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"Every major social movement throughout time has integrated creativity/art and activism." (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo/MamiGibbs)

"Every major social movement throughout time has integrated creativity/art and activism." (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo/MamiGibbs)

The Arts and Culture of a Just Transition

A just transition means moving towards a regenerative economy, characterized by explicit anti-racist, anti-poverty, feminist, intersectional approaches to living.

We are in a time of transition. A global pandemic has killed over 3 million people across the globe, with nearly a fifth of those deaths in the United States alone. Across the board, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted lower-income and communities of color. The World Health Organization points to the inequity of vaccine distribution as a "moral outrage," and "self-defeating."

Our economy is no longer compatible with continued life on earth. We have hit our planetary boundaries.

While these statistics are striking, they are rooted in systemic inequities and trends that long preceded the COVID-19 pandemic. A central feature of the failed neoliberal experiment was the understanding that inequality of wealth and rights was accepted as a feature and force of economic growth, as Shoshanna Zuboff articulated in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. In fact, our neoliberal economic system requires a continual supply of cheap land, natural resources, and labor to generate never ending economic growth and extreme profits for the few. At its root, our "extractive economy" is underpinned by a worldview rooted in consumption and colonialism, using resources that have to be dug, dumped, then burned, and ardently supported and defended by militarism.

Our economy is no longer compatible with continued life on earth. We have hit our planetary boundaries. The answer is in the unknown, but far from colonizing Mars our future lies in our own creative practices rooted in a framework of just transition. As environmental justice group Movement Generation says, transition is inevitable, but justice is not. A just transition means moving towards a regenerative economy, characterized by explicit anti-racist, anti-poverty, feminist, intersectional approaches to living. Rather than exploiting labor for the profit of a few, it relies upon cooperation and collaboration for the benefit of all. Its purpose is ecological and societal well-being, it is governed by deep democracy, has a worldview of sacredness and care, and approaches resources with a similarly regenerative mindset. Visual artist Micah Bazant created this chart helping us visualize this, and the rest of this article is dedicated to showing how artists, cultural workers, and creative people are deeply engaged in our just futures.

Take a look at this. Next week Mural Arts Philadelphia is dedicating an entire Symposium to conversations at the intersection of art and environmental justice, through a just transition framework. Some of the speakers include, Sins Invalid, a disability justice performance group led by QTBIPOC artists, whose most recent performance before the pandemic lock-down was title "We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos" which was embodied practice of storytelling that "centers our communities in the throes of climate chaos and our agonized planet." Sipp Culture, leading in equitable food futures in Mississippi and beyond will be in conversation with Indigenous artists, activists and farmers from Three Sisters Collective and Alas de Agua Collective in O'ga P'ogeh, Santa Fe, New Mexico who recently founded Full Circle Farm.

In a recent piece for The Center for Cultural Power Alexis Frasz wrote, "If we want a just transition, we need transformational cultural strategies." In it, she highlights the powerful role culture can play in not only waking people up to the crises we face, but also helping people move through the transformational process to build a better world together. First, by feeling and healing the harm that has been caused, and continues to be caused, by systems of exploitation, violence and hoarding, that most significantly impact people of color and poor communities. Second, by imagining a new way of living, and living together. The good news - artists specialize in imagination, it's kind of their thing. Third, creating (and iterating) new. Stepping into the unknown, and behaving in entirely new ways, as individuals, communities, and societies.

Director and Co-Founder of the Center for Artistic Activism, Steve Lambert reminds us, "Every major social movement throughout time has integrated creativity/art and activism," and this is no less true today. The role of art in resistance movements is clear. It was a core component of the Black Panther Party, who's former Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas, readily drew upon transnational and transcultural solidarity as an inspiration for his work. In Take Care of Your Self. The Art and Cultures of Care and Liberation. Sundus Abdul Hadi shares how through his commitment to Black liberation, Douglas readily encountered and collaborated with liberation struggles across the globe, namely the Zapatistas, the Organization of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Actually, look at this incredibly recent example, Mexico's Indigenous Zapatistas Are Planning to Invade Spain by Boat, Kind Of. They have already set sail with a trans woman, four women, and two men, and hope to arrive in August, where they will engage in learning sessions to share their vision to combat the inequalities rooted in capitalism, they have meetings planned with NGO's and various organizations throughout Europe, the first stop on their world tour. The Zapatistas rose to prominence in direct response to disastrous and extractive North-American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and have been "iterating new" ever since, through autonomous and collaborative community building and care. They even invite others to come and learn from their praxis too.

Taking a step back to look at creative and impactful policies. More and more cities are experimenting with Universal Basic Income as a means of closing gaps in social and economic equity, successful pilots of the program have existed since the 1960's both internationally and within the U.S. and point to the health and well being of communities. This is not a new or novel conversation. Specifically, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some cities specifically have intentionally worked with arts and culture organizations like Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, CA in centralizing the essential role of artists, particularly BIPOC artists, in the economic recovery of the City. 

As we continue the frontline battle against COVID-19, communities and the culture bearers that are so deeply embedded within communities are acutely aware of the deep shifts that need to occur for communities to feel healthy and safe in the future. There is no going back to the way things were before, it was killing us. Not only have they been telling us, but they've been showing us the future.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Sepideah Mohsenian-Rahman

Sepideah Mohsenian-Rahman is a cultural and social worker caring for people and the planet, she engages in meaningful creative curation with Mural Arts Philadelphia and 12Gates Gallery, and formerly served as the Program Director of US Santa Barbara’s MultiCultural Center. Currently, she is studying liberatory community herbalism at the People’s Medicine School in Ithaca, New York, which builds upon her training as a doula, MSW from Columbia University, and degrees in International Peace and Conflict Resolution, and Religious Studies from American University. 

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