Ten Insights from Dr. Elizabeth Alexander’s Distinguished Mentor Conversation

On October 7th, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President and former Yale English and African American Studies professor Dr. Elizabeth Alexander ’84 visited Dwight Hall and Yale’s campus, speaking on the evolution of institutions in response to shifting social justice contexts. Here are ten of Dr. Alexander’s tokens of wisdom to take with you.

Share your talents, whatever they may be and to whatever extent you can, with the community…. It will feed your soul. It can also exhaust you.

On the moments in her upbringing that were influential: “Growing up in that sense, that if you had something to offer, if you had special skills that you would, to the extent that you could, be generous with them. And that sometimes frankly that had its limits, too. I mean I think that thinking about civic leadership and being generous within community, you know, it can feed your soul, but it can also, it can also be a little bit exhausting.”

Move and think in the world always remembering that we are connected to each other as human beings.

On growing up in Washington, DC:  “They were exciting years as I experienced them, to feel that there was a sense of movement, to feel also in Washington, that there was a sense of being absolutely race people, within African American struggle and destiny. I mean it was sort of that deep. We were connected to other human beings, and that that was how you always had to move and think in the world.”

“Life was something to belong to.”

On Dr. Alexander’s career and arts trajectory:  “Becoming a poet, becoming an artist and making that life was something to belong to, beyond the very internal work of listening to myself and making the art.”

Exist in spaces in ways that don’t dichotomize the here and there. Recognize that we are all here.

On living in New Haven: “I came to Yale, and I lived in New Haven. Later on, I came as Yale faculty, and I lived in New Haven. … I taught dance at the Hill Arts Center and was always doing something off campus, but didn’t dichotomize what it meant to be here and there. Right, that we were all here.”

“You don’t have to leave campus to find your politics.”

On talking with students about not dichotomizing their space:  “Let’s talk about faculty of color, let’s talk about what knowledge is centered and  de-centered on campus. Let’s talk about the resources with the things you want to think about and learn….You don’t have to leave campus to find your politics.”

Use your studies to have a clear sense of why we read what we read and study what we study to understand the here and now.

On Dr. Alexander’s work in the African American Studies Department at Yale: “I’m so proud of the work that I did with our colleagues in African American Studies.  For me, it all started when I was an English major as an undergraduate, and some of my most dynamic courses were AFAM courses, and I felt like that was the intellectual center of the universe. That was where the hardest work happened that was where the hardest questions were asked. That was where the dynamism was most alive. And that was where there was a clear sense of why we read what we read, why we study what we study….The central mission of [AFAM Studies was], if you want to understand where we are, the questions that African American Studies helps you form are the questions that you need to ask to understand the here and the now. You will not understand this country, if you don’t pass through African American studies. I could put other things in there too, but we’re talking about AFAM.”

Evolve institutions from within by prioritizing innovative initiatives that have a focused lens to solve a social justice-oriented problem.

On entering the Mellon Foundation and using her position to allocate resources and help reorient elite institutions: “Now I’m thinking about what it means to evolve institutions, elite institutions, from inside of them. Number one, how are we going to continue to resource this very, very wealthy place?  We have to ask the real question: we have these resources. Who needs it? But then to say, when we do resource it, where we’re going to go is to the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Ethnicity. That, that is an idea under-resourced at the university that we want to say yes to. The prison initiative, so you know, extraordinary work. Hello Zelda, it is so good to see you here. And what I think is that there are many things that I think are beautiful and crucial about that work and why we’re proud to fund it at Yale…. I’m telling you if you fund in arts, culture, humanities, libraries–deep knowledge comes across your desk every day. That is good. And that is fascinating. But we’re not here just to be fascinated. We’re here to make change and solve problems, and you cannot do that without focusing questions, and without a clear lens to look through. So if we could then say, is this every penny we’re spending contributing in some way to advancing social justice? Are we in some way lifting up that which has been under-resourced? Are we understanding the yin and yang of so-called legacy or well-resourced institutions that aren’t going to go anywhere? And with some of them, we want to be part of their reorientation.”

Love what you do deeply.

In response to what advice Dr. Alexander would offer to humanities and arts scholars: “​​Well I honestly, honestly believe that when it comes to a major, that whatever you choose, loving it deeply, entering it deeply, working hard–that’s what’s going to enable you to have a sense of getting something under your belt, of doing something well.”

“You will learn a great deal of how to move in the world and move in the institution, if you also have a life outside of it.”

In response to what advice Dr. Alexander would offer to graduate students who aim to affect institutional change, but are fighting against the precarity of a university and other institutions they occupy:  “You can do more than one thing at the same time, so with the very intense demands of graduate school, you have to attend to that work becoming a scholar means–learning something more deeply than anyone has studied that thing ever before in life. It’s a very serious calling you. It’s about producing knowledge, something that is durable enough to stay forever, in theory, or at least that’s always the aspiration. But I think hopefully also in graduate school, doing the work of teaching, which takes you out of that self and into the “What does it mean to share this?”  My way was always to belong to something outside of the institution. So I guess that’s really my advice for anybody:  that if you are within an institution, you will learn a great deal of how to move in the world and move in the institution, if you also have a life outside of it.”

Have faith in the things you’re saying yes to.

On her career choices, leaving institutions, and influences outside of the institution: “I was a professor at the University of Chicago. It was the year I was supposed to go up for tenure. I had had a tough place, but a place where we were able to make a lot happen. I think I was also realizing, you know, coming up against some of the limits there. But lo and behold, what happened, I came here  [to Yale] for a semester. I put on a play, and I fell in love. And so, leaving at the time when I was in a good position for ten years it was time to go up for tenure and saying, “I gotta move halfway across the country and have that part of my life.” And I didn’t have a job, I left a tenure track job and I did not have a job. And I am not one to leave for no man. Okay. But that was, I thought to myself like you know I had faith. I have faith. Okay, if I go and I go for love. I’m not going to become someone without a career and writing; it’s just going to happen on a different schedule than what I imagined. And in a different way. And so having faith in the thing you’re saying yes to, I think, was what that was all about.”

Dwight Hall students extend their gratitude to Dr. Alexander for sharing her wisdom and look forward to weaving these essential learnings into their academic and public service pursuits.

About the Author

Lydia Burleson

Lydia Burleson served as the Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate for Dwight Hall at Yale, Center for Public Service and Social Justice from June 2021-June 2022. A first-generation low-income student from rural Texas, Lydia graduated from Yale cum laude in 2021 with a degree in English and a nonfiction creative writing concentration. During her college years, Lydia increased awareness of marginalized voices with the public writing she did for The Yale Daily News and the Yale Admissions office. Her Dwight Hall experiences included free college advising with student-led member groups REACH and Matriculate. Dwight Hall empowered Lydia to uplift other disadvantaged students and to increase access to education for people who might not have otherwise received these resources. She is currently completing an English PhD at Stanford University with a Knight-Hennessy Fellowship.