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The early 2020s will go down as an interesting time in U.S. philanthropic history. As the U.S. was forced to respond to a series of unprecedented crises, including a pandemic, a war in Europe and an intensified national struggle to right historic wrongs and inequities, many grant-giving institutions took a long, hard look at where they were putting their energies, attention and funds. For an organization like the Andrew. W. Mellon Foundation, which focuses on the arts and humanities, this has meant a wholesale rethinking of its focus.
Elizabeth Alexander, who became the Foundation’s president in 2018, was at once an unlikely and perfect candidate to steer the $9 billion foundation through this era. Her father was the first Black Secretary of the Army and her mother an academic, so she grew up steeped in politics and social change. She’s also an academic, with stints at Smith and Columbia. She taught at Yale for 15 years and headed up the African American Studies department for four.
On the other hand, she’s an artist. She published her first book of poetry, The Venus Hottentot, when she was just 28 years old, and has written five more since. She’s been a finalist for a Pulitzer (twice, once for poetry and once for memoir) and she read at the 44th President’s first inauguration. She has brought all her skills and experiences together in a new book, The Trayvon Generation, a series of essays and meditations on the role that arts and humanities have played in both creating a culture that for too many years tolerated and promulgated a systematic disregard for black and brown people, and can play in redressing what she calls “a fundamental, formative and constitutive problem” in America. Alexander spoke with TIME from her home office in New York City to discuss power, money and art, and how she brings them together for change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve been a professor, you’ve been a writer. You’ve been a poet. And now you’re essentially a CEO. Should more poets be CEOs?
I would first just namecheck two other poet leaders who are not in poetry spaces. Ed Hirsch, who’s the head of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and Kevin Young, who’s the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Stealthily, we are everywhere. Poets are certainly ruthlessly efficient with language and I think that sometimes those principles can transfer. I consider this a very interesting and surprising chapter of my life, but I feel that everything I have done so far has prepared me to do it. I was a chair of a very complex department at Yale University and was and have always understood how to work with limited resources, how to bring community together, how to work in interdisciplinary spaces.
I think more CEOs need to come out of the spaces of African American studies of intersectionalities, and of feminism. There are many lessons and principles there that are a very useful to run things. I am a more-than-middle-aged professional. I’ve had a lot of experience in a lot of things in a lot of places, including very poorly run places. I think if you can analyze a poorly run situation, that’s how you start to think, ‘Oh well, when it’s when it’s my room to organize, here’s what I’m going do with the furniture. Here’s who I’m going invite to the party.’
I think the principle of recognizing talent and potential that’s not necessarily in the expected place is absolutely crucial for dynamic institutions. If you only look at people who have climbed the ladder one way, you’ll be missing out. I really hope that my doing this work well not only will be transformative to the organization and the people that it serves but also we’ll be inspiring to other organizations to think about what talent looks like and how you and how you nurture it and give it a chance.
I think a lot of leaders struggle with how to find those people who are very talented but are not on the classic path. Do you have a method?
It’s more a modality. One of the things as a Black woman that I understand is that historically women and people of color have often been overlooked. I’ve seen mediocre people who had a certain set of opportunities be given more opportunities. One of the great tragedies of racism and sexism and classism is that they both overlook talent and also overelevate averageness that has more to do with inherited opportunity.
What do you think of the work of MacKenzie Scott, another female writer who has a big chunk of money to spend and wants to use it effectively, and wisely?
One of the things I’ve been really interested in philanthropy is, you know, there are X number of foundations. When we put our money in the pot together and we’ve got double or triple the money, then we can have more impact. But the big money is the money that isn’t institutional. It’s the money that someone like MacKenzie Scott and other people have that is theirs and theirs alone. And that’s where you can really increase the impact. I believe 30% of her June 2021 grantees were Mellon Foundation grantees first.
Our work isn’t just writing the checks. It’s also trying to be helpful to grantees in other ways. What she can do from her position that I think is really exciting is to be able to say, ‘Here’s the money, we’re done, you don’t have to engage or write reports, or do anything like, just go do the thing you do.’ That that’s a very important example and it exists in consort with what professional philanthropies are doing to be resourceful in other ways.
Do you miss teaching? Do you mourn at all the prices you’ve had to pay to do the work that you do?
When I started five and a half years ago at the Ford Foundation, straight from the classroom, I was exhilarated by my new work but I missed the classroom in a very tangible way. You know, even my body is still set to those annual rhythms—that back to school energy is a good thing to bring to an organization in September. But I thought: What did I love about teaching? Well, I love sharing knowledge in exchange. I love being with people who are learning, bringing in younger colleagues and thinking about how we have that atmosphere. How do we share the work we’re doing across the foundation? How do we really embody what it means to be a dynamic learning space? One of the things that is useful that comes from teaching in the classroom is that making efficient decisions can coexist with holding aloft complexity. I think that having very, very smart decision-making that can look kaleidoscopically in the way that you’re doing in a very concentrated fashion in the classroom, has a lot of benefit in the CEO space.
Were there things you learned and challenges you didn’t anticipate during the pandemic?
Maybe to me the most important thing is not just thinking about this as the era of COVID-19, but as the era of what some call racial reckoning. I think that to be president of that organization with my training and experience turned out to be very useful. We were at the ready with a lot of the justice questions that some other places were having to grapple with for the first time.
Have there been some parts you found more difficult?
What’s challenging is multitasking on a whole other level, because you are talking to the people who work with you, and you are talking to the world of grantees and potential grantees and former grantees, you’re talking to a board of trustees, and you’re talking to other philanthropies. Talking about things that are happening in the world and to people in other sectors—we want people to be interested in our work. Multitasking is all about how you scale, and how you remain humble about what you need to learn and what you need to delegate. I have always been built as a multitasker. It’s just bigger now.
Do people treat you differently now that they know you have $9 billion dollars or so to spend?
It’s important that I first specify that it’s institutional money versus personal money; I have a team and there’s a different methodology to it. But I think I know what you’re asking. It’s important to be aware of what are the dynamics and imbalances that can come in relationships that have certain kinds of resources. One entity is seeking, another entity has to give. So, how do you make that exchange egalitarian, healthy, not for the ego of the person who’s giving the grant? How do we think about what we need to know from people who we make grants with and also what we need to trust people to do? It’s not appropriate to micromanage grantees. Those kinds of questions are the ones that I think come from my long experience of saying, how do we analyze the potential power dynamics here, and how do we be down-to-earth human beings in all our practices?
But I also wonder if you find that the world looks at you personally differently, when you are somebody who could give something that somebody wants, or you have “institutional” power?
You know, sure, but then that’s what I was saying before, to be an analyst of power and balances. Let’s just look at Ketanji Brown Jackson. I think that we should all be truly disgusted by the way in which she’s been disrespected, lied about, accused of things. It’s been absolutely unprecedented and it’s vile and that it comes from our Senate, our allegedly august body. Every Black woman I know watching [the hearings] has been in a state of tremendous distress. Sometimes, despite all of the trappings, you can still be treated unjustly and with disrespect. I don’t dwell on that. To me, it’s how can I do what my grandmother always told me to do, which is to look people in the eye, to treat people with respect, to treat people as you would like to be treated, to be fair, to share your sandwich and also share the opportunities. So that’s what I focus on. It’s not about me. It’s about someone with a certain philosophy and sensibility and training and background bringing a different set of questions to what it means to do this work and lead this organization.
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