AAM Announces Excellence in DEAI Steering Committee Members

Headshots of the 8 members of the AAM Excellence in DEAI Steering Committee

For Immediate Release:

Arlington, VA – The American Alliance of Museums, the only organization representing the entire scope of the museum community, has announced the members of its Excellence in DEAI Steering Committee. These individuals serve in key leadership roles in the Alliance’s work to embed diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) more deeply into its excellence programs, including its Code of Ethics and museum accreditation.

Last summer, the American Alliance of Museums released the Excellence in DEAI report, reflecting the work of a task force co-chaired by Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch and Elizabeth Pierce, CEO of the Cincinnati Museum Center, as part of its Facing Change: Advancing Museum Board Diversity and Inclusion initiative. The task force was charged with developing recommendations to embed DEAI more deeply into museum standards and ethics and AAM excellence programs, including accreditation.

AAM subsequently received a National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to implement the recommendations. The Excellence in DEAI Steering Committee is supported by the National Leadership Grant and chaired by Nuria Curvas. Between October 2023 and September 2025, the Steering Committee is charged with:

  • Providing high-level guidance and oversight of embedding DEAI into the structure of museum excellence programming.

  • Developing a clear and equitable process for reviewing AAM’s Excellence programs and Code of Ethics.

  • Aligning the work with AAM’s strategic goals and the goals of the grant.

“This esteemed group of museum professionals hold a wealth of experience in furthering our field’s commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion,” said Brooke Leonard, AAM Chief of Staff and Interim CEO. “We couldn’t be more confident in the collective knowledge of these individuals to guide our next steps in the critical work of embedding DEAI into museum standards and best practices.”

The composition of the Steering Committee was designed to ensure that the perspectives of a wide range of museum professionals are represented, as well as experience with museums of all types and sizes:

Nuria Cuevas (Chair) has more than 30 years of experience in higher education and accreditation. She has served for 12 years as an administrative and traveling staff member in an accrediting agency and has served as a professor, dean, and in a variety of administrative roles at colleges and universities in Texas, Tennessee, Ohio, California, and Virginia. Dr. Cuevas has published numerous articles focusing on evaluation and assessment practices in peer-reviewed journals, has presented at national and international conferences, and has conducted numerous workshops and training sessions. She has earned graduate degrees in evaluation and measurement, including concentrations in Research Methods and Statistics, and an undergraduate degree in music.

Samuel W. Black is the Director of the African American Program at the Senator John Heinz History Center.  He is a former President of the Association of African American Museums (2011-2016) and served on the Executive Council and the Advisory Council of the Association for the Study of African American Life & History (2003-06) as well as the program committee of the American Alliance of Museums (2010-11). He serves on the board of directors of the International Black Business Museum, Sankofa Village for the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Historical Association Council. He is the recipient of the Dr. John E. Fleming Award of the AAAM in 2016, a 2018 graduate of the Jekyll Island Management Institute of the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), and a 2019 Fulbright Germany Transatlantic Seminar Leibniz Association of Germany.

Black is the editor of Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era (2006), co-author of Through the Lens of Allen E. Cole: A Photographic History of African Americans in Cleveland, Ohio (2012), and editor of The Civil War in Pennsylvania: The African American Experience (2013).

He serves on the Heinz History Center accreditation team, chairs its DEAI working group, and directs its Museum of African American History initiative.

Mikka Gee Conway is the National Gallery of Art’s first Chief Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer and EEO Director, a position she took up in September 2020. As part of the museum’s executive team, Mikka leads diversity, equity, and inclusion work across the National Gallery, as well as overseeing the institution’s Equal Employment Opportunity office. Before her National Gallery appointment, Mikka was associate general counsel at the J. Paul Getty Trust, where she advised on a variety of matters, including intellectual property, tax, privacy, and compliance with international sanctions regulations, and was a founding member of the Getty’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. She previously held curatorial, project management, and leadership positions at a variety of arts organizations, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, and the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. She also practiced federal tax law at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan (now Eversheds Sutherland). Mikka holds an AB in art history from Stanford University, an MA in art history from Williams College, and a JD from the University of Minnesota Law School.

