#NAHM Feature: Can the Arts and Humanities Save the World?

A public health crisis, the catastrophic effects of climate change, and persistent racial injustice—the challenges we face are interconnected and seemingly intractable. How do we break through and create lasting change? Government, industry, and the sciences are most strongly associated with mitigating those challenges, but without insight from the arts and the humanities, we cannot solve our most complex problems.

October is National Arts & Humanities Month, an occasion for communities nationwide to recognize the essential role of culture in our lives. At Mellon, we believe the arts and humanities can empower us to better understand our past, make sense of the present, and reimagine a more just and sustainable future. Throughout the month, we will feature the voices of artists and scholars as well as practitioners from the worlds of science, medicine, music, architecture, and other disciplines who are collaborating with each other and their local communities to effect real change in imaginative ways. Their extraordinary projects have inspired us to engage deeply with the shared work of building a better future.

We invite you to watch this space and follow Mellon on social media for videos, grantee spotlights, and more, as we look to our grantees and the larger community for compelling and often unexpected ways to meet this moment in human history.

illustration with two portraits of the same individualIllustration by Mark Harris; images courtesy Danielle Ofri.

Spotlight: Dr. Danielle Ofri, Bellevue Literary Review

For Dr. Danielle Ofri, literature and poetry are as crucial to health and healing as any medical tools. 

“When patients speak to us, they are often speaking in metaphor,” says Ofri, an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital Center. “It’s our job as clinicians to interpret their metaphors. If we focus only on the manifest content of our patients’ words, we’ll not only miss their story. . . we’ll also miss the diagnosis.” 

A professor of medicine at NYU, Ofri is also an essayist and editor in chief of the Bellevue Literary Review (BLR), which she cofounded 20 years ago. Publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to “probe the nuances of our lives in both illness and health,” BLR also seeks to engage its readers and contributors—many of whom are not medical professionals—through readings and events that explore the intersection of art and medicine, such as a recent performance by dancers with disability who created original choreography based on poetry published in BLR. 

Like the legendary and literary hospital where it was founded, BLR bears witness to the human dramas of birth, treatment, healing, and dying, and to the ordinary but momentous act of simply living.

Happy 20th anniversary, Bellevue Literary Review!

Reimagining Climate Science: Coastal Futures Conservatory 

In the first of our three-part video series celebrating National Arts & Humanities Month, we listen to the science and meet the Conservatory’s interdisciplinary cohort: ethics professor Willis Jenkins, musician Matthew Burtner, and environmental scientist Karen McGlathery. By reinterpreting scientific data as sound and musical compositions, the Coastal Futures Conservatory makes it possible for us to hear the environmental changes happening on Virginia’s eastern shore.

double portrait illustrationIllustrations by Mark Harris.

Spotlight: Humanities Action Lab

Humanities Action Lab is a coalition of universities and community-based organizations across 40 cities that join up to produce publicly informed projects on urgent social issues such as mass incarceration and climate change and the real impact of these issues on people.

For one such project, “Climates of Inequality,” more than 20 “frontline” communities have documented their experiences of climate change in collaborative projects ranging from events and exhibits to information-rich websites and videos that are publicly accessible. The projects are driven by sharing stories, first-person accounts, and lesser-known histories of frontline communities that bear the heaviest burdens of environmental injustice, such as the industrial corridors of Chicago, where University of Illinois professor Rosa Cabrera (above, left) is faculty director of HAL’s Climates of Inequality initiative.

“We are a coalition of many voices, and that is our strength and our identity,” says Liz Ševčenko (above, right), who directs HAL from Rutgers University-Newark.

One of these many voices is that of Leon A. Waters, an author and New Orleans native who shared his deep knowledge of the history of Indigenous and enslaved peoples of St. James Parish with University of new Orleans students for “Standing up on River Road: Activism in South Louisiana.”

“HAL partners dig into the roots of current environmental injustice in their communities, sharing generations of strategies for resistance, resilience, and mitigation,” says Raquel Escobar, HAL’s public engagement manager.

“The product of our interventions is the media or exhibit, but what’s most important is the process of discovery, dialogue, and engagement among the communities,” adds Ševčenko.

Reimagining the Border: UCSD Community Stations

Where do the arts and humanities and the US-Mexico border intersect? In the second of our three-part series celebrating National Arts & Humanities Month, we feature Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, who lead the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Center on Global Justice and have co-created Community Stations, a network of transformative, multi-use public spaces in neighborhoods in the San Diego-Tijuana area. Students and educators from UCSD form coalitions with local residents and nonprofits in border communities to co-design these Stations, which, says Cruz, unite multiple disciplines, including architecture, environmental design, planning, and the social sciences, “all summoned by the arts and humanities as vehicles to increase communities’ capacity for political action and collective agency.”

Within the UCSD Community Stations, from the open-air classrooms to the mixed-use social housing development, citizenship transcends the division at the nearby border. “Belonging here is not about the documents that you carry,” says Forman. “It’s about a shared future.”

collage of sepia tone portraits

Spotlight: esperanza spalding

“The reality of a just future we envision has never been experienced,” says vocalist, bassist, and composer esperanza spalding, who joins us in reimagining our future as we celebrate National Arts & Humanities Month. “In so many ways, we must speculate what the yet-to-be ‘just future’ feels like, looks like, sounds like.”  

Although spalding’s work is rooted in jazz, the accomplishments of the Grammy Award–winning multihyphenate have defied easy categorization. An innovator of her craft, spalding recently recorded an album meant to channel the healing power of music, and is now expanding her range to include opera.  

Premiering in November, Iphigenia is a retelling of the Greek myth with libretto and vocals by spalding and music by jazz luminary Wayne Shorter. The duo has made an entirely new work that upends convention by fusing jazz and classical forms and reframing the ancient narrative of victimization into one of empowerment. “The artist’s practice—of envisioning a yet-to-be reality, then collectively bringing it forth—is a practice for any of us who intend to manifest a more ‘just future,’” says spalding. 

Reimagining Racial Justice: The Black Studies Collaboratory

To conclude our three-part National Arts & Humanities Month #NAHM video series, we talk with Leigh Raiford, associate professor of African American studies and inaugural director of the Black Studies Collaboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Arising from the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, the Collaboratory is a three-year effort to create opportunities for scholars, activists, and artists to “think together and dream together about what a future might look like if the affirmation of Black lives were at the center and the foundation of US society,” explains Raiford.  

Knowledge-sharing partnerships with local activists, artists, and organizations reaffirm the “multi-sided, multi-generational world-building and life-affirming work” that Black Studies has always engaged in, says Raiford—in a moment when that work is more urgent than ever. 

Follow @MellonFdn on Instagram for more grantee features during National Arts & Humanities Month.

WATCH: “How the Humanities Can Save Humanity”

Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Mellon Foundation, moderated a wide-ranging discussion with artists Mel Chin and Allison Janae Hamilton and writer-photographer Emily Raboteau about how the humanities are tackling the interconnected challenges of climate change, public health, and racial injustice, among other pressing social justice issues. Recorded October 13, 2021.

Watch the event here.