The Ford Foundation today announced the appointment of poet, essayist, playwright, and scholar Elizabeth Alexander as director of its Creativity and Free Expression program. In her new role, Alexander will shape and direct the foundation’s grant programs on arts, media, and culture, a cornerstone of the organization’s work in the U.S. and around the world.
Lauded as one of the nation’s most renowned public intellectuals, Alexander is the author of six books of poetry, including American Sublime, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, two collections of essays, and The Light of the World, her critically-acclaimed memoir on love and loss. Her writing explores a variety of subjects, including race, gender, politics, art, and history, and she is considered one of the leading voices in modern American literature. In 2009, she wrote and delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
“As a poet, teacher, and scholar of African-American history and culture, Elizabeth’s work demonstrates the power of language to connect individual experience with universal meaning, to build understanding among people, and to shape our world for the better,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. “Elizabeth’s powerful voice and vision will bring new vibrancy to our work on arts, media, and cultural expression, and we are deeply honored to welcome her to the foundation.”
“As a working artist as well as someone who studies the historical impact of the arts, I see how art is often what carries forth voices, struggles, and visions that might otherwise go unheard,” said Alexander. “In my work building poetry communities and African American studies, I have seen what occurs when more space is created for artists, journalists, thinkers, and other creative makers to do what they uniquely can do. The will to beauty and truth is fundamentally human, and as a teacher, artist, and community builder attentive to the lessons of history, I have always been guided by that belief. As individuals and in society, we are impoverished without the visions that various forms of art and media offer us. Art and expression that are free from constraint help us imagine beyond everyday constrictions and envision possibility. I am truly honored to be joining the community at the Ford Foundation at this moment of dynamic, visionary change bolstered by long-standing, steadfast commitment to the unique power of art and culture to illuminate who we are, individually and to each other.”
As Ford shifts its overall focus to addressing inequality, Alexander will guide the foundation’s efforts to examine how cultural narratives impact and shape social movements, and how media and the arts, including film and visual storytelling, can contribute to a fairer and more just society.
Among her acclaimed essays, “‘Can you be BLACK and look at this’: Reading the Rodney King Videos” and “Meditations on ‘Mecca’: Gwendolyn Brooks and the Responsibilities of the Black Poet” have enlivened debate on the role of art and social justice and addressed issues of race, representation, violence, and the vulnerable black body. Alexander has taught with distinction at a number of universities, including the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence and Director of the Poetry Center. She was on the faculty of Yale University for fifteen years, and as chair of the University’s African American Studies Department, she was a leader in the field. Alexander was recently named the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University.
Among many awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees, Alexander is the inaugural recipient of the Jackson Prize for Poetry, a lifetime achievement award in Poetry from the Anisfield-Wolf Foundation and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been widely translated into languages including Spanish, Bengali, Chinese, Italian, French, Arabic, and German. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Alexander holds degrees from Yale University (B.A., English), Boston University (M.A., English), and the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D, English).
Alexander joins the foundation during a year-long exploration of the intersection of art and social justice, called The Art of Change. Over the course of the year, a diverse group of artists, cultural leaders, scholars and social activists are working to shed light on the role of creativity and free expression in shaping a more equitable future. A central component of the initiative is the Visiting Fellows Program, in which 13 distinguished artists from around the world are both conducting independent study and participating in convenings and workshops at the Ford Foundation.