At the workshop, surrounded by a small gathering of people holding colorful hand-scrawled signs, Lupe Mendez, poet and self-proclaimed “Librotraficante,” reflected on his adventure as a book smuggler of sorts. Back in 2012, when the Arizona education authorities sought to crack down on a Chicano-focused ethnic studies program in public schools, he and other activists launched a campaign to “traffic” the contraband literature—works by radical authors, poets of color, and other rebel storytellers. Now before his fellow workshop participants, Mendez held up a simple placard displaying block-print alphabet in black and blue letters. He voiced his answer to the prompt for the workshop: getting people to think about why telling stories is important.
“See the letters below?” Mendez said. “This is my ‘why’: I want to share, discover the ways to tell the stories, create the voices of color that our histories need, and to build a Librotraficante Nation.”
The participants in the workshop at the Facing Race Conference, “Stepping Up Cultural Strategy: How can Racial Justice Rise Above the Noise?” focused on building out that storyline, the “why” that activists are questing for. The theme was the core of our “cultural strategy”: “the potential of arts experiences and cultural content to shift how people feel, think, and communicate about an issue.
Our media landscape is flooded with all sorts of faddish storytelling projects, twitter campaigning and viral videos, but the signal-to-noise ratio can be overwhelming. When it comes to wrestling with the dividing lines that strafe our communities–the colorline, the southwestern border, the threshold of going from undocumented to documented–claiming our own space often means drawing a different storyline, all our own.
At this workshop, CultureStrike’s Julio Salgado and Will Coley tried to set up a creative platform for people to merge visual and audio narratives. With simple art supplies, people expressed themselves with signs that mixed text with sketches—and they recorded their explanations of their work with audioselfies.
Many seemed to find the experiment in self-expression to be inspiring, allowing them to creatively explore questions about themselves and the purpose of their activism. But some expressed a pensiveness, sometimes a frustration, about what wasn’t being said and what they weren’t hearing in the mainstream discourse on race, gender, immigration and emancipation.
Shane Bernardo of Detroit talked about the two faces of storytelling, and the need to navigate that fine line between elucidating and masking reality: “The stories have the power to heal, and to normalize our own oppression,” he remarked, noting that in the mainstream political discourse,
[stories of] cultural appropriation, gentrification, economic foreclosure and austerity [are] the stories that are dominant in the media: that nothing exists here. This neocolonial narrative, that we can just impose our will upon the land and the people there. And so we have to very vigilant about the stories that we tell ourselves because it internalizes our own oppression.
Lynn Hoare, who works with the Performing Justice Project, devoted to fostering youth activism through the arts:
Our eyes need art. I think our bodies need to be involved in making art. I think when young people use art they reach each other in a different way, they connect across boundaries that they thought were much more solid, and they see each other differently.
Our eyes may need art, but art needs our eyes, too.
Michelle Willis talked about how her indigenous background gave her a perspective that transcended history, particularly the conventional histories that are tube-fed to school children in order to blot out the still-living legacies of native dispossession, survival and empowerment.
You have heard ‘history’ of us, but that is not our story. It’s time for all of us to hear, what is never told…. There is so much in our curriculum at school, and the things that people learn about who we are, and [from] where we’ve come, and the fact that we’re still here, that is so untold.
You can say that again.
Hear and see all the audio selfies: