March 19, 2024

Building Connections with the Yale Directors Forum Global Symposium

For Charlotte Ashamu, director of International Programs at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University, inviting the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to be part of the first fellowship program for executive leaders within the African cultural institution space was a continuation of her life’s work: building stronger connections between African Americans and Africans. The decision was partly personal as well.

“My heritage is that my mother is African American and my father is Nigerian, and in the work that I have done over the years, I've always wanted to create stronger bridges between African Americans and Africans,” she said. “When I first read about the Action Fund and Brent's work, I thought that this would be a very important opportunity to build another bridge. Brent and Tiffany were a significant part of the knowledge exchange, interactions and connections we now have.

Two people, Brent Leggs and Charlotte Ashamu standing against a white background smiling.

photo by: Desmond Mongoai and Alpha Munyai

Brent Leggs and Charlotte Ashamu at the Yale Directors Forum Global Symposium.

This past February, Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Tiffany Tolbert, senior director of the Action Fund traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa for the first Yale Directors Forum Global Symposium to share the experiences and successes of the fund within the cultural preservation space.

“I have to say, [Charlotte and her team] curated the most fantastic cultural and educational experience,” said Leggs. “It felt like a sanctuary for ideas and culture. Everyone was so smart, and thoughtful and it’s always refreshing to be in that kind of space. It brought me to a deep appreciation for the Black experience.”

The Yale Directors Forum

The Yale Directors Forum is a highly competitive 18-month fellowship for executive leaders from across the African continent who are dedicated to both preserving cultural heritage and developing cultural institutions. The first cohort of 16 fellows represented 11 African nations: Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Togo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Tiffany Tolbert standing behind a podium speaking to an audience.

photo by: Desmond Mongoai and Alpha Munyai

Tiffany Tolbert, presenting at the Yale Directors Forum Global Symposium.

Each fellow has served for at least two years as the chief executive or director of a cultural institution; including museums, libraries, cultural and art centers, archives and galleries, all of which play an integral role in preserving cultural heritage for generations to come. The Forum is an opportunity for the fellows to not only connect and exchange ideas with each other, but also to expand their executive leadership skills, grow their global networks and strengthen their organization’s capacity in the preservation and care of collections.

February’s four-day symposium in Johannesburg marked one of two in-person sessions over the 18-month program and included a series of seminars with global leaders within the cultural heritage sector, including one led by Brent Leggs and Tiffany Tolbert. They shared the Action Fund’s journey of building an inclusive preservation movement within the United States and highlighted two of the fund’s signature preservation projects: Nina Simone’s childhood home and the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ.

Fellows continued their symposium experience with curated seminars about topics including fundraising, collections care, an introduction to executive coaching and board leadership and governance. Afternoons and evenings were spent exploring the vibrant culture of Johannesburg, with visits to the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria, the showroom of fashion designer MaXhosa and a tour of the Constitutional Court Art Collection. After the symposium, the individualized support and professional growth for the fellows begins.

“Our fellows will have a series of sessions with an executive coach to examine their leadership practice and their key organizational challenges, which could be fundraising, board governance or storytelling,” said Ashamu. “Then we will embark on a project with each institution that is centered around the preservation and care of their collections of works that span across visual art to historical documents. The common challenge they face is in building the infrastructure, the resources, and the trained staff to be able to care and manage those collections over time.”

Leading A New Movement of African Cultural Preservation

The Yale Directors Forum came at a timely moment where cultural heritage on the African continent is experiencing a shift in who is in charge of sharing these cultural stories and preserving and managing historic artifacts. “Traditionally, there are many ways in which African societies preserved cultural heritage, but those systems or methodologies were disrupted by colonialism and slavery,” said Ashamu

Three people, Tiffany Tolbert, Laduma Ngxokolo, Founder of MAXHOSA AFRICA, and Brent Leggs smiling as they face the camera.

photo by: Desmond Mongoai and Alpha Munyai

Tiffany Tolbert, Laduma Ngxokolo, Founder of MaXhosa Africa, and Brent Leggs at the Yale Directors Forum Global Symposium.

“As many countries moved out of the colonial period into independence, they inherited cultural institutions that were created by a colonial regime. For instance, in Nigeria where I grew up, the National Museum in Lagos was built in 1957 right before our independence, and the main collection of the museum was comprised of artifacts assembled by a British colonial officer which he felt represented the cultural heritage of Nigeria. Clearly, in a scenario like that, there are significant gaps and an imbalance in terms of what Nigerians feel is a reflection of their cultural heritage and what is suitable for a population and audience in 2024.”

Her hope is that the Yale Directors Forum will support this change in preservation and storytelling across various African countries. “Cultural innovators and entrepreneurs are creating their own cultural institutions from the ground up with philanthropists, mostly in the private sector, to create new models of cultural institutions,” she said. “Some of these leaders are represented in our fellowship program, so we want to support this new movement of cultural development across the continent and support these leaders who are bringing new models into their communities around how cultural heritage is preserved.”

Brent Leggs stand in front of a screen with a photograph of the Rosenwald Schools. The audience is in a semi-circle facing him.

photo by: Desmond Mongoai and Alpha Munyai

Brent Leggs presenting at the Yale Director's Forum Global Symposium.

The Action Fund could not be more excited for the opportunity to expand their global imprint and draw deeper connections across the diaspora. “I walked away from the symposium feeling that the Action Fund has a role in supporting some of the ideas of artists, architects and museum leaders on the African continent,” said Leggs. “And I hope they were deeply inspired by our vision and our success.”

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Shayla Martin is a 2024 African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Editorial Fellow. She is an award-winning travel and culture journalist based in Washington, D.C. whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Coastal Living, Hemispheres, Veranda Magazine. She specializes in content about Black history and culture, luxury travel, historic preservation, wellness, interior design and personal narrative topics, and is the founder of The Road We Trod, a bi-weekly newsletter that explores travel destinations through the Black gaze.

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