Climate Strikes to the Green New Deal: Arts Organizing to Protect the Planet

IHP Climate Change Program Students volunteer, making art for Climate Strikes. (Photo: Peter Menchini)

Climate Strikes to the Green New Deal: Arts Organizing to Protect the Planet

"We need more than dire warnings about the future. We need artists to create images of the better and more beautiful world we want to build."

We are a few days from the Global Climate Strike--the largest climate action ever (this is our time to step up--find your local action and ways to be involved here). We are also witnessing a rising long-term movement for a Green New Deal in the U.S., and similar solutionary initiatives around the world.

"It is with great respect and dignity as artists that we share our visions and hearts to the world. The power of uniting people through art for change is no doubt one of the most important acts on the planet." --Isaac MurdochI have witnessed that using arts in the center of organizing, strategy and campaigns, not only gives our movements spirit and heart, but it's also essential to win.

Arts organizing--using the arts to educate, organize, and take action with our communities--is at the center of much of the organizing on every continent.

Here is a link to the Climate Strikes Arts Kit--where anyone can download, read how-to's, and learn organizing tips--and below are some notes on what I am seeing and hearing.

We Rise Like the Sea

Yesterday we held an art build to support San Francisco Bay Area groups preparing for the climate strike. "Art builds," making art together--sometimes on a large scale, have become a common part of preparing for mobilizations--from the climate justice movement to the teachers' strikes.

Isabella came to the art build with a team of high school strike organizers--Alameda Island Youth. They painted a "We Rise Like the Sea" banner and helped make signs and posters to use for their school strike. I asked her on instagram why they had made such an effort to create art for their strike. She said, "I believe that art is a way to really translate the feeling we want people to have when they are seeing or experiencing an activist movement. Art naturally invokes lots of emotion for many people. Groups of people can show the heartbreak, anger, and also hope and empowerment they are feeling to others who aren't experiencing the same thing in a way that makes a lot of sense."

Dresses, Parachutes, and Banners

Amy Gray is a community organizer from Colorado Springs with 350 Colorado.

She has been helping with coordinating and tracking all the U.S. strikes. This morning she wrote, "Monday morning update and it's HUGE!!! 812 events!" I asked her about the role of arts. She wrote back on Messenger, "Climate Strike organizing utilizes art in every facet of our strikes organizing, from red dresses that will be hung down the 16th street mall as a week long art installation to bring light to MMIW [Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women] to painting parachutes and banners with our youth organizers."

It fosters an incredible community amongst our multigenerational coalition.

Cormorant, Raven, and Red-Winged Black Bird

Artist-activist Emily Thiessen from British Columbia created and shared a set of climate strike designs based on local birds. She writes, "I made these posters just to make the call for the global climate strike more beautiful and irresistible in my city! It will feel like a real movement is underfoot when the streets are full of art calling for revolutionary change. The bird poster features birds that are native to where I live on Lekwungen Territories/Victoria BC: Cooper's Hawk, Anna's Hummingbird, cormorant, raven, and red-winged blackbird. They also represent people power to move together."

A Tide That Won't Recede

New York City arts organizer Cata Romo had been co-organizing art builds to prepare for their Sept 20 mass student-led strike Cata says, "We need arts organizing to win because if we can't imagine a different world, we won't have one. In New York City this week for Climate Strikes, we are inspired by Dominican poet Elizabeth Acevedo and local artist, sara abdullah, to imagine ourselves as a tide that won't recede. We: youth, people of color, queer and many gendered people, migrants--we are here to change the course of history."

Climate Emergency Volunteer Fire Dept.

Washington DC is one of the cities that will host an escalated action in the week after Sept 20. Shut Down DC-Climate Strike Washington, DC writes, "Youth leaders from around the world have called for a climate strike and global week of action from September 20th-27th. They have been taking the lead so far, but now they are calling on all of us to take action. In DC we will be answering the call in a major way: On September 23rd, we are going to shut down DC. Can you join us?"

Cesar Maxit, a designer, street artist and organizer with Extinction Rebellion DC, has created a set of Volunteer Fire Dept-looking "Climate Emergency" stencils and posters--which are being used in the streets of DC and shared globally in the Climate Strike Art Kit. Cesar explains the design, "I think volunteer firefighters represent some of our highest values and instincts. They are society's unassailable heroes who are tough and courageous enough to enter burning buildings and versatile enough to deliver babies and help cats down from trees. All this and not for private profit, but for the public good and our communal defense. I want climate justice activists and organizers everywhere to feel inspired and honored by the call to action."

Disrupt & Create: Arts and Direct Action

Similar mass disruptive actions following the Sept 20 strike day will take place across the U.S., many of them centering arts. In Seattle, people shut down numerous JPMorgan Chase branches. In Minnesota, ten thousand will march to stop the Line 3 pipeline. In New England activists have promised to shut down the region's last coal-fired power plant

A network of 350 local groups issued a joint call for a "week of escalated, disruptive resistance." They write:

"It now looks like September 20th will be the world's largest ever climate mobilization. But it's important to remember that the vision--the call from the youth that started it all--was never for a single day of action. The youth leaders did not ask us to walkout for a single day and then all go home and pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done. What these remarkable youth leaders asked us to do was to 'kickstart a week of climate action with a worldwide strike for the climate.' It was to use September 20th to 'unleash mass resistance' in the week afterwards, a week during which the United Nations and world leaders are gathering in New York to talk about the global response to the climate emergency."

Disrupt the Suites, Create in the Streets

In San Francisco, the center for corporate power and finance in the Western North America, hundreds will risk arrest in mass nonviolent direct action to blockade Wall St West (led by the Society of Fearless Grandmothers and 1000 Grandmothers), disrupting the Wells Fargo Bank headquarters and corporations profiting from wrecking the planet. People will then paint two blocks of non-toxic clay and tempera paint street murals showing solutions to climate chaos and injustice, each designed and painted by a different community organization. This Bay Area-initiated giant street mural tradition, which created five blocks of climate justice street murals last year.

Strike for Us

I asked Peace Poet Frankie Lopez about this song and why song and arts matter for the climate strike. He wrote back on Instagram:

"Our climate strike song came from a Fridays for Future art build gathering in NYC where we went around and discussed why we were showing up for our planet and our communities. We spoke about how to call folks in in a good way that would inspire them to stand up and remember where they came from. We believe that songs sung in the spirit of climate justice are a melodic recommitment to each other and our planet, a polyphonic pledge and promise to those not yet born; a harmonizing of our humanity and an attunement to one another's ability to rise like the oceans toward our collective liberation."


We gonna strike cuz the water is rising
We gonna strike
Cuz our people are dying
We're gonna strike for life
And everything we love
We're gonna - Strike for you
Will you strike for us?!
We're gonna - strike for you
Will you strike for us?!

Many in the climate justice movements know the Peace Poets' now classic song Voice of My Great Granddaughter ("People gonna rise like the water..."). While song leading and sharing skills with climate strikers in Minnesota, Frankie said in an interview with MinnPost,

"The songwriting energy comes from the organizing meetings, in the hearts of people who are getting ready for direct action, so it's a nice song but it's not just something to be just listened to, or relaxed to. It's more so intended for the purpose of motivating and gathering and remembering and definitely moving the hearts of people who otherwise might not be moved.It's just another tool for organizers and community activists to have in their tool belt, in the same way that all the artists around the world right now are creating incredible art that identifies not only the problems, but also gives solutions."

Green New Deal -- Signs of the Times

One of the strongest examples of the use of creatively designed hand-crafted art for organizing and action is in the Sunrise Movement, with simple, poetic and often hand-stenciled yellow and black signs reading "What is Your Plan?", "Be Brave," "For the Places We Call Home," "For the People We Love," and "This is an Emergency: Act Like It."

Meanwhile Greenpeace Canada, who learned street mural painting from Bay Area arts organizers, are training communities across Canada on how to paint Green New Deal street murals in the lead up to Canada elections. Greenpeace Quebec arts organizer Isabelle L'Heritier says, "We are using art as a catalyst for action. To reclaim and beautify public space for the common good!"

I asked the Labor Network for Sustainability--who are building for the long haul with communities and organized workers to win a Green New Deal if they would work together with on creating a set of artist designed signs and an art kit to help center arts in the fight for a Green New Deal (for those not part of the Sunrise Movement). Their leadership--which includes musician-organizers Michael Leon Guerrero and Joe Uehlein--immediately said yes, and understand the need for arts resources to support effective organizing.

Uehlein, writing about the need for Green New Deal arts, explained, "The writer Bertolt Brecht wrote, 'Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.' That is true, but only partly true. Art is both. Especially today, with our attention captured by fragmented soundbites and speeded-up attention-getters, it is really important to do things that invite contemplation and thoughtfulness. Art invites that. Art that reflects reality can push the right buttons in people that help them become hammers to shape it differently. Art can reflect reality and help people to become the hammers that shape reality in different ways. Ways that call into question the existing order of things - and suggest ways to change it."

That Green New Deal Arts Kit is out in time for the Climate Strike, with easy-to-use (download color or black and white) art designs from five of the most engaged artists in North America.

Muralist-illustrator-activist Mona Caron writes about her design, "This remix of the classic Rosie The Riveter image calling for a Green New Deal, implies that 'We can do it!'--now as much as back then. It's possible, it's urgent, and we're ready to roll up our sleeves."

Green New Deal Arts designer, Ricardo Levins Morales explains why art is needed, "Humans are story-driven. We make choices according to how we understand the world to be. Art speaks directly to those deep inner spaces where the stories are stored. I use art to support people's ability to believe in possibilities that go beyond the boundaries that are acceptable to the rulers."

At its most powerful, the Green New Deal is a practical, positive vision of a better world that we can unite our communities around. Molly Crabapple writes, "We need more than dire warnings about the future. We need artists to create images of the better and more beautiful world we want to build."

Isaac Murdoch, whose Thunderbird Woman and other designs have been carried into action at Standing Rock and across North American Indigenous and climate fights, writes, "It is with great respect and dignity as artists that we share our visions and hearts to the world. The power of uniting people through art for change is no doubt one of the most important acts on the planet."

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