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A foundation has doubled their $250 million pledge to diversify monuments in the U.S.


At the National Cathedral here in Washington, some new stained-glass windows were installed a few months ago. They depict scenes of people marching for racial justice.

LAMORRIS PERRY: I think that the American story is such a bright story, but I think that sometimes we're not honest about our history.

SHAPIRO: Lamorris and his wife, Carmella Perry, visited the cathedral from Chicago this week. They gazed up at the windows created by the artist Kerry James Marshall. Where images of Confederate generals used to glow, there are now depictions of protesters holding signs that say, fairness and no foul play.

CARMELLA PERRY: When you honor people from the Confederate era, it makes other people feel excluded. And I think that's what's not emphasized, and it's very divisive and exclusive. So I honor and love what they have done by trying to be more inclusive. And I think, in doing a project like this, we're trying to acknowledge everyone.

SHAPIRO: The cathedral's dean first called to remove the windows with Confederate imagery in 2015, after the mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston. The funding for this was part of a larger project by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which we'll note is also an NPR sponsor. Elizabeth Alexander is the foundation president.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I think that when you look at that window, even if you don't know the history of what was there before, you see scenes of people moving collectively and demanding that they be treated fairly - marching in the great tradition of marching in the United States to say that we are a we, first of all - so I think the fact that it's collective is super important - and that we are always perfecting ourselves as a whole. What I hope they will have noticed from this one is that, because of a lot of the white space, it lets in a great deal of light. And I would take that literal light to be metaphorical - to be about illuminating greater goods.

SHAPIRO: The Mellon Foundation just announced that it is doubling its financial commitment to the Monuments Project - from 250 to $500 million over five years. Those windows in the National Cathedral underscore how this project is changing, who we valorize, and how. Here in Washington, you can visit lots of monuments that are unimposing, solid homage to one man. These windows are none of those things. They're fragile. They are about a collective. They're transparent. Elizabeth Alexander told me the first thing her foundation did when it started this project in 2020 was commission a national survey of monuments.

ALEXANDER: Over half of our monuments in the United States are to men who owned other human beings.

SHAPIRO: Enslavers.

ALEXANDER: Enslavers, yes. There were so many surprises. One of them is that - and most of them in the category of things were even worse than I imagined. For example, women were more likely to be represented as fictional characters or mermaids than as actual women who lived in time and were actors.

SHAPIRO: You mean if you take the monuments to women, more than 50% of them were fictional?

ALEXANDER: Were fictional, yes. And if you think about just very familiar examples - if you go into Central Park, until very, very recently, there's now a monument that we've helped support to the women's suffrage movement. But before that, you would find Alice in Wonderland. And that's in New York City's Central Park, so you can sort of extrapolate it from there. If you look at the representations of stories that tell the histories of people of color, it dwindles in Native American stories, Latinx stories, Asian American stories to below 1%.

SHAPIRO: When you launched this project in 2020, it felt like the entire country was engaged in this debate over monuments. Three years later, how would you describe where the country is right now?

ALEXANDER: With these 80 monuments that we've helped support and others, there's just more learning about our various stories. And so I think about something like, you know, the relocation of the sacred stone to the Kaw people in Lawrence, Kan. And that's a project that's very, very close to my heart and also gives an example of another form of a monument. They - the Kaw Native people - had a 25-ton glacial erratic stone, a mount of deeply spiritual and long held cultural significance to the Kaw nation. And 75 years ago, as part of the state's anniversary and in commemoration to the pioneers of Kansas, the white people of Lawrence, Kan. - or some white people of Lawrence, Kan. - literally moved that 25-ton rock to the center of Lawrence and put a caption on it - our settler heritage.

So before folks ever came to us, the people of the town - white people, Native people in the area, people at the University of Kansas - did deep restitution work together, where they wanted to tell the truth of the history. They wanted to move the stone back. And so that is the point where we engage with people - after communities have decided this is what we want to commemorate, or this has done harm. And the resources and $5 million is what it takes to do all that surrounds moving a 25-ton glacial rock back to its original, sacred context with the people who imbued it with so much spirit and meaning.

SHAPIRO: And you said that particular monument is especially important to you. Why is that?

ALEXANDER: Because I think the poetics of restitution, when you see it really happening, are so moving. Human beings carry their stories with them. They carry the stories of their people. They carry the stories of their histories. And sometimes, circumstances mean that more folks don't get to hear those stories or see them marked in a way that everyone can share. And yet, families and communities don't ever let that history go. And so the idea that with no reasonable hope of being able to somehow move that stone back, that it's finally happening, I think is a testament to not only the people who carried their history for that long, but also to the power of doing the hard work of reconciliation and doing it in public.

SHAPIRO: So you began this process with a survey of the nation's monuments. And if you are to do another survey five years from now, after the $500 million has been spent, what do you hope it shows?

ALEXANDER: At the end of this, I hope that the work goes on, with Mellon or with others, because the work of telling stories in public places is eternal work. And so my hope is that we've just widened the aperture, and that the work continues in a way that recognizes us in all of our - in our power and beauty.

SHAPIRO: And just on a numbers level, I assume you want more than half of the monuments about women to be real women rather than fictional ones?

ALEXANDER: Well, yes. Now, I like fiction.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ALEXANDER: So I do think that, you know, people who are powerful characters created by artists who write...

SHAPIRO: The Little Mermaid is all well and good, but...

ALEXANDER: ...But let's not leave all of those other stories to the side.

SHAPIRO: That is poet and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Elizabeth Alexander. Thank you so much.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much, Ari. This was a great pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP AND ROBYN'S "MONUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.