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Stand for Equity with Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander

October 24, 2020

On October 21, Professor Joel Fleishman welcomed Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander to his FIRG Seminar which was also part of the Sanford School’s ‘Stand For’ Series: Stand For Equity.

Alexander talked with Fleishman about the June 2020 shift when the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in art and culture, switched its focus to prioritizing social justice in all of its grantmaking. Whereas it typically gives out roughly $300 million a year in grants to arts and humanities organizations, this year because of the economic losses created by the pandemic, it is planning to distribute $500 million, very significant increase. “And a lot of that was because we saw so many arts and culture organizations, absolutely struggling.”

Germany, for example, gave billions of arts funding in the face of COVID. The City of London I think gave more relief funding than the entire United States added up together.

“What are the classics? What is a classic? How do we think about human beings, over time, in different parts of the world, and how they have explored and expressed and passed on their sense of what it is to be human in that particular place in that particular point in time?”

Alexander announced the biggest initiative in the foundation’s history: the Monuments Project, a five-year, quarter-billion-dollar commitment, that will support efforts to “recalibrate the assumed center of our national narratives to include those who have often been denied historical recognition.” This includes not just statues, but places, like the Equal Justice Initiative, and the Monument for Peace and Justice which tells the story American story from slavery to mass incarceration with an integrated vision that is a way of saying “let's tell American history in its wholesomeness.”

They are the nation's largest funder in prison higher education prison higher education that leads to the degree because they believe fervently that a strong humanities education equips people with the most need for transformation to be able to contribute in a positive way to society when they finish their degree. Alexander believes in "the power of browsing," and points to the funding of the Justice Collaboratory, which are 500-book libraries that will go into every prison (men’s facilities, women’s facilities, and juvenile facilities) in all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico.

"The profounder question was for the society to answer is why, why do we lock up so many people? Why do we lock up more people than anywhere on the planet? Why do we think we are a fully human and humane society, when we do that?"

How do we tell really tell the history of this country?

Find out more about the Stand for Series.