Meet Board Member Panthea Lee

Join us in welcoming Panthea Lee to The LP fam! Panthea recently joined our board of directors—read our short Q&A to get to know her!

The LP: As a supporter of the arts, why does art matter?
Panthea Lee: bell hooks once said, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.” This resonates with me deeply.

Much of my work revolves around advocating for just and equitable policies and bringing diverse communities together to co-create change. So I think a lot about how to shift societal structures and norms. Yet too often, I see that many folks are good at pointing out what is not working and what we don’t want, but struggle to be visionary around what it is that we do want—that is, we can’t imagine what a radically better future looks like. This, I believe, is because too often, we accept what’s offered by governments and powerful institutions as the starting points. But by letting them set the foundations and define the parameters, we’re often fighting for reforms that are too little, too late.

Fighting for crumbs is exhausting and demoralizing. And we’re seeing the real price of these impossible uphill battles. Around the world, surveys show that people are incredibly pessimistic about the future. Young people don’t expect to be better off than their parents, and don’t believe they can really influence the future. We face crises of imagination, especially when it comes to how we reverse our democratic and environmental crises. And our media ecosystems, where business models are incentivized to sow fear and divisiveness, exacerbate our sense of hopelessness. It can be paralyzing.

In this climate, art is more important than ever. Art holds immense power to reinvigorate our imaginations, and to rally diverse communities around bold visions for change.

Because people act not based on facts, but on emotion. And artists operate in the realm of meaning-making and emotions. They can help articulate and construct the new worlds that we know are possible, and help us experience and inhabit them. Even when these worlds are temporary, like at a show or a gathering, they still shape and move us. And if we can taste what liberation and justice feel like—for deliciousness and joy can’t be thought, they must be felt—then we’re more likely, more able to fight for them.

Art questions, invites, and incites. It can help us understand one another, find common ground, and shift culture. These ingredients are foundational for transforming our world, and that’s why art matters.

LP: What attracted you to The LP and excited you most about joining the board?
PL: I’ve admired The LP for some time, but it was only in getting connected to Kemi [Ilesanmi, Executive Director], who is a force of nature—so visionary, so electrifying!—that I started digging deeper into the work. And each layer I dug into blew me away and gave me so much inspiration. For example, many organizations have values statements, but these either just sit in a document somewhere or only serve as abstracting guiding principles. I quickly realized this was not the case here. With The LP, I saw that “be propelled by love” and “write our own histories” weren’t just statements in a filing cabinet—the team lives and breathes these daily. Each gathering of The LP affirms these values, and shows how nurturing creativity, reclaiming agency, elevating love, and celebrating abundance aren’t just things we do because they’re nice—we practice these values because they’re central to realizing the world we deserve. Engaging with The LP community has nourished my spirit, and pushed me to interrogate and expand how I understand the process of social change. I’m so grateful to now be a part of the fam, and to get to help advance its beautiful, critical mission.

LP: What is your neighborhood? What’s your favorite thing about it?
PL: I live in Bed-Stuy, which is also where the new LP home is—it’s amazing to be just a 15 minute walk away. What I love most about Bed-Stuy is the sense of community here and how folks watch out for one another. When the weather’s nice, I love just hanging out on our stoop, catching up with friends, and waving to and chatting with neighbours walking by. That’s a perfect day for me, and there’s nothing like it.

LP: Can you tell us about a project/event/moment that was a particular highlight of your personal or professional work?
PL: Honestly, it was being able to take a sabbatical last year, after 10 years of running an organization, to focus on caring for my community, my family, and myself. I’m a naturally excitable, high-energy person and really passionate about my work, so I tend to throw myself in 150%. And as we know, 2020 was a year where Everything Was Happening. I felt like I was being pulled in a million directions—head and heart, work and community—so I decided to take a step back from my professional work to tend to heart and community work. My team was really encouraging, and I was so grateful for their support.

I was able to focus on organizing work I’d been doing nights and weekends, and on family stuff I’d let take a backseat. And I spent a lot of time just reflecting and exploring. I went to a cabin in the woods by myself, with no phone or internet access, to slow down. I took long walks in nature, read, cooked, and wrote a lot—but just for myself, no briefings or reports, no flags to fly or people to persuade. It was cathartic and joyous, and a good reminder of Audre Lorde’s words: self-care is self-preservation and thus inherently political. We have to make space for it, even (and perhaps especially) when it feels like the house is on fire. It’s how we sustain ourselves, reclaim our North Stars, and then keep going with renewed clarity.

LP: What song gets you moving and going when work gets hard?
PL: I’m a huge Janelle Monae fan, and when she dropped “Turntables” last fall, I felt like it was *exactly* the anthem/hype song we needed right then. Soooo good. I’ve definitely watched/played it on repeat. Such a vibe.

LP: What’s your favorite home-cooked dish?
PL: That’s tough. Well, on the end of my block is the best fishmonger in all of Brooklyn, and so we’re really spoiled for seafood. On Friday nights, we love just walking down to Joey’s and grabbing a nice piece of Arctic char. We pan-sear that—the skin crisps up like nothing else—and make a ginger scallion sauce, buttery juicy roasted radishes and greens, and rice to go with it. That’s the ultimate easy-decadent comfort food. Well that, or tonkatsu.

Panthea Lee is a strategist, organizer, and facilitator, and the Executive Director of Reboot. She is passionate about building transformative coalitions between communities, activists, movements, and institutions to tackle structural inequity—and working with artists to realize courageous change. Panthea is a pioneer in designing and guiding multi-stakeholder processes to address complex social challenges, with experience doing so across NYC and in 30+ countries. The global co-creation efforts she’s led have launched new efforts to protect human rights defenders, tackle public corruption, strengthen participatory democracy, advance equity in knowledge access, reform international agencies, and drive media innovation. Panthea began her career as a journalist, ethnographer, and cultural producer. She has been featured in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, CNN, Fast Company, New York Times, MIT Innovation, and Stanford Social Innovation Review, and has lectured at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU. She also serves on the boards of RSA US, Development Gateway, and People Powered: The Global Hub for Participatory Democracy.