Dream Career: Museum Activist
Hometown: Jacksonville, FL
WISE WORDs: " To our girls, know that you can do anything, be anything you want to be. Let's not only focus on being an Instagram star. It's fine,
but the reality is, most people aren’t going to be successful at that. Remember, it's what's inside of you, not necessarily what you expose to the world, that will get you further along."
- Jada Wright-Greene
Prior to college, I went to predominately white schools,
so my grandmother made it a point to instill in me the importance of knowing my rich history. She really wanted me to know exactlly who I am.
The passion in Jada Wright-Greene's voice is contagious as she discusses her love for African American history, museums and cultural sites. The self-described museum activist, who believes these institutions are places for both education and healing, is on
a mission to change the face of the museum world. Her goal: to
see African Americans become dedicated audiences and constant supporters of these cultural spaces. Jada would also love to see
the number of African American museum professionals increase.
To help further her mission, she launched Heritage Salon, a nonprofit and the only magazine devoted to African-American museums, historic sites/homes and cultural institutions.
From curating her first history exhibit at the age of 12, to becoming the first African American to complete the museum studies program at Michigan State University, to her monthly column in the Huffington Post, Jada is quickly becoming a change agent in the museum space. Deeply influenced by her southern upbringing and her maternal grandmother, Jada has carved out an impressive niche - builldng national partnerships with non profits, churches, and educational institutions along the way. In this interview, we were thrilled to talk wth Jada about her career journey, how she balances family life, and how history can be used as an empowerment tool for our girls.
Where did you grow up? Any Interesting facts about your upbringing?
I was born in Philadelphia, PA. At the age of 3 my mother thought it would be good for me to experience a southern upbringing, so I went to live with my grandmother in Jacksonville, Florida. I had this amazing grandmother who truly exemplified the qualities of a lady. She introduced me to history and church archiving. My grandmother was this strong African American woman who put her all into me. I'm just so grateful because I know that much of who I am is because of her influence.
Then I had this amazing mother, who wasn't necessarily always there physically because she lived in Philadelphia, but she was always there for me emotionally. My mother, who has worked her whole life, always said that she didn't want her daughter to have to work doing laundry the way she did. So when I decided to pursue a law degree, she said to me "I'm going to make sure you have everything you need. I'm going to pay all your bills and all you have to do is go to school." What a tremendous sacrifice that was for her to stop her life and drain some of her retirement to send me to school.
So I am tremendously blessed to have benefitted from having two strong African American women instill a sense of independence, to know my strengths and weaknesses, and how to truly embody them. And most importantly, they instilled the confidence to know that I can pursue whatever I want.
You mentioned church archiving. Please explain what that is and why you consider it important?
I grew up AME and attended New Hope AME on the south side of Jacksonville. One day my grandmother told me we needed to get some things together for the church anniversary. She had done extensive research and found out that A. Philip Randolph’s father had been a pastor of our church. I can remember my grandmother putting a whole timeline of photos together, almost like an exhibition. I always tell people that I did my first exhibit with my grandmother at the age 12. All of this really inspired me. I created a church archives manual when I got my Master's Degree at Johns Hopkins. And now, in addition to running Heritage Salon, I'm consulting with churches to help them develop their archives. Our churches hold such tremendous history and relevance. It's important to collect and archive this history so it can be used as a blueprint to help us get to the next place.
Tell us about Heritage Salon. What was the inspiration behind its launch?
I was working as an educational assistant at a museum in Michigan while I was graduate student at Michigan State University. I started noticing that there weren’t many people of color visiting. So I did more work at other museums and continued to notice that no one was really talking about African American museums or cultural institutions. In 2009, I started a blog to help drive those conversations. Three years later, I decided to launch an online magazine called Heritage Salon. The true mission of Heritage Salon is to expose African American museums and museum professionals to a wider audience. It's been well received so far and I'm truly grateful.
The importance of acknowledging and understanding our history and it's place in this country’s overall narrative cannot be overstated. Why do you think it’s especially important for our youth, in particular black girls, to make those historical connections?
