Culture has always been a part of social change. It’s what engages audiences, activates communities, and even shapes policies in ways that raw data and graphs simply can’t. This holds true whether you’re talking about COVID-19 or climate change. Culture is a force, and effective leaders know how to wield it.
Hailing from Oakland, artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez is the president of The Center for Cultural Power, a women-led nonprofit that leverages the power held by artists and other culturemakers to reimagine a better future for people and for the planet. For the 50th annual Earth Day, The Center for Cultural Power has teamed up with the Earth Day Network to pass the torch of climate action to the girls, women of color, and indigenous communities whose futures are most affected by climate change — and who deserve prominent seats at the table.
In anticipation of today, Rodriguez commissioned people of color, especially women of color, to create artwork that inspires a diversity of communities to engage with the climate action and show up for virtual gatherings that begin today all over the internet. Some of these gatherings continue through the end of the week.
Everyone is invited, but she really needs you there.
“The number one thing is that we need people of color to engage on Earth Day,” said Rodriguez, explaining that by deliberately centering Latinas and other people of color in Earth Day imagery, artists are helping to activate groups that may be active for other issues but tend to sit out climate initiatives. Part of this has to do with the fact that we typically associate climate activism with whiteness. “Often if you look at Earth Day imagery, it does not have people of color in it or it just has the globe. We actually need to make it cool to be a part of Earth Day.”
She gushed about an image created by Iliana Galvez of an avocado being split in two by a brown hand bedecked with a ring that reads “Earth Day,” revealing the pit hidden within: The Earth. “It’s the kind of ring that cholas wear,” Rodriguez noted. “It’s so good!” Another image by Jackie Fawn portrays a woman crowned with trees, hair billowing into literal waves of water, offering a handful of rich earth and saplings to be planted.
Virtually attending an Earth Day event is a way to insert ourselves into a conversation that ought to be gravitating around communities of color, around the youth, around indigenous peoples. “It’s really about showing up and using all our creativity and our dorkiness and all of our stories to say, ‘This Earth Day we’re all here; we’re showing up. And move over white dudes, we’re the most affected, and we are going to be at the table of decision making.’”
It’s only been a month or so since COVID-19 became a pandemic, but Rodriguez has seen an uptick in how motivated people have been to rebuild a greener future. That’s no coincidence. While climate justice has always intersected with issues surrounding race, gender, economics, and health, its intersectionality is now being viewed in full relief.
Rodriguez retraced the roots of this crisis to the illegal trading of wildlife, something that we’ve all heard through the media — experts believe that COVID-19 originated in a captive and traumatized bat held in a market full of other captive and traumatized animals — a uniquely human intervention that set the stage for a deadly disease to mutate and ricochet around the world. But she pointed out that while the nature of this pandemic is unprecedented, many other crises have started this way as well. “We have to be able to connect the dots, that ultimately our problem is the exploitation of the planet, of life on the planet, whether it’s the four-legged or the two-legged,” she insisted.
Imagining a regenerative system, rather than an exploitative one, will require our nations and communities to provide green jobs and a green stimulus. “This is a big part of why, when we’re thinking about what’s next, we’re saying don’t bail out the fossil fuel industry, don’t bail out the airlines. Bail out people.”
While everyone benefits from this regenerative future, people of color will benefit most of all, having been the most exploited from both an economical and ecological standpoint. “I grew up in a community that’s heavily polluted, and I still live here,” revealed Rodriguez. “When we’re dealing with a crisis like COVID, which is disproportionately affecting people of color — and it’s a respiratory disease! — and then you consider that Black and Latino people overwhelmingly live in polluted communities, the disparities just become really clear.”
She talked about how the fossil fuel industry, as well as animal agriculture, have had an outsized impact on black, brown, and indigenous communities, citing oil extraction sites that are situated in places where people of color live, creating pollution that causes a host of chronic diseases.
“It’s absolutely gross and immoral. In my community for example, I’m surrounded by two freeways. And the freeway that cuts through the white neighborhoods… they banned trucks. Which means that all the trucks have to cross through my neighborhood.” She happens to be located near one of the most active ports in the region, meaning her area sustains lots of pollution from the trucking industry. “Because white people organized to basically have clean air, we are disproportionately impacted in Oakland. In California, it’s the same when you look at and compare the air quality in Boyle Heights and Compton to Beverly Hills. It is literally night and day.”
