Skip to main

By Abi McDougal MPP '24

Abi McDougal

“Art can be the catalyst… for engagement and for education for democracy,” visual artist and human rights activist Federica Donato told the listeners packed into Sanford 04 on March 30 for the Crown Distinguished Lecture. The key word was catalyst. Art can harness public energy to facilitate change around pressing issues, but art is not a solution in itself. To realize maximal positive change, policymakers must simultaneously recognize both art’s potential and its limitations.  

A ‘Multiplier Culture’ Uplifts Individuals

At her talk on the “Intersection of Art and Democracy,” Donato highlighted how visual art can transcend borders as “the language we all speak.” Donato recounted how she has shifted her focus away from her own art, instead facilitating initiatives that allow under-resourced groups to produce creative work reflecting their own stories. Visual storytelling can spur empowerment as well as public awareness, illustrated by her recent work providing photography lessons to young women in refugee camps. By providing tools for communities to share their stories, Donato hopes to spur a “multiplier culture,” spread “person by person,” amplifying individual voices to shape society.

Awareness Is Only One Step to Structural Change

During the Q&A portion of the Crown Distinguished Lecture, multiple students suggested that Sanford would benefit from a greater emphasis on art in its curriculum. While such a change could certainly serve my own interest in how minority language speakers produce and access media, these comments left me wanting a caveat of caution.

In Donato’s work, the goal is to impact the world person by person; as Sanford students, our charge is to engage the collective with structural change. Our challenge is to analyze statistics without losing sight of the individual, and to remember that behind all statistics are individual lives. Our goal is to create stories of flourishing that people accept as the norm (the quip that “no one notices when policies are working well” plays through my mind daily). Our responsibility, then, is to question the processes that allow some stories to be stifled while others are clearly heard, and to respond to a world of complex stories with actionable policy.

Art Fosters Necessary Reflection

Popular discourse today often identifies sharing stories about current issues or social media posts as activism. While stirring the conversation is valuable, efforts to increase awareness alone are insufficient to accomplish change. Our media-connected culture has more access to information than ever before. Amid so much connectivity, the quality of the content matters. Artists have unique opportunities to introduce deeper thought within conversations often dominated by shallow sound bites. That thoughtful reflection is critical to enacting positive change, but primarily for shaping the next step: how we respond.

Partner with Storytellers

Those of us professionally committed to systems-level change must learn to partner with artists, including — perhaps especially — those without a preset agenda. My media ethics course with Professor Chris Sims this spring has involved a recurring dialogue. As the class considers a documentary photo or recording, a dissatisfied public policy student will ask some variation on the question: What is the goal? What is this piece trying to push people to do? In response, Professor Sims will reply that the purpose is not to produce some specific reaction, but to show the complexity of what exists in the world.

Perhaps this tension is not only appropriate but necessary, pushing policy students to pause before rushing to answer. To ever see effective improvements, policymakers must detail an action plan; and yet, to ever see effective improvements, policymakers must first set aside preconceived plans for open-minded observation. Approaching strategy creatively requires exploring a fuller picture found only through diverse perspectives.    

Democracy Requires Amplifying Marginalized Voices

Moderating the Crown Lecture conversation with Donato, Professor David Hoffman noted that amplifying voices that might otherwise not be heard is inherently a political act. His remark evokes the Greek roots of the word democracy — literally “the power of the people” — and reminds listeners that participation in the broader dialogue itself is a central feature of democracy.

North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, has spoken with Professor Sims’ media ethics class about how (in addition to her own authored work) she teaches writing and poetry workshops to high school students and incarcerated North Carolinians. Like Donato, she sees power in artistic expression. Right here in North Carolina, Jaki Shelton Green’s work intentionally challenges dominant narratives, reclaiming space for the voices often drowned out within the stories that belong to them. Artistic tools open doors for the people — all people — to mobilize around strategies for a more just world, beginning with our own communities.

Informed by Art, Policies Can Respond with Thoughtful Action

A photograph can provoke discussion; a poem can yield nuance in ambiguity; a film can trace a plausible explanation of cause and effect on a given dilemma. Such reflection critically informs comprehensive policy on pressing issues. To see the change, policy must respond, with limitations and tradeoffs in full view. By drawing from the insights mobilized through art, policymakers can advance concrete plans with implementable solutions.

Abi McDougal is a first-year Master of Public Policy student focused on literacy and language access. Her research on the production of media in minority languages (Rice University ’18) and her experience teaching elementary school in the Mississippi Delta (TFA 2018-2020) have fueled her interest in addressing structural communication barriers to self-advocacy.


Federica Donato Empowers Others Through Art

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.

Read the official event recap

Featured Video

2023 Crown Lecture with Federica Donato