Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Insider: Melissa Howell, Designing Leadership for the African Diaspora

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By Akira Barclay, NY Contributor

Melissa Howell has worked extensively in the social and private sectors in 16 countries across Africa, Europe, and North and Central Americas, and provides leadership in the design of community and business development projects as the founder of Social Impact Design Studios. She is also an executive Board Member for the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA).

At the close of Funding for Arts Month, Melissa shared why MoCADA might be the most culturally relevant institution for the Diaspora in Brooklyn, NY.

Education: MA in Migration and Diaspora Studies from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies; MBA/BA in Business Administration and BA in Spanish from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University

Previous Clients: The Declaration Initiative, The Ford Foundation, Frontline Solutions, and The ELMA Philanthropies Services Inc.

Awards: Received recognition for system design projects with Pfizer, Inc., and achieved other notable accomplishments with The Ford Motor Company and Platform Learning

Other Civic and Philanthropic Involvement: Advisor to the U.S. Department of State’s Women in Public Service Project; member of the New Yorkers for Social Justice PAC; Co-founder of Global Elevation, a non-profit organization supporting international business leadership development for young people across the African Diaspora

You recently joined the Board of MoCADA. What brought you to the decision to take a leadership role in the institution?

I had the privilege of being an intern at MoCADA during the summer of 2006. That fall I entered the Migration and Diaspora Studies graduate program at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Identity theory has always been an area that fascinates me. Artistic expression, and in particular the exhibits and activities at MoCADA, allow me to question identity and its development in a new way. The internship proved to be a great precursor to the level of analysis and cultural exploration that was required in that program. In actuality, I was only days into my internship before I knew I wanted to be a member of the board. MoCADA is a phenomenal institution that continues to produce engaging work. Our members and supporters are loyal. And our mission is critical.

MoCADA focuses on social justice through its exhibitions and programs and has addressed controversial issues including racism, gentrification and police brutality in the past. What is the importance of taking this approach?

There are many ways in which an artist and viewer can engage with a piece of work. What we do by including a social justice frame is create ample opportunity for conversation with the pieces and artists. This allows the viewer to evolve into a participant well before any of the museum's activities come into play.

When you first consider the art and the artist you are presented with a myriad of questions - these likely begin quite personal and intimate but will eventually extend out to broader contexts including life experiences, the curation itself, news and politics, popular culture, etc.

Even though you leave the museum, the conversation continues. Your perspective has changed even at subconscious levels. And then you revisit the museum or attend one of the many community events hosted by MoCADA. And some new elements, between art and artist, enter into that conversation in a way that further influences it and your perspective.

It becomes a pretty powerful experience that is not only about inspiration. It also incites action. Your thinking on the issue has evolved over time naturally, and also through experiences within and beyond the museum's space. It is through those interactive conversations with these themes that action is incited and change happens.

MoCADA is located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. What is the significance of being located in the same district with other cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Mark Morris Dance Group?

For me, it's about the energy. I really like the moniker, "The Planet of Brooklyn." I think there is some validity to this borough being indeed like no other and other-wordly. When you consider even the more recent history of this area, like what was depicted in the film Brooklyn Boheme, you understand why artists want to be here.

And so this district is like a studio without walls. We feed off of each other. It is kind of like crowd-surfing to me. You have artists feeding off of each other, their work takes these incredible leaps and is supported by the energy of this district. It carries us all forward. I don’t know how else to describe it. But you feel it.

You are currently in a capital campaign to construct a new state of the art building. Please share more about the campaign and MoCADA's plans for growth.

MoCADA puts on a large number of events and activities each year outside of the museum's doors. That will continue. However, we also want a space where we can host many more activities right here.

We are building out a new website to drastically increase our online presence. We know this will allow us to grow our membership as well. So we are excited about this campaign and developing a larger physical space that will welcome all of our local and international artists and members.

MoCADA is seeking support for a capital campaign to construct a new 9,000 sq foot, state-of-the-art building in the BAM Cultural District of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. MoCADA serves over 40,000 patrons each year, while operating out of a total space of only 1,500 sq feet. In just 13 years, MoCADA has grown from a grassroots upstart with no full-time employees, to an internationally recognized institution. MoCADA’s growth during this time of economic turbulence is a testament to both its mission to foster artistic creation and social dialogue, as well as the dire need for arts programming and education that reflect rich cultures of the African Diaspora. The new building will empower MoCADA to continue expanding both local and international audiences, while serving as a beacon of cultural creation for diverse communities around the world.

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How can interested readers support MoCADA?

I encourage everyone to become a member. There is no greater way for a museum to know that we have the support of individuals and families alike. We continue to build great relationships with our members and receive so much support in return.

If you haven't checked out the museum in a while, then make a point to visit us over the next few weeks or anytime you are in the area. We have such moving exhibits as well as great programming for young artists and art enthusiasts. And by all means, if MoCADA hosts an event in your neighborhood make sure you stop by and say "Hello."

Visit us on our website at and let us know what makes you a big fan of the museum.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Our newest exhibit, Six Draughtsmen, just opened on October 24th. You will be amazed at the pieces created by these women. They pushed the boundaries of possibility for me. It is a definite must-see.

Top photo credit: Akintola Hanif
Art Piece: Untitled (Face/Head Study II) by Toyin Odutola. 2010. Ink and varnish on paper. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

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