Remembering Kent Alexander
By Fungai Tichawangana
On Kent Alexander’s Facebook profile, the cover picture shows two hands, likely his, planting a Blanket Flower. It is a fitting metaphor for Alexander, who spent much of the latter part of his life doing a different type of gardening, planting seeds of equity and inclusion.
Alexander, who was the ArtsHub Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant, the Diversity and Inclusion Advisor for the Community Foundation of Western MA, a board member of the Northampton Arts Council, and a leading voice for anti-racism and cultural inclusion in the region, died on February 7th, 2022 after a brief battle with cancer.
“As we were planning the ArtsHub, we knew we wanted Kent on the team to guide the process to be as equitable and inclusive as possible,” said Dee Boyle-Clapp, Director of the Arts Extension Service, UMass, and co-coordinator of the ArtsHub.
“I met Kent during ValleyCreates and was impressed from the moment he came to our conference room for a Train the Trainers day to prepare the instructors to embed DEI work into their day-long trainings for arts leaders. I was so taken by his ability to put this critical work into a context that made people connect and feel safe enough to question themselves but also feel empowered to make change. Kent brought the same to the arts managers and the board members who later took part in ValleyCreates, disarming people, so they absorbed information as he challenged them. Working with us on the ArtsHub was essential, and as anyone who ever met him knows, he was crystal clear about what his message was and was gifted in making people see, feel and understand it by tapping their empathy and personal experiences,” said Boyle-Clapp.
Alexander was originally from Urbana, Ohio. He had a deep background in theater as an actor, director, writer, and educator and had worked with theatrical groups in New York, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, among others. His theater credits included work with Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, the Talking Band, and Ensemble Studio Theater of NYC. He was a recipient of the American Stage Network’s Pathfinder Award for Collaborative Classroom Theater Work and the John Stevens Activist Award for theater work with New York City’s The School for the Physical City.
Later in life, he had started doing more work in the area of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). He worked with organizations such as Elms College, Mount Grace Land Trust, United Way of Hampshire County, UMASS Amherst Theater Dept., Center for Community Resilience after Trauma, TerraCorps, the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts in this area.
Kent's Community Impact
Tracy Woods, who owns the Art for the Soul Gallery in Springfield and had known Alexander for many years said the most enduring trait about him was how he was always able to speak truth to power without needing to lose his cool. “He taught me to be more gentle. And he had a way, he just had a way of doing things that got the results without always needing to have drama. He was a huge man in stature, but he had such a kindness about him and compassion for people.”
She remembers his influence on her when they first met; “When I first met Ken - I used to call him Ken, I had just moved here from New York and I encountered so much racism. I would always be the one shouting at people, telling them exactly what I thought and Ken would say to me, ‘Be kind.’”
“His legacy for diversity, equity, and inclusion will live on. He was such a soldier for that.”
- Tracy Woods
Vanessa Pabon Hernandez, who worked with Alexander at the ValleyCreates project run by the Community Foundation of Western MA said it was a privilege to work with Alexander. “One particular memory that comes to mind,” she recalls, “is this past summer sitting on his porch with a group of other people brainstorming our role as advisors to the Community Foundation. We were in the midst of COVID and everyone was still feeling a little bit uncomfortable. But there was Kent, offering up his porch and wanting to have a meal together. He always wanted to make sure that he created a space where we were welcome. Regardless of the scenario that we were dealing with. That was the last time that I had the opportunity to spend time with him.”
Hernandez said that Alexander never took his eye off the ball. “He always made sure he kept us on track about how the work we did needed to be presented through the lens of diversity, equity inclusion, and he made sure that all of us, regardless of our discipline, or our backgrounds were included, and had a voice in that space. He was a very thoughtful advocate of people of color, especially in the arts community.”
“He was a very thoughtful advocate of people of color, especially in the arts community, and also thought of intentional ways of creating that bridge, eliminating some of the silos and divisions.” - Vanessa Pabon
Matthew Glassman, a writer, director, and actor with Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA remembers his first meeting with Alexander; ”My first memory of meeting Kent was at the Community Foundation. I believe it was late 2017. It was a gathering of people that had come together to help formulate the ValleyCreates initiative. This was the first time I had shared space with Kent. My first impression was how strong his voice was in the room. I'm a theater person - I thought, ‘Wow. He's performative, he's intentional and he’s powerful. And I felt a little intimidated by Kent, for how he would hold space and the power he would bring.”
Glassman talks about going on to deepen his relationship with Alexander; “As I got to know Kent and work closely with him, I came to understand the richness and vulnerability of that voice. It always felt meaningful, his physical voice itself, but also what he said and how he said it, which was always a combination of power, compassion, urgency, and sensitivity. I felt like he was both a collaborator, a co-conspirator, and a mentor.”
Alexander’s ability to be frank while being gentle was a constant theme. “Kent kept people from bringing bullsh*t,” Glassman said. “He wouldn't tolerate it and even in the most sensitive, compassionate way, he found a way of letting you know.”
“He held the community accountable. He held institutions accountable… as well as his partners, like us. So in an iterative, ongoing way, and with tremendous pathos, he held a community that prides itself for its own progressive values accountable for how they acted.”
