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There can never be political change without cultural change

Gabby De Cicco*

As part of AWID's ongoing commitment to building creative cross-movement work, we are exploring multiple ways of working with and learning from artists and cultural makers from diverse social movements as a means of building solidarity, stimulating creative connections, and facilitating mutual learning.

This work seeks to strengthen and affirm the role of art and culture plays in social justice movements, organizations and networks at local, national and international levels. We know that Art and cultural expression can be incredibly powerful tools and can help translate complex political ideas into more accessible and engaging ways.

This interview, alongside other material such as our recently launched 'Movements Matter' series is part of our effort to amplify the important work that artists and cultural makers offer to movement building and social justice organising.

AWID spoke with artivist Favianna Rodriguez about the role of art as a tool of resistance and what is needed to shift the hateful and damaging words and actions  in the USA, under newly elected President Trump´s administration.

AWID: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and work?

Favianna Rodriguez (FR): I'm an artist, and I'm serving my last term as Executive Director  of an organization I co-founded, called Culture Strike. I co-founded Culture Strike because I really wanted to create a space for artists who work at the intersection of social movements and the arts. I wanted to create a supportive space where artists could really think about strategies for creating a culture that reflects our values, and also to put forward an understanding that cultural change precedes political change.

I think that often the role of artists is undervalued. It's seen as something “cute” instead of as a necessity, so there's very little support for the infrastructure of arts and culture. And so, especially when it comes to social movements, they exploit artists, they ask artists to work for free. There's actually very few jobs within social movements for artists. Overall the arts and artists are undervalued and yet there can't be no change without cultural change.

There cannot be policy change without culture leading that change. In fact culture has to change first.
Favianna Rodriguez, artist and co-founder of Culture Strike Magazine

I think that is one of the reasons we are losing on many levels around issues like climate change, women's issues, racial equality, etc. is because we haven't taken on the role of culture, we haven't made space for that. The cultural narratives are also outdated, they don't reflect the reality. I'm talking of all culture and creative expressions: film, music, the visual arts, literature, etc., all these things are  lagging behind.  And the values that are circulated are values that are assumptions around whiteness, around patriarchy, to me it's like we're on a losing path.

My work is centered looking at the very fundamental and powerful role of culture, and looking at it through the lens of the arts. Also looking at it from the point of view of empowering those who are most affected by these policies - and that is people of color, women and queer people. Culture Strike is an organization looks at Culture through a movement building lens, and I look at it as an artist, through the lens of a practitioner. Culture Strike is currently focused on migrant rights, climate change and racial justice.

AWID: What possibilities does   art offer for social justice organising/movement building?

FR: It offers another way to see the world; a vision for the kind of world we want to create, it offers tools to tell that story. We have to tell the story of what we want, and what that world looks like. It's not just about fighting against what we don't want, we also have to be visionaries, and artists are visionaries, we can create, imagine that world. So the most important thing for me is to present an image, a song, a play, a depiction of what the future can look like.

AWID: What are your visions for that world?

FR: I have a vision of that world as a place with an economy that regenerates the earth, a non extractive economy. I see a world where gender doesn't exist as a binary, but people have the ability to occupy a gender that feels right to them.  We don't have expected roles, and we also hold everyone to be equal. Which means women don't grow up in environments where they have to face violence simply because they were born with a particular kind of gender.

I also see a world where whiteness is not the global dominating construct; that we have unlearned racism, and where there is equality throughout the world.

We have shifted to a place of local economies, because we have realized that it's too expensive, and the cost are too great to be using as much fossil fuel as we do. Artists are very vibrant in that culture.

AWID: Your visions and work are focused on three main issues, migrant people, climate justice and racism, so what are your thoughts about these issues in relation to the new president and government of USA?

FR: It's an incoming fascist government, that is going to be repressive on all those fronts. It's already happening, the people he is bringing into his cabinet are white supremacists homophobes and climate denialists. I'm expecting a lot of suffering, unfortunately by people and the planet, because the people he's bringing just have no consciousness and are really backwards and dangerous in terms of their approach.

At the same time I'm expecting, that we as communities will get very organized[1], that we really begin to put people in office. Sometimes for social movements electoral politics feels very boring, but we need to elect people with our values, we need to get all these white cis-gender men out of their offices, because they're just completely disconnected. They are less than half of the population, and they have all the power.We need to look at elected office and we need to have a game plan that's holistic. About the arts -  that's about classes, organizing and putting our people in office.

AWID: You say let's use this democracy system to change from inside, with people who have our own visions. So what do you think are the role of the artists and artivism´s should play there?

FR: The role of artivism should be to help people unlearn their bias. Because they have a bias, because they actually are not being exposed to stories about the rest of the world.  They still fear. We live in a highly privatized media environment and  what people see is often not in line with reality. I see  the role of culture and artists to present a vision of how complicated we are as human beings. We are not just a color of skin, we are not just gendered,  we are all human beings, and we all have a variety of experiences, and we are all deserving our human rights, we all deserve to be safe and fulfilled, and to have opportunities. We need to tell stories about that, and it’s not just about positive stories, it's also about complicated stories.

There's a lot of people who are treated as subhuman, they're incarcerated, abused, raped which point to systemic problems Behavior has been learnt in culture, so we have to unwire people's brains, we have to present those stories in order to shift culture, and really emphasize our shared humanity.

AWID: What are three things do you feel are needed in the first year after the this election?

FR: First step is an urgent shift against the use of fossil fuels. We need to make a commitment to end fossil fuels in the next few years, and our fossil fuel dependency and instead make a big investment in solar energy. The environment can't wait any more and to me that means tackling it a head on.

We also have to immediately investigate the US Police procedures, we need to demilitarize the police. It's completely out of control, and is systemic. The way people are dying requires urgent solutions.

We need to take away these weapons and take away hegemonic powers; and create another system of accountability.

[1] This interview was done before the massive Women´s March that took place on 21st January 2017..

*GDC acknowledges Amina Doherty