Interview by Sarah Shumick
With a background that includes degrees in Visual Arts, African American & African Studies and Art Administration Education & Policy, Dr. Melissa Crum has paved an intentional path towards helping people make the world a better place through her organization, Mosaic Education Network. What initially began with helping African-American parents connect with homeschooling resources has led to TEDx events, art workshops, a book club, and research publications surrounding the concepts of diversity, inclusion, equality, equity and oppressive and systemic racism. Dr. Crum doesn’t believe in memorizing a checklist “in order to ensure that we are ‘good people.’ ” Instead, she challenges people to enter what she calls her “brave space,” where they can ask the tough questions, admit faults and celebrate successes. As Dr. Crum says, “Because to be a person who wants to move beyond diversity and inclusion and into equity we have to know that there’s action required in order for us to reach the final destination of liberation: a place that our country has never been. But it all starts with ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves about others.”
Give us a brief overview of your organization: I work with principals, superintendents, executive directors, and thoughtful leaders who are ready to figure out how to make substantive change. I am an artist, author, researcher, and founder of Mosaic Education Network, LLC. With my team of experts, we work with schools, museums and nonprofits to help them build better relationships with the diverse communities they serve. We infuse the arts, research, storytelling and critical thinking into professional development, community building, leadership development and curriculum development.
I began working with African-American parents to help them use community resources and the arts to help them homeschool their children. After working with these families, I began to wonder why they were interested in homeschooling their children. I interviewed African-Americans across the country who were homeschooling their children to find out what drove them to make that choice. Each family, no matter their income or region, had one of two answers: parents had a negative interaction with teachers when they were students or their children had negative experiences with teachers. These experiences were so impactful that it drove these families to seek an alternative way of educating their children. I began to wonder how could I support diverse parents and students in having a productive and healthy educational experience.
How you are innovating in the nonprofit space? I’m not interested in the traditional types of diversity training. I actually don’t really like using the phrase “diversity training” but it’s a phrase we are used to. I believe what makes the work I am doing different is that I am not interested in offering a list of do’s and dont’s. I’m not interested in a myriad of things on a checklist we must memorize in order to ensure that we are “good people.” Instead I want people to investigate the sources of the information they hold that guides the decisions and actions they make in their spheres of influence such as on a nonprofit board, in a classroom, or a curator. And then I want them to see how the decisions they make play into larger systems and institutions that impact people that they likely have not spent much time thinking about. In this way my work is more grounded in equity and the investigations of oppressive systems and institutions that we may not realize we are supporting. I then show participants these larger trends in their industry and across the country and then offer them tools for action. Because to be a person who wants to move beyond diversity and inclusion and into equity we have to know that there’s action required in order for us to reach the final destination of liberation: a place that our country has never been. But it all starts with ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves about others.
During my doctoral work in art education and African-American African studies at the Ohio State University, I saw how people talked about art and history through the lens of their experiences and information they internalized until that point. No matter how limited or vast, they felt their interpretation to be true even if they realized there are multiple ways to interpret a work. I notice we do the same thing when we encounter people, cultures, religions, sides of town, etc. We make a determination about the value of the spaces and people in them based on what we have been told or socialized to believe is valuable and worth acknowledging, supporting, teaching, or humanizing. I began researching the process, implementing and publishing on the work I’ve done with other colleagues like Keonna Hendrick at the Brooklyn Museum. Over the past four years we’ve worked with hundreds of teachers, nonprofit leaders, museum docents and gallery educators across the nation.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? I’ve had the opportunity to work with preservice educators at The Ohio State University, support teachers in Columbus City Schools as well as private and parochial schools. I worked with Linden McKinley STEM Academy students on an environmental racism documentary. They interviewed community activists, researchers at the Kirwan Institute, the EPA and Columbus Public Health and read through archive materials at the local library during their spring break! They investigated questions such as, “Whose neighborhoods get zoned for factories and toxic waste dumps? How does that impact the quality of their water, air, and soil? How do these pollutants impact their health and their infant mortality rates?” They were able to connect this national form of systemic oppression to their neighborhood. In addition, I have been able to work with Columbus Museum of Art to do self reflection work with their staff as well as published on some of their progressive approaches to curating African and African diasporic artworks.
Although I do a lot of work with schools, nonprofits, and museums I’ve also been able to reach out in other types of creative spaces and support other forms of work happening in Columbus. At the center of all my work is the arts, education, and community. Sometimes that doesn’t show up as a workshop; it shows up as other creative initiatives that support this city I call home. I’ve held workshops and supported Creative Control Fest for the past four years – a conference/festival devoted to sharing business acumen from diverse creatives across the country with the Columbus creative community. I am going into the second year of co-organizing TEDxKingLincolnBronzeville where we focus on stories of people who live, work, play or impact the King-Lincoln Bronzeville neighborhood. I’m beginning the fourth year of the ARTrepreneur Workshop Series where we offer six weeks of business skills to Columbus artists for free every summer with Greater Columbus Arts Council and The STEAM Factory. And I started the first iteration of the Race and Education Book Club for educators, parents, students and anyone interested in how race impacts our education system.
