MCLA calls for places where diverse voices can rise

MCLA’s Institute for the Humanities held its first symposium on ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’ a year ago in mid-June, and their work continues today, as MCLA’s Gallery 51 also celebrates many artists of color this summer and gives them a place to lift their voices, in Genevieve Gaignard’s artist residency, virtual artist studio tours and more.

The bowls lay on the paths under the maple trees. They were bright earthenware, and they were partly covered with leaves.

“History gets buried over time,” said Erica Barreto, remembering the fall morning when she saw them. “It was a powerful experience.”

She was a student at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts when she took a field trip to the Mount in Lenox to see Setsuko Winchester’s Yellow Bowl Project. Winchester is an American ceramic artist, photographer and journalist, and she made these 120 tea bowls to honor people imprisoned in World War II, the 120,000 Japanese-American men, women and children who lived in U.S. internment camps.

Winchester took her tea bowls to each camp, and in each one she took a photograph. Barreto had seen the images on the walls at Gallery 51. But seeing the palm-sized bowls at the Mount, on the earth, moved her strongly.

Often a class will talk about an idea or a moment in the past and move on, she said. But in a class on conversations on race, she was learning about the experiences of immigrants who have come to this country and how some people living here have wanted to silence them, and here she felt the experience of those families in the internment camps, forced away from their homes into barrack-like prisons. It came close to her.

Art can become a powerful tool for understanding, she said. MCLA has set out to build experiences like this. With a $360,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the college has launched a new Institute for Arts and Humanities, with a countywide network of arts and community organizations.

Barreto, now a young alum, has returned to MCLA as the institute’s coordinator, working alongside the institute’s director, professor in arts management Lisa Donovan.

Donovan has built her career and years of research around bringing the arts into teaching, and now she extends that philosophy into the humanities, with a focus on community, hands-on learning and collaboration.

The Institute opened with MCLA’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion conference in June 2019, with internationally acclaimed poet, essayist and Nikki Giovanni here to give the keynote address.

Donovan pushed back on the word inclusion in that title though, when she spoke at the conference. It implies inside and an outside, she said, a host opening the door to a guest — not two people side by side who both make decisions.

She suggests instead the idea of belonging.

Erica Barretto takes a leading role in the Institute for the Humanities at MCLA.

Erica Barretto takes a leading role in the Institute for the Humanities at MCLA.

Community on campus

Around that idea, the Institute is planning an annual conference, she said, and a speaker series. It will fund student work and faculty fellowships and has already funded two student interns, Dominique Stevenson-Pope and Isamaya Hagstrom.

This expansion has grown out of several years of work, Donovan said.

MCLA has won recognition for support of diverse students on campus, but has also recognized a need for change in its own community. Students made the case for hiring the college’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, Donovan said.

Diversity can mean many things, Stevenson-Pope said. When people talk about diversity, they often think first of race, but it is a broader word, involving gender and orientation, class and socio-economic background, faith, many elements of life.

She hopes to see the institute have a stronger influence on campus. If students feel on edge, she said, they will not feel they belong where they live.

MCLA used to have a very vibrant culture on campus of students using art to express their own ideas and identities. Arts students would host an annual Figment festival, she said, to talk about problems they face. Chalk murals could live for months and years, as students kept them up from one season to the next. One that speaks to her, the symbol of a woman with a taut fist, has begun to fade with time, and she hopes the institute will support the kind of spirit that created it.

“I want that to come back,” she said.

MCLA and the Berkshires

Barreto, a year out of college, wants the same in North Adams and in the county.

“This is personal work for me,” she said a few days after the conference, reflecting on it over a cup of coffee. “During the planning grant, I found a sense of belonging in the Berkshires. This felt like a place I could belong and, as a young professional, grow and thrive.”

She has seen many classmates transfer away from the Berkshires or move away. Few have chosen to live here.

“We’re seeing fewer and fewer students staying after they graduate,” she said, “and I want to make that possible.”

She understands her interns’ frustrations, in her own experiences as a Latinx woman on a campus where 80 percent of the students are white, and in this rural county.

But in working with the Institute and exploring the Berkshires, she has discovered the Festival Latino in Lee, Berkshire Salsa, the Berkshire Immigrant Center, places and people she had not known as a student.

“We can find places of belonging here,” she said. “That’s what I’m excited about.”

Finding cultural resources has felt central to her work here from the beginning, to create a network among local arts organizations that share the Institute’s concerns.

The institute began with a $50,000 planning grant in 2017, and Barreto first came to the project as a research assistant, working with a team from disciplines across the college: economics, English, arts management.

They were exploring ways to link the MCLA community with the music and art, theater and dance around them in the Berkshires.

