Alumna Who Started the Walker's Sensory Friendly Sunday Program is Going to Harvard

Tue Apr 23 2019
Julia Anderson.

Julia Anderson (MNLEND, 2016–17) is the Family Programs Associate at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In this position, she conceived of and directs Sensory Friendly Sunday (the museum’s first sensory-friendly program), applied for and manages a three-year Institute of Museum and Library Services grant of $250,000 that promotes equitable family programming, and presented on disability inclusion at the American Alliance of Museums’ annual conference last year. Anderson is also a personal care attendant for a teenager with autism. Committed to help build a society that "provides equal opportunities for people with disabilities and distributes more benefits to the most vulnerable,” she begins studying this fall at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

Anderson began work at the Walker in 2015, but it was when she was a Minnesota Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (MNLEND) Fellow that she developed Sensory Friendly Sunday, a free monthly event that began in May 2018 for children, teenagers, and adults with autism or sensory sensitivities, and their families. The first program of its kind in a Twin Cities art museum, Sensory Friendly Sunday offers families the opportunity to make art together, explore galleries, watch a short film, or just relax in a setting with accommodations that make it more comfortable. She formed a community advisory group of parents, professionals, and self-advocates to inform program development. The makeup of this group was inspired by MNLEND's interdisciplinary model.

And before that, Anderson was inspired by other people. "When I was in college, I served as a therapist for an elementary-age student with autism. During breaks, we would draw together. It turned out that he and I both loved making art. He was very creative, and was a great communicator through drawing. Our mutual appreciation of art made me wonder if art museums were serving students with autism—so I began to research the topic. My mom is also a special education teacher, so I grew up learning about her work."

“Now I want to build relationships with parents of children with disabilities, self-advocates, service providers, and teachers in order to understand and translate people’s needs into systemic change, at both organizational- and city-wide levels.” That sense of mission is now taking Anderson to Harvard, where she will study social, urban, and disability policy.