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There is no movement for justice without the arts: Interview with Jeff Chang and Favianna Rodriguez

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Murkey photo of three people sitting in chairs with a microphone in front of them

Favianna Rodriguez and Jeff Chang are artist-organizers and the initiators of Culture Strike, an ongoing project that began in 2010 as a protest of Arizona’s SB 1070 law. Culture Strike aims to raise consciousness about immigration issues among artists. For the past two years, delegations of artists traveled to the US/Mexico border to learn first-hand about the struggles for migrant justice through witnessing legal procedures, meeting with grassroots organizers and visiting physical sites along the border. The hope is that the artists will then incorporate these lessons into their practice.

Originally published on Open Space, SFMOMA blog 2/1/12
Favianna Rodriguez and Jeff Chang are artist-organizers and the initiators of Culture Strike, an ongoing project that began in 2010 as a protest of Arizona’s SB 1070 law. Culture Strike aims to raise consciousness about immigration issues among artists. For the past two years, delegations of artists traveled to the US/Mexico border to learn first-hand about the struggles for migrant justice through witnessing legal procedures, meeting with grassroots organizers and visiting physical sites along the border. The hope is that the artists will then incorporate these lessons into their practice.
Jeff and Favianna are long-time collaborators with powerful practices of their own. Jeff is the author of Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” and a founding editor of the journal,Colorlines. Favianna is a prolific print-maker and new media artist. I am a long-time admirer of both their work and spoke with Jeff and Favianna at Southern Exposure on January 14th before they participated in the event, “Strategies for Artists in Social Justice Movements” organized by Artists of the 99%. We spoke about about Culture Strike, the Occupy Movement, and how artists and organizers desperately need each other.

Adrienne Skye Roberts:  Can you describe the roots of Culture Strike and the political context that it emerged from?


Jeff Chang:  When Arizona passed SB 1070, friends of mine in New York City organized Word Strike, which was a protest of the law by a group of writers. Word Strike was inspired by Sound Strike started by Zach De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. So, people reacted to this law first through culture. They said, “As artists we can show that this is not the kind of future we want to have.” It was exactly the right move to make because it was clear that resistance to anti-immigration sentiment was not going to be political movement. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 completely collapsed, the Obama administration said they would file an injunction against SB 1070 and then proceeded to be the biggest deporters in history.


Favianna Rodriguez:  Anti-immigrant legislation in the past years has shifted public sentiment more and more to the right and towards criminalization. As a result, there had been a need to look at how culture could challenge and transform these messages. Around that time some cultural workers, printmakers and visual artists were questioning the role of culture after the Obama election; why were artists not getting the resources we needed?

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I went to Arizona with Alto Arizona and later Sound Strike because there wasn’t a formal program for visual artists. As visual artists in Arizona, we experienced the same things that we are constantly fighting against in our own practices; we were being indirectly exploited, our art was used non-strategically and even though the organizations really valued our work they didn’t have the infrastructure to support it. And so, Culture Strike was born within this context and from a need to intersect these two issues: to educate artists about immigration and to inspire them to get engaged in movement work while also valuing artists as an integral part of society and resistance.


ASR:  How did your backgrounds as artists and organizers lead you to organizing Culture Strike?


JC:  I didn’t start out thinking I was an artist just in the same way that hip-hop didn’t start out thinking of itself as an art. I was a graffiti writer and a DJ. I got involved in anti-apartheid and anti-racist organizing as a student at UC Berkeley. The lines between art and organizing really started to blur for me in the late 1990s when a new breed of young organizers began calling themselves “hip-hop activists.” We were DJs or rappers or visual artists or poets—we all had an artistic practice. We’d all go out to a political rally and then we’d end up at a club afterward. Whereas, for the generation before us, you were either political or you were a cultural worker. It was hard for us to actually explain what was going on to older folks, to older activists, to older funders or supporters. It was a generational thing.


Favianna Rodriguez, offset poster from 2001 made for JustAct: Youth Action for Global JusticeFR:  As an artist I have always been involved with political organizing and have observed the best and worst parts of collaboration with grassroots organizations. Specifically, how artists are brought on at the end part of a campaign strategy or how we’re looked at as being somebody who is going to implement talking points. I felt that what artists could contribute in terms of vision, new ideas and experimentation, was not being fully maximized in movement work. It was very frustrating. Also, we were not viewed as fellow workers and our labor was often exploited. Overall, the contexts for engagement were limited.


At the same time, I am excited about movement work overall. My interest in founding Culture Strike, was to look at what were the best set of conditions and infrastructure that could exist so that artists could have a great and transformative experience in working with social justice groups in the movement; and visa versa.


ASR:  What are the political context that your work emerged from? Jeff, you became active through hip-hop. Can you describe how this hybrid practice emerged?


