Suzette Brooks Masters -

Jan 25, 2023

Through the Prism with Suzette Brooks Masters

Headshot of Suzette Brooks Masters

Suzette Brooks Masters is a philanthropic advisor, thought leader, and strategist in the fields of democracy and pluralism. For more than two decades she has advised foundations, non-profit organizations, policymakers, and corporations on how to respond to a fast-changing America. She has received numerous awards for her philanthropic vision and impact, and accolades for her incisive publications. She prides herself on seeing around the corner and challenging conventional thinking. Ms. Masters currently leads the Better Futures Project with the Democracy Funders Network. Ms. Masters is a graduate of Harvard Law School, Cambridge University on a Marshall Scholarship, and Amherst College. A lifelong New Yorker, she is the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants.

What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?

My mom is an immigrant from Africa. When she married my dad and settled in New York City, she was separated from her parents and siblings, which was really hard for her. This was way before tech facilitated constant, low-cost contact across borders. Back then, long-distance telephone calls were a real luxury and calls tended to be perfunctory and rushed. So, I vividly remember the extended visits from my wonderful grandparents. My parents would give up their bedroom and sleep on a pull-out couch in the dining room for weeks at a time, every single year. It was such a lovely time to spend together, and only much later did I realize what a big deal it was to give up your room and all those conveniences for an extended period. The way my parents welcomed my mom’s parents, with so much love and respect, made a deep impression on me. It’s something I’ve tried to model for my kids, and I hope I’ll be the beneficiary of that deep commitment to family and relationships when it’s my turn to be the elder.

What values guide your work?

I value curiosity, honesty, and directness above all, tempered by a whole lot of humility. Concretely, that means relentlessly questioning things and avoiding complacency, surfacing rather than burying the hard stuff that most people like to tiptoe around, expressing views fully and constructively, taking that extra step to engage rather than avoid, and recognizing that one’s views are no better than anyone else’s. I think so much good can come from interacting with people in this straightforward and respectful way. If we are going to build a better, more inclusive, and just future together, we need to be in “right relationship” with one another. Each of us plays a small part in forging relationships that center our humanity and shared fates in order to build a better, more inclusive and more just future together.

What are you working on right now?

Well, after almost a year of intensive effort, I’ve just released a new report, Imagining Better Futures for American Democracy, in partnership with Democracy Funders Network. Since the report calls on people and institutions to think and act differently at this pivotal moment of flux for American society – what Ari Wallach calls an “intertidal” – I’m trying to activate the people in my network to be more open to that type of mindset exploration and shift.

The need to grapple with the consequential nature of this time, during which we’re experiencing massive changes in several arenas, is one of the biggest takeaways from my report. For me, recognizing the importance of this period of disruption means figuring out how to act responsibly in a way that meets the moment, and then galvanizing that change at enough scale that the public starts feeling the shift to imagine and take active steps toward better futures together.

That realization has radicalized me in one way: I now believe that carrying on as if these were times like any other is gross negligence, and malpractice even, especially for those of us whose mission is to leave a legacy for future generations that we can be proud of. The mindset shift that I believe is required to be a responsible ancestor in these times of flux entails a few things:

  • Accepting uncertainty, not wishing it away
  • Imagining different possible futures (good, middling, and bad)
  • Looking ahead, and that means further out than you’re probably comfortable doing, but it’s only then that things get interesting
  • Questioning assumptions, especially the ones you didn’t even know you held tightly about how the world does and could work
  • Trusting that as human actors, we have the capacity, indeed the responsibility, to make the world better for ourselves and future generations

So, in addition to evangelizing about the need for this mindset shift, I’m also interested in identifying the people and efforts that are showing us what “better” looks like, whether in fiction or the real world, and trying to lift those up so they can inspire others. The report uncovered a glaring lack of amplification infrastructure to lift up good stories of what could be, which means we’re inevitably slower in our efforts to transform our dystopian, conflict-driven, drama-laden, sensationalized, and problem-oriented narrative environment. That must change.

How has the experience of the pandemic affected you and your work?

The pandemic had a seismic effect on me and my work, even though I was among the lucky ones – able to shelter in relative safety, care for my elders and children, and avoid lasting harm.

Despite those advantages, COVID-19 hit me hard. It upended my sense of order and predictability and laid bare all the ways I had been complacent about how our society functions, making starkly visible the often buried or minimized fault lines that run deep in our society around race, class, geography, and employment. While that was painful and unmooring, it was a critical wake-up call. It made me despair for our country and its indifference to inequities and to the massive loss of human life it was willing to tolerate. Yes, there were a few bright spots, and our collective spirit triumphed over individualism briefly, but the evanescence of that collective care and compassion was the most disturbing to me.  We’ve lost more than a million lives, but nothing has changed.

The only silver lining is that my despair eventually led to a yearning for the ideas, people, and projects that were hopeful and future-oriented, even at such a dark time, and that was the genesis of the Better Futures Project, which has nourished me for the past year. Arundhati Roy, in a powerful 2020 essay, spoke of the pandemic as a portal to other worlds. I’m still walking through the portal COVID-19 opened for me, but I’m excited to be on a journey to a better tomorrow.

What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?

Professionally, my new focus on building better futures has put spring back in my step and improved my mood immeasurably. Collaborating with visionary people who are thinking in this expansive and hopeful way is deeply gratifying. I am especially excited by some of the governance innovations in full swing in other parts of the world, like ministers for the future and the use of intergenerational fairness frameworks to assess whether particular policies or budget expenditures are unduly preferencing current vs. future generations.

There are also some fascinating experiments that have been tried in Japan at the municipal level involving ordinary people who inhabit different generational roles. Apparently, role play can have a lasting effect on how much risk they are willing to take in the present to bring about bold policy change. That gives me hope that we can expand people’s circles of concern, widen their aperture, and make them think like ancestors. But we must give them the opportunity to experience new vantage points that extend beyond the present and ask them to dream about the worlds they and their descendants would like to live in. The report is chock full of inspiring examples like these from real life and fiction.

On a personal level, I’m so happy to spend non-virtual time with the people who matter to me and to be on the move again. Absence has definitely made my heart grow fonder of so many things I took for granted, like gatherings, cultural performances, and travel. On the plus side with COVID-19, necessity forced me to become a much better cook, so I enjoy eating at home much more than I used to.

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