As a child growing up in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, Rosa Rodriguez-Williams rarely visited museums.
“Museum life wasn’t something that I participated in,” says Rodriguez-Williams, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Massachusetts when she was 8 years old. “I didn’t see myself in those spaces.”
Three decades later, Rodriguez-Williams is working to ensure that people of all races, colors, and creeds feel welcome in one of the largest art museums in the world.
As the first-ever senior director of belonging and inclusion at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Rodriguez-Williams says she will reimagine how the MFA welcomes and engages historically underrepresented audiences. The goal, she says, is to create a culture that prioritizes the experiences of the 1.2 million people who visit the museum each year.
“I saw this position and thought ‘why wasn’t this part of my life and why can’t it be part of the life of people who have my background and grew up in the same neighborhoods where I did?’” says Rodriguez-Williams, who graduated from the Boston College School of Social Work in 1999 and joined the staff at the Museum of Fine Arts in September. “It became an opportunity for me to open doors for folks who selected out of this experience because it seemed very elitist or something that wasn’t part of their conversations.”
What’s on your agenda as the first-ever senior director of belonging and inclusion at the Museums of Fine Arts?
I’ve really been in design-thinking mode, getting a feel of the museum, the culture, and its needs. Organization and inclusion and belonging starts with people and we’ve recently launched three affinity groups at the museum: the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Affinity Group, the LGBTQIA+ Affinity Group, and the Parents and Caregivers Affinity group. I’m also working closely with the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility Group and looking to expand the volunteer community to reflect greater diversity, especially among under-represented groups. We’re really focused on working to dismantle things that are barriers to belonging but also thinking about what makes this museum so special and honoring that too.
I’ve been strategically placed under the Learning and Community Engagement division of the museum to focus on the visitor experience. When I’m thinking about belonging, I’m really thinking about how the staff members are engaging with visitors and how we can make visitors feel like the museum is a place for them.
How has the racial reckoning in America shaped the work of people who focus on improving belonging and inclusion at organizations such as the Museum of Fine Arts?
I believe there has been a shift in the present moment where organizations, whether it’s the museum or elsewhere in this country, are looking at what is happening and they’re thinking that we must move this agenda ahead. And organizations need to determine whether to stay the same or shift with the moment because that is what is being asked of us and demanded of us as a result of this racial awakening. We have to shift with it, and I think that’s where our work starts.
Following allegations of racism that came to light after seventh-graders from the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy in Dorchester visited the Museum of Fine Arts in May 2019, the museum reached an agreement with Attorney General Maura Healey to dedicate $500,000 to diversity initiatives and develop an antidiscrimination policy. How has this incident shaped the way you approach your role as senior director of belonging and inclusion at the museum?
As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to hear those things happen anywhere and continue to happen. And it’s why I’ve been doing this work for more than 20 years. My vision is a vision for equity. It’s for dismantling inequity and for building institutional cultures that require institutions to think about belonging. Organizations have inclusion strategies that require folks from underrepresented communities to fit into the culture that is there. And what I love about the museum, especially in this time that we’re living in, is that it wants to be a place where people feel they belong. It’s really about dismantling barriers that make people feel like they don’t belong and changing the culture from ‘fit into what is’ to more of a place where everybody belongs.
You came to the MFA from Northeastern University, where you directed the Latinx Student Cultural Center. What made you pick the MFA to continue your work?
I’m from Lawrence. I grew up in the inner city. Museum life wasn’t traditionally something that I participated in. I didn’t see myself in those spaces. But I saw this position and thought ‘why wasn’t this part of my life and why can’t it be part of the life of people who have my background and grew up in these same neighborhoods where I did?’ It became an opportunity for me to open doors for folks who selected out of this experience because it seemed very elitist or something that wasn’t part of their conversations. But when you open the doors and see what’s actually here, you realize that it’s not like that. To create that environment and possibilities for communities like the community where I grew up was a big reason why I applied for this position.
Directing an affinity space at Northeastern immersed me in the Latinx community, but it also taught me how to work with other communities, which has prepared me for a lot of the inclusion work that I will be doing at the MFA.
What are you most looking forward to in your new role?
I was a little nervous because I don’t have a museum background and was coming in from higher ed. But in a lot of the conversations I’ve been having, inclusion is top of mind and it’s very encouraging that the people I will be working with really desire to do this work in their own spaces. I’m really looking forward to working with folks here—they’ve been warm, they’ve been open, they have this desire to create space for everyone in the city, and I’m really excited for that. I’m also learning about the love of art. I recently got to take a look at the upcoming Monet exhibit and learning all about it has been phenomenal.
What did you learn at BCSSW that you’ll apply to your work at the MFA?
BC was really special to me. I came right from undergrad and I didn’t even know exactly what I wanted to do. I just knew that activism and helping people was in my blood. At the BC School of Social Work, I was able to hone in on my leadership skills and realize the flexibility you have with a social work degree, which helped to shape where I would go next. I have especially fond memories of taking a class on race that really opened my eyes to a lot of things that I wasn’t aware of in terms of race relations and social work.