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Sanford hosted the 2023 Crown Lecture in Ethics on Thursday, March 30 featuring internationally renowned visual artist and social activist Federica Donato as she spoke on her commitment to promoting social causes and championing human rights.

The Sanford building was transformed into an art gallery leading up to the evening event, displaying Donato’s commanding portfolio of work. The striking photography, much of which displays empowering images of refugees and other marginalized communities, built anticipation for the lecture inside Sanford’s packed auditorium.

Photograph on easel, down below you can see a reception
The Art Walk included images throughout the building.

Donato started the lecture by giving the audience a glimpse into her life journey and the founding of her Art4Humanity foundation. Growing up as the daughter of an Italian senator, Donato witnessed firsthand the power of public policy and the communities that can be built through democratic collaboration. Later in her time as a Communications Officer with the European Union, Donato discovered her passion for telling stories through art, particularly the often untold stories of migrant and refugee populations. By providing a camera and training to members of these communities, a new generation of artists has helped Donato to create memorable images that represent the unique lives of young men and women. In the years since she has also used these experiences to build a curriculum for children that encourages empathy and critical thinking through art and expression.

In 2020 she founded the Art4Humanity Foundation, which is created through the belief that art and education can pave the way for a profound cultural shift to forge more balanced, inclusive, and knowledge-based societies. She advocates for equity, inclusion, and human dignity for all. Currently based out of Miami, Florida, Donato uses art and the camera lens to tell a story and empower vulnerable communities by shining a focus on issues that the world needs to see.

After sharing her story, Donato was then joined by Dr. David Hoffman, Steed Family Professor of the Practice of Public Policy, for a further discussion of the ways in which art and democracy can converge. Through questions from Hoffman and the audience in person, Donato was able to share some moving insights into her work.

Being an activist means really giving a damn about our humanity and our planet.

Federica Donato


David Hoffman: What is your personal sense of leadership and how do you want to use art to realize its benefits?

Image of the word "Human" painted on what appears to be a train car, tracks in foreground. Woman in fancy clothing looking out glassless windows. Woman i
The event included an Art Walk around the Sanford building, with images from Federica Donato's work. 

Federica Donato: I don’t think I could live another way at this moment. Leadership for me means having a vision, and a mission, and empowering yourself and others to serve that mission. It means being courageous, being guided with a strong moral compass, and inspiring others. I love the arts, and I believe the in the incredible potential of the arts. I’m lucky because I’m doing what I love: art. I get to invest my personal skills to make an impact.

Hoffman: Your project in Thessaloniki (Greece) included your vision, but also gave young women the chance to be both subjects and artists themselves (by giving them cameras). How has that evolved your sense of who you are as an artist?

Donato: I started as a painter, always with a mission and a message, but I have to say I’m having much more fun now. When I saw what I could do to empower these girls. We were really able to grab the attention of the people and show them how our humanity is beautiful. As an artist now I have a stronger sense of purpose.

Hoffman: You describe yourself as an activist, and I want to know what that means to you.

Donato: Being an activist means really giving a damn about our humanity and our planet. It means being fully engaged with no fear and dreaming big and standing up for what you believe in. It means voicing your beliefs and acting your beliefs twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week.

Hoffman: You worked for the European Commission for years and were able to see the political world, but now I see you actually influencing policy.

Donato: Yes I feel more powerful now as a mediator. Through the arts, I’m trying to draw attention to important topics and generate awareness. Most importantly, I want to trigger action. I want to use art as an incredibly powerful tool for movement. Data and facts are super important, but emotions I think are also incredibly important in decision-making. For instance, everybody knows the data on refugees, but if you really immerse yourself in their stories, you can really make an impact. You can really deepen the knowledge of the decision-makers.


Featured Video

Crown Lecture: Federica Donato

Federica Donato spoke at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University on Thursday, March 30, 2023.