Rolling Out

Vedet Coleman-Robinson: Preserving history, shaping the future

How this living ‘VCR’ records African American history and culture and inspires future generations

Vedet Coleman-Robinson, Ph.D. is the president and CEO of the Association of African American Museums (AAAM), a mission-driven nonprofit organization committed to protecting and preserving African and African American history and culture. AAAM provides professional development, support and respite for its institutional and individual members through professional development and other opportunities such as its annual conference.

Under Coleman-Robinson’s leadership, AAAM has raised over $6.8 million and increased membership by more than 238%. Before becoming AAAM’s executive director in 2019, Coleman-Robinson was a longtime member and served on the membership committee. Previously, she served as the National Park Service (NPS) grants management specialist within the state, tribal, local, plans and grants division (STLPG).

Coleman-Robinson is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc and holds a bachelor’s degree in U.S. history from Virginia State University and master’s and doctoral degrees in history from Howard University. She spoke with Munson Steed, rolling out‘s publisher and CEO.

Munson Steed: Hey, everybody! This is Munson Steed and welcome to CEO to CEO. Where we bring you some of the most dynamic CEOs leading our community to a brighter future, and also giving us a vision for ourselves. I am so proud to have, one of the leading authorities in preserving our history, our heritage, our intellectual capacity, and expanding our vision for ourselves. A true visionary, and intellectual. My dear sister, Dr. Coleman Robinson, Ph.D.. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for being here on CEO to CEO.

Vedet Coleman-Robinson: Thank you for having me, really excited about the opportunity.

MS: When you got the call to be CEO of AAAM, and you can let our audience know what that is, where were you, and what did you think? Why’d you say yes?

VC-R: Well, back in 2019, I was asked to take the helm of AAAM. Not to be confused with AAA. Because I will not come out and help anybody with their tires. I will just call Triple A for you, but we are the Association of African American Museums, and as soon as I got the call I said, Thank you. Thank you, it’s an honor and a privilege. I had been a member of AAAM since 2005, and became a lifetime member in 2018, 2017. So it was just a natural thing for me to want to really make sure that our members had everything that I really envisioned for them. While I was serving on the membership committee and things of that nature. 

And then, over the past five years membership has exploded to over 268% and we’ve just hit a milestone of raising over $6 million for AAAM. So, as soon as the board gave me the call and said, “Hey, I think it’s time to change your title to President and CEO. And then also, just honoring the work that you’ve done. But I think that this will send a very clear signal to the field. That AAAM is here, and we’re here for a very long time.” So I said, “Thank you and yes, yes, yes, let’s roll with it.”

Why preservation is so important?

MS: For those who have no idea why a CEO would be raising money, what they would use money for, [the question is] why we should really get our community to understand preserving our museums are so important to the future of our community and of this country?

VC-R: What we do here at AAAM is we support all of the African American museums in the country, and all of the African art museums throughout the world. So, as long as folks want to and see themselves in AAAM, we allow them to be members. We do have some plantation homes that are coming into our membership, because they are changing their interpretation. So, what we do is we make sure that everybody is doing the right thing the first time, or at least the second time when they’re talking about changing their interpretation. The funding that I raise for AAAM is to really help sustain the organization. 

Dr. Burroughs (Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum in Chicago) and Dr. Wright (Charles H. Wright, of the Museum of African American History in Detroit), our founders, really had a vision for the organization and I just always stay mission driven and founder inspired. So for me, just really making sure that our members have the best support that they can have through us. The best public engagement support, programming support. We have a phenomenal partnership with Howard University School of Business, in which we do an advanced leadership training. These are things that are brand new for AAAM. 

As far as like, what type of programming we do. I kinda like, just take noodles and throw them at the wall to see what sticks, to see what our members like. We’re in a period of renewal and for the most part they’ve loved everything that we’ve done. So, we’ll continue to truck on and make sure that they have the best resources available.

Burroughs and Wright’s vision

MS: You’re at a moment where being Black and talking about reimagining the history of the country. What role do you see your organization in sharing, and giving new vision, and preserving the vision of both those who don’t know Miss Burroughs or Dr. Wright? What was their vision for the Black community, as it relates to even having or owning or creating Black museums for Black children?

VC-R: Our organization was born out of the Black art protest movement and all of our founding directors really wanted us to have a space. We weren’t being seen in museums and cultural institutions. People were actually saying that they did not think that African Americans had anything of value to preserve and that just was not true. We had decades and centuries of things that we’ve done. We’ve built America on our backs. Our founders really wanted to make sure that our history was preserved for generations to come. 

So, what we do through this renewal and as people are kind of trying to slash African American history, and culture, is we just tell the truth, and we continue to tell the truth, because that’s what needs to be done. We are at a very great advantage, because people come to our museums to learn the truth. Museums are one of the most trusted establishments and institutions in the country, and we just lean in on that. And with us, being culturally specific, what winds up happening is, people do come to our museums for the unadulterated truth, and we give it to them by any means necessary. 

And then people walk out, they’re crying, they feel renewed. They feel like they did a pilgrimage to our museums and things of that nature, and they share that information with their families, and then also with their children. So I think that it’s just a great way to continue the narrative that our museums are viable, and really something that should be around forever.

