A few of my favorite things: Yolanda Riley

Smithsonian staff work countless hours in the halls of our museums and research centers, in the field, at the Zoo, in our gardens and facilities. We are privileged to spend time with some of the nation’s most cherished treasures as we go about our duties. Sometimes, these unique experiences find a special place in our own personal stories. Amy Kehs introduces Yolanda Riley and a few of her favorite things.


Head shot of Riley in red and black dress

Yolanda Riley (Photo by Amy Kehs)

As a supervisory attorney advisor in the Office of Contracting, Yolanda Riley works on agreements and contracts involving filming at the Smithsonian, websites, mobile apps, software and banking. She joined the Smithsonian in 2008 after getting her undergraduate degree at Vassar College in New York, a master’s degree in Library Science at the University of Michigan and a law degree from Indiana University. In June 2014, she completed the Smithsonian’s Palmer Leadership Development Program. Her thoughtful choices of favorite things around the Institution are deeply rooted in history and family.

Paintin gof young African American girl

John Sloan, “Gwendolyn,” ca. 1918, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. John Sloan.

Yolanda’s first pick is a painting in the collection of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. “Gwendolyn” was painted by John Sloan in 1918. Yolanda first saw the painting when visiting the Provost’s office in the Castle. “I just love the detail in this painting. I love the expression on this little girl’s face. I think she looks like a little girl who seems to be trying her hardest to be still and behave but to me she clearly has other plans once she gets up.”

Another painting in SAAM’s collection also provokes strong feelings. “Sunday Morning” by American painter, Thomas Waterman Wood, ca. 1877, is on view in the museum on the second floor of the East Wing. “Sunday Morning” depicts a young girl reading the bible to her grandmother and reminds Yolanda of her own grandmother, who lived to be 105!  Yolanda’s grandmother, Addie Mae, had to leave school in the third grade to work in the cotton fields in Arkansas. She loved math and valued education and made sure that Yolanda’s father and aunt completed college.

Painting of child reading to elderly woman in rocking chair

Thomas Waterman Wood, “Sunday Morning,” ca. 1877, oil on paperboard mounted on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Francis P. Garvan

Yolanda’s third choice is the dress singer Marian Anderson wore during her 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial. The Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson permission to perform at DAR’s Constitution Hall because of her race. With permission from President Roosevelt, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes asked Marian Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead. She sang “My Country ‘tis of Thee” on Easter Sunday to a crowd of 75,000 people. The dress is currently on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For Yolanda, the beautiful dress is a symbol of hope. She says, “Marian’s dress shows me that no matter how bad things are that there is always hope. Marian Anderson shows us that there is always a way to persevere and do so gracefully.”

Orange and black ensemble

The orange-and-black velvet ensemble Marian Anderson (1897-1993) wore during her Easter Sunday performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Ginette DePreist in memory of James DePreist.
(Photo by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian Institution)

Yolanda’s thoughtfulness in selecting favorite items to share is indicative of the thoughtfulness and care she brings to her job. “My favorite part about working at the Smithsonian is that there is always something new,” she says. “Not just new artifacts or new technology but there is always a new perspective or new approach to problem-solving. That is exciting!”



Posted: 19 December 2017
About the Author:

Amy Kehs began volunteering at the Smithsonian in 1993. She has been a Smithsonian volunteer, intern and employee and is currently a public affairs contractor, assisting units around the Smithsonian with special projects.