JC:  Out of hip-hop we did a lot of electoral organizing. We made inroads to the popular culture through hip-hop but it was time for us to take political power. You literally had this whole generation of folks whose main issues were youth violence, gun violence, environmental justice or media justice asking, how do we organize our peers using culture? How do we help get them over their cynicism about the political process? From 2004 through 2008, there were huge leaps of voter registration amongst young voters of color—the folks who are most alienated from the process. When Barak Obama was elected, pretty much the entirety in the increase of youth voting happened amongst youth of color, which is a fact that no one recognized. That was the result of 4 or 5 years of dedicated organizing and that was what we were trying to rep—the infrastructure we built. The next steps were how do we theorize this in a big sense? Everybody was tired of being reactionary, everyone was tired of more propositions and laws to fight against. The question was what are we going to do now? As people started figuring out that art and organizing could be used together to educate people and bring them into a process that didn’t end but continued, we started asking the question, what does it look like if we actually win?


FR:  My work emerges from my own experience as a woman of color, as a daughter of immigrants, as a woman who grew up in Oakland, one of the cities that has the highest homicides and violence rates in the country. Growing up I witnessed everything from gentrification, to the rise of the Internet, to the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, to the growing, hate-filled debate on immigration, which started when I was in high school with Prop 187. I also witnessed the expansion of the border and NAFTA. All of these events deeply affected my family and my community. For me, art was a way to speak about that reality. It was also a way for me to transform and critique it. Also, it served to document what was happening to me as a woman of color and to my community. I think that the political context is really that I did not see myself reflected in the art world. I felt that my story wasn’t being told. What was missing was as a pro-migrant, women-centered, people-of-color analysis of how the world was changing.


ASR:  You both rely a lot on storytelling in your individual practices—Favianna, your posters describe movements of resistance through stories of individuals and communities and Jeff, your book is 500 pages of overlapping stories that illustrate the hip-hop generation. How was storytelling used as a strategy for Culture Strike? What other strategies did you use to reach artists in the delegations?


Culture Strike delegation at the US/Mexico border. Photo credit B+ for Mochilla.JC:  The pro-immigration protests and rallies that happened in the late 1990s and 2000′s humanize people. They illustrated the stories they were actually going through and at the time, polls showed that the American public was overwhelming supportive of immigration reform. When SB 1070 passed, it completely changed the language of the debate, it made simply an issue of legality and criminality. It was no longer about the kids who lived next door or the people in the community that you knew, it wasn’t about the personal stories. It was about who was “illegal” or “legal.” We believe that we win a debate when we work in culture because culture is where ideas can shift, where empathy gets built, stories get told and where community begins.

The reality is that we build our identities and beliefs from all the different pieces of our cultures. If you go to a golf game on Saturday and then you go to church on Sunday—these are places where you can organize. The Right understands this. Many of us have never made a connection between what our values are and the place that people practice those values.


FR:  I was thinking also about linguistics and messaging and how words set the tone of the debate. The right wing made the word “illegal” a very commonly used phrase. It is also framed as a Latino thing. In advertisements and visuals you would see a Mexican man running across the border into a truck. The other side adopted the slogan, “No Human Being is Illegal.” Everyone was saying it and it became a kind of empty statement. With these messages, the need for artists to get engaged was even greater.


The question then became how to engage the artists, what does it take for artists to get to the point where they say, “Ok, I get it and I’m so touched that I am going to include this in my work”? So, we took them to see 70 immigrants getting deported at the same time, we took them to the coroner’s office, we took then to the wall that runs along the border, we were engaging them in the stories.


ASR:  The delegations of Culture Strike are diverse, some artists do overt political work and others do not. What are some of the challenges of engaging artists in movement work?


FR:  There is an artist culture that sometimes doesn’t celebrate feedback or use research to truly understand your topic. We had to share the stories in an ethical way and not exploitative to the storyteller. At the same time, we didn’t want to bring an artist to Arizona to only teach workshops or to be used as instruments rather than as part of the organizing and bigger strategy of the movement.

Artists don’t fit into the goals of grassroots organizing like getting a good turnout of people to a rally or to vote. However, there is a case to be made for what an artist can produce that will make people feel something. Part of our work is also thinking about the intangible, the moment of inspiration someone really feels the story of four undocumented youth. How do you measure that? What are the metrics that are being used in the social justice world and the art world? In the art world the metrics is all about gallery representation, sales, going to art school…


ASR: …producing objects, producing them by yourself, getting a certain kind of recognition through a narrow idea of success.


FR:  Yes and we want to redefine these metrics and also consider how we take the best practices of both the art world and organizing to create more effective movements.


JC:  We had this joke: artists are from Venus and organizers are from Mars. There is a negotiation process that has to occur on a myriad of issues—how far can you pull the artists and how far can you pull the organizers to each other? We’re still thinking our way through it.