What More Do We Need to Cultivate a Just Society?

Conversion and Collective Action

Lisa Yancey

We Have the Answers We Need

We often approach life as if the experiences we endure are original and the answers have not already been explored, deconstructed, and documented.1 Many of the things that we seek to discover are like refrigerated food in a dark kitchen, waiting to provide nourishment and light when the door is finally opened. Rarely do we find a novel conundrum that forces a complete reimagination of what is possible. The lived experiences preserved in songs, poems, art, literature, dance, cultural traditions, sermons, debates, protests, and wars have given us all the answers that we need to cultivate a just society. The age of discovery has supplied a bounty of information. The stories of our foremothers and forefathers provide the personal anchor of historical roots to direct the path of where we want to go, if we truly want a just society.

The problem isn’t that the answers are beyond our grasp. I believe the problem is that we have yet to entice a critical mass of those with the most to lose by social change to value a more inclusive and global society.2 This is premised on the belief that culture shift happens when a dominant subset of society adopts a new or modified perspective of what is morally good or personally advantageous. The new perspective that I am proposing is one that embraces and celebrates differences and otherness in order to create the space for greater openness to and empathy for differences. The result would be the mitigation of judgments (and then of policies and oppressive practices) that infringe on the freedoms and opportunities of others based on how closely their identities align with our own. We need more people willing to relinquish some of the current creature comforts acquired within an inequitable system that thrives on meritocracy, thwarts human rights, and denies access based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and religious beliefs and maintains income and wealth inequality in favor of whites. For example, according to Prosperity Now and the Institute for Policy Studies, even though the United States is on course to become “majority minority” by 2044, the country still has a huge and growing racial wealth gap.3 We have brilliant minds at our fingertips that could eliminate this, so why does it persist? There are those who benefit from this inequitable system. We need more of them to act on the belief that their awards and privileges do not justify the means by which they are gained.

The nemesis of an ideal is fear. We have been socialized to fear the unknown. As much as we elevate notions of innovation and risk taking, our natural inclination to explore, discover, and take risks has been compromised by fear. And this fear calcifies exclusivity and challenges our ability to embrace differences. In fact, the notion of difference centers on a point of reference. Different from what? Different from whom? The usual answer is, different from those who have regulated and predominated the ecosystem that forms our current society. This ecosystem includes government, business, religion, media, family, education, and arts and entertainment.4 Why is embracing differences critical to a just society? Embracing differences allow a healthy interrogation of the notion of a “supreme” persona deserving and afforded deferential rank, authority, and regard. As long as we continue to create standards from a primary point of departure that is either explicitly or subconsciously heralded as the model by which all else is judged, the rights of those trending toward the fringe of that center will be compromised. So, those most advantaged by an inequitable society need to become better connected to and touched by the weighted disadvantages burdening others that keep their privileges intact, and be willing to advocate for a different system and infrastructure that will yield equitable outcomes. If we cannot embrace differences as a social value (not a charitable act), we will never have a just society.

The Power of Conversion. The Power of Art.

This just society ideal requires conversion. Ask yourself, if everything was all good in your life, why would you want anything to change? If everyone you knew and loved had the opportunity to become whatever they imagined with chances to learn from mistakes and live a life based on their efforts, enjoying the fruits of their labor without structural biases, why would you advocate for anything different?

Truth is, there isn’t a proven model of what a just society looks like in the United States. Our history is littered with social infrastructures that sustain and fortify conditions that fueled inequitable dualities (oppressors and the oppressed, conquerors and the conquered, and enslavers and the enslaved) for centuries. We have had bright spots of rebellion, revolution, liberation, and changed conditions, but we have yet to radically transform the hierarchical social DNA of what has become the norm of a “civilized” society. I question whether we can truly imagine a just society — one imagined not from theoretical and fabled perspectives but from something tangible that conjures feelings akin to memories. If we cannot imagine it, how can we produce it?

This is where artists and stewards of arts and culture could flip systemic inequity on its head. I am energized by just writing that sentence! With a sustained allotment of dedicated resources that proportionately reflect the diversity of the nation’s cultural landscape, the arts sector could lead the way to a just society. Artists are masters at bridging connections across differences, tapping into human sensibilities that allow us to feel. To get to a just society, we need imaginative beings to create experiences that transform. Herein lie conversion possibilities. Artists create the pathway for us to rewire our cognitive understanding of what is possible. Through art we can taste, touch, see, hear, smell, and ultimately feel how we can coexist in a just society. Theater and visual performances can show us different perspectives about our government. Songs and poems can capture human desires in ways that transcend black, white, brown, and yellow. Culinary artists could make immigrant culture a welcomed asset. Xenophobia, Islamophobia, and other misguided fears can lose their air like a helium balloon pierced by sharpened minds exposed to different cultures. Madam President can be as easily accepted as Queen Elizabeth.

Artists create cracks that allow new and unfamiliar connections to form in people’s hearts, minds, and bodies. By doing so, they construct the space that allows people to experience different perspectives, challenge erroneous assumptions that they have adopted over time, empathize as global citizens, and become open to relinquishing privileges that they have inherited at the expense of others. In August 2016, David Brooks, a New York Times journalist, penned an article called “How Artists Change the World.”5 His piece features Frederick Douglass’s brilliant use of portraits to alter perceptions of African Americans. According to the article, Douglass was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, having sat for 160 portraits.6 He also wrote four lectures about photography. Brooks recounts that “Douglass posed for his portraits very carefully and in ways that evolved over the years.” Using his body as the vehicle, Douglass systematically contradicted negative stereotypes of black people by personifying dignity, regality, and posture as a black man. Douglass is credited with “reteach[ing] people how to see” through portraiture.7 Brooks posits that “we are often under the illusion that seeing is a very simple thing. You see something, which is taking information in, and then you evaluate, which is the hard part. But in fact perception and evaluation are the same thing. We carry around unconscious mental maps built by nature and our experience, which organize how we scan and interpret the world. With these portraits, Douglass was redrawing people’s unconscious mental maps. He was erasing old associations about blackness and replacing them with new, dignified ones.”8 This is the power of art.

