Applied Imagination Fellows Project Report: Panthea Lee

Project summary

My fellowship project, The People’s Commission for Justice (PCJ), draws from participatory art, deliberative democracy, and healing justice practices to engage Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in challenging violence and oppression, in envisioning nourishing and just futures, and in advocating for the change we deserve. In the fellowship year, we laid critical groundwork and secured wins in three areas:

1. Infrastructure: Built strong relationships and partnerships with key community and movement leaders.

Strong relationships are the foundations of successful campaigns. I built trust and codesigned partnerships, with a focus on how PCJ could best serve our communities and the missions / capacities of each partner—both were challenging to navigate in the pandemic context. I was invited to join the National Asian American Leaders Table and partnered with respected leaders and organizations that will co-steward this work, including the founding executive director of 18 Million Rising, WOW Project, and Advancing Justice. 

2. Story: Built cultural awareness around structural injustices faced by the AAPI community, and the necessity of collective healing and expansive imagination to address it.

I published a cover story in The Nation on the impact of the U.S. military-sexual complex on Asian communities today, and an interview about abolitionist approaches to justice. I also published a feature in Harper’s Bazaar about how our communities can grieve and heal through art. I was interviewed about these topics, and how we move forward, by NPR, The Washington Post, WPFW (a community radio station in Washington, D.C.), and SiriusXM. 

3. Strategy: Advanced PCJ’s agenda with government leaders.

I testified to the NYC City Council’s Committee on Civil & Human Rights and Committee on Public Safety—as a result, a leading member of the Council’s Progressive Caucus recommended my work as essential reading for government leaders working on these issues. I built relationships with New York City councilmembers who are leading work on immigrant rights, mental health, and arts and culture that will be critical in securing government buy-in for the People’s Plan.

Insights, surprises encountered, and key moments in the process

Through the process, I had three key insights:

1. Infrastructure: Not everything must be done at once. 

The People’s Commission for Justice project has three stages, each building on the previous. Initially, I insisted on planning for all three stages: getting the political mandate, funding, and partnerships all up front. But partners proposed splitting the model, with different organizations leading different stages, and executing each stage before planning for the next. While I was nervous that this risked later stages getting deprioritized, I trusted their instincts. Once we have results from the first stage, getting support for the later stages will be easier. 

2. Story: Making the cultural argument matters

Policy follows culture. When the political advocacy felt difficult, I realized it was because the cultural case needed strengthening. So I published three articles, which got press and political attention for the potential of PCJ. Although I’d started my career as a journalist, I’d thought that once I shifted to activism professionally, I would no longer be able to pursue journalism, given its hallowed tenet of objectivity. But since the racial justice uprisings of 2020, I’ve been heartened to see how the myth of journalistic objectivity has been torn down, and many are advocating for solidarity as the principle that replaces it. As a result, I felt able to publish these pieces, which helped rally allies and support.

3. Infrastructure: So long as there is unofficial buy-in, it is not imperative to secure an official mandate. 

Earlier on, I was intensely focused on securing an official city mandate (and got close)—but over time, I recognized that getting policymakers to commit to an outcome they couldn’t predict was extremely challenging. At first I got discouraged, worrying that they didn’t see my community as worthy of this support; but over time, I came to see it from their perspective. PCJ is a radical model that has never been done, so investing their political capital to declare official support was risky. I also remembered the larger context: There are only two global cases where such political mandates have been secured: Ostbelgien, Belgium, and Gdańsk, Poland. This perspective allowed me to focus on securing unofficial support, which can evolve over time, rather than on the lack of public pronouncements.

How did the fellowship benefit you as a researcher and/or practitioner and/or organizer? How did it benefit your work? And how did it benefit your community?

The fellowship gave me the space and time to focus on the PCJ, and an affiliation through which I could advocate for this work. Even just having “Imagination” in the Center’s name made a difference—it piqued people’s interest and seeded conversations from the place of expansive, equitable imagination. The funding allowed me to engage collaborators to develop critical elements (e.g., identity and visuals) that supported our advocacy. When working on a new project, this is so valuable. 

The CSI team connected me to experts who were sources of inspiration and expertise, and who were deeply encouraging of PCJ. In the early days, when I felt lonely and sometimes dispirited by the uphill battle, that made a world of difference. When I had new ideas or pivots, the CSI team was generous in offering to make connections or act as sounding boards, so I could benefit from their network and didn’t have to feel like I was going at it alone. 

And it was remarkable to have a community of colleagues to trade notes, celebrate, and commiserate with, through our ups and downs, and to cheer each other on—whether on issues related to our projects, or just in dealing with the tumult of the last year. I’m so grateful for the friendships and the exchange of ideas that fellowship facilitated and helped nurture.

What’s next? How has the fellowship shaped the path forward for you and your work?

I am continuing to advance the PCJ, but will likely shift to an advisory role as other partners take the lead, with the aim of a 2023 launch.

Having seen and experienced the value of making the cultural argument in order to secure political interest, I will be investing more in narrative projects—I anticipate additional pieces on related themes in the coming months. I am also working on a book project weaving together the PCJ’s themes to make a broader argument for why we must expand our imaginations—and how we can do so alongside historians, healers, artists, and activists—to win structural justice. 

This narrative work will help deepen understanding and interest among three key early constituents: communities, policymakers, and funders—all of whom I need to on board to ensure the community accountability, the political buy-in, and the financial resources to push this forward at the scale I believe our communities deserve. I plan to keep moving at the speed of trust, and with sensitivity to all the challenges everyone is holding. I am excited to see this long relationship-building and incubation period bear fruit next year, and am optimistic about the possibilities for my communities.