Atiba Edwards: Pioneering Diversity and Inclusion at the Helm of Brooklyn Children’s Museum

Atiba Edwards: Pioneering Diversity and Inclusion at the Helm of Brooklyn Children’s Museum

By Linda Nwoke

Listen to the interview with President and CEO of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Atiba T. Edwards, here.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum is a haven for budding explorers, storytellers, and makers to play, learn, and grow. A wonder that is nestled within the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and remains a creative space for curious young minds.

The museum is where generations of children have laughed and learned through an innovative approach to education and an unshaken commitment that sparks curiosity in every child.

In a recent conversation with our Editor-in-Chief, Pearl Phillip, and Host of People, Power & Politics Radio Show and Podcast, Caribbean luminary Atiba Edwards, the newly appointed President and CEO of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, spoke about the institution’s future.

A Memorable Appointment and Representation 

Edwards recalled the memories and symbolic representation of his appointment. For him, it is a personal triumph and a milestone for diversity and inclusion in cultural institutions. “This appointment is memorable in many ways because it’s a form of representation at its fullest.”

However, he hoped for a larger vision where such groundbreaking achievements would become commonplace. “I look forward to the time when this is just a happenstance, as part of the daily fabric where we’re celebrating personal wins and victories,” says Edwards.

Despite hailing from a small island, Atiba Edwards radiates pride in representing his roots on a global stage. They celebrate him for “putting the island on the map.” Yet, despite his achievements and being regarded as a reference point for many, he remains grounded. “I’m not going to turn it down, but it feels great to have that place checked off in some cases for many people,” he remarked.

At the heart of his mission is the desire to inspire aspirations and diversify cultural organizations. He desires to become an aspiration for those who walk into the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and beyond.

Experiences, Life Journey, and Connection to the Museum

Atiba Edwards was born in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines but raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He recalls his Rastafarian upbringing shaping his identity, including his family’s pursuit of the American Dream. “The American Dream is New York for many Caribbean folks,” says Edwards. He reflected on his father’s unwavering commitment to reuniting the family and the resilience that defined his career.

He started his career as an investment banker before delving into education, and he now serves as the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s leader. Atiba Edwards attributes his drive to the foundational values he received during his formative years.

He reminisced about the exploratory bike rides through the city, visits to cultural institutions with his parents, and his early love for arts and culture as catalysts for his success.

Historical Facts about Brooklyn Children’s Museum 

According to Edwards, the institution stands as the world’s first children’s museum, originating in 1899 as part of the Brooklyn Institutes of Arts and Sciences and part of a lineage of institutions.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s core mission revolves around celebrating Brooklyn’s diversity. He said, “We’re focused at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum on celebrating the diversity of Brooklyn, really using our role as a means and a catalyst to be supportive of igniting curiosity and the joyful learning across everybody that comes into the museum.”

He explained that an integral aspect of the museum’s vision is super-serving Central Brooklyn, with an average of 300,000 visitors daily. The museum’s role extends beyond traditional exhibits to dynamic cultural programming, featuring approximately 12 festivals annually. These festivals range from Caribbean culture celebrations to Lunar New Year, Eid, Holi, Diwali, Dia de Los Muertos, and Hispanic Heritage Month. All of which serves as a glowing reflection of the diverse communities that make up Brooklyn.

Edwards noted the significance of these festivals, stating, “The reason those festivals are significant is we want to amplify cultures that make up Brooklyn and those people who might identify with them, seeing themselves celebrated and uplifted.” The museum sees itself as an extension of learning, allowing families to engage in informal learning experiences that resonate long after their visit.

Drawing on his background as an engineer, Edwards highlighted the importance of informal learning as a hands-on, tactile approach. He remarked, “If you involve me, I’ll remember more.” The philosophy underlines the museum’s commitment to creating lab-based experiences, transforming each visit into a dynamic learning journey.

Engaging Communities & Vision for Inclusivity 

Addressing the critical role of community engagement, Atiba Edwards noted the importance of being present within the neighborhoods the museum serves. “One of the biggest things is just being present. So, I grew up in Brownsville, but I spend a good amount of time in Crown Heights, so I see the community members.”

He revealed how he has established lines of contact to foster communication actively, stating, “They can always reach out to me—the community board, the Merchants Avenue Association, the neighborhood associations—they all see and have a direct line into me.” The commitment to accessibility ensures that the museum remains connected to the changing needs and interests of the communities served.

Recognizing the dynamic nature of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, he spoke about the museum’s initiatives in diversity, equity, and accessibility. He said, “The diversity accessibility initiatives are true, and we weave that through everything we do. So, we can be very responsive to the changing needs, neighborhoods, and people who live in and around Brooklyn, particularly around central Brooklyn.”

