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  • Vive Griffith

Spotlight: Dawn Delbanco, Member of the Clemente Board of Directors

Dawn Delbanco joined the Clemente Course Board of Directors in 2021. A lecturer in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University since 1991, Dawn says that although her expertise is in Chinese art, her favorite teaching experiences have come in “Masterpieces of Modern Art,” a course required for all Columbia undergraduates. She says, “I have found it deeply rewarding to open the eyes of a variety of students who knew nothing about art and would never have taken an art history course if it hadn’t been required.”

Get to know Dawn with our quick Q&A!

When did you get involved with Clemente and what motivated you to do so?

I first became aware of Clemente ten years ago when I attended a conference at Boston College organized by Mass Humanities. The benefit dinner after the conference was notable for its main guest speaker, Anita Hill (whom I had last seen giving testimony in a televised confirmation hearing). But what really moved me were the after-dinner presentations given by two Clemente graduates who spoke about the transformational impact of Clemente on their once-desperate lives. I had never heard of Clemente, but I was blown away by these two articulate and dramatic advocates for a free adult education program. Inspired by the work various organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Teagle Foundation have been doing to address the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor, I was honored to accept the invitation to join the Clemente Board of Directors in 2021 and to take a more active role in supporting the necessary work that must be done to achieve a more equitable society.

Please share a favorite Clemente memory.

My favorite Clemente memory is from 2014 in the White House when I watched Marina van Zuylen accept a National Humanities Medal on behalf of Clemente from President Obama.

What makes Clemente and the study of the humanities special to you?

I didn’t fully understand why Clemente is so special until I had spent a number of years as a member of the advisory council to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Reviewing the multitude of NEH grant programs, and especially those associated with state humanities councils, I became more deeply aware that the humanities are for all people--no matter their background--and for every state in the nation. There is an unfortunate and widespread perception that the humanities only have a place in the elite colleges and universities on the two coasts; that they are of interest only to a wealthy and privileged leisure class. Not so. In fact, I came to see that reading such authors as Plato and Martin Luther King had far more of an immediate and meaningful impact on those who have lived lives of adversity and deprivation, or who have faced the unspeakable while fighting wars. Indeed it would be fair to say that in these contexts, engaging with the humanities can save lives—which is why Earl Shorris was a man of remarkable insight and foresight when he created Clemente.

What do you like to do outside of the Clemente universe?

Left to my own devices, I would attend a master class for any instrument at Juilliard or the Manhattan School of Music. But perhaps more than anything else, I love to wander on the streets of New York. My husband and I don’t do much traveling, but when you live in New York, you don’t have to. When I leave my Morningside Heights location and go down to, say, the Village, I feel I’m on vacation!

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