WORDS BY Yessenia Funes
The Frontline interviews climate justice leader and artist Favianna Rodriguez on the power of culture and why we need more creators of color to take on the climate crisis.
Art and culture are everywhere. It’s what we listen to when we put our headphones on. It’s the stories we watch unfold on the Big Screen. Artists are behind every creation we consume, and they influence our understanding of what’s possible. In fact, art is essential to helping us achieve climate justice for all.
That’s why we’re hearing from Favianna Rodriguez today. She’s someone I’ve admired for nearly a decade. As an artist and president of the Center for Cultural Power, Rodriguez has dedicated her life to creating space for other artists of color to thrive—and creating vibrant collages that connect with our hearts.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we recognize the power of climate and culture. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Beyond her work in the nonprofit and art sectors, Rodriguez is also a writer. She penned an impactful essay for All We Can Save, whose paperback edition is out this week. You can order it here.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Talk to me about how you became an artist. When did you start calling yourself one?
I started calling myself an artist when I was 18 years old and attending UC Berkeley. I had been an activist for a few years, and a lot of the ways I would contribute to social justice movements would be through my art. I would design the posters and flyers. I would bring art activity to the people. I met a woman through my Chicano studies class. Her name was Yreina Cervantez, and she was and continues to be a very well-known Chicana artist. She saw my work and told me that I was very talented and connected me to Self Help Graphics in Los Angeles, which was one of the first institutions in which I really was able to produce my first body of work. So although I did not go to art school, I took on my own artistic learning, and I haven’t stopped ever since. It’s been over 21 years.
Who are some of the artists you admire most?
I’ve been tremendously inspired by artists like Judy Baca, who is a muralist in Los Angeles who has transformed what murals mean in our communities and has also built her own institution. Artists like Nina Simone and James Baldwin, who were able to create work that really spoke about the conditions facing Black people and work that would remain universal contributions to culture—something that would continue to shape generations.
I’m inspired by people like Víctor Jara, who was a musician in Chile during the very oppressive government. He was actually killed by the government, but nevertheless, his music continues to inspire generations today. I was also inspired by Frida Kahlo. She was the only Latina artist I was exposed to in high school, so she was a role model because she was the only one I studied when I was younger.
This focus you have on bridging the gap between culture and justice—and uplifting artists and culture makers of color—what inspired you to make that shift in your career? Where you’re not only creating art, but you’re also creating space for other artists of color to thrive?
The Center for Cultural Power is my fifth institution that I have cofounded. I’ve always been inspired to build institutions because of the impact of systemic racism on culture. As a young person, I faced tremendous barriers to become an artist—whether that was a lack of programming in my school or simply a lack of artistic role models. It was through community programs that I found my creative voice as a child, but they were very hard to access.
I have always been committed to opening doors for other artists of color, and I’ve always been committed to justice. Largely, that’s because I grew up in Oakland during the era of the War on Drugs, and I experienced hip hop. I experienced the remnants of the Black Panthers, so I’ve always been shaped by the idea that culture is not only something very healing, but it is truly what gets us through the hardest time. Art and culture give us the language to talk about what we are experiencing as oppressed people.
The Center for Cultural Power is truly what I intend to leave for the next generation.
In your essay for All We Can Save, you outline the power of culture and the value of injecting more diverse voices into the mix. Talk to me a little bit about that. I know that the paperback is now out—congratulations!
As a movement who cares about climate justice and justice overall, we need to better leverage the power of culture because culture is what transforms the imagination—culture shows us what’s possible. And we can do that by including artists and culture makers in our organizing work. We can train and educate artists on what are the key issues we’re facing in climate. We can pass the mic to artists of color when it comes to climate change. So many people think of white men as the primary spokespeople around climate, but that needs to shift. We need to ensure that it’s BIPOC artists who are speaking about the true impact of the climate crisis. We need people of color and especially culture makers of color to be sharing the stories of what’s happening in our community.
What is the underlying shift that can make this happen?
We need to invest in culture makers of color, but we also really need to build infrastructure to support them. First, we have to educate and train and give culture makers opportunities to create work about this issue. We need to distribute it. We need to be able to have writers in television rooms write about the Black children who are getting asthma, the Latinx farmworkers who are working in extreme heat. All of these stories exist. They’re happening, but we need to find the bridge so that these stories can be transformed into cultural content that will move audiences.
And for that, we need infrastructure—from identifying artists, developing training programs, connecting to grassroots groups, creating content across mediums like visual arts or comedy shows. Then, we need to distribute it and get it out into pop culture, not just in activist culture. We need to get it in front of millions of people.
Two years ago, Variety did a whole profile on how climate shows up in television, and only three fiction TV shows in 2019 included climate. How can that be the case when climate chaos is something that’s facing us right now? The fact that it’s not translating into the culture that we’re seeing every day really underscores the problem. It’s not just that we lack infrastructure, but the problem is also that those who are in control of the cultural infrastructure that does exist are overwhelmingly white men.
Is there a piece of pop culture that you’ve enjoyed recently that you think helps bring us closer to that vision?
There’s a song by Aaron Frazer called “Bad News.” The song is about our abusive relationship with Mother Earth through the lens of romance. Imagine if we were in love with the Earth and she says: “I can’t take it anymore. My body’s getting hotter. I’m not going to be around.” I was so moved by that song because I really felt in my body the pain of a planet. When I realized I could use the metaphor of a romantic relationship to explain our relationship to the planet, it just really sparked something in me.
The music video is beautiful because it’s also shot on the waterfront in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which was one of the places inundated by Superstorm Sandy. I realized in that moment something that I already know, which is that the power of art and culture is that it speaks to our emotions. It is something that we can literally feel in our body, and it compels us to move.
Tell me more about the power of art and culture in helping us achieve climate justice, in particular.
The power of art and culture is that it speaks to our heart. It speaks to our emotions, but it also opens up our imagination to show us what’s possible. It takes us to another world, and we can experience that world. What we urgently need in our climate movement is to be able to imagine solutions and see ourselves in a different kind of relationship to nature. In order for us to halt the climate crisis, we have to reimagine our relationship to energy. We have to think about our consumption, especially as Americans. We could tell very different kinds of stories around how we achieve happiness and success. How we do that is by reconnecting to each other and to the natural world.
I really long for a time when I can look at art and listen to music and watch films that remind me of my relationship to nature, that help connect me to all of the beautiful animals that we share this planet with, the ocean, the forest. That relationship has been broken. It has been altered and severed. That is the effects of white supremacy and colonialism. This is why in so many movements, there is a demand to return land to Indigenous communities and to center Indigenous voices because Indigenous people continue to be the ones who are most protecting our world’s biodiversity. And if you look at culture