In 2020, to help address the urgent need to expand the range of voices centered and celebrated in our public spaces, Mellon President Dr. Elizabeth Alexander conceived of and launched Humanities in Place, which marked the first newly established program area at the Foundation in more than 30 years. Recently, we sat down with program team members to learn more about their process—and what it takes to fund a just and vibrant public square.
Justin Garrett Moore (JGM) is the inaugural program officer for the Humanities in Place program at the Mellon Foundation. Mammotsa Makhene (MM) is the manager of strategic initiatives and planning in the Humanities in Place program.
A lot of people are familiar with the humanities. But few know what to think when they hear the phrase “humanities in place.” What is it exactly?
JGM: Yeah, I love this question because it speaks to a point of tension in our work: that humanities are typically associated with the university or an academic space, and not necessarily as something broadly public. Something we like about Humanities in Place is its connection to the public—whether that’s the public realm or a public space, there are all of these different expressions about how we know each other, ourselves, and the environments we have. So I think Humanities in Place is this sort of combination, of learning but also experience and an emerging field.
MM: Maybe this will sound simple. But I also think about how in the word humanities, you have the word human. And what makes a place? Well, oftentimes people make places. And when people are in those places, those places in turn become part of them.
To talk more specifically about your work: these photos are from a site visit that you recently took out on Long Island. Can you tell us what’s going on here?
JGM: Yeah, this was really a wonderful experience. The images are from a place called Sylvester Manor. It’s a really important site on Shelter Island, just off Long Island in New York. And people don’t associate New York with something like a plantation. But in its early history, this site was a place where African-descendant people were enslaved and had to work to service an entire global system of chattel slavery, along with harmful social and environmental effects connected with the slave trade.
They’re doing a number of different activities, to really connect people to a different history, a different way of life that’s connected not only to local histories, but also to regional and national history for long-standing legacies in America.
And with the frame of what people on the scholarship side might call the Black Atlantic—the study of connections between Africa, Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean and the Americas broadly—it’s not just in a book somewhere. These are real places. And there’s tangible evidence, both in buildings and the landscape, and in artifacts that are still with us. And people can actually go and experience them.
So here we’re outside, we’re going to visit, we’re meeting with a wonderful woman at Sylvester Manor, Donnamarie Barnes. And she’s the project lead on this work, and going through all the archives, connecting to the site—uncovering not only stories of the people that were enslaved on that site, but also the stories of the families who own and ran that plantation. [Her work includes] connections with the Indigenous people whose traces and impact and work and culture are embedded in that landscape.
MM: If I’m not mistaken, the pictures of us outside show what they believe to be the burial grounds [for people who were enslaved]. And for me, that was a really touching, moving experience. It’s different when you read something, and then you actually walk on that ground.
In philanthropy, program officers are often considered experts in their field, but you seem to be doing a lot of learning in your work. As a grantmaking team, how would you describe your relationship to grantees?
JGM: I love this question. We are trying to address power, frankly. The Mellon Foundation is very well-resourced institution, both in financial terms, but also in terms of its position, agency, and power, right? We’re connected to that history and that legacy of how wealth, knowledge, and power is accumulated and controlled. In our work with Humanities in Place, because we’re in this intentionally inquisitive space, we can say that we are not the experts. Our work is to think about what it means to connect with a wider range of communities, histories, and understandings found in all of these different places. So our relationship with grantees is one where that power dynamic is shifting: how we approach the work, how we show up in spaces. The grantees are the experts on their history in their communities. People love their histories, their legacies, their knowledge, their questions—and they want to share that. They want partnership in that work. It is an ongoing learning opportunity.
MM: I think a lot of what our program tries to do is not to be prescriptive in terms of how we work with grantees. So it’s really partnering with them. And in this site visit, it was great—they were the people who were like, “we’d like to show you this first, we’d like to show you that second.” We understand that they’re the experts in terms of work in what they do and what they know.
“We’re going to suspend disbelief, and trust that your story matters—even though everything that we’ve been collectively living in for the last 400 years or so (although really much longer) says that your story doesn’t.”
—JUSTIN GARRETT MOORE, PROGRAM OFFICER, MELLON FOUNDATION
What comes to mind when you picture the future of this kind of partnership-oriented philanthropy?
JGM: When we go on these site visits to talk to and meet people, we’re literally in these spaces. And when we’re in the space of another organization or group, we have a different conversation, right? I think we use a frame of the multitude, of the wholeness of experience, that is possible when you talk about everyone. Not in an abstract way, but actually meaning “community,” and all the different forms that it takes. So I see that when I visualize what partnership-oriented philanthropy means.
MM: And what would it mean for communities? [In the group picture], that’s the Sweet Water Foundation—I believe we’re in their workshop—and their executive director, Emmanuel, is telling us how they had fellows teaching them to build certain things. And so, for me, a partnership approach would mean we help communities and neighborhoods build what they envision for themselves. The word that really stands out is this idea of allowing communities to be bold. We partner with them and understand that we all bringing different resources to the table.
JGM: One thing to add, in our work with Humanities in Place, we have this process of saying, “We’re going to suspend disbelief, and trust that your story matters—even though everything that we’ve been collectively living in for the last 400 years or so (although really much longer) says that your story doesn’t.” That’s the water we’re all swimming in. And so this conversation is about trust. We’ve learned that a lot of times people just need basic capacity to even do something. The visions are great—the physical built or place assets are great—but very often the gap is capacity. And so we have to also trust that people are able to do that work with resources to build their capacity as well.