Anisfield-Wolf poet Elizabeth Alexander will be the next president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, becoming the first woman to head the nation’s largest foundation for the humanities.
“All of the things that I’ve cared about my whole life and worked toward my whole life Mellon does,” Alexander told The New York Times.
The author of six books and two collections of essays won the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement prize in 2010. A year earlier she recited an original poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her latest book, “The Light of the World,” chronicled the sudden loss of her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus, and became a top book of 2015 for the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and other outlets.
Alexander, 55, who lives in Harlem with her two sons, spent 15 years rebuilding the African-American studies department at Yale University before joining the Ford Foundation, where she directed grants in journalism, arts and culture. She helped design Agnes Gund’s $100 Million Art for Justice Fund.
Her first job is listening, Alexander told the Chronicle of Higher Education. “There’s still a lot I need to learn to figure out together with the staff, and what it is we want to do, so I am not laying out a foreign program,” she said.
Alexander riveted her audience in Cleveland’s Severance Hall in 2010 when she read “Stokley and Adam,” a signature poem about Adam Clayton Powell and Stokely Carmichael from her book “Crave Radiance.”
She told the Chronicle that she hopes to use her new position to help the public “understand that philanthropy is not just about, you know, sending checks, but it’s also about amplifying ideas.”
She will join the Mellon Foundation, headquartered in New York City, in March.