Internationally acclaimed poet, professor, writer and activist Nikki Giovanni speaks at the MCLA Institute for the Humanities' inaugural symposium in June 2019.
Nikki Giovanni / MCLA

Internationally acclaimed poet, professor, writer and activist Nikki Giovanni speaks at the MCLA Institute for the Humanities' inaugural symposium in June 2019.

Belonging in the arts

“We didn’t go to museums,” MacDonald-Dennis said, speaking at the press launch for the Institute during the conference. He grew up in the projects, as the son of an Irish father and a Puerto Rican mother. “Museums were not welcoming for us.”

“As a queer man of color, I’m someone who has not often seen myself represented. On My So-Called Life, when (I saw) Wilson Cruz play a gay Puerto Rican, it’s like ‘I exist’ — when you see yourself … you can ground yourself.”

Donovan has worked to find that ground for students today.

MCLA wanted to bring students to see Kyle Abraham and his company perform last winter, she said, when he came to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to create a new work rooted in loving relationships in black communities.

She wanted to encourage students to get involved — here was a MacArthur Genius Fellow creating new work just down the road, and the dance festival reached out to the college. But the Pillow is an hour south of MCLA, and students can easily feel distant from it. So Abraham came to campus on a Sunday night in November to meet students there.

“It completely opened the door in a whole new way,” Donovan said.

Meeting him and interacting with his work changed the students’ sense of who is invited to see dancers perform on a Berkshire stage, Barreto said.

This summer, people of many backgrounds may see themselves reflected in the Berkshires in the artwork on the walls or the drama on stage.

Barrington Stage Company opened a wide-ranging summer with Hold These Truths, the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, winer of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, who fought against the internment camps in World War II and fought for the Constitution for 50 years.

Kyle Abraham returns to Jacob’s Pillow on July 31 and Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel company opens the month with a new work inspired by black Shaker worship.

Cauleen Smith has opened a major solo show Mass MoCA, reflecting on influences as wide as science fiction, John Coltrane Toni Morrison, New Orleans after the hurricane.

Still I Rise, a group show of portraits of women, most of them women of color, opened in June, the museum invited people in the local community to share their stories, Barreto said, and they talked about the importance of oral histories.

AIM company dancers perform An Untitled Love.
AIM dance company

AIM company dancers perform An Untitled Love, a work developed at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket.

The world in the classroom

Connection to people and creative expression can deepen the work students are immersed in, MacDonald-Dennis said. Books are a safe way to experience something without living through it, but art can open people still more.

“We are allowing our students to engage with difference in a deep way,” he said, “to combine the heart and the head.”

After that day at the Mount with the Yellow Bowl Project, Barreto’s class had a writing prompt: What does it mean to be an American? History classes and arts management classes came to see the Yellow Bowl at Gallery 51, and students wrote reflections, and then they shared them in a community reading.

Students came to Gallery 51 to support each other, Donovan said. Events in the world met the arts in their college and town and the questions they were facing in their classes — and they felt themselves change

“It was a powerful night,” she said, “… and to have had these moments, you know it when you see it, when something has happened.”

Reaching out within communities

Beyond MCLA, Donovan and Barreto feel a commitment to the health of the Berkshire community as a whole and to and communities, diverse in many ways, that they want to partner with.

“We want to work together and think together,” Donovan said.

And she takes the idea of partnership seriously.

“People need to make decisions,” Barreto said, “so we’re not making decisions for them.”

She and Donovan want to understand the landscape, in the college, in North Adams and in the Berkshires.

At the conference, local leaders in the arts in the Berkshires talked about the efforts they are making within their own organizations — training their staff and their boards, and thinking about the community of people who run the organization and the people who come to see their work.

“It was unique to have so many people there, and being so honest,” Barreto said. “People said they have tried to create this kind of network before.”

The Institute is giving them a structure and a hub, she said.

Looking ahead

On the day the institute announced itself to the world, Nikki Giovanni walked on stage in the Church Street Center at MCLA

As she walked in, the audience all stood in one movement to honor her, and the room filled and surged with applause.

She spoke informally, honing humor, telling stories from her life, recognizing pain and anger, and then speaking a poem aloud as straightforwardly as holding a friend, with a shared strength she offered as a gift. She held out images glinting like mica in stone: If a storm came tonight and knocked this building down, she said, and someone came in a thousand years and dug down into it, they would see from the bones that people turned to one another here and said it’s all right.

And then she picked up one of Aesop’s fables and turned it around.

“The hare is not a fool,” she said. “Why would he offer to race the turtle? Because they were friends, and he recognized something sad in the turtle’s life. That’s what friends do — when something sad happens, when your mother dies, when someone gets shot, they come … so you will feel loved. And all the hare has is his speed.”

“It’s important to know what you have to give,” she said, “and to give it. Some of us here can do whatever it is we can do.”


This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer in July 2019 — my thanks to editor Fred Daley. It continues to feel timely today.

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