Disruption Requires Audacity

Lastly, I want to connect the larger concepts discussed throughout this article — of embracing differences and eliminating a “supreme” standard of reference, of converting a critical mass to advocate for equitable alternatives, and of utilizing the power of art — to the widely known inequity in the arts and culture sector as an example of how we can apply these ideas to produce a more equitable environment. Yancey Consulting recently completed a report titled What Are the Paradigm Shifts Necessary for the Arts Sector to Nurture More Sustainable THRIVING Institutions of Color?9 Commissioned by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and New York Community Trust, the study surveyed the state of agencies that are run by or in the service of African, Latine, Asian, Arab, and Native American culture and communities in New York City. The study focused on organizations with established operating budgets of $200,000 or more. The premise was to better understand the complex conditions that inform the sweeping health of these organizations. Yancey Consulting was originally engaged to assess what is necessary to create a more sustainable ecosystem, but during the process of listening and learning from practitioners doing the work, we expanded our exploration to assess what shifts are necessary for these organizations to thrive.

As a preface to the report, Yancey Consulting characterized the assessment as an attempt to right a wrong. The “wrong” was in reference to Helicon Collaborative’s finding “that despite important efforts by many leading foundations, funding overall has gotten less equitable, not more, over the past five years.”10 Here we have a specific example of an inequitable or unjust environment like we have been discussing. The “righting” reflected the study’s pursuit of solutions that could radically disrupt the dogged trend of disinvestment evidenced in Helicon’s report. The first finding was that “shifts in grantmaking practices over the years are creating more resilient organizations.”11 This finding connects to the idea that workable solutions exist, they simply need to be scaled up. The recommendation was for funders to “keep doing what [they are] doing,” just go further. The report additionally noted that “the average age of predominantly white mainstream organizations [in New York City] is 72 years old versus 35 years for culturally diverse organizations.”12 It was startling to affirm that mainstream organizations have been able to subsist, on average, over 100 percent longer than culturally diverse organizations (arguably, an outcome of an inequitable environment). So, not only should funders continue what they are doing — increasing grant amounts, being more flexible with supporting general operations and organizations’ existing work (versus new projects), and offering multiyear grants — for a just society agenda, but they should also operate through a field-wide equity and generational lens in their grantmaking. In this regard, funders would assess what is needed to fertilize the entire environment of culturally diverse organizations — not a select few — so that we have more communities benefiting from well-resourced organizations.13 The key here is that by resourcing cultural organizations in a “just” manner, the benefits flow out into diverse communities. This is not just about organizational health. This is about the cultural viability of communities.

The last two recommendations documented in Yancey Consulting’s report were to set an audacious goal and convene grantees more often to foster a culture of learning. The goal should feel equally plausible and implausible to stretch beyond conventional thinking. Aspiring for a paradigm shift requires atypical thinking. The example given for an audacious goal was, “What if grantmakers came together to transform the ethos of NYC’s cultural sector into a nonprofit Silicon Valley?” All of Yancey Consulting’s recommendations connect to the idea of aggregating a critical mass to disrupt the way things are, to manifest an equitable culture and model for a just society. Even in the localized assessment of New York City, we have the solutions. What is needed are leaders to say, “no more,” to engage others with whom their values and vision align, and to make bold moves. We can be the fearless warriors rewriting the rules that speak to an evolving and inclusive society. We are the ones that we have been waiting for.


  1. Throughout this article, I use a proverbial “we,” as in “We, the People,” “We, the masters of our fate,” “We, the change agents of our time,” and “We, who call America home.”
  2. The idea of loss referenced here is based on our current systemic standards of entitlement, privilege, and power. It does not reflect the values and ideals we should embody as a welcoming, opportunistic, and free society.
  3. See https://prosperitynow.org/files/PDFs/road_to_zero_wealth.pdf. The study found that middle-income white households own nearly eight times as much wealth as middle-income black earners, and ten times as much as middle-income Latino earners. Last year, the same research claimed that if current trends continue, it will take 228 years for the average black family to reach the same level of wealth white families have today. For Latine families, it will take 84 years.
  4. These areas are historically referenced as the seven pillars of society.
  5. David Brooks, “How Artists Change the World,” New York Times, August 2, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/02/opinion/how-artists-change-the-world.html?_r=0.
  6. Douglass sat for 160 separate photographs. George Custer sat for 155, and Abraham Lincoln for 126. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Disclosure: I am the president of Yancey Consulting. This report was completed in December 2017.
  10. Helicon Collaborative, Not Just Money: Equity Issues in Cultural Philanthropy, 2017, http://heliconcollab.net/our_work/not-just-money/.
  11. This study specifically targeted New York City organizations, but their grantmakers varied from local to national funders. The shifts included larger grant amounts, multiyear funding, more general operating support, technical assistance support, convening grantees for strategic conversations, supporting and encouraging professional development of staff, and supporting succession planning. These practices are not limited to funders located within New York City.
  12. Ibid.
  13. This point about investing in the entire ecosystem, versus focusing on shoring up one organization at a time, was another recommendation that emerged.