She cited other examples that have set the stage for devastating losses in communities of color: immigrants not getting an economic stimulus; a heavily Latinx and immigrant workforce who provide the labor behind the commercial meat industry, in slaughterhouses where the virus has spread like wildfire; banks who don’t create space for black and brown business owners like Rodriguez to succeed. She currently employs over a dozen women, providing health insurance to each and every employee, but like many small businesses she has been unable to get the funding she needs to see her company through the pandemic.
“It is injustice piled onto injustice, and I think it’s really important to describe just how all of these things intersect,” she said. “Because by telling our story, people are like, ‘Oh, I love your art Favianna, but I had no idea that you’re also going to be impacted.’ They just don’t think about it.” This is precisely why these stories need to be told by the people who are bearing the brunt of COVID’s impact, of the impact of climate change, to shed light on these intersections.
Beyond working as an advocate and fashioning herself into a cultural icon, Rodriguez shared a bit about the lifestyle choices she’s been able to make to support a regenerative future. For instance, she has been driving an electric car since 2014, she tends to an urban garden, and she she’s vegan. “I advocate for a lot of issues around food security because I grew up in a community that had only fast food,” she said. “And when I recognized that not only were we getting sick from what we ate, but that we are part of the gears of the machine, whether it’s on the farm picking food or killing animals — because remember that it is the beef industry that is destroying the lungs of the planet — who works in this industry? It’s overwhelmingly Latinx people, overwhelming immigrants.”
This is why it is so critical for the communities who have been hit the hardest by the immediate threat of COVID-19 to engage with the omnipresent threat of climate change.
“Right now is actually the time to shift culture,” insisted Rodriguez. “Because together as a global community, we are recognizing the failures of the system. It is so clear. People are upset. People are seeing, like, ‘Wow, our governments are not set up to take care of us, even though we have all this wealth and even though people work so hard. We don’t have the infrastructure, whether it’s the health infrastructure or economic infrastructure, to truly be resilient.”
She has noticed more people engaging with topics like universal basic income, which despite most recently being brought to the national stage by Andrew Yang during his run for the Democratic nomination, was not seriously considered prior to the pandemic. Yet now, many of us are imagining how a basic income could have helped us to be more resilient in the wake of this viral disaster.
Ultimately, we may not all be equipped with the knowledge of how to rebuild our future, or even be able to sort out what’s broken in the first place. But we are certainly curious. Rodriguez suggests that this is where artists are integral to progress. “We need to actually tell the stories in a way that helps people understand both what the problem is as well as the solution. Because I don’t think it’s just about being reactive. It’s about putting forward a solution — and I can assure you that the right wing is definitely already doing this. They are already helping people imagine.”
While analyzing the tactics of right-wing protestors and rabble rousers might make you want to retch, Rodriguez has been paying close attention, as she always does when a movement captivates the public and the media. “As a culturemaker myself, I understand what they are doing. They are creating. They’re being performative,” she explained. “Even the way of gathering, and all the symbolism used — I know it’s quite upsetting — but the image of people on the stairs of a capitol with guns and in masks is a very performative image.”
Even though a majority of Americans may respect the purpose of stay-at-home orders, by channeling a certain conception of American culture and identity through guns and flags and MAGA hats — encouraged by the head of state himself, who as a germaphobe clearly has no intention of ever being in attendance of these rallies — the organizers of these protests have in effect shaped the policies set by elected officials in states like Ohio or Texas, where leaders are flouting the guidance of health officials in anticipation of reopening of their economies.
But Rodriguez shifted focus to the image we all saw over the weekend of healthcare workers standing as silent sentinels in the midst of right-wing protests. “Talk about a counterperformance! And how they were able to, just a few nurses, to really… I mean they were wearing their garb, right? I’m always thinking about how do we replicate that, how do we change the conversation through these memorable moments in which we help people feel and see something that they can align with.”
While artists are well-suited to take on the task of creating impact for audiences, the healthcare workers’ actions are a testament to how everyday people also have incredible power and influence. And this is reason enough to show up on Earth Day, virtually, from wherever you are in the world. Especially when you stand to benefit or hurt the most from future policies surrounding climate change.
“Those of us who are losing people and who belong to communities who disproportionately are facing loss, we have to find a way to tell our stories in a way that is compelling,” said Rodriguez.
Join Rodriguez and countless other climate activists through the Earth Day Live 2020 livestream as they join with the youth-led Future Coalition to address the climate crisis through the power of striking, divesting, and voting. Rodriguez will be sharing a live message tomorrow 4/23 at 12:30 ET with Earth Day Live 2020, but you’ll find plenty of inspiration through her homepage and IG account @favianna1, as well as the homepage for The Center for Cultural Power and its IG account @culturestrike.