I recently had a similar conversation with my soon-to-be nine year old daughter. She came into the room really upset about something she was sruggling to accomplish. I didn't want her feel discouraged, so I explained to her that she comes from a long line of strong women who have done remarkable things so that she’s able to enjoy the many privileges she enjoys today. That's our history, who we are. Our strength comes from the things inside of us. We're raising our children by ourselves. We're breaking records and trailblazing in just about every arena. This is not something we're doing because of magic. We're doing this because it's inside of us. The courage, tenacity, and boldness - our girls need to know where it all comes from. They really need to understand their entire history, to know what happened before them so that they understand all they're capable of accomplishing.
My personal goal is to not only see more African Americans visiting and financially supporting museums, but to also see them entering the museum field as professionals.
In almost every major city across the country there are places that focus on our history, art and culture. What needs to happen to help encourage folks to get more invested/interested in supporting these spaces?
Honestly, I think our institutions really need to do a better job at embracing the community. It really has to be a collaborative effort. There are lots of examples of museums that are getting it right by developing programs and exhibits for the broader community. I’d love to see us utilize our assets in the community as spaces for after-school and summer enrichment programs for our youth. I’d also like to see these beautiful spaces utilized for wedding receptions or showers. Greek letter organizations should consider utilizing these institutions for chapter meetings or special events. The more you’re
in these spaces, the more you’re a part of them and begin to feel a sense of ownership.
For many families, accessibility/cost is a factor when deciding to visit museums and other cultural sites. Are there any tips you can offer families that may help defray these costs?
A lot of cities have museums and other cultural institutions are free. Admission is free for all of the Smithsonian museums. Other museums offer free days or hosts special programs that target low income families. Some museums also have partnerships with financial institutions. So if you’re a Bank of America cardholder for example, you might be able to attend museums free on sponsored days. You can also check the social/entertainment pages in your
local paper to find opportunities. Also, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re uncertain about sites in your area. I’m happy to help you locate them.
Over the years I’ve noticed brands and even national orgs like AARP – who were originally focused on more mature audiences – begin making it a priority to engage younger audiences. Would it do museums well to follow this model?
Absolutely! If I go to a museum hosted event at the age of nine with
my class and that same museum offers me a partial or free family membership, that's a great way to get my family involved. Hosting days and creating programs for families who would otherwise not
have access is another way for museums to reach expanded audiences. As an aside, there's a great non profit organization, Cool Culture, that provides low income families with access to culture instututions throughout New York City. Lots of museums host events to draw young professionals. It's a smart strategy to reach a demographic of future museum goers and supporters.
Switching gears a bit, in your opinion, how has the image of African American women in media and pop culture evolved/devolved over the years?
Sadly we've entered into the age of reality television. We're giving girls the perception that they can get on a reality show, have their 15 mnutes of fame, then go on to make millions of dollars. And it's just not true. But I'm happy that there are so many other positive images for our girls to see like First Lady Michelle Obama and Black Girls Rock. We're starting to see more positive representation of black womanhood so hopefully this means we're moving away from the reality TV world.
Reflecting back, what advice would you give your 13-year-old self?
The first piece of advice I'd give is to keep going, keep pushing, and keep motivating yourself. And don't get distracted by boys (laughter). I'll get vulnerable right here and say that my father not being in the house had a real contribution to my lack of focus. I ended up looking elsewhere for the male attention that I wasn't getting from my father. But what I eventually discovered was that your validation cannot come from a boyfriend. It comes from inside
of you! So definitely don't get distracted with the boys and focus on what you want to do.
If you had to give your life story a title, what would it be?
It would be called Chasing My Passion. I'm passionate about being a mother and a wife. I'm passionate about Heritage Salon. I'm passionate passionate about exulting African American museums and history. All of these things are important to me. I don't do this work for the money. I'm doing it because I want to leave a legacy behind for my children.
- Jada Wright-Greene
Black Girls Unscripted
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