- Matthew Glassman
Nicole Bourdon, who also worked with Alexander at the Community Foundation of Western MA agrees with Glassman. “There are some really hard conversations that happened in the close to five years that I knew Kent, some of the hardest that I've been part of, and he took such care. He had this brotherliness like he was taking care of you and he was using the moment as an opportunity to help shed some light on something and for you to learn from that. And he did it with the most incredible grace. Sometimes he would take the nighttime to craft a really well-thought-out email and it would be in your inbox around 3 am for you to digest in the morning and then he’d follow up in the afternoon with a phone call. It was so intentional.”
Alexander’s energy also made a mark with Bourdon; ”He brought himself to everything,” she said. “It was almost as if he had an endless amount of energy to show up all the time. I remember the first time we met him he came into the foundation to interview for his job. From the moment he walked in the door to when he sat down in our really small conference room, his voice filled the building. After he left everyone asked, ‘Who was just here?’ There were some folks who said this guy has a lot of energy and might be too much for this. In the end, we decided we absolutely had to have him.
Katie Allan Zobel, President & CEO of the Community Foundation of Western MA, remembers one of her first interactions with Alexander; “It was at a very large gathering organized by the ValleyCreates advisors - Kent was one of the initial five advisors - to bring people in the Valley together to meet, brainstorm and interact with each other to build possible collaborations in the arts across all kinds of boundaries. It was part of Kent's vision about bringing people together and making this Valley more deeply connected.”
She recalls how Alexander’s energy drew her in, “I was part of the opening and welcoming for the event and I was supposed to make some remarks, as I often do, and then leave to do other work. And there was Kent that day, unbelievably present and in the moment with that huge group of people, making everyone feel welcome and warm. And I thought to myself; ‘I am not needed in this circumstance. Kent has it. He's really got the whole vibe going in the way we want.’ But he turned to me and he brought me into the conversation in a way that I felt welcomed and engaged. And while I might have only needed to spend the first few minutes opening up the event, I stayed the whole day.”
“He took his responsibility as an advisor really seriously,” Zobel commented on Alexander’s work with the Community Foundation, “and he held the foundation to account. When we weren't quite doing what we could be doing, whether it was in terms of equity or inclusion or communication, he wasn't afraid to bring that to our attention. He never backed down. He was incredibly strong about his opinions and at the same time, I felt the difference between somebody standing on the outside and saying, ‘Hey, you need to hold yourself to account and do these things,’ and his approach, which was more like, ‘Hey, we're good. You’ve got work to do and we're going to do it together. We're going to figure this out.’”
Even before his days at the Community Foundation, Alexander had started making his mark as an advocate for the arts. Lisa Davol, who met him while working on a project to revitalize the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, remembers those days; “Kent lived in Montague then. He was such a great supporter of the Theater and was on the fundraising team. He was so easy to talk to. He could always find a point of connection with someone, which made him so relatable.”
Davol came to be aware of Kent’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work through another forum; “We were also on the Communities That Care coordinating committee together, where I was first introduced to his extraordinary DEI knowledge and training. He challenged me in the most loving and kind way and helped me see a whole other perspective. I was impressed with his work with ValleyCreates and when we had the opportunity to create the ArtsHub, we asked him to be on the team."
"He taught us so much and provided guidance on ensuring the ArtsHub is as inclusive as possible from many angles.”
Danielle Amodeo, chairperson of the Northampton Arts Council board of directors, remembers the intersectionality of Alexander’s advocacy; “He was an unwavering champion of the arts and of people with marginalized identities, but especially the BIPOC community. I remember how he stood up for Indigenous artists when we had the controversy over the Northampton biennial. He brought The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to the Council and asked us to read it. He wanted to make sure that there was a learning opportunity for the community to really understand why it was essential to take the course of action we finally did.”
She also recalls his unwavering commitment and how he still called in for meetings even as his health failed. “He was in a ton of pain on so many of our calls, but he still showed up. During our November meeting he called in from the hospital and he had changed his Zoom background to a beach even though we could see the hospital bed. He made light of the whole thing. He was such a fighter and a mentor to all of us.”
“The work to undo the racism, to be more inclusive, and to seed a better arts future will require many hands. Behind the scenes at the ArtsHub, Kent met with Community Liaisons Tiana Burnett of Springfield, and Justin Beatty of Hadley. Kent’s plan was to nurture these talented artists and arts managers so they could move this project forward,” said Boyle-Clapp. “Kent’s legacy will live on through the many who are mourning his passing while celebrating the amazing gifts he has shared with this region. It is important that those he touched honor him by continuing his work.”
The botanical name for the Blanket Flower that appears in Alexander’s Facebook cover picture is Gaillardia. It seeds well, spreads through a garden easily, is very drought tolerant, and produces beautiful blossoms - even in adverse conditions.
How true also of Alexander, who seeded parts of the region with awareness about racial inequality and about the resources that artists need to thrive. It is a reminder that no matter how imperfect the conditions, growth and change will come - if we do the work.
Kent Alexander has prepared the soil, dropped the seeds in, and now it is up to us to make sure that there is plenty of water, caring, and opportunity, remembering how Alexander signed off his emails, “In Community.”