Justin Cohen, writer, activist, storyteller, and nonprofit executive
“Feeding people is radical. Things that are sort of quotidian are radical. Giving money to poor people is radical. Letting poor people control their own destinies is radical. Changing the power dynamic is radical.”
Justin is a writer, activist, storyteller, and nonprofit executive. He works at the intersections of public policy, education, racial justice, and progressive politics. During the day he manages an emerging organization — Wayfinder Foundation — which provides cash grants to support radical community activism. Justin is also a founder of #Politicize My Death, a campaign taking on gun violence in subversive ways, and a co-facilitator of Racial Justice BK.
“As a white guy who talks a lot about race, I have learned the hard way that the worst way to talk about race is to not talk about it at all. So, I talk about race a lot, at length, mostly with the intent of making the progressive white people in my lifeless comfortable in their privileges.”
How Did He Get Into This Work?
“My mother was a schoolteacher in Boston’s Roxbury during desegregation. In 1978 she was standing there when Black kids got on the bus for the first time, and white families were throwing rocks at them.”
Anguish over what became a shared family memory was deepened by the cognitive dissonance that some twenty years after Brown v. Board of Education, the most progressive state in America was also somehow the last to desegregate.
“Those stories were really formative to me. What happens when progressive aspirations and values collide with reality?”
Much of Justin’s consciousness over racial inequity was time delayed. Years after graduation his classmates unpacked their experiences of everyday racism. While he personally experienced his public school student body as diverse, he learned that this was lived as ‘cosmetic diversity’ by peers who weren’t white, or Jewish, as he was: “If public school is designed for anybody, it’s made for a white, Jewish kid. You are set up to succeed.”
“This comes together for me. That a generation like mine should have been the most poised to tackle issues of racial equity and discrimination and racism, but it was done because we didn’t talk about it.”
While Justin’s perspective on race was evolving over time, his mother’s work as a special education teacher caused him to see unbearable pain and suffering up close: “Occasionally, things got really rough at a kid’s house. Chris had burns from cigarette butts across his arms, and he stayed with us for a few weeks before they could find a foster home. I realized that when you do work that is focused on alleviating oppression, it literally and figuratively comes home with you. From that installation of values, I learned that this work is not a day job.”
What Project(s) Is He Working On?
Justin defines himself as a “radical pragmatist.”
When pressed, he is happy to unpack the frame:
“Feeding people is radical. Things that are sort of quotidian are radical. Giving money to poor people is radical. Letting poor people control their own destinies is radical. Changing the power dynamic is radical. We have become so obsessed with innovation, or solutions, that we have lost sight of the fact that sometimes the easiest way to help is to just give people money. We have constructed so many kluges for how to solve these basic things. We don’t need to create a technocratic apparatus. Just feed them.”
Justin is currently focused on three projects, including Wayfinder Foundation, his “day job.” Coming from a career at the intersection of educational policy and racial justice policy, he longed for a way to acknowledge the reality and consequences of how power intersects with policy. Wayfinder is pioneering grantmaking that is designed to give initial investments to individuals who are really trying to change their own communities – not funneled through mature institutions which often ignore the types of work that urgently needs support. It funds women of color who themselves are at the 200% poverty level or less, and are embedded in the community. Funding areas include criminal justice, education reform, immigration reform, domestic violence, and incarceration. Currently, Wayfinder is disbursing monies [ranging between $1,500 to $100,000] on a quarterly basis, across five cities including Indianapolis, Los Angeles, D.C., Memphis, and Oakland. It hopes to add a few more cities in 2019.
Justin’s initial connection to gun violence was intimate. He was in grade school during Columbine and later learned via 60 Minutes that a student of his mother’s had planned to shoot up the school until his plot was preempted. This was someone he looked up to and thought was brilliant: “I read his fan fiction about the Hobbit. But whenever I heard that “all we need to do is just solve mental health,” I lose it. Jimmy fucking Meyers should never have been able to get guns.”
Years on, he co-founded Politicize My Death. As in, in the event that I die in a mass shooting, I consent that my death can be used in the discussion of gun reform. “We need a powerful contrast message. The NRA uses “freedom,” and is in fact the single greatest lobbyist for individual freedom versus collective rights. We had this notion that ‘Life and Death’ is a more powerful contrast than policies and rules. Without any marketing, I and eleven friends, including my sister and a neurobiologist, managed to gather 5,000 signatures. If I could find the resources I’d like to run a series of experimental ads in Republican Congressional districts this fall that are about +5/+6 GOP. Billboards featuring images of dead kids. We need to be less afraid to use violent images. Do I want to see pictures of dead kids? No. But I’d rather see pictures of dead kids to move the political needle than see more children die of gun violence.”
Racial Justice BK
Justin co-founded Racial Justice BK in response to concerns that #GetOrganizedBK (which it spun out from) was not reflecting the broader city. “It’s really super white – and I say this even as I’m on its Steering Committee. It’s a response to the need to think about progressive politics and policy through a racial justice lens, in a place that is overwhelmingly progressive, but still has its own demons to deal with when it comes to race and power.”
Racial Justice BK has a niche: “Lots of others are doing this racial justice work. We’re explicit about being a multi-racial group.” Members of the group come from a range of deep creative backgrounds – theater, film, TV, radio, visual design, carpentry – informing their actions and subversive responses to racism and bigotry. Two weekends ago, to mark two months of yet another tragic loss of a young Black man, Saheed Vassell, at the hands of law enforcement, it convened “United for Hope & Dignity” collaborating with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC for a series of sketches around interaction between police with communities of color, including a talkback. DNAinfo New York (R.I.P.) once described Racial Justice BK an “an oddly joyful experience given the context.” This makes Justin smile.
How Did He Come to Civic Hall?
Justin learned about Civic Hall through his dear friend and colleague Sanda Balaban of Civics Unplugged and YVote, whom he describes as “one of the great unsung heroes of the NYC nonprofit world in the last two decades.”
“I love the spirit at Civic Hall. The way I describe it is “progressive pragmatism,” while other spaces are filled with cynics (“Resist, Resist, Resist!”) or tech utopians in the private sector, who must be in some sort of bubble. It’s a happy medium here, stocked with extremely pragmatic folks who working on solutions to move us forward and who are connecting with people who understand the policy and policy well enough to tell them, “That’s a fucking stupid idea, don’t do it.” I look at the co-working spaces and the clubs you can join out of pure self-interest, “I need a place to work,” or you can join with people who are tackling problems with their eyes wide open.”
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
Justin takes issue with the data- and venture-driven philanthropy that was first pioneered by the Gates Foundation nearly twenty years ago. “I would say that if you know people who have means and who have the ability to use their money to drive social change — and are fed up with the last generation of philanthropy that has been over-reliant on short term metrics, and not focused enough long-term outcomes — I want to talk to them.
Metrics are OK. You have to assess at some level, but the problem is that if you’re trying to do something that is as bold and potentially transformative as solve poverty or eradicate disease, you have to be attentive to the long-term. You don’t do that by only focusing on quarterly numbers, which can distract from long-term social change.
There is a new generation of wealth in this country that is attuned to this idea that social change won’t happen by looking at quarter-on-quarter results, but through shifting power dynamics, and giving people the power to liberate themselves. I want to talk to those people. Those who want to do radically different things, who potentially made their mark radically — and want to give it away radically.”
If Justin is tough on communities he’s intersected with, he likewise holds Civic Hall to a higher standard: “This is maybe too aspirational. The people at (Civic Hall) could be a force together for a real vision for what civic and urban leadership looks like for the next generation. Without the resources put in place to engage, that conversation that won’t happen. How do you facilitate that?”