SPOTLIGHT: TODAY’S ACTIVISTS TALK BACK

How did you get started on your path to Activism?

Given the story, or the series of events that shaped my young life, activism wasn’t something I was even introduced to until 18 or 19 years old. Simultaneously while I was going through foster care, group homes, etcetera… my father was in jail. I actually met my dad for the very first time through a glass wall. One thing I didn’t know was that while he was in prison he was educating himself on how people who were turning to communities from incarceration could make a major impact on their community, both socially and politically. So when he came home I was in juvenile detention and while I was going through my troubles as a teenager he was steadily climbing the political ladder. In Philadelphia he worked with Mayor John Street who had really taken an interest in how can ex-offenders play a role in re-shaping society once they come home, from voting rights to tax credits for companies that hire ex-offenders to my father actually helping then-Mayor John Street create the first in history Mayor’s Office of Ex-Offender Re-entry. I just want to put in an asterisk that despite all these accolades that he acquired that doesn’t automatically equate to him being a good dad. I just always want to put that in context.

So the first time I came home I was fifteen going on sixteen, my father was out (of prison) and in a halfway house. I was staying with my grandmother. And because of the court order between my dad and I, the child abuse that happened when I was a kid, I wasn’t supposed to see him. However, as a kid you don’t really understand all of that. I just wanted to see my dad. He was in a halfway house not far from my grandmother’s house. So I got re-arrested a month probably after that and that’s when I got sent away for another two years. When I say his political activism didn’t equate to him being a good dad… he never came to see me either time when I was in juvenile detention and he was home. Just to be clear. I still love him, but that’s the truth. So again he was becoming what he ultimately would become. Did a great job. Really helped to start a conversation on a federal and local level on this inclusive political economy for ex-offenders trying to get back into communities. Through that process, when I finally came home, I met so many people he was working with at the time, from political leaders to community organizations. This was his thing. Every day he was out there in the streets fighting for ex-offenders and I was meeting a lot of people as he climbed this political ladder.

I met a guy named William Mackey. He ended up in a lot of trouble but one thing that he always did was try to help young people. He had a program called Citywide Youth Leadership Agency. So he had a whole bunch of people from the “hood” doing these programs with young people from the neighborhood, taking them on field trips, sports programs, keeping them out of trouble after school, teaching them how to get involved with the political process. So through that venue I actually learned about what activism was. But that was when I was 17 and 18 years old. 

And then I have to mention Bill Lynch and Hazel Dukes. You think about black politics… Bill was the cultivator. He ran Mayor David Dinkins campaign to become the first black mayor, Shirley Chisholm when she ran for president, Jesse Jackson, Charlie Rangel’s career. He brought Nelson Mandela to America. So I met Bill and he took me under his wing. Because of him I am what I am today. Because of him I think what I think of today. Because of him I was introduced to how to use creativity and the arts to impact social issues around the world. Yes, I’ve done the work but Bill transformed my heart and he transformed my mind. And he gave me a purpose. Taught me to use my anger and my trauma as a tool to help other people not go through what I went through. Hazel Dukes, the president of the New York State NAACP, was his “partner” so he asked her to assume the responsibility of helping me be re-taught how to live. And she’s done that successfully. Even though she’s 89 years old, she still does that. She was like my mom and he was like my father.

Did the well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement inspire you as well? Or did you not really connect to those names and that time period growing up?

Of course in school and juvenile detention and foster homes they always exalted the same people, Dr. King, Rosa Parks. But where I grew up that was really foreign to people like us. We were so concerned about survival, where we were going to eat, where we were going to sleep and live, how we were going to get clothes so we didn’t go to school looking like a bum, if we got teased or got into a fight… those were the kinds of things that were going through our minds. Society always pushes out the most popular people in history at the time. Clearly with social media I know tons of people now but then it was the same five or ten people that would be pushed in your face constantly. But again we didn’t care about Dr. King, we cared about how we were going to survive. So at that time I wasn’t influenced by Civil Rights anything.

What kind of differences do you think social media today makes in the Movement? 

I think that’s a three-headed question and it probably has ten answers but I only have maybe two. But I think that in the age now where you do have so much… well, I want to put an asterisk now on what I’m about to say because it doesn’t fit every community. You talk about this access to technology and the internet but little do we realize that we are privileged, those people who can walk around with an Iphone and a Mac book. There are a lot of communities in general who don’t even have that. So they’re still behind in terms of having the access to information that we do that makes us stronger because of it. There are so many people who don’t. I would love someone to focus on capturing all the places in America and in the world where they don’t have access to phones and computers and Google. 

But to your question, the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s great to have these tools at our fingertips to be able to talk about, highlight, express, research, point out, amplify, educate, through social media and technology. But I think there are positives and negatives. Certainly there’s been great successes in terms of several Movements that have benefitted from such tools to amplify what they’re fighting for. But the consequence of it is… as human beings, as people, inside of all of us there is this space where we want to feel accepted and important. So you have a dynamic where… and this is no knock on anybody, this is just my truth… one day I could be the nameless Marvin Bing and have two Twitter followers, and if I tweet or photograph something that people take interest in, now I become an on-line hero and all I did was do what… if I’m in the Movement… I should be doing anyway -- which is advocating and fighting for my community. 

The success of that is there are so many people that now have a voice in the on-line space. But I would hope having a voice on line doesn’t (supplant) having a voice in real life communities. I do think a consequence is that there are many people that are fighting to be in front of this on-lone social space and they are sometimes cutting each other at the knees or cutting each other’s heads off. 

Still in terms of access to information, it’s been a huge positive especially to the black and Latino community that have been denied access to information and education for so long... We are still playing catch-up but social media and technology at least are giving us a platform to catch up sooner even though we have a long way to go.

Any prediction on where this Movement is headed?

Thinking about this youth movement, this on-line movement, I really think they need to understand that just as much as you want to wake up and tweet you should be willing to do equal time and work in an actual communities talking to real life people who may or may not have access to your Twitter handle or Snapchat. Right? If I could go to Ferguson and tweet all day I should be able to go to a housing project in Harlem and have a community forum talking directly to my peers about what happened in Ferguson, what’s happening in New York, and how they could organize, how they could take action. People now think they’re making a difference because they tweeted about what they felt. I’m making a difference. I’m changing the world. But you’re not. If that doesn’t translate off-line, what you do on-line, it doesn’t work. There’s a balance. There’s a partnership. But it sometimes becomes a competition. I am now famous. All I have to do is tweet to keep my fame going.

I think we’re all susceptible to this. We cannot let social media and the media make us lazy toward the communities that we live in.

We also need to understand that the legislative process is the way we make these changes. So as much as the movement is about ending police brutality, ending mass incarceration, we have to take that same energy and fight to make sure our communities are registered to vote and are educated when voting. The on-line community needs to go off-line and find that counterbalance. And the two communities need to form a partnership in order for the Movement to survive.

Can you explain why you chose to focus on art and social justice as National Director for Art for Amnesty?

Today, the Human Rights landscape is one of signs and symbols, stories and visuals. Responding to this terrain, there has been an upsurge in the use of creative, artistic, and cultural strategies as a tool for social change. This practice goes by many names: art, activist art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, and social practice art. No matter what you call it, artists have always used their creative skills to wage battles for social change around the world.