Museum Studies Graduate Fosters Friendship Through Comm(Unity) Day

Museum Studies graduate Devin Leatherman at a Seattle Children's Museum event

When a Bellevue, Wash., mosque was partially destroyed by arson in January 2017, OU graduate Devin Leatherman was moved by the actions of some close family friends.

About 1,000 Muslims who pray at the Islamic Center of Eastside were displaced when the fire destroyed half of the mosque. To show comfort and love to families affected, Leatherman’s friends helped their two young daughters set up a Teddy bear drive.

“Their act got me thinking, ‘What can I do?’ I don’t have Teddy bears, but I have a whole children’s museum,” said Leatherman.

Leatherman, who earned a Master of Arts in Museum Studies in May 2017, works at the Seattle Children’s Museum as lead educator and exhibits development manager. With active citizenship in mind, she pitched a plan to museum directors to host a free day at the museum for the community’s Muslim and refugee community members.

“They loved it, and the ball got rolling pretty quickly from there,” she said.

On Feb. 18, the museum hosted Comm(Unity) Day: A Day of Friendship and Caring. It was a huge success.

“We had never hosted such an event before, so we didn’t really know what to expect,” Leatherman said. “We had invited anyone from the Islamic Center of Eastside and the Refugee Women’s Alliance to attend. Prior to the event, I told myself I’d be over the moon if 150 people attended.”

The event far exceeded expectations, drawing a crowd of 593 family members from Seattle-area Muslim and refugee populations. 

“I can’t tell you how many times the spirit of empathy, camaraderie and gratitude had museum staff tearing up throughout the day.”

“Our regular admission fee is $10.50,” Leatherman said. “We offered just shy of $6,000 worth of admission for free in an intentional effort to reassure our neighbors who felt isolated and targeted that they belong here, they are a valued part of our community and the Seattle Children’s Museum will do its part to be a safe, welcoming space for all.”

Leatherman said the day’s programming was built around building relationships with new people. 

One of the most well-received programs of the day was a human bingo game where kids and their families had to interact with other participants to fill up a bingo card. The bingo spaces included phrases such as “has different eyes than me,” “celebrates a holiday I do not” or “has a pet at home.” When players spoke to someone who matched the phrase, they would write that person’s name in the space on the card.

Another popular program was a community art project that used participants’ thumbprints to fill in the continents of the world.

“All programming was built to facilitate collaboration and empathy,” Leatherman said. “Personally, I enjoyed the most heartfelt, fulfilling hugs from mothers and children at this event that I’ve had in my entire lifetime.”

One of the museum staff’s favorite moments of the day was when a large group of young girls, both Muslim and non-Muslim, were found by their parents taking silly selfies together after one of the programs, Leatherman said.

“I can’t tell you how many times the spirit of empathy, camaraderie and gratitude had museum staff tearing up throughout the day,” she said.

Leatherman said Comm(Unity) Day was such a success, the museum hosted a mini-Comm(Unity) Day in April where it partnered with Mary’s Place—a Seattle-area, nonprofit homeless shelter for women, children and families—to provide free admission to homeless families and collect donations of pajamas, blankets and sheets for the shelter.

Following the success of both events, the museum hopes to host full-scale Comm(Unity) Days three to four times a year, Leatherman said.

Leatherman said many of the concepts she encountered in the museum studies program laid the foundation for building an event like Comm(Unity) Day. The program also gave her the proper credentials for the museum to hire her into her current role.

“I am so thrilled with how applicable this degree has been to my career and look forward to continuing to grow as an educator and exhibit designer in this new field,” she said. “My bachelor of arts through the University of Washington was in early childhood education. My intent in hopping disciplinary lines for my master’s at OU was to be able to build educational environments for larger numbers of children than I could ever reach in a classroom setting. It worked out.

“Through relevant assignments, the hands-on museum project completion option and other short-term internships inspired by the program’s courses, my time at OU has given me both practical and theoretical knowledge and experience essential to landing me where I am now," she continues. “It's exactly what I want to be doing."

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Tami Althoff

Tami Althoff holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism. She is a reporter with more than 20 years’ experience working for newspapers, including The Oklahoman. She has covered everything from breaking news to local music and art. She loves sports, especially OU football and basketball games, where she often embarrasses her children by yelling too loudly.