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Sarah Elizabeth Lewis

Images help us see each other more clearly in our search for equity and justice.

Founder of Vision & Justice | Harvard Associate Professor | Author of The Rise and The Unseen Truth

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How Images Shape Our Understanding of Justice (16:50)

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How Have the Arts Galvanized Social Movements? (5:23)

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Can Art Measure Human Life? (3:22)

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How Images Can Contextualize History (4:14)

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The Power of Images to Counteract Racism (8:10)

Lavin Exclusive Speaker

If we want to build a better story for our democracy, we need to be able to see the people who have been left out, says Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, founder of the Vision & Justice initiative and author of the forthcoming book The Unseen Truth. As one of the most insightful and eloquent speakers on race in America, Sarah proves that visual representations (from photographs to performances) can spark action and set us on the path to a more just future. Her work at the intersection of visual art, racial justice, and democracy has led to wide acclaim; she’s served on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee and been selected for Oprah’s “Power List,” and Junot Diaz calls her “one of the most gifted women anywhere.” In spellbinding talks, Sarah offers a unique perspective into how we can shift our cultural narratives to ensure everyone is seen and represented. “Where we once blocked our rightful view of one another, we now have the means to build windows,” she says.

What is special about Sarah is her vision for the future of the field of African American art. Sarah has the instinct to say, how can we ensure that this field becomes firmly embedded within art history long after the initial energy has waned?—Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an art and cultural historian whose research focuses on the intersection of visual representation, racial justice, and democracy in the United States from the nineteenth century through the present. She is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University where she serves on the Standing Committee on American Studies and Standing Committee on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. She is also founder of Vision & Justice, a catalytic civic initiative that generates original research, curricula, and programs that reveal the foundational role visual culture plays in generating equity and justice in America.

At Harvard, Sarah pioneered the course Vision and Justice: The Art of Race and American Citizenship, which she continues to teach and which is now part of the University’s core curriculum. Before joining the faculty at Harvard, she held curatorial positions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Tate Modern, London. She also served as a Critic at Yale University School of Art.

Her forthcoming book, The Unseen Truth, reveals the hidden history of a time where Americans were confronted with the lies that shore up our racial inequality. She tells the story of the Caucasian war—the fight for independence in the Caucasus that coincided with the end of the U.S. Civil War—and how it showed that the place from which we derive “Caucasian” for whiteness actually wasn’t white at all. She reveals how visual tactics concealed the truth in order to secure our regime of racial injustice, and how we can begin to see what we have ignored and start to dismantle this regime.

Her published books and edited volumes include The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, translated into seven languages, Carrie Mae Weems, which won the 2021 Photography Network Book Prize, and the “Vision & Justice” special issue of Aperture magazine, which received the 2017 Infinity Award for Critical Writing and Research from the International Center of Photography. Her forthcoming publications include The Unseen Truth (Harvard University Press, 2024), Vision & Justice (One World/Random House, Fall 2025), and Groundwork: Race and Aesthetics in the Era of Stand Your Ground Law. The article on which Groundwork is based, published in Art Journal (Winter 2020), won the 2022 Arthur Danto/ASA Prize from the American Philosophical Association for “the best paper in the field of aesthetics, broadly understood.” An in-demand public speaker whose past engagements include TED and SXSWedu, she has had op-eds, commentary, and profiles of her work published in outlets including The New York Times, Aperture, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Boston Globe.

Sarah was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow in 2022. In 2019, she received the Freedom Scholar Award, presented by The Association for the Study of African American Life and History for her body of work and its “direct positive impact on the life of African Americans.” Her research has received fellowship and grant support from the Ford Foundation; the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University; the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition; the Whiting Foundation; the Lambent Foundation; and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

Sarah currently serves on the boards of Thames & Hudson Inc., Creative Time, Harvard Design Press, and Civil War History journal, and is a member of the Yale University Honorary Degrees Committee. Her past board service includes the Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts, The Brearley School, and The CUNY Graduate Center. She received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, an M. Phil from Oxford University, an M.A. from Courtauld Institute of Art, and her Ph.D. from Yale University.


You have no idea how many people came up to me Saturday afternoon who were transformed by your presentation. Thank you so very much for joining us and for having the courage to participate! You were vital to making sense of that whole topic.

Kennedy Center

You were the perfect balance—great stories, so joyful, lots of insights that helped our audience. I hope you could sense that everyone is leaving thinking about things differently, and are, most importantly, happy.


As I opened the Global PR Summit feedback survey today, I realized that you deserve kudos directly from everyone who attended for bringing in Sarah Lewis. I had heard that she speaks even more eloquently than her book reads, but didn’t believe it until seeing her in action.

Holmes Global PR Summit

Sarah’s keynote was the perfect affirmation of support for the arts and so much more. The generosity and grace of her work set a tone that was present throughout the convening, and we heard so much gratitude from everyone who saw her presentation—including the hotel staff and AV technicians! It meant a lot to the artists in the room to have someone like Sarah there, and her perspective on culture really nurtured the camaraderie built among the artist cohort.

The USA Team

I don’t think it is possible to overstate the impact your presence had on our students and faculty. People were inspired, moved, and affirmed by you. Your work is incredible and your presence and warmth are equally compelling. Thank you for making the trip, for sharing with such genuine enthusiasm, and for continuing to engage the students who follow up with you.

The Brearley School

Sarah’s presence and her words were deeply inspiring and so relevant to the educators at our event. She made a tremendous impact. We were so pleased. And thank you for all of your assistance in the process. You were so integral to the evening’s success.

North Carolina Museum of Art

Speech Topics

Vision & JusticeImages and Our Fight for Equity

Who is represented in our art, photographs, and performances? Who is left out?

For too long, people of color have been marginalized in our democracy, says Sarah Elizabeth Lewis—both in the political and cultural realms. But we can change that. In this urgent and hopeful talk, she demonstrates how we can use images and other visual representations to expand the cultural narrative for the better. She draws on her storied career as a curator, author, and founder of Vision & Justice to offer a powerful argument for the necessary work of “re-seeing,” so that we can see one another clearly and fight for a better future together.

Gathering in various threads—art history, technical innovation, race, photography, the story of America, and a deeply personal narrative—Sarah celebrates individual artists, sparks the collective imagination, and helps us see what is right in front of us, as well as what could be.

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The RiseCreativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

Where do new ideas spring from? What really drives iconic, transformational change on both a personal and an organizational level? From Nobel Prize-winning discoveries to works of art, many of our creative triumphs are not achievements but conversions, argues Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, author of The Rise. And when we fail, that’s when we know we’re on the road to success.

Sarah draws on figures such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass and grit pioneer Angela Duckworth, revealing the importance of play, grit, surrender, often ignored ideas, and the necessary experiments and follow-up attempts that lead to true breakthroughs. Uplifting and counterintuitive, this keynote will equip you to harness failure, tap into your creative potential, and seek radical innovation in your personal and professional life. The path to success, Sarah notes, is often more surprising than we expect.

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Featured Books

The Rise
Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

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