The college launched its new Institute for Arts and Humanities on Wednesday morning with a three-day conference on diversity, equity and inclusion that included an address that night by activist and commentator Nikki Giovanni and a lunchtime talk by Mathew Knowles, father of Beyonce, on Thursday.
The institute was made possible by a three-year $360,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The conference is the first of the planned annual Summer Symposiums to further develop connections between the arts and humanities.
"MCLA is an incredible place, our intimate campus, the opportunity that we have to know every single one of our students as individuals, and the fact that we're situated in Berkshire County, which is a mecca for arts, culture, and humanities," said Lisa Donovan, professor of arts management and director of the new institute. "So today, as we launch, we're going to be looking at some of the amazing work that's taken place. And if you are from the Berkshires, this is an opportunity to think like a region.
"And if you're outside the Berkshires, it's an opportunity to engage an unfolding work in progress, to glean lessons and to add your own voice and to stay connected to us."
The launch, held in the social hall of the MCLA Church Street Center, also featured college President Jamie Birge and Mayor Thomas Bernard.
Birge said the intersection of the arts, the college's strategic goals and the mission of the Mellon Foundation came together because of the area's unique and rich cultural resources. He was at a dinner at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art when he met the foundation's executive vice president, who happened to sit on MoCA's board of directors.
He talked to her about MCLA's focus on liberal arts and enticed her to come and visit. That began the process, he said, exploring how to integrate these ideas about diversity, equity inclusion, into a curricular environment.
"The grant from the Mellon Foundation will allow us to do some things that we could not have envisioned without them, nor can other institutions envision," Birge said. "And so this is an exciting important time for MCLA as my colleagues and I implement a number of changes across the campus."
There has been a student-driven campuswide conversation on race, the implementation of intergroup dialogues, a revision of the core curriculum examining the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, and significant strides in eliminating the four-year graduation achievement gap of African American students.
"One of the reasons why we are here today is to talk about our strategic plan to think differently about learning and teaching for a changing world represents a call to action and charges all of us to challenge our assumptions," he said. "To think creatively about how we approach our work and to act strategically as we pursue the shared goal making MCLA a better, stronger and more diverse institution."
Donovan has been at the forefront in building connections between educators and cultural assets through initiatives like the Berkshire Cultural Assets Network, funded by a National Endowment of the Arts grant. Now she's hoping that the more than 50 arts and humanities entities will be a bridge for students, educators and the community.
"That's the goal for today — to create a space where we're thinking about not only where we are, but how we move the needle forward in Berkshire County and beyond," she said. "This grant allows us to tap into the rich cultural resources we have in the area."
Donovan said there will be discussions on how to evaluate the impact of the symposiums and institute to show the Mellon Foundation tangible results. The initiative is dependent on grants so she is hopeful that the funding can continue.
The grant was pursued with support of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, aided by the Barr Foundation, and Greylock Federal Credit Union. It provides funding for the symposium, speakers, internships and grants for students, and a coordinator, Erica Barreto.
"So today, as we shift, we've been doing a lot of talking this morning and kind of inserting the foundation, but the rest of the day is really thinking about, where are we now? Where do we need to be? What are the opportunities and tensions," Donovan said. "But if we're not thinking about breaking down our power structures that work will not move forward."
Barreto made a point of acknowledging the ancestral native tribes of the Berkshires who were forced out the area.
"I think it's important that we acknowledge the violence perpetrated in the name of this country, and make a commitment to uncovering truths together," she said. "It's a practice that connects us to acknowledge where we went wrong, and to also accept change and growth."
Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, the college's chief diversity officer and conference co-director, said Donovan has helped expand his own thinking about the importance of art.
The son of working-class Irish and Puerto Rican parents, "we didn't go to museums, museums were not welcoming to us," he said. "We were lucky that they had some school field trips, but that art was for those people. It wasn't for us."
He didn't often see someone like himself — a queer man of color — portrayed and remembered how he felt when actor Wilson Cruz played a gay Puerto Rican on "My So-Called Life" in the 1990s.
"Really, like I exist, I exist somewhere. And that, for me is so powerful, because for many of us, we don't see ourselves existing," MacDonald-Dennis said. "And it's a way to see yourself, to ground yourself. And when you ground yourself, you can handle anything."
And that's why the institute is so important, he said. "Because books, art, allow us a safe way to experience things see things to say, OK, that's what that looks like. ... And that is not just for people from the dominant group ...
"Contrary to popular belief, oppressed people don't love being oppressed, you know, it's like we're trying to get rid of that. This really is a safe way for us to then have that larger, deeper conversation."
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