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Student Perspective: How One Arts-focused Foundation is Promoting a More Equitable and Just Society

November 6, 2020

The relationship between arts-focused philanthropy and social justice is not immediately intuitive. Philanthropic support of the arts is often associated with ballet, opera, museums, and the symphony, bringing connotations of wealth, power, and privilege instead of justice.

So when the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder of arts and culture, announced this summer a shift to prioritize social justice in all of its grantmaking, I had questions. How do these two worlds collide? How can organizations preserve core values while changing strategic priorities?

Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation, addressed these questions and more during Sanford’s Stand for Equity: Philanthropy in the Age of Racial Crisis event on October 21st. As an African-American Studies scholar and a poet, Alexander reminded everyone of the transformative storytelling power of the arts and humanities – and what that means in the larger movement toward a more just society.

This event, as part of Sanford’s “Stand For” series and the Foundation Impact Research Group (FIRG) seminar series, focused on the Mellon Foundation’s new strategy in grantmaking centered on social justice. Although it was two years in the making, the announcement this summer could not come at a more relevant time, in the midst of nationwide protests against policy brutality and calls to action to support racial equity like never before.

What does this new strategy look like in practice? Alexander and her team at the Mellon Foundation started asking how its work promotes a fair and just society through the lens of the foundation’s core beliefs. For example, the foundation believes the humanities have transformative power in higher education. They may reconsider where they’ve given (i.e. Ivy League institutions) and where they haven’t (i.e. community colleges), to shift resources towards communities that may have been historically overlooked. In Alexander’s words, there are “widely under-resourced but tremendously resourceful” communities where grantmaking can expand opportunities for change.

Alexander highlighted a few new initiatives that bring the strategic shift to life, including the Monuments Project and the Million Books Project.

The Monuments Project is the Mellon Foundation’s largest initiative to date – a $250M initiative over 5 years that funds grantees to create new monuments and contextualize or relocate existing ones. Again, through the lens of the arts, the Mellon Foundation recognized its role in broadening what is included in the commemorative landscape in the U.S. A highlight of this work is the support of Bryan Stevenson’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. The memorial educates visitors on the history of slavery and civil rights in the United States, aligning the foundation’s vision to use what it believes to be transformative (arts and creativity) towards social justice.

The Mellon Foundation also supports higher education in the criminal justice system. The Million Books Project will create 500-book libraries at 1,000 prisons in all 50 states. The project, in partnership with Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, intends to increase both access to books and deepen opportunities to engage with literature for incarcerated individuals. This project aligns with the foundation’s historic focus on education and libraries. Applying similar principles, it realized an opportunity to act on one of its core beliefs to support an often-overlooked community. However, Alexander acknowledged the need for systems-level policy change in criminal justice, alongside projects like these.

Foundations seeking to shift grantmaking toward social justice can learn from the Mellon Foundation’s approach. Both of these projects demonstrate how the Mellon Foundation has not only maintained its core beliefs in the arts and humanities as a transformative power, but practically applied them to social-justice-focused grantmaking. With the same intentionality, other organizations can consider how they can empower grantees with a social justice focus within their realm of passion and experience.

At the end of Elizabeth Alexander’s Stand For Equity: Philanthropy in the Age of Racial Crisis talk last Wednesday, I had the feeling you get after reading a great book. I was reminded of just how powerful, how human, and how important creativity and expression are to storytelling and how storytelling is critical to documenting history and promoting a just society. I do see how the world of arts-focused philanthropy and social justice can overlap in many ways if we choose to change our perspectives. What better way to change a perspective than through the arts?

young woman, smilingLee Foster received her BS in Economics and Marketing from the University of Kentucky. She served as a Teach For America Corps Member in Charlotte, N.C., teaching high school math for three years and completing policy fellowships with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Bellwether Education Partners prior to starting at Duke in fall 2018. She is pursuing a dual degree at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Fuqua School of Business, where she will graduate with a master of public policy and master of business administration. She has had the pleasure of serving as the teaching assistant for Joel Fleishman over the past two years, deepening her interest and knowledge in the philanthropic sector.