Reclaiming the Artist: Organizing through Art, Part 3

by Jessica Lawless

Part 1, Part 2

March and puppetry at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Photo by Jennie Smith-Camejo.

March and puppetry at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. Photo by Jennie Smith-Camejo.

No Justice No Service was held ten days after National Adjunct Walkout Day (NAWD) and just over a month before the nationwide Fight for Fifteen day of action on 4/15. This was strategic. Bay Area #NAWD was organized to bring together the adjunct and the fast food workers’ fights against income inequality. We did turn out for No Justice No Service during NAWD, letting folks know there was a follow-up event to keep up our momentum. Similarly, No Justice No Service was another opportunity to bring together adjunct faculty and fast food workers while ensuring turnout for the 4/15 day of action.

In early 2015, Black Lives Matter activists in Oakland launched Black Brunches. Black activists walked into restaurants in gentrified—predominantly white—neighborhoods and read aloud names of black trans and cis folks murdered by state-sanctioned violence. During No Justice No Service, several of the Black artists staged a Black Brunch style intervention. Lukaza Verrisimo- Branfman, a CCA student, wrote a special roll call naming fallen labor activists alongside the names of Black people murdered since the beginning of 2015. As a non-black person standing in that art gallery, I found it chilling to embody the sensations of sorrow, helplessness, anger, and confusion about my role in the face of the violence she had referenced. It was a moment to confront what we are doing to ensure Black lives do, in fact, matter.

No Justice No Service was the first time the bargaining teams of the five newly unionized Bay Area colleges came together face to face. This was strategic for metro organizing. The bargaining teams gave joint updates on each of their school’s progress. The contingent faculty on stage, many of them new activists, were given a round of applause welcoming them into the broader labor and social justice movements of the Bay Area.

Print-in at California College of the Arts Oakland Campus with SFAI & CCA students. Photo by Jessica Lawless

Print-in at California College of the Arts Oakland Campus with SFAI & CCA students. Photo by Jessica Lawless

Students participated as equal artists. Zach Ozma and Grace Chen gave tarot readings. The CCA Students of Color Coalition restaged a sculpture they made during the organizing campaign: a wall with large text reading “Stay Neutral” that had originally been set up at a captive meeting held by the President and Provost. Mills MFA writing students read poetry and prose. The SFAI student group, The Poster Syndicate, held a print-in in front of the gallery.

Inspired by the Los Angeles and the Bay Area festivals, long-time adjunct activist Bri Bolin organized a day-long festival in Chicago. Fight for 2015: Chicago Art, Education, and Justice Festival was held at Columbia College on April 15, 2015, as a part of the day of action. Our networks expanded.

The Great Tortilla Conspiracy. Photo by Jennie Smith-Camejo.

The Great Tortilla Conspiracy. Photo by Jennie Smith-Camejo.

Because of the concrete organizing successes of the print-ins and No Justice No Service, art in its broadest forms was accepted as a part of organizing at our local. When we held a protest outside of SFAI’s yearly fundraising gala, it included a poetry security force; a giant puppet, St. Precaria; a performative “prayer for precarious workers;” and a brass marching band. Instead of the usual print-in, the Great Tortilla Conspiracy printed with edible ink the Dean of Faculty’s face on tortillas that were made into quesadillas that demonstrators and gala attendees ate.*

During the summer when campuses were quieter, Lauren Elder, who had worked on No Justice No Service and is part of the CCA Contract Action team (CAT); Jessica Beard, an SFAI bargaining team member; and I planned a series of creative workshops called Adjunct Action/Art in Action.  Our goal was to make clear the narrative of the “oppressed adjunct professor” was now the narrative of the “standing up and fighting back adjunct professor.” Partnering with the Center for Digital Storytelling, participants in the workshop wrote their stories of struggle as an academic. It was a cathartic experience that built genuine solidarity. We took those stories and created puppets, in workshops led by Lauren Elder, which were used at CFA and SEIU actions during the fall semester. Finally, we storyboarded an Instagram campaign for a future launch. Faculty and organizers from different schools and unions, as well as community organizers, attended the workshops. One attendee went on to become a bargaining team member at her school. Jessica Beard became an organizer with California Federation of Teacher’s higher ed campaign. And Lauren Elder was hired by the California Faculty Association (CFA) to lead a puppet-making workshop as preparation for an action.