MS: When you take the time as a CEO to shepherd other leaders of African American museums, what are you sharing with them, as it relates to fiscal responsibility, preservation of artifacts? And [can you] let the community know how they can give and support African American Museums, and why [they should]?

VC-R: The first thing that we’ve been working really, really hard on is just succession planning. We want to make sure that our museums remain vibrant and stay around. So, what’s happening right now is we have a lot of founding directors that are either retiring or the Lord is calling them home. And then, we also have some members who are leaving the field altogether to find a position that, it’s no secret that our museums don’t really as a whole, the museum community as a whole doesn’t really pay very well. So, folks are leaving, because how do I support my family on this.

I go back to what my family used to ask me, like, “What are you gonna do with that history degree, girl?” And it’s like I’m here, I’m doing the thing that I wanted to do. But so, we make sure that everybody understands succession planning. And then, as far as, like fiscal responsibility, we start with the boards. We have very hard conversations with board members about what their fiduciary responsibility is, it’s not really just making sure that the executive director, whoever is at the helm is not buying Bentleys, and moving money around to do things that are nefarious. 

It’s also about what you are doing to bring into that organization? Are you bringing people into that organization? Sometimes funders don’t look like billionaires and millionaires, it could just be $10 here and there, a dollar here and there. What are you doing for that organization to sustain itself? So, that’s the other thing. And then, as far as the executive directors are concerned, we build our programming around what they say that they need. So, one thing that we wound up doing is going into a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, where we re-granted funds. 

So, we have over $2 million that we re-grant to our members and they can do anything as long as it’s not preservation of a building. If they want to come seek out other training, they can do that. If they need their staff to do certain things and be on the up and up on certain trends in the field. We allow them to do that with that money. And then, we also allow them to come to conferences or any other conference that they see fit to go to, just so that they can have a community, because it’s really hard out here. Everybody thinks that they’re by themselves but they are not. 

We’re 1,200 members strong, and they need to know that they’re not by themselves.

Promoting a legacy

MS: When you think of young ladies at Spelman, or at Fisk, or at Howard. and you are going to give a commencement speech, what would the title of your speech be? And what would be the three things that you’d ask them to do on their journey into the world to make a difference, so that Black museums continued, African American museums continued to exist through their generations’ leadership?

VC-R: Well, I’m really big on legacy. So my title, thank you for catching me off guard with that question. But my title would just have something to do with legacy, and reaching back and pulling forward and pushing forward, and things of that nature. But things that I think that they would need to know is just really having a tenacious spirit. You can’t get through this life without rebuilding and rebranding yourself. If something doesn’t work, you just kind of tweak it a little bit. I always say don’t don’t give up. And obviously, no is never no forever. It’s just no for right now. 

Continue to push forward and continue to make sure that we are in this field, or any field, as it pertains to African American history and culture, whether it’s K through 12. it’s just making sure that those who came before you are not forgotten. I have this story that I tell, that I share with one of our members. I was at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland, African American history and culture, and I was walking around with one of the young women who worked there, and as we were walking around she said, Oh my gosh, Dorsey, that’s my last name. 

And I said, I bet you that’s one of your family members. So she called her mom, and sure enough, that was one of her family members, who was being commemorated in this space. And she and I just started crying because she didn’t know, and I knew Dorsey. But it’s just one of those things that without that connection and without people really uplifting and preserving our stories. We’ll be forgotten, and that’s not what we want. We do not want to be forgotten. 

This country was made on the backs of people whose names are just being discovered. So I think that it’s our journey, and our right, and our responsibility to make sure that we uplift the names that haven’t been said in history throughout this country.

MS: Well, thank you for that. Lastly, if you were going to give a speech to the country about the value proposition that the African American museums offer this country, what would you say to them?

VC-R: I would tell them that this country was built on the backs of African Americans, and do not count us out. I think something that happened during Covid is that a lot of people were asking us if our museums were closing and were they closing in perpetuity forever and ever. And one thing that I saw which just warmed my heart is, nobody said that they were closing. They said that we’ve been here before. We’ve been without funders before. We’ve been without everything before. We will continue to uplift ourselves. It’s okay. We’re gonna be here, and that truly happened. 

Some people had to close their physical doors, but they moved their museums into a virtual space or as you just mentioned about Dr. Burroughs, you start the museum in your house. There’s no reason that you can’t bring it back to your house for a little bit until you find another location. So that would be my story. Just the tenacious spirit of African Americans, and just do not count us out. We are here to serve a purpose which is to lead the country. And then, people have a lot to learn from us. That is my answer. That would be my answer to all of America. The full America.

MS: Well, I wanna thank you, Dr. Coleman-Robinson, for all that you continue to do to preserve our children. I am thankful to both Dr. Burroughs and Dr. Wright for their commitment, but I am also thankful that there is a new steward who was there to shepherd us forward, and there’s a true commitment to understanding. I never forget when I came in the mansion of Dr. Burroughs in the first DuSable, and there was a little pamphlet, and it was a book she had written, and it was what to tell your child, because they are Black. 

And I think there’s always a story to tell your child, because they’re Black. That can only be told in a place where somebody reveres them, loves them, respects them, and expects the best from them, and that is at an African American Museum. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank and bring to you Dr. Coleman-Robinson, the CEO of the Association of African American Museums. I’m Munson Steed. We’ll see you again on CEO to CEO. Thank you.

VC-R: Thank you so much.

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