Edwards also stressed the importance of feedback and highlighted the museum’s commitment to responsiveness, recognizing that while they may be unable to do everything, they strive to address pressing issues and concerns raised by the community.

In terms of inclusivity, Edwards highlighted the museum’s dedication to accessibility. “We have, on average, about 30% of our visitors come in for free,” he shared. This commitment to inclusivity is through partnerships, programs, and outreach efforts. Edwards emphasized, “We want all families to know you’re welcome at the museum.”

Thriving Post-Pandemic

Reflecting on attendance post-pandemic, the CEO revealed that the museum’s attendance has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. “Attendance has been close to our record number, so we’re just shy of 300,000 people as of last year. And we’re tracking to get right near there this year.”

He also noted an influx of first-time visitors, even among long-time Brooklyn residents: “And those are visitors who have lived in Brooklyn for, in some cases, ten or 20 years, but have never been to the museum.” The post-pandemic period has allowed individuals to rediscover the cultural richness within their neighborhoods, and the museum serves as a yet-to-be-explored hidden gem.

In conversations with these first-time visitors, Edwards observed a newfound appreciation for the local cultural offerings, stating, “They’ve been able to step back and say, wow, this has been here for so long, and I haven’t come to the museum.” This discovery benefits the museum and contributes to a broader realization of the wealth of cultural assets within the community.

Highlighting the museum’s deep roots within the community, Edwards reiterated, “We’re very intergenerational. Some grandparents and great-grandparents grew up at the museum and now bring their grandchildren to share the same experiences.”

Unveiling Exciting Future Exhibits

Sharing a glimpse into the future, the President shared exciting plans for upcoming exhibits.

The first notable exhibit he shared is the “Brooklyn Time Machine.” He revealed, “That tells a story and the richness of Brooklyn going back just under two centuries.”

Another project is the “Earth Science Garden,” which will materialize in 4 to 5 years. The exhibit will leverage the museum space as an informal learning opportunity, allowing visitors to understand the topography that defines Brooklyn. He revealed the geological impact of a glacier that shaped not only Brooklyn but the entire East Coast.

Excitedly, the President of Brooklyn Children’s Museum described the “Brooklyn Time Machine” and “Earth Science Garden” projects as a transformative learning opportunity. Edwards emphasized the projects’ role in connecting people with their neighborhoods. “If I’m in Crown Heights, it’s because it’s a high point, or if I’m in Park Slope, it’s because it’s a slope. If I’m in Mill Basin, it’s because it’s a basin,” he explained. The exhibit will feature a climbing structure depicting the Earth’s phases, promising an immersive and educational experience.

Cultivating Belonging and Cultural Pride at Brooklyn Children’s Museum

He outlined a strategic approach to fostering a sense of belonging and cultural pride. Edwards said, “A lot of that ties back to the cultural festivals from earlier,” emphasizing the transformative power of celebrating diverse cultures.

He praised the unwavering dedication of the museum’s staff and their pivotal role in the vision: “Our staff is super involved. We have an amazing team that heads up our programming,” he noted.

Additionally, employing inclusive programming attracts diverse audiences. Edwards explains, “Programming brings in diverse audiences, and through those diverse audiences, our staff learns a little about what works and what doesn’t.” Securing funding for these initiatives is crucial, enabling collaboration with artists who authentically represent the communities.

Edwards said this approach ensures inclusivity, stating, “We want it to feel as inclusive as possible, that they are brought in and have a seat in the room.”

Breaking Barriers and Inspiring Change at Brooklyn Children’s Museum

From being the first Rastafarian analyst in investment banking to co-leading a school, Edwards recognizes each moment as a teaching opportunity. He sees his role as inspirational for the community, particularly for children of color facing systemic challenges. “My role helps to check one more thing off the list of this, which is something else you can do,” he affirms, underscoring the importance of accessibility and visibility.

He acknowledged the historical expectations but also celebrated the evolving narrative. “Arts and culture play a very positive, pivotal role in that,” he notes. Edwards sees the expanding possibilities in career choices, stating, “Around 360, there is something you can do.”

Inspiring Future Leaders at Brooklyn Children’s Museum

Again, reflecting on the impact of his selection, Edwards offers a timeless quote from James Baldwin: “The world is before you, and you need not take it or leave it as when you came in.” He underscored the notion that despite external circumstances, individuals possess the power to drive change from within. Edwards encourages young people to challenge the status quo, emphasizing, “The fact that you’ve presented something doesn’t mean you have to accept it as a final answer.”

Edwards invites everyone to explore the museum’s offerings, including the website, and mentions their social media presence at BCM Kids. Some upcoming events include a Kwanzaa celebration, Lunar New Year festivities, the Black Future Festival in February, and the vibrant Holi celebration.

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