Art and Change: The People's Climate March

"Artists were not just a side component of the People's Climate March.  Artists were the glue."  --Artist-Activist Favianna Rodriguez, poster art above.

Over 300,000 people flooded NYC streets this last Sunday (9/21) to demand just action on our swiftly warming planet.  This historic march was an impressive display of solidarity among a diverse crowd of people, including indigenous communities, folks who work on Wall St, local high school students, vegans, labor, and every kind of religious and spiritual tradition. 

I walked away even more convinced about the power of art in social change movements. 

Artist-activist-intellectual Favianna Rodriguez, in partnership with CultureStrike and 300 other artists, were out in full effect at the march, telling the many stories of migrant communities, communities of color, shoreline communities, and all the people hardest hit by global warming. 

Photo: CultureStrike

Photo: CultureStrike

Art has the power to communicate a strong compelling message, FAST.  This is the point of public demonstrations, and why art is so vital. 

Art also has the power to engage new voices and lift up the experiences that have been marginalized.  At this march, artist collaboration helped bring forth the participation and expression of people who are not stereotypically thought of in the "environmental movement," radically embodying the march slogan, "to change everything, we need everyone." 

Photo: Mark Thompson

Photo: Mark Thompson

"The power of culture is often underestimated within the field of social change.  Culture is the realm of ideas, images and stories; it is where people make sense of the world, where they find meaning and forge community.  Culture alters the way people think about—or choose to ignore or reject—an issue or policy.  It affects how people think, interact, react, speak, write and vote."  (The Culture Group 2011, p.1).

Photo: Mark Thompson

Photo: Mark Thompson

As an organizer, I am committed to integrating art and culture into my work because I recognize it is a powerful tool to shape our stories and our prophetic voice, strengthen leadership development and build more vibrant campaigns.  To shift culture and move social justice policy, we have to move away from relying only on data and statistics to make our case.  In order to ignite and engage our society, in order to paint a new vision for the future, we have to let creativity lead. 

Pictured:  Me working with CultureStrike and Communities Creating Opportunity in Kansas City (May 2013) for an immigration reform action with Senator Moran.  We made sunflowers, the Kansas state flower, to represent people's desire to become citizens.

Sugar and Social Justice

In 37 years, the rate of diabetes in the United States QUINTUPLED.  According to National Geographic from August 2013, there are now more than 22 million Americans living with diabetes.

The primary cause?  Sugar.  It’s in everything.  Bread and cereal, processed lunch meats, yogurt, ketchup, and of course, soda.  The average can of coke contains 8 teaspoons of sugar. Low-fat yogurt has more than 6 tsp. National Geographic reports that the average American consumes almost 23 teaspoons of sugar a day!  For perspective, that’s equivalent to 1,135 cups of rice. 

As the rate of diabetes skyrockets, sugar in the US diet also contributes to high cholesterol and high blood pressure. 

Who suffers the most?  The poor.  People who live in neighborhood food deserts, where it's challenging to find fresh, whole food.  People who can't afford to buy food for a week at the grocery store and rely on fast food.  People who have Medicaid, which can make it hard to access good primary care doctors.

This is why I organize around health care.  I support communities to win the policies and the practices that will help them not only overcome the injustice in our food and healthcare system, but to THRIVE. Check out my recent work on Better Living! here.  

Why I Became an Organizer, Part 2

I was eighteen when I discovered what I was meant to DO in the world.  I had just moved to Santa Barbara to attend community college.  I didn't have many options in the education department.  The San Francisco school system had not prepared me for university.  Most of my friends whose families had the means or the know-how had opted for private high schools or elite public high schools based on academic performance. At seventeen, I looked up to see these friends heading off to Columbia, Harvard, and Wellesley.  I had no plan at all.  I hadn’t even taken the SAT’s. Actually, high school felt so pointless that I left my senior year to work at Starbucks. Community college was the only choice I had, and I moved to Santa Barbara for the sheer fact that it wasn’t San Francisco. A change of scene. 

To this end, Santa Barbara was the biggest culture shock I had ever encountered.  I went from living in a racially, culturally and economically diverse inner-city (SF before the tech-boom!), to a homogeneous, upper-middle class, suburban town.  Having grown up around the corner from low-income housing projects and gone to school with a majority of classmates who qualified for the free lunch program, I was suddenly in an environment where people spoke with smug disgust about “welfare queens” and vehemently defended border control to keep “illegals” out of the country.  While I researched my first college paper about continued segregation and inequality in public education, my Santa Barbara classmates were planning their futures in banking (I realize this is an unfair generalization, but it describes the general climate).  I was appalled; filled with anger.  And I was seized with energy and purpose.  The cries for justice that had entered my bloodstream in the picket lines of my childhood, that filled my heart with passion, would not let me sleep.  I felt my life purpose beating strongly in my chest, pounding in my ears, relentlessly pushing me towards my true path.  I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my life work to creating just systems, to standing for radical social change.

I moved right back to San Francisco to get started! 

Why I Became an Organizer, Part 1

I grew up in San Francisco, where my father organized for Local 2, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union (H.E.R.E).  From the time I was an infant until I was a teenager, after-school and on weekends, Dad took me to picket lines, rallies and marches, where I joined the crowd chanting "Contract Now!" and singing Solidarity Forever.  I wasn't too excited about these activities when I was young.  My legs would tire out from the endless walking, I whined that I wanted McDonald's, I begged to go to my friends’ houses instead.  

But at some point, all that changed.  At some point, the meaning of the chants and songs broke through.  I began to sense the power of what we were doing there, together.  Instead of just plodding through the throng of grown-up legs, I saw men and women, African-American, Latino and Asian, who made beds, cooked food, carried luggage, and did the million other thankless tasks that served as the backbone of the SF tourist industry.  I began to feel the strength of their unity, the courage it took to challenge international business tycoons and demand a fair labor contract.  I began to connect, as my heartbeat pounded in my chest, to the deep moral obligation which kept us walking, mile after mile, on the same city block in front of the five-star hotels.  I saw the power of commitment.  It sometimes took years, but these maids and cooks and porters would WIN.  They were on the side of justice.

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold

Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousandfold

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old

For the Union makes us strong”

--Solidarity Forever


I didn't know it then, but this was the foundation that would shape my life work.