On Wednesday, August 24, the College announced that Toshi Reagon would be the Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow for the 2022-23 academic year. Reagon was appointed after consultation with faculty and will engage with the greater Bowdoin and Maine communities through course material and various events.
The Joseph McKeen Visiting Fellow brings “a distinguished visitor prominent in public discourse” to help further the goals of the common good, according to the Bowdoin website. Over the course of their time at Bowdoin, the fellow hosts lectures, class visits, performances and other events to discuss their experiences and works.
The inaugural fellow in 2019 was Arthur Brooks, the former president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank. The fellowship was suspended for much of the pandemic until Brooks visited again this past March.
Reagon, now the second McKeen Fellow, is an acclaimed musician, curator, producer and composer. She plans to engage with the Bowdoin community and other patrons on issues of faith, racial justice, climate justice and gender justice throughout her fellowship.
Associate Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry and Chair of the Department of Theater and Dance Abigail Killeen brought forward the initial idea to bring Reagon to campus.
“Judith Casselberry and Abby Killeen came to our office and asked about considering Toshi as the next fellow,” Director of the McKeen Center for the Common Good Sarah Seames said. “At that point, we hadn’t really had a chance to develop a process for what the [selection of fellows] might look like in the future, but the idea of Toshi as the next fellow was so compelling that we were happy to move forward with it.”
Casselberry and Killeen were inspired to bring Reagon to Bowdoin after learning of her congregation-opera version of Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower.” This book is an Afro-futuristic piece which commentates on social inequality and the climate crisis.
“Since Toshi has been doing the production [‘Parable of the Sower’ the Opera], she’s developed this other initiative called Parable Path, which enables her to come into communities before the production and actually engage with the community about the themes of the production,” Casselberry said. “It’s not just about the show; it’s about the ideas and the themes that come out of that text. It became clear that we needed a vehicle for her to do that work, and the McKeen Fellowship seemed ideal.”
While both Reagon and Brooks were selected with input from the College community beyond the McKeen Center, because of backlash surrounding Brooks’ selection, there was wider faculty involvement in Reagon’s appointment. Brooks was also met with controversy from the Bowdoin Labor Alliance due to his involvement with the AEI and the circumstances of his appointment by President Rose.
“There was full faculty consultation and engagement during the process that brought Reagon to campus, and the results speak for themselves,” Associate Professor of Classics Robert Sobak said. “Brooks was merely the last in a long line of third-rate pundits who did nothing but charge first-rate fees. Hopefully we’ve kicked that habit and can build on the model Reagon’s appointment provides.”
To develop Reagon’s Parable Path at Bowdoin and in Maine, the College and the McKeen Center will partner with the Maine Humanities Council, which is currently focusing on Afro-futuristic works including Butler’s, and the Indigo Arts Alliance, a Portland-based organization supporting artists and activists of color in Maine.
Reagon will be on campus at least four times throughout the course of the academic year, in September, November, February and April. In addition to these formal visits, the McKeen Center will provide other opportunities to engage the community in the Parable Path, such as possible monthly discussion lunches.
“It comes out of Toshi’s requests for how she does her work—her approach is to get to know the communities that she’s working with and have any of the collaborations and community components come from that community directly,” Seames said. “She really wants to come [several] times to find ways to engage not just with campus, but with the broader communities in Maine.”
Casselberry and Killeen noted that Reagon’s influence on the College this year also extends into the classroom, as “Parable of the Sower” has been included in a wide variety of syllabi across the College this year in courses ranging from Africana Studies to Theater to Environmental Studies.
“The liberal arts are built to do that,” Killeen said. “This is an opportunity to transform how we learn and what community is.”
The community will not have to wait long to engage with Reagon. On Thursday evening, September 8, there will be an on-campus event with Reagon open to the public with an innovative format.
“We’re outside of structures that we can recognize. It’s not a lecture, but it also is a lecture—you’ll have to come and see, it’s an experience,” Killeen said.
The next day, Reagon will meet with community partners to discuss ideas to pursue throughout the year-long fellowship.
During her April visit, there will be a congregational opera performance of Toshi and Bernice Reagon’s adaptation of “Parable of the Sower” at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. This event will be held on Friday, April 14, and more information will be shared in due course.