CultureStrike: Design Activism to Impact Immigration Reform


 In such ugly times, the
only true protest is beauty. —Phil Ochs

Starting in Tunisia,
spreading to Egypt and eventually everywhere, resistance to dictators,
government policies and economic inequalities had such a global impact that Time magazine declared “The Protester” person of
the year for 2011. In the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement, an idea conceived by the Canadian activists of Adbusters, mobilized on September 17,
inspired by the Arab Spring protests.

One week earlier, in
Arizona, a group of more than 50 artists, designers, writers, musicians, and
activists gathered in Tucson to initiate the CultureStrike Coalition National Campaign against harsh immigration policies. I was part of this delegation,
organized by Bay Area activist Favianna Rodriguez, writer Jeff Chang and others. They chose Arizona because of recent
protest activity against its SB (Senate Bill) 1070 that put into place some of the most brutal methods of enforcing
immigration restrictions to date. Arizona was the site of massive protests against SB 1070 and
advocating passage of the Dream Act, which would allow conditional permanent residency for people
brought to the U.S. as minors after they lived here five years.

By mid-October many members of
the CultureStrike delegation were actively involved in Occupy Wall Street—protesting,
making posters, writing, speaking, performing, and using social media. Protests
against stricter immigration laws, massive deportations and economic inequality
overlapped in their efforts to draw national attention to everyday practices
that most affect the lower classes. One of the most resonant ideas in the
Occupy Wall Street movement is the huge disparity in wealth controlled by one
percent of the U.S. population compared to the amount held by the other 99
percent. The CultureStrike delegation wants to remind everyone that we are a
nation of immigrants, but current economic conditions promote scapegoating
undocumented workers and escalating deportations.

The catalyzing idea behind
CultureStrike was that creative producers have power in disseminating information
that might affect people’s attitudes on political and social issues, eventually
resulting in meaningful change.
Immigration issues and the economic inequalities driving the OWS movement
are on the front burner of American politics as the 2012 election approaches. Several CultureStrike designers have been using their images to raise awareness
about these and other issues for years.

Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for
the Black Panther Party and prolific designer and activist for more than 40 years,
was among the group. His powerful posters have influenced many of the younger
designers, including Ernesto Yerena, who
recently moved to Arizona from California.

Yerena created the campaign
Alto Arizona”—a call
to action, asking artists and designers to create posters for a viral campaign,
which were then published and sold to help fund the protests against SB1070. In addition to designing posters, Yerena
creates multi-layered collages with silkscreens and/or stencils on top.
His studio is called Hecho Con Ganas—“made with motivation, desire, passion.” 

The CultureStrike designers use technology
strategically to get their messages out quickly and virally. They conduct silkscreening workshops to teach young people how to cheaply produce a run of
posters for a rally or demonstration. Using social media, they allow
downloading of their posters for quick distribution. Yerena’s “Decolonize Wall Street” poster went viral on the internet, then appeared in multiples at Occupy Wall Street

is a “collaborative graphic arts project that translates stories of
struggle and resistance into artwork that can be put back into the hands of the
communities who inspire it.”

Recently the collaboration between Oakland-based designers/activists
Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes has turned
its attention to the immigration and Occupy Wall Street initiatives. Barazza’s “99 Percent” poster is included in
the Occupy Wall Street Journal folio
along with one by Favianna Rodriguez, CultureStrike organizer and Bay Area
activist. The newsprint folios
are reminiscent of the Black Panther
and other 1960s and ’70s radical tabloids that featured large images for
posting. Produced in multiple languages, the posters are designed for specific

The Arizona-protest designers
knew their works would have a visible street presence when they were carried in
protests and would reach an even wider audience across the internet,
on news sites and blogs. The speed of media creates almost-instant
iconographic images, like the one by D.C. artist César Maxit of Troy Davis, who was executed in spite of late-breaking evidence in his case and widespread
protests. These designers are masters at fast and efficient reproduction for
getting graphics out in the streets quickly. Favianna Rodriguez and Josh
McPhee, who runs the organization JustSeeds, created a book
of reproducible and copyright-free images for use in activist work.

Digital access and tools afford graphic designers the means to distribute images and
ideas with unprecedented speed and production quality. Graphic design has
always been part of social protest. The Occupy
Wall Street Journal
folio, for example, is a nostalgic throwback to cheaply
printed newsprint posters from the mid- to late 20th century. Clear ideas
expressed in poster slogans, combined with good design and striking images
allow grassroots designers to compete with powerful corporate interests in
capturing the public imagination. Designers like those in CultureStrike hope to
use their power to influence opinion, raise consciousness, and encourage people to act for change.  


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