By Rochelle Riley for The Island Connection
The International African American Museum (IAAM) has found the final piece for the massive global project that will change the landscape of African American history and its curation.
Seventeen months after breaking ground on the museum, its board of directors has selected as their CEO, Dr. Tonya M. Matthews. Matthews, an experienced executive, thought leader and educator, has proven track records in organizational leadership, strategic planning, diversity and inclusion, program development, project management and vast visitor, and community engagements initiatives.
She is founder of The STEMinista Project, a groundbreaking, national initiative that inspires middle-school girls to consider tools and careers in STEM. The initiative uses a collective impact program design and global role model database to provide 1000+ hours of STEM experiences for participants every year. Her most recent position was Associate Provost of Inclusive Workforce Development and Director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
But her heart lies in history as well, so the change-maker and innovator who received her undergraduate degree from Duke University in biomedical and electrical engineering and her doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University in biomedical engineering plans to engineer a global success with Charleston’s gift to America and the world: a world-class museum at the site where more enslaved Africans entered bondage than any other place in the United States.
IAAM Board Chairman Wilbur Johnson said that that finding Matthews was the final task of a 20-year journey. Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who has called the museum “his life’s most important work,” said he was thrilled.
Matthews said her previous experiences with history museums and organizational diversity and inclusion have prepared her for this job, which she considers her greatest mission.
She served as Vice President of Museums for the Cincinnati Museum Center and acting Director of Inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums.
The Cincinnati Museum Center is a one-of-a-kind, multimuseum complex housed in Union Terminal, a historic Art Deco train station and National Historic Landmark in the nation’s 29th largest metro region.
Among her greatest accomplishments was a partnership with the National Museums of Kenya that connected middle school students in Cincinnati with their peers in Lamu, Kenya, the oldest continually inhabited town in the country. The program used cultural heritage research and with funding from the U.S. State Department Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad Program to connect children to children. The program at five schools (three in the United States and two in Kenya) led to a year-long exploration of the intangible heritage of two communities, supported by distance-learning and classroom connections via telecommunications platforms, artists, storytellers and museum educators. It is a program she plans to emulate at the International African American Museum.
Matthews also directed the launch of Facing Change, a national initiative to diversify museum boards across the country with founding support from the Walton, Mellon and Ford Foundations.
When she left Cincinnati in 2013, she said in news reports that she had stalked Detroit. She became the inaugural President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, transforming the 80,000-squarefoot facility from the locally respected Detroit Science Center to a statewide active hands-on learning center with a 52-county footprint that hosted sustainable virtual and long-distance learning programming and new innovative, hands-on exhibitions and programs annually.
After founding The STEMinista Project 2015 and working in science and engineering, she turned her attention to diversity and inclusion, directing the national initiative to diversify museum boards across the country. She then focused on collegiate connections, becoming Associate Provost of Inclusive Workforce Development and Director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University. Dr. Matthews’ story and her successful effort to connect communities and celebrate history have defined her entire life.
Matthews has served on numerous boards including the American Alliance of Museums, Chatfield College, Detroit Public Television, First Independence Bank and the National Academy of Sciences Board on Science Education.