More than an event, "Listen, Learn & Act" is a DEI Call to Action
Listen, Learn and Act: A DEI Call to Action featured Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) Executive Director, Gloria Lara, and Holland Museum Executive Director, Ricki Levine.
Watch the recording of the 45-minute virtual conversation by clicking HERE.
The piece below is the feature article of our upcoming August 2020 issue of Connect magazine.
The Vision: Holland Museum as Cultural Leader and Community Collaborator
By Caroline Monahan
Ricki Levine has served as Executive Director for the Holland Museum for close to three years, and has a passion for making the museum truly reflective of the diversity of the residents of the Holland area. “When I interviewed for the job, I told them that I intended to tell the whole story of the people of this area. Fortunately, they hired me, which tells me that the Board was on board with that and was open to that change.”
Opening in 1937 and first called the Netherlands Museum, the Holland Museum’s original purpose was to showcase works featuring the lives of Dutch immigrants. Holland looks different in 2020, and the organization's new strategic plan calls for bringing in collections that broaden the narrative and tell the story of our community now.
The museum recently went through the process of revising its strategic plan. One thing that came out of it was changing the museum’s mission to “Preserving our past and imagining our future.” Their vision is to be a cultural leader and a community collaborator inspiring the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators. Four main priorities were established, including sustainability, sharing their collection, and being more visible in the community. Ricki is most passionate about the fourth priority, which is celebrating our diversity.
Growing up in a diverse community in New York, Ricki Levine notes that she was exposed to friends of all colors at a very young age. When she went to college in Washington DC, she was surprised to learn that she had classmates that had grown up in places where they had never met a person of color or from other cultures. She remembers thinking how fortunate she was that she had that diverse experience as a child, and how it influenced the way in which she related to the people around her. She’s been a champion for equity and inclusivity ever since.
Bringing the THEM Exhibit to Holland
At the end of 2019 and into the beginning of 2020, the Holland Museum featured the exhibit, "THEM: Images of Separation", a traveling exhibit that showcases items from popular culture used to stereotype groups of people. The exhibition is a traveling exhibit from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. The entire museum staff had the opportunity to travel and see the exhibit at Ferris State. Ricki remembers being blown away when she saw it and wanting to share it here.
The idea to bring the exhibit to Holland was embraced quickly by the Board and Staff at the museum. While there have been other types of exhibitions in the past about different minority groups, most recently Latinx, there had been nothing like this. “There was a lot of conversation about bringing it, and about what it meant to the community. This was a really harsh, brutal look at what has been going on in our country,” said Ricki. The intent was to educate people and start a conversation.
Power of Community Partnerships
Ricki enlisted the insights of other organizations in the community that could help accurately frame the exhibit from their own direct witness of and experiences of racism. “I wanted to have conversations with people who know more than I do. There are many organizations that work on this every day, particularly nonprofits, and I wanted to learn from them.” She cites organizations such as the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA), Lighthouse Immigration, and the Alliance of Ethnic and Cultural Harmony.
Christine Mwangi, Founder and President of Be A Rose, a women’s health organization located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, first met Ricki while serving as the LEDA Program Director. Christine worked with Ricki on several projects, including to provide the diversity, equity and inclusion training material for the staff, Board and volunteer docents at the Museum in advance of the arrival of the Jim Crow THEM exhibit.
Christine’s role was to help Ricki and her team to find the language and be empowered to properly guide and educate our community members on that exhibit. “When you’ve never had the experience of leading people through racialized material in an exhibit, it is a new challenge and you may lack the confidence needed to express not just the academic or formal piece of learning material, but to be transparent enough to infuse your lived experiences or empathy to convey the impact of the exhibit.”
The partnerships developed with nonprofit organizations and experts also helped the museum to extend the learning opportunity. The partners helped them develop resources for people to learn more after they left the exhibit and helped create current and future programs that can continue the conversation long after the exit of the exhibit.
The response to the exhibit was powerful. So powerful that upon exiting the exhibit, they set up a “Reflection Wall” and asked visitors to use comment cards or sticky notes to share their thoughts. They also asked people to take a few minutes to review other's posts as well. "People needed a moment to take a breath and digest what they saw," said Ricki. All reflections have been recorded and archived.
DEI Educational Opportunity
Because of the nature of the exhibit, the museum was very intentional about who was allowed in to see it. This particularly pertained to children, who were not allowed into the exhibit without a parent to provide guidance. To broaden the opportunity to talk race with all generations, the museum also created a lobby exhibit more suited for younger visitors.
Local schools took the opportunity to use the museum’s exhibit as an educational tool. Andrea Mehall is the Director of Holland Early College, Assistant Principal at Holland High School, and also works with the Holland Public Schools Equity Alliance. Formed in 2016, The Equity Alliance consists of a group of community stakeholders exploring ways to create more just and inclusive schools, finding resources in the community to help inform programs in the schools, and making recommendations to the school board around equity work.
Andrea reflected, “The demographics of Holland Public Schools are very different than the demographics of Holland as a community. I feel like there are two worlds. The Holland I live in is super diverse and reflects all sort of experiences of community members, backgrounds and identities.” The THEM exhibit caught Andrea’s attention since it explored the history of the more diverse population served at HPS.
“It showed that the museum had the opportunity to be a community building space, and a space that shares stories and experiences from all segments of the population of the community. It marks an important transition to what the museum for this community could become.”
On February 10, the Equity Alliance hosted a Holland Public Schools Night at the Museum as an opportunity for students, staff and family members to explore the exhibit and have conversations related to their experience in school. “For example, In What Ways are Schools Agents of Separation? In What Ways Can school be Agents of Change and Unity? We used that as an opportunity to collect feedback from our community to build into our ongoing programs for the district,” said Andrea.
Ricki and LEDA Executive Director, Gloria Lara were the featured speakers for the Chamber’s “Listen, Learn and Act: A DEI Call to Action” virtual event. The event provided an opportunity for attendees to listen as these leaders explained the issues that exist in our community and to learn how individuals and businesses can influence positive change.
During her 20-year corporate career in the automotive industry, Gloria Lara, who joined LEDA in 2019, has always seen herself as a Universal Translator, helping people with different experiences and points of view understand each other. “Now what I do at LEDA is help build bridges between all sorts of different groups and people and organizations. It's something I've been doing my entire career."
Ricki is a member of the West Coast Leadership class of 2020, and those who have spent time working with her point to her strong sense of leadership and vision. Christine Mwangi said “She is very brave and inspiring. She’s a great listener and takes great care and concern for the feedback that she receives at the museum and does her best to integrate that into museum policies and procedures.” She recommends that those who have feedback, suggestions, ideas, information, resources, and opportunities for partnership or donor support for the museum to give it consideration.
"As a cultural leader in the community, the museum has an opportunity and responsibility to bring awareness to social justice issues including racism, and we have the space to have meaningful discussions around those issues,” said Ricki. The Chamber salutes Ricki Levine as a Diversity Champion and appreciates her dedication to making diversity, equity and inclusion a priority for our community.
Coming to the Holland Museum on August 27: “The Power of Pronouns: The Impact of Affirming Language”
Jay Knight, Chair of the Healthy Pride Inclusion Resource Group at Spectrum Health will lead a discussion reviewing pronouns and how to incorporate affirming language into daily practices. Pronouns provide an avenue to build bridges and promote healthy communication with others.
See the museum’s website (https://hollandmuseum.org) for additional upcoming educational opportunities.