We’re very pleased to welcome Dr. Mikisha Morris to Queens Library as the new Executive Director of the Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center. She succeeds Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako), who will be retiring in July 2016 after more than 35 years of service to the Queens community.
Dr. Morris, who recently earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership, has an extensive nonprofit and public education administration background, having spent the majority of her career serving children and communities in Philadelphia. She brings a strong understanding of and value for culture and cultural arts in the community and in a library setting.
Dr. Morris was gracious enough to speak with us about some of her plans for her new role, her first message for the customers of Langston Hughes, and more.
What role did libraries play in your life growing up?
The library played a very significant role in my life. My parents strongly encouraged reading and writing in our household. So, as a little girl with a big vocabulary and an even bigger imagination, the library was the perfect escape for me. I would lose myself in a stack of books for hours.
Your doctoral study focused on using cultural arts programs to empower urban communities. That sounds like a fascinating topic. Can you tell us more about it?
The focus of my study was a school in South Philadelphia, which over the course of a decade developed a really strong cultural arts program. The program was fully funded by a small group of community members, through fundraising and grantwriting. In this program, students participate in African djembe drumming classes, Ailey-inspired dance, tap dance, strings, Shakespeare/theater workshops, art classes and more. Well, a few years ago this school was slated for closure. While one part of their argument to remain open was the school’s good academic standing, the hidden gem—its cultural arts program—was the centerpiece of the community's fight to save their school.
Having spent an entire school year working with the school’s community, I witnessed firsthand how this program empowered young people by teaching them about themselves, African culture, and African-American history. Students who were once shy or who had acted out tapped into talents and skills that they never knew existed, or that had never been encouraged. Parents and the community showed up in large numbers to support the students and this program. This helped increase parent involvement in both their children’s education and activities in and around the school. Surrounding music and arts institutions also supported the efforts of the school community. Both of these combined to create a unified, grassroots group of individuals who were highly invested in the fight to keep this school open.
When the time came to fight against the school’s imminent closure, the empowered community attended school board meetings and public hearings where the students would sing, rap, recite, and play their arguments to board members to “save their school.” This applied strategy proved to be a creative and successful approach to their fight. I saw the integral role that cultural arts can play in urban communities where so many resources and programs are most frequently cut. The result depresses so many neighborhoods and leads to an overall deterioration of communities. Cultural arts serve as a great unifier. People from every cultural and socio-economic background can harmoniously engage in a music event, a dance workshop, a theater performance, or an art class. It is a means to educate, inspire, and promote a greater tolerance towards people from cultures other than our own, and as my study proved, it can lead towards the empowerment of urban communities.
What attracted you to the Executive Director position at Langston Hughes Community Library?
My background is in public education and nonprofits, specifically program development and operations management in educational environments. The foundation of my previous work was serving students and communities. When I researched Langston Hughes Community Library, I knew that I had found something very special. The ED position at Langston Hughes fulfills everything that I was looking for professionally—the opportunity to serve urban communities; promote education and literacy; provide amazing cultural arts experiences for diverse audiences; encourage the study of Black cultures and heritage; and hopefully inspire children and adults alike to make reading a strong part of their lives.
We know you just arrived, but what are some of your early plans for your new role at Langston Hughes? Are there any programs or events that you’d like to develop?
My early plans are to glean as much knowledge as possible from Director Emeritus Andrew Jackson so that I may continue the great legacy that he has created over the past 35 years. I want to develop resources and programming that will be relevant to a community that was once predominantly Black and is now home to various Hispanic immigrants; but also sustain the original founders’ vision for the institution, which is to provide a means for the community, students, teachers, and scholars throughout the borough to have direct access to and study Black culture. Finally, I would like to extend the reach of Langston Hughes. This is an amazing institution, with a powerful legacy; it offers so much, academically and culturally—and I wish for even more people to walk through the doors and experience it.
What are some of your favorite books and authors? And what are you reading at the moment?
I am someone who greatly appreciates a “good read.” But for the past 7 years, while earning my master’s and my doctorate, my reading has strictly been academic books for a class or to write a paper. Some of my favorite authors are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Paulo Coelho, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and James Patterson. At the moment, I am re-reading a book that I received as a gift from a great friend over a year ago—The Woman Code by Sophia A. Nelson. Oh, and I just have to add that my childhood favorite was Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema. I still pick up that book and read it from time to time.
Do you have a message for the customers of Langston Hughes and the communities of Corona and East Elmhurst?
This is the Langston Hughes COMMUNITY Library and Cultural Center, meaning: it belongs to you. I invite you to come in and explore all that we have to offer. We welcome you, we appreciate you, and we are here to serve.
Perhaps the most important question: even though you’ve come to us from Philadelphia, are you ready to start rooting for the Mets?
Every time the Phillies have a bad season, I swear out of frustration to “cheer for a new team next year.” Philly has my heart; so I have to root for my home team. BUT, if I continue to have my heart broken every season…I may have to reconsider. And I do have a few friends and family members who are Mets fans, so they would be more than willing to help me with the transition!