In the fall, Local 1021 held our membership convention. I invited No Justice No Service artists to install art as a part of the convention. Alicia Bell on behalf of Black Magic Arts Collective set up altars to Black laborers. Danielle Wright created a provocative piece about Black women’s hair as it connects to concepts of labor. Catherine Powell from the Labor Archives and Research Center brought a display highlighting women organizers during the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, and Dawn Kceul from the Debt Collective and Strike Debt created an interactive project tallying the collective debt of convention attendees.

Also in the fall, two other events were organized collaboratively between SEIU Local 1021, CFA, The Labor Archives and Research Center, and The San Francisco State University Poetry Center. These were spearheaded by Steve Dickison, a poet and adjunct at CCA as well as the director of the Poetry Center, and Tanya Hollis of the Labor Archives and Research Center that is housed on San Francisco State University’s campus. The first event, Poet | Artist | Activist: Let’s Make a Plan, was held at the Labor Archives and focused on engaging students in art and activism. It featured Chris Higgenbotham, Christian Nagler, and Cassie Thornton. The other event was a panel at the Second Annual Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco.  Adjunct Action|Poets in Action featured Stephanie Young and David Buuck from Mills, Hugh Behm Steinberg from CCA, and Jessica Beard from SFAI. They each read poetry or prose about adjunct organizing in the movement. Shelia Tully from CFA and I moderated the follow up discussion.

While I was focused on the above events, Jonathan, my co-worker at SEIU, was building a coalition between AFT 2121 (San Francisco City College) CFA, SEIU 1021, and Jobs with Justice SF. They convened a hearing about the state of higher education in San Francisco. Among the many things happening that evening, the Poster Syndicate set up a print-in. The hearing resulted in an important report making recommendations to the city supervisors and SFUSD Board of Directors.

Meanwhile, our work was being noticed by SEIU International. Jonathan and I were invited to present on using art as a part of public campaigns and to support new organizing at our state-wide organizing convention.  Our work was also being noticed by other artists and curators. Cassie Thornton and I were invited to Charge 2016, “a three day convening presented by Art League Houston to 1. platform artist-led alternative models of sustainability 2. advocate for equitable compensation for artists 3. consider artists’ work in the larger economy.” We were asked to present on No Justice No Service and adjunct union organizing with artist/adjunct professors.

At Charge 2016 Cassie and I had the opportunity to explore new ways of collaborating. In addition to presenting about art as an organizing tool, we designed an organizing 101 workshop that used self-defense techniques for embodied learning. The shift in the room when we used those techniques to move from agitation to action was palpable.  It was also fun, something much needed when we are fighting the exhausting state of precarity that defines our daily experiences.

When Mills College announced severe budget cuts, Jonathan included Cassie as part of the union actions fighting the proposed department closings. She was paid for her time as artist which allowed her to pilot a new project called Institutional Dreaming, a reinterpretation of Laurie Anderson’s Institutional Dream Series. Laurie Anderson used her dreams to study the impact public institutions had on her psyche and sense of vulnerability to bureaucracies. Cassie is creating spaces for collective dreaming of utopian visions that can restructure the privatization of formerly public institutions that is putting us all in a debt crisis.

Many lifetimes ago, I co-founded a feminist self-defense organization. I revisited self-defense as community building in my MFA thesis project. An effect of learning self-defense is that the embodiment of facing ones fears and/or history of sexual and physical assault seeps into the subconscious and shifts the outcome of recurring violent dreams. Cassie and I are exploring learning organizing skills through feminist self-defense techniques and then capturing the dreaming process as a way to harness our power and shift the vulnerability we feel under neoliberalism onto the institutions. Give us a shout if you are interested in hosting a workshop!

As I wrote in the beginning of this piece, caught in the trap of adjuncting for nine years led me to believe I was no longer a practicing artist. Getting hired as a union organizer felt like the nail in that coffin. I never could have foreseen that this new career would provide opportunities to do the things I thought I’d be doing as an academic: developing my art practice, curating and programming, presenting at conferences, writing and publishing, pushing the boundaries of my field. It’s been one more lesson in NOT accepting that  you just never know what your life or your advocacy can be the catalyst for.

*To see pictures of our events go to the photo albums on the Adjunct Action Bay Area Facebook page

There are many more people who made each event and project possible. You know who you are. Know how much you are appreciated for being a part of this amazing journey.



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