AACETS’ Assets: Dr. Calinda Lee and a Theory of Change for New Mexico’s Black Community by Sean Cardinalli
My biggest reward each week is the opportunity to get up close and personal with individuals and organizations who are positively changing the quality of life in New Mexico. About a month ago, I got a double dose of inspiration when I attended the AACETS Community Summit facilitated by Atlanta-based Dr. Calinda Lee at the Harwood Art Center.
In late 2013, the WK Kellogg Foundation commissioned phase 1 of the African American Economic Transformation Study (aka AACETS, pronounced “assets”). Hakim Bellamy, Cathryn McGill, Shawna Brown, and Everette Hill were tapped to check the pulse of the oft-ignored statewide black community in a way that focused not on its well-publicized deficits, but rather on its often overlooked strengths and rich traditions. We will be talking a lot more about the AACETS project in this space; however, if it is new to you, click here to read the phase 1 report: “Afro-New Mexico: A Sit-down and Snapshot.”
In 2014, during phase 2, AACETS added Gene Grant and Tracy Dingmann, veteran communication experts and journalists, to shape the project’s ongoing statewide communications infrastructure.
AACETS had identified a plethora of community issues to tackle, but the implementation phase of the project required “resources…to determine [how] to address those problems.” The group wanted some additional guidance to move into the fundraising phase of their initiative. Everyone realized that, even with the best of intentions, AACETS, like all institutions, needed to pivot its internal conversation to the “good work that everybody at the table is trying to accomplish,” and that’s what Dr. Lee was brought in to do.
As of late, black New Mexicans have been fomenting and experiencing a significant community-minded renaissance of sorts. Various agencies—civic, academic, faith-based, healthcare-oriented, and social justice-minded—have coalesced in the last few years to build bridges with one another and discuss the cultural, economic, and sociopolitical landscape for African Americans. AACETS has been at the forefront of this community momentum.
Dr. Calinda Lee is a historian, curator, and institutional development director with in-laws here in Albuquerque. In consulting with AACETS, she soon realized that the smallish black community in New Mexico lends itself to becoming “quickly invested” in its progress and its needs. Also, she came to see the benefit of being an “outsider” consultant, “uniquely positioned to address” what hurdles AACETS needed addressing to get into its next phase.
Dr. Lee was brought in to encourage alignment between AACETS’ purpose, goals, and outcomes. Her process took the form of a series of breakout sessions with community agencies’ leaders and representatives.
Dr. Lee prompted the sessions by asking, “What are the things we’re going to choose as the key things that we work on together?” The AACETS participants responded with the core of their initiative: the need for a communications infrastructure, a leadership institute, and a hub which doesn’t compete with, but compliments, existing resources. Over the course of a few days, a renewed “theory of change”—to affect AACETS within, but also out in the community—began to form.
Dr. Lee had a diverse upbringing, “in every sense of that term,” which certainly informed her work guiding institutions to actualize their stated intentions. Her ability to help groups see outside the box comes from her uncommon formative years. She was born to a family with Maryland slaves on both sides and Baltimore became something of a mecca for her. Her mother and stepfather are political scientists and, for part of her youth, she was raised in northern Nigeria. During junior high, a coup there prevented her family from returning and after a Bay Area stint, her parents settled to teach at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
In Nigeria, Dr. Lee had been educated by British schoolmarms in a strict Muslim caliphate. Back in the United States, she recognized “a social and economic hierarchy” for which she developed “an acute sensitivity.” That awareness led her to protest her school superintendent’s refusal to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, which garnered some press and eventually forced the school to capitulate. Dr. Lee graduated from Spelman in history and philosophy, then got her master’s in history from NYU.
Being strictly an academic wasn’t in the cards for her, however. “I wanted to do work that I felt produced tangible benefits. I wanted to do some kind of change-making work that felt like there was some immediacy and specificity [where] I could respond to urgent concerns.” Working alongside luminaries like Dr. Johnetta Cole and Howard Zinn certainly abetted her instincts to serve and after earning her doctorate in American studies, she became “very intentional and clear that public humanities work was where [she] wanted to live.” Dr. Lee then built up a portfolio in content and programming development and museology.
Three years ago, after spending some time in New Mexico with her husband and his family (she married movie location manager Ben McIver, brother of Dr. Stephanie McIver, who Weekly EQ previously interviewed), Dr. Lee was recruited to gut the cornerstone “History of Atlanta” exhibition in its biggest regional history museum, the Atlanta History Center. The project was both daunting and exhilarating, but Dr. Lee recalled that, save for her Asheville protest, “[I] never had an experience where I was in the center of the frame.” So she decided not to “revise” the exhibition, but reframe the experience entirely.
The Atlanta History Center’s new, permanent anchor exhibition “incorporates multiple races, ethnicities, genders, and people of various immigration status, throughout the entire experience. No woman section, black folks section, no LGBTQ section. The assertion I’m making is that we cannot understand our collective past by siloing our experience. That’s not how it works.” Her work doesn’t feign inclusiveness “within the dominant narrative,” as is so often our cultural tendency.
These same deliberations weren’t far from AACETS’ own, according to Dr. Lee. “If we’re going to be appealing, relevant, useful, and of service to our next generation, then we have to figure out how to make a safe space for people to share their voices and develop some empathy within their community… to affect the change they want and need to affect. How do we share power to get it done? And then [there are] the practical considerations like, how do we fund it?”
In the series of meetings the AACETS team had Dr. Lee facilitate, everyone stepped back into the planning process to work on those considerations, like creating stakeholders invested in AACETS’ initiatives.
A particular framework Dr. Lee introduced to the collaborative process with AACETS was moving backward through the theory of institutional—and therefore, community—change. “If you don’t focus first and most intently on the outcome you are trying to achieve, it’s too easy to get sidetracked by either trying to ‘help,’ which starts to mean everything for everybody, and/or you get sidetracked by the barriers. And what sucks up the oxygen in the room are the barriers to trying to make the change you’re trying to make.”
The process was the very definition of being goal-oriented. “Thinking about [your] outcome, if it’s really important, if you have a beautiful goal or vision, it’s really hard to turn your back on that. If you have come to consensus with other people in the room about what that beautiful vision is, it’s really hard to just step away or refuse to work with folks who share your beautiful vision.”
In the end, both the AACETS team and the additional community representatives who met with Dr. Lee recognized a huge benefit to the intimate size of the black community here in New Mexico. “There was much redundancy about key issues, about priorities. And redundancy in that way is a very good thing because it signifies that there’s alliance.” Now, forward-minded initiatives like AACETS, can get to the business of “leveraging different approaches and spheres of influence in order to create some change.”
That “beautiful goal” of improving the status and well-being of black New Mexicans’ lives is certainly, if gradually, coming to fruition.