Meet the Screenprinters and Artists Behind the Oakland Teachers Strike

Volunteers printed banners by hand for the Oakland teachers strike.  (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

In a parking garage below the Oakland teachers union headquarters on Sunday, dozens of volunteers labored over the banners, posters and picket signs illustrating a historic strike.

A crowd of retired and current educators, college students and district parents with their children turned out for the third “art build” supporting the Oakland Education Association, whose 3,000 members are currently on strike as the union negotiates for higher wages and smaller class sizes.

They spent the Sunday morning cutting canvas, assembling picket-signs and screen-printing images sourced from local artists, including Melanie Cervantes, Favianna Rodriguez and Micah Bazant. The dominant color was red, while the messages, rendered boldly alongside illustrations of women and backpacked children, centered on fighting for the schools teachers and students deserve.

Local artists contributed imagery for Oakland teachers strike banners.
Local artists contributed imagery for Oakland teachers strike banners. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

David Solnit, an environmental-justice organizer who’s also married to an educator in Berkeley, brought materials and helped coordinate the event. “About 15 years ago I started reaching out to artists and performers to get involved with actions because, at their core, social movements are really about storytelling,” he said. “And the arts are the most powerful way to tell stories.”

The model, common in activist circles, is gaining traction in public education advocacy. After organizing art builds in the Midwest, Joe Brusky and other workers with the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association got the attention of the National Education Association. Since, they’ve traveled to Los Angeles and Oakland to bring people together over pro-union artwork.

Dozens of volunteers turned out for the third "art build" supporting striking Oakland teachers.
Dozens of volunteers turned out for the third "art build" supporting striking Oakland teachers. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

“Generally a union gets 5,000 copies of the sign made at the union printer and everyone’s holding the same one,” said Brusky. “That can be powerful, but it’s not as connected, it’s not as grassroots as collecting multiple images from artists in the surrounding community.”

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In January, Solnit and union supporters logged three 12-hour days to produce more than a thousand posters and signs, including several enormous, hand-painted banners. The event on Sunday served a practical purpose—more signs for picketers at school sites—but it was as much about continuing to build community and momentum for the labor struggle, according to Brusky.

David Solnit, an environmental-justice organizer, co-organized the art build.
David Solnit, an environmental-justice organizer, co-organized the art build. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

“It gets artists talking about the movement to their followers, who come to the actions,” said Brusky, crediting art builds with a significant role in striking Los Angeles teachers recent victory. “I do social media for my union, but here, everyone’s doing social media for the union.”

So what makes a good pro-labor design? Some artists, he noted, worked from portraits of actual California educators. “Privatizers have made the issue of education in this country really complex,” said Brusky. “So we need to humanize and personalize the issue. In today’s world, the social media world, it’s like memes: one image with a little text goes a long way.”

Solnit brought his experience as an activist to the art build. Tall banners, seen resting against Oakland City Hall during recent rallies, were constructed similarly to ones at Standing Rock; they can withstand high-speed wind and rain. And the canvas is fairly thin, Solnit noted, the better to let backlight make the message pop. “So it’s like a stained-glass window,” he said.

Oakland teachers strike supporters rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall.
Oakland teachers strike supporters rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Solnit said he’s never seen a national union stress art in a labor struggle like the National Education Association, which is subsidizing Brusky and his fellow organizers to spread the art build model to other locals. On Sunday, it seemed to help with recruitment. For some volunteers, including a UC Berkeley student, it was with their first encounter with organized labor.

“There’s magic to seeing something on the picket line and knowing you made it,” Solnit said. “And as any teacher will you, at the end of the day humans are meant to make things together.”

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