What makes your organization thrive? With a great team, we facilitate and encourage thought-provoking conversations addressing difficult topics on supporting, interacting, and partnering with diverse communities. I work hard to help organizations committed to change, become informed of and feel secure about using everyday practical applications of equity, diversity and inclusion strategies to positively impact their environments. To make this happen I create a “brave space” where you can ask the tough questions, admit faults and celebrate successes. I am motivated by the testimonials sharing how I played a part in helping leaders make social change from their desks, to their living rooms and beyond.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? I’m always learning and attempting to find new ways of implementing self reflection and critical thinking. I had an opportunity to work with actors and educators at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England over the course of a year. We learned how to implement theater-based practices for reading comprehension. Specifically, we learned ways to interpret Shakespearean text. I was able to utilize that experience to help teachers learn how to help students better understand any kind of complex texts. Using theater-based practices, we can think through complex societal structures that impact the characters so students can transfer that same information to their real lives.
Although I have a great team, I do a lot of work individually. I receive numerous requests to support people across the country. Moving forward, I’ll be working on workbooks for a train-the-trainer model to support nonprofits who want to share these processes in their organizations but may not have the funding to have me personally facilitate the workshops. Also in many higher education teacher preparation courses, there lacks a substantive focus on critical multicultural education and understanding the differences between diversity, inclusion, equality, and equity. I will create a certificate program for educators and nonprofit leaders around the country to be able to understand the ways in which they can impact inequitable systems and institutions using their level of power, however relative it might be, to impact change.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? I am passionate about innovative ways to use the arts and storytelling to help people create a better world.
Who inspires you? Every day educators and nonprofit leaders working tirelessly with little help, small budgets and high expectations doing phenomenal work. We don’t value them enough in our society. Seeing them do their best even in the worst situations keeps me motivated to help them as much as I can.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? Knowing there are people who want to do the difficult work of understanding systems of oppression and figuring out how they can make a difference.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? Many of us are the ones on the ground seeing what needs to be done and are working to make a difference. It’s okay if you feel as though you don’t want to implement the on-the-ground initiatives but you can help those who are by not placing fiscal or programmatic constraints guided by what you feel is best. Ask what they need, believe them, and do what you can. Don’t use your monetary power to shift the missions and initiatives of innovative nonprofits who know what needs to be done. That’s why you should care and I think that’s the best way to care.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? I wanted to be an artist. Specifically a digital animator when I was young. I remember seeing Toy Story and wanting to be able to do that. But I had an awful time in my animation program in college. I became interested in why certain characters were being created, not just how to create them. But I didn’t have the theoretical or critical reflective lexicon to articulate what I was interested in. The department I was in didn’t care what I was trying to do. For example, we watched Sharks Tale and I became interested in why Oscar had a gold chain and was quoting Wu-Tang lyrics. Yet, the department wanted me to be more concerned with ensuring that the gold chain was realistic not questioning why it was required to be made. One of the largest hurdles that I had to overcome was realizing that I can have great and innovative ideas even if I’m not sure how to articulate them. Also, I don’t need anyone to validate how important they are. My ideas are valid simply because I exist. All I need to do is find the right language to help you know just how valid they are too.
What might others be surprised to know about you? There was a time when I was in grad school as a single mother, homeless and surviving off of government assistance. It was as if I had my feet in two different systems: higher education and all of its theoretical ideas and implied high social status and also poverty and seeing how systems that are supposed to support those who are struggling can have a license to dehumanize. I was able to see the stories caseworkers and others created about single black women who need government support in order to feed their children and have someplace to sleep at night. And those stories are very limited, full of assumptions about capabilities, intellect, willingness, laziness, and a host of other ill-informed or inadequate assumptions. It was experiencing these types of stories that people had for me as well as teachers and professors had for me. In addition, dealing with teachers who impacted my son that led me down the career path I am on now.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? Go to MosaicEducationNetwork.com to sign up for information. We have book clubs and classes as well as other types of training. You can learn more about how to impact your organizations and communities.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? The pulse of Columbus is in the people doing the hard work. Many of these people are hidden in silos. They people doing interesting and important things but maybe not important enough to get the type of funding or exposure necessary to expand their impact. The pulse of Columbus is not so much in the statehouse or in the national and multinational companies making their headquarters in this great city but those who are doing much more with so little. We know the names. We see them creating co-working spaces, youth programs, creating murals, fighting for economic and criminal justice and caring for elders and children. The pulse of Columbus is much like the pulse in our body. We know it’s there. We don’t really think about it. But if we search for it and put our hands in the right spot, the feeling reminds us how integral it is to our survival. We take the pulse for granted while it’s working. But we will all know when it stops because it impacts our whole body. If we collectively learn more about what’s going on in our city, we can ensure that pulse continues and is sustained so that the lifeblood of creativity, education, economic sustainability, and justice runs effectively and efficiently.