Without Joy, Nothing is Sustainable: The Artist First-Responders Waking Up Democracy with Play, Billboards, and Capes

For Freedoms, the artist cooperative, is bringing joy and creativity to the social justice movement.
Wide Awake WomynPhoto by Benjamin Lozovsky (@lozophoto)

Things are scary right now. As a writer and creative, I sometimes wonder what art can really do in the face of a democracy that seems to be slipping into the grip of totalitarianism, a raging pandemic, unprecedented environmental devastation, widespread racial and economic injustice, and so many other forms of violence and oppression.

Wrapped around the cold core of fear in my stomach, I often find a blanket of numbness, swaddling me with to-do lists, glassy-eyed Netflix binges, and my endless, glittering Twitter feed. The election is in a mere 32 days. At a time when I should feel most activated, why am I so paralyzed?

Theologian, writer, and activist Christena Cleveland says that this sense of hopelessness in the face of collective suffering is often a symptom of immense privilege. Sometimes our hopelessness is tied to believing it’s possible to avoid, escape, or anesthetize systemic or societal pain. She urges witnessing and connecting to that pain, rather than trying to transcend it.

But the thing about connecting to pain and engaging in activism is that neither is ever done. After one action, there’s always the next one to plan. Participation and education are ongoing, as is healing. After reading adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism, I’ve been asking more questions about the need for joy as part of an activist practice, and how we might better center creativity and play so that we can nurture the inner resources to keep showing up instead of burning out or going numb.

Struggling with hopelessness in my activism was part of why I was so delighted to encounter the work—or perhaps I should say play—of The Wide Awakes. A loose, “open-source” artist collective that grew out of, and in collaboration with, the political arts nonprofit For Freedoms, they know that joy and play are some of the most potent tools in an activist’s kit. Their actions include block parties, flowered thrones, fringed masks, and brightly colored capes, in addition to national billboard campaigns with the likes of Ai Wei Wei, Gina Belafonte, the Guerrilla Girls, Maggie Rogers, and Meena Harris. Their chapters span the U.S. and have popped up abroad in Berlin, Tokyo, and Cuba.

graphic poster of eyes with text saying "Eyes open. Cape on. 2020. Joy is coming."

The Wide Awakes have become active within the last year, while For Freedoms was founded in 2016 by artists Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Gottesman, Wyatt Gallery, and Michelle Woo as the first artist-run super-pac. Now a nonprofit, For Freedoms has produced numerous nationwide initiatives, including a national congress this February which drew more than 500 participants. Gina Belafonte, Executive Director of Sankofa.org and a Contributing Artist to both organizations, says part of the genesis of For Freedoms was to build a network of artist “first responders” who could bring awareness and attention to important political issues.

The current Wide Awakes draw their name and inspiration from a band of abolitionist dreamers who supported the presidential bid of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. They dressed in shiny oilcloth capes and carried silver lanterns, and their rallies turned out tens of thousands of people marching in military-style formation to brass bands. Their style and enthusiasm inspired waves of voters, making that presidential election the second-highest voter turnout in U.S. history.

I had the pleasure of interviewing For Freedoms Producer and Contributing Artist taylor brock, Executive Director and Contributing Artist Claudia Peña, and Gina Belafonte, Executive Director of Sankofa.org and a member and Contributing Artist of the Wide Awakes. Our conversation covered the intersection of art, politics, and social justice, their vision for a wide awake nation, and the actions they’re launching on October 3rd. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Brooklyn Carnival 2020Photo by Benjamin Lozovsky
Brooklyn Carnival 2020Photo by Benjamin Lozovsky

Can you talk more about the original Wide Awakes of 1860 and why they inspired you? The current Wide Awakes movement has been referred to as a “remix” of the earlier one. What ways does this current iteration feel similar and also different?


We look very different from the original Wide Awakes: our Wide Awakes is full of BIPOC. You have a much better chance of diversifying your perspectives, ideas, values, and the things that you bring to the table when you have a diversity of folks from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Octavia Butler said, “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are many suns.” We are doing something connected to what the folks in the 1860s were doing, but it’s also very different, because it’s a new sun, it's a new framework of existence in this country. We think about mass incarceration. We think about access to housing. We want to be clear that joy is a form of resistance. We’re concerned with access to voting. We’re concerned with representation and ensuring that the needs of people’s communities are being addressed in political spheres. We’re concerned with gender rights and safety for women and trans people. All of this is still part of liberation and freedom for people, which I think the original Wide Awakes were thinking about. But now in 2020, those needs are slightly different.


Writing about the Wide Awakes of the 1860s, historian Jon Grinspan says that “By the end of 1860, the nation was wide awake.” Are you hoping this movement goes beyond the 2020 election? What could a “wide awake” nation look like today?


We don’t just want people to be wide awake until November 3rd. We believe that, no matter who is elected, the work is not done or even near done. We need to solve problems by imagining the most vulnerable people and building systems around them. If you’re taking into account the needs of the most vulnerable, everybody else will benefit. That’s part of what we’re thinking about post-election: how are we going to address environmental justice, climate change, and our health care system? Obamacare was great, but it’s not enough. We see that very clearly with COVID-19 particularly impacting Black people. At the beginning of the pandemic, people were talking about it as the great equalizer, because it doesn’t see race. Well, hell yeah it does! Racism always plays a role. Our healthcare system is also infected by racism, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.


For Freedoms and the Wide Awakes center play and joy as an essential part of your approach to activism. One of your values is to “play an infinite game,” and you use the hashtag #joyiscoming. Increasingly, joy seems to be part of the conversation around activism, from the Black Joy Project to adrienne maree brown’s book Pleasure Activism. Can you speak more to the role of joy, both in the context of For Freedoms/Wide Awakes, and also as part of a larger approach to activism?


There’s a tremendous amount of trauma in the world. I think a way for us to heal is to find ways to celebrate ourselves. Many of us find healing in ancestral practice, rituals, and traditions that may have been lost in some spaces. In an effort to bring some of those back, it’s very prideful and very joyful to express them artistically, whether that’s through music, dance, or cultural ritual practice, as well as developing new rituals. Sankofa is a Ghanaian word that means “go back and get it.” We have to reach back in order to move forward in some ways. Art has the capacity to bring us joy.

Sankofa is a Ghanaian word that means “go back and get it.” We have to reach back in order to move forward in some ways. Art has the capacity to bring us joy.

When you experience stress, your body releases all kinds of hormones like cortisol, which your body needs to deal with stressful moments. However, when your body experiences that much damage over and over again, you’re much more prone to chronic illnesses. This is why we see that a lot of people who were civil rights and social justice advocates, who have taken the world onto their shoulders, end up dying earlier from these kinds of diseases that are a result of having experienced so much stress. People like adrienne maree brown are really pushing this idea forward that you can fight for a better world, but you can also have a good time doing it. Joy is a form of resistance. Systems of oppression are in place so that people don't have the same opportunities to enjoy life to its fullest. We want people to live, to be healthy, and be inspired to work for a better world, but it needs to be sustainable. Without joy, nothing is sustainable.

Black billboard with the text "All Li es Matter"
Hank Willis Thomas, "All Li es Matter," St. Louis, MO, in collaboration with Projects+Gallery, 2018

Can you talk more about the march on October 3rd? You’re also planning a national billboard campaign launching October 12th. Can you say more about these projects? How do you get inspiration for your actions?


Oct 3rd is a landmark date for the Wide Awakes [the date of a major march in 1860], and we’re celebrating that with different activations throughout the country, and a big march in New York City. We want to raise awareness and get out the vote. Participate however you want to, join in and become a Wide Awake, because you already are!


The billboard campaign is one of my favorite projects because it makes art the most accessible. Billboards are generally by the road. Who isn’t out there driving or walking somewhere? As much as I love museums, galleries, and all the other spaces where art exists, the billboard seems like the great equalizer: everyone has access to it. The history of billboards is so fascinating too. Billboards have hosted art in public spaces for centuries. It’s also a chance for a lot of artists to be doing something side by side, but with their own unique expression.


Does art create change in a way that other forms of activism or political dialogue can’t?


Art asks questions, it encourages us to engage, to think, to create, to imagine, to experience, to pause, to listen, to feel. Wouldn't it be pretty amazing if everything else did that too?


I’m an attorney. I’ve worked on policy for a long time, and done advocacy and activism for more than 25 years. I can tell you that the only thing that changes people’s hearts and minds, which is what you need in order for there to be social justice, is storytelling. And the best storytellers are artists. I can put up graphs or statistics, and show all sorts of research that will prove that we need better healthcare or housing. People don’t really care about that. Overwhelmingly, people want a good story. They want their heart to be impacted.

I’m an attorney. I’ve worked on policy for a long time, and done advocacy and activism for more than 25 years. I can tell you that the only thing that changes people’s hearts and minds, which is what you need in order for there to be social justice, is storytelling.

You list a variety of ways that people can get involved, from sharing art, to attending the October 3rd event. How else would you encourage people to participate in this movement for the long haul, not just around the election?


To participate in the movement is to choose creativity over feasibility, inclusion over separation, envisioning over reacting, nuance over binary, action over apathy, and love over rules.


More often than not after someone engages in the arts, there is a healthier, more positive feeling afterwards, even if the art you’re witnessing challenges emotions or thoughts that you might have held previously. For those of us in For Freedoms, the Wide Awakes, and Sankofa.org, this is what brings us joy. We’ll continue to invite people to come and join us, to participate, to engage, and to bring who they are, to see how we can all heal. There’s so much healing needed. There’s a lot of work we need to do individually and internally, and there’s also a lot of work we need to do together. That’s what these organizations do.


Have conversations with other people about issues you care about. Especially when it comes to being civically engaged or how to practice your civic joy. There are places where voting is a celebration, not just after your candidate has won, but beforehand. That’s one of the things that we’re trying to promote, is this idea of civic joy: celebrating participation through voting, talking about voting, and encouraging others to vote.

Change the frequency.
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