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A photo of Elizabeth Méndez Berry, a member of the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board.
Elizabeth Méndez Berry is a member of the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Méndez Berry.

CCDI Advisory Board Member Spotlight: Elizabeth Méndez Berry

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The Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board advises CCDI staff on program administration, supports initiative outreach activities, and helps the Library imagine ways that it can deepen connections with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Its members include nine professionals ranging from senior scholars to leading librarians, archivists, and early-career professionals in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

Elizabeth Méndez Berry is Vice President and Executive Editor of One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House in New York.

In this interview post, Elizabeth emphasizes the importance of vibrant cultural discourse, discusses how CCDI connects to her own contemporary storytelling methods, and shares highlights from her recent visit to the Library. 

You’re a member of our first Advisory Board for CCDI. What made you want to get involved in this effort?

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I love libraries in theory but until joining this board, I didn’t actually spend a lot of time in libraries in practice. My appreciation for them has intensified recently because of the role they play in providing access to books and information and protecting freedom of speech in this country, something my team at One World really values. I appreciated the opportunity to work with this extraordinary group of people, to learn how this important library works, and to play a tiny role in informing that on behalf of people like me who are not frequent users but are fans. And in fact, since I joined this group, I’ve started spending more time at my local library and getting my kids into the habit too.

In a 2018 article about the animated film Coco, you wrote about the “lack of representation of people of color in the places where we make meaning” – namely, cultural critique. Do you think that’s changed since 2018, and where can we still grow in artistic meaning-making?

In 2018, I was thinking a lot about cultural criticism; I worked for the Nathan Cummings Foundation and alongside my Ford Foundation colleague Chi-hui Yang, I was developing a new initiative to support cultural critics of color called Critical Minded.

At the time, the number of critics of color—and critics in general– was shrinking, as newspapers around the country had cut so many positions and it was more and more difficult to make a living as a critic. We believed that a vibrant and representative cultural debate was essential to cultural equity—and that criticism made a real impact on how artworks of all kinds were valued, the awards they received and sometimes even the money they made (we made the case for the initiative in this op-ed).

As I reflect on this question now, I’m thinking about how, after the 2020 protests in response to the George Floyd case, there was a new awareness of racial justice issues, and many corporations and non-profits made public statements in solidarity with Black movements. Black artists and Black-led arts organizations also received support—and as an editor, I received proposals for many more books by Black authors, some of them critics. It felt like things were changing.

That being said, I think the bigger trends that have made criticism an endangered art are still affecting the field. Above all, critics are truth tellers, and they don’t always like the art they’re responding to, which makes them sometimes inconvenient to the industries that monetize culture. This recent article from the New York Times notes that while magazines that used to publish critique are shutting down, many art galleries are commissioning positive articles about their shows. And given the social media environment, some artists are bypassing critics entirely—or harassing the ones who dare to say something less than laudatory about their work. It’s never been easy to be a critic, but these days it feels particularly hard to be one of the few willing to say something unpopular about something popular.

Still, I have to salute the Critical Minded team and our executive director, rashid shabazz, for making thoughtful, consistent investments in criticism with the goal of creating a more equitable cultural discourse. I do believe that our team’s efforts to highlight the power and importance of robust critique, both for the arts and for democracy, has shone a light on this. And of course, we’re not the only ones working to advance the cause.

How do you think diversity of thought and experience in cultural criticism produce resonance with people in an ever more diffuse and niche internet landscape?

I think people are still looking to make sense of art, but perhaps the places they look to do so are different from what they were 20 years ago. So it’s not just about traditional reviews; it’s about Twitter debates, or podcasts: there’s an online water cooler that’s sometimes in conversation with traditional criticism, but sometimes it’s unsupervised.

Since we started Critical Minded, I’ve been more attuned to this dynamic: I watch something like Glass Onion, which I thought was kinda entertaining but insubstantial, and I find myself thrashing around online looking for a critic who agrees with me and can help me understand my response in a way that’s more eloquent and evidence-based than my aggravation with the hype (for the record there weren’t many!).

I believe people still long for discussions about what they’re watching, reading or listening to, like Renaissance, White Lotus, or our Critical Minded board member Hua Hsu’s subtly moving memoir Stay True—I know I do.  It can be hard for less visible voices to break through in this context, when there’s such an echo chamber and so many of the big institutions have shrunk—but they are there, and they do find audiences. We’re seeing that among our grantees. In this polarized political context, I’m really interested in cultural conversations as a space where we can develop our capacity to disagree without dismissing or dehumanizing each other. I think the productive friction that can come from good criticism offers life lessons about how to challenge each other from a place of curiosity and care.

Much of your advocacy looks to the future of public discourse – building spaces where art and debate from creators of color can flourish. How does the work of CCDI, which encourages creators to use digital collections to create projects, link to your contemporary storytelling efforts?

I always think of the work I do—be it as a writer, with Critical Minded, as an editor, or as an educator—as being about fumbling towards the truth. I see artists, critics and the authors I work with as truthtellers, people who have the courage to engage in that process, and the humility and curiosity to not assume they know it all already. So much of that has to do with an interest in investigating and revealing elements of the past. Research is a huge part of that.

I see the work of CCDI as a bold effort to unlock big bodies of information and reanimate them in dialogue with these creative minds. One of the authors I’m working with—Guadalupe Rosales who created Veteranas and Rucas on Instagram—is an archivist and artist, and I hope at some point she will be able to connect with CCDI, because her practice is about making memories come alive in a way that engages community members so effectively. A lot of what she does works with the recent past, but every so often she highlights an old photograph that sparks lots of appreciation from her community. I love the work CCDI is doing because I think it models how legacy institutions can invite people and communities in to play.

As Vice President and Executive Editor of the One World publishing imprint, you’re supporting the work of so many innovative writers, thinkers, and artists. Can you share anything you’ve read recently that enlightened you or made you think in a new way?

I’m so focused on the books I’m editing right now so I’ll mention one that’s in progress by Dr. Sunita Sah: it talks about the many ways we are conditioned to go with the flow and not challenge authority, from the most minor scenarios (telling the hairdresser we don’t like the cut) to the most significant (life and death situations). And the reflexes we have that push us to privilege others’ comfort above our own discomfort. It’s fascinating how she dissects these dynamics and as I work on the book, I have felt them so acutely—and I’ve also learned so much from her explanation of how we can take back our agency. I cannot wait for this book to be out in the world so I can share it with you.

Which collection or service at the Library of Congress really resonates with you? Is there anything you’d like to explore more?

I was so fortunate to visit the Library of Congress for the first time last month. With the wonderful guidance of Marya McQuirter, CCDI Program Director, I got to dig into a couple of the collections. I loved getting to know the music  items in the Performing Arts Reading Room with its cabinets full of card catalogues. The staff, Morgan Davis and Paul Sommerfeld  were so helpful and patient. It felt like a window into a huge and beautiful world. I didn’t have as much time in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room,  but that was also fascinating. One thing I’ve been really curious about is how criticism has evolved over the decades, particularly in Black, Latinx and other community newspapers. I discovered a number of Spanish language newspapers from the 19th century in the catalogue. I hope someday I’ll be able to meet the newspapers in person.

CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.

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