The Power of the Arts: Progressive & Innovative Social Justice Philanthropy

By Hania Aswad

This quote by Suzanne Siskel, also a member of the PSJ&P working group, sums it all for me;

“… I don’t think you can talk about social change or social justice – if that includes affecting changes in behavior, belief and attitude – without considering the cultural dimensions of the ways in which people experience and filter the world. And artistic expression – voices, rhythms and visions – are tangible and visceral ways in which resistance to new influences may be mediated and change and adaptation can be shaped.” Suzanne Siskel, Asia Foundation (San Francisco, US)

Heading the Naseej Foundation which aims at achieving justice for communities and supporting a good number of ‘Arts & Culture’ programs and artists amongst many others from various sectors, I often find myself having to defend the direct relevance between our mission and the Arts. 

When I joined the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace (PSJP), I was extremely pleased to learn about the research commissioned to Moukhtar Kocache to survey the state of relations between the peace and social justice and the arts sectors and in response to many PSJP practitioners’ requests.  Through Moukhtar’s work, over the past 14 months, we were given the opportunity to indulge in an exciting learning journey, where we explored existing practice, reviewed the information that had been gathered about philanthropy at the nexus of social justice and peace and arts and culture as well as the tools that existed to promote it. Further, through a convening held in August 2013 in Ontario, Canada facilitated by Moukhtar, we heard both from philanthropy practitioners and from artists and cultural producers who are working on social, political and peace-building issues about their experience with philanthropy. 

The immediate output of such an in-depth learning journey is the report Framing the Discourse, Advancing the Work: Philanthropy at the Nexus of Peace and Social Justice and Arts and Culture” authored by Moukhtar Kocache.  A valuable tool that is able to stimulate further reflection and exchange of lessons and opportunities for inculcating practices in philanthropy for supporting arts and culture work for its invaluable influence on the advancement of social justice and peace. 

The report includes six sections; while the first presents a brief review of socially engaged art and its function and the second looks at the growing recent convergence between the two sectors and the third provides a number of examples where arts and social change are successfully brought together. A ‘taxonomy’ of arts and culture is listed throughout the fourth section to allow funders and social change organizations to locate themselves and see where mutual interest might lie. Following, the fifth section highlights the challenges involved and the obstacles to a closer relationship between the two sectors and finally the author draws out a number of recommendations for developing a fuller relationship which might help to realize the potential of greater collaboration between the two.

As a social justice activist and practitioner and arts and culture advocate, my work and activism in both areas – jointly and separately – have come from my conviction in the transformational power ‘arts and culture’ has at the level of individuals and communities, and thus in its abilities as a ‘holistic strategy’ in supporting change and advancing social justice; a conviction that was further strengthened throughout this learning journey and the report not just for me but for all other members of the PSJP working group. 

In sequence, the Working Group on PSJP is currently concluding a brief paper titled “Making the case for the Arts to Social Justice Funders” to be released in August 2014. Further, our learning journey has also encouraged the Alliance Magazine to accept our proposal for a special edition on ‘Arts and Social Justice’ which shall be published in March 2015. 

The report can be accessed here. If you have any questions or wish to share feedback and experience, you are most welcome to write us at

Hania Aswad is the Executive Director of the Naseej Foundation – MENA Region, a social justice activist and practitioners and a member of the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social justice and Peace.