LaNesha DeBardelaben is a visionary and skilled public historian with two decades of museum leadership experience. She has excelled as President & CEO of the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle. Prior, she was Senior Vice President of Education & Exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. With a growth mindset, LaNesha successfully champions dynamic programming, expansive strategic planning, innovative community engagement, and record-setting fundraising. She is Immediate Past National President of the Association of African American Museums Board of Directors and serves as an Adjunct Professor of Museum Studies. She has global experience with museums and libraries in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, England, Germany, and Israel. She is a contributing essayist to The Inclusive Museum Leader (2021) and Change is Required: Preparing for the Post-Pandemic Museum (2022).

Travis Helms is Sugipaq from Kodiak, Alaska, and serves as Project Director of the Smithsonian’s national initiative, “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past,” and oversees budget, administration, and project management in collaboration with the Director. Travis works to bring best practices to team leadership and wants to push the boundaries in visitor-first projects. At the end of the day, he is a father and a seeker of nature and knowledge.

Over the past 19 years, he served as Assistant to the Director and Project Manager at the National Museum of the American Indian and then as a Project Director of the Smithsonian Arts+Industries Building. Past projects include FUTURES, Americans, E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, and Living Aloha: The Life of Senator Daniel K. Inouye. Travis has also served as the Secretary and Vice President of the National Association for Museum Exhibition from 2020-2023.

Joanne Jones-Rizzi currently serves as the Vice President of Science, Equity, and Education at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where she leads the Science Museum’s science and education initiatives, ensuring that they achieve maximum impact and are equitably accessible for all audiences. However, her career at the Science Museum is long and accomplished.

Jones-Rizzi has a decades-long career working on systemic, ecological change within museums, specializing in expanding meaningful access through exhibitions relevant to audiences who do not yet think of museums as their cultural institutions. She advises museums nationally and internationally on culture, identity, anti-racism, exhibition development, and community engagement.

Marise McDermott has over 30 years of experience in museums and cultural arts in roles ranging from director, curator, editor, journalist, and board chair. Since 2004 she has been the President and CEO of the Witte Museum and is also the current Chair of the AAM Accreditation Commission. For three years, she served as the Executive Director of The History Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and was the editor of the Texas Committee for the Humanities’ bi-monthly magazine. Marise oversaw the Witte’s last two reaccreditation processes, recently oversaw the successful $100 million transformation of the museum and campus expansion, and is now engaged in its $100 million endowment campaign. She is actively engaged in several San Antonio tourism boards, including Visit San Antonio, San Antonio Visitor Alliance, and the Chamber of Commerce, among other community leadership roles. She is engaged with the Texas Association of Museums in a variety of ways and has been a speaker at a number of regional and discipline-specific conferences. Marise is the recipient of many local and state awards. She was named 2013 Executive Woman of the Year by the San Antonio Greater Chamber of Commerce; the 2015 Texas Patriot Award by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Alamo Mission Chapter; Texas State University Liberal Arts Alumni of the Year in 2016; and the 2017 Business Person of the Year by the San Antonio Business Journal.

Jorge Zamanillo is the founding director behind the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino, which Congress established in December 2020 to illuminate the invaluable contributions of Latinos to the United States. Tasked with providing leadership and strategic vision, Zamanillo spearheads comprehensive plans to safeguard, document, interpret and promote awareness of US Latino heritage. He leads new initiatives such as collaborations with other cultural partners and stakeholders, digital resources, exhibitions, and fundraising endeavors. In a significant stride, the museum inaugurated the Molina Family Latino Gallery, its first exhibition space, in June 2022 at the National Museum of American History.

Previously, Zamanillo was the executive director and CEO of HistoryMiami Museum. He joined the museum in 2000 as a curator and subsequently served in several leadership positions before becoming its director. Before joining HistoryMiami Museum, Zamanillo was an archaeologist at the non-profit cultural resource management firm Archaeological and Historical Conservancy Inc. in Miami. He currently serves as the board chair of the American Alliance of Museums.

Born in New York City, Zamanillo grew up in Miami. He earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Florida State University in Tallahassee and his master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester in Leicester, England.

About the American Alliance of Museums

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) is the only organization representing the entire museum field, from art and history museums to science centers and zoos. Since 1906, we have been championing museums through advocacy and providing museum professionals with the resources, knowledge, inspiration, and connections they need to move the field forward.


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