at the table. Assume that you’ve been told one piece of the story, and not other parts of the story.
This critical intelligence is useful to my students. But also to me in asking good questions. Chairing the department of African American studies at Yale was very matrixed work because we are a multidisciplinary department. We had faculty members from the econ department, from the law school, from the divinity school, from the forestry school, from anthropology, from sociology, so I had to know something about all those fields. That kind of diversified knowledge — that ability was very important.
You’re a poet. In this past few very stressful months, what poets have you been returning to or discovering?
Lucille Clifton — her poems are very pithy and essential and meditative. She gets right to the bone of the question of Americanness. In “Study the Masters” — “Like my aunt timmie, whose hands smoothed the sheets the master poet slept on” — she talks about her aunt, a chambermaid in the hotel who’s preparing the bed and ironing for the white male poet. And then she says, “But she had dreams too . . . huge and particular as hope.”
I love that.
I often return to Gwendolyn Brooks: “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.”
Our young people are finding their way and leading us through this moment, putting themselves on the line because they understand that it is not sustainable to live in a society where people can be so dehumanized because of their race that they can be murdered in broad daylight by those we pay to protect us. They’re not having that world. “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind” gets at the challenge for those beautiful young people.