How Artists Can Instigate Social Change, According to a New Guide

Artists Julio Salgado, whose drawing is on the left, and Sam Rodriguez make art that uplifts incarcerated people and essential workers.  (Julio Salgado/Sam Rodriguez)

Before protests condemning police brutality began across the country last week (again), portraits of recent victims of racist violence—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor—began to circulate on social media along with links to petitions, elected officials’ phone numbers and calls for justice. An illustration of Floyd by the artist Shirien Damra, flowers surrounding him, his eyes closed, gathered 3.4 million likes on her Instagram profile and was shared by users across the world.

Portraits like the ones Damra drew portray the victims with dignity, and allow concerned citizens to circulate images without sharing traumatizing photos or videos of their actual deaths. Damra’s emotionally affecting illustration, coupled with actionable information, moved people to take to the streets and call their representatives before George Floyd became a front-page news story.

That’s just one example of the ways artists can play a vital role in social movements, something the Center for Cultural Power hopes to encourage with its new toolkit, No Going Back: A COVID-19 Cultural Strategy Activation Guide for Artists and Activists. The new, free PDF guide, written by Janelle Treibitz in partnership with Tara Dorabji, Favianna Rodriguez, Haleh Hatami, Chucha Marquez and crystal marich, breaks down how artists can use their work to promote visions of a more equitable world, and how those visions can be leveraged to shift culture, move people into action, put pressure on lawmakers and inspire concrete, systemic changes.

“So often when we talk about social justice, we remain in the realm of action—and action is very important: we need to protest, we need to help shift economic policies through what we buy and don’t buy, we need to contact our elected officials, we need to take to the streets,” says Rodriguez, the Center for Cultural Power’s president. “And we also need to be shaping the ideas that shape the future. Politics is a consequence of culture. And politics reflects what we see in culture.”

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Rather than exclusively drawing attention to injustice, and flooding feeds with traumatic images of black and brown people being oppressed, No Going Back promotes the envisioning of more equitable, liberated and joyful futures where all people can thrive. The guide identifies narratives that media and pop culture are lacking—successful examples of mutual aid efforts, stories of the mostly women of color working on the front lines of the pandemic, stories that highlight strategies to expand access to voting. No Going Back offers ideas for how these narratives can manifest in artwork, whether it’s visual art, creative writing, music, video, photography, social media dance challenges or memes.

“Especially now that we are in a largely digital space, we want to share art that helps propel the imagination,” Rodriguez says. “And when people are interacting with images on their phone, they rapidly can understand and feel something that’s very different than reading a paragraph or, honestly, watching these videos [of police killings] that are very traumatic.”

Center for Cultural Power president Favianna Rodriguez.
Center for Cultural Power president Favianna Rodriguez. (Brooke Anderson)

Discussing examples of how artists have pushed progressive agendas forward, Rodriguez mentions Ryan Coogler’s 2018 film Black Panther, the #MeToo movement popularized by Hollywood actresses and Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, a symbol of anti-racism used in today’s anti-police brutality demonstrations.

But she says even artists without enormous platforms can influence their communities. Illustrator Micah Bazant, for instance, created images rallying for the release of inmates in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers to stop the spread of COVID-19, and his drawings became a digital rallying cry. “He helped propel a bunch more art that began to get more shared around the fact that people need to be released from prison [during the pandemic],” Rodriguez says. “I think this art made accessible demands that we later saw materialized.”

The United States is in crisis right now, with a public health emergency, mass unemployment and police brutality ravaging the country, and art might feel like a secondary concern to many. But Rodriguez says that she wants to encourage artists to see their higher purpose and help society imagine new ways of being.

“The overwhelm we are feeling is because of immense, immense transformation that is not going to be easy. As artists, we can hold the hardship while also holding the possibility,” she says. “We can help illuminate a path forward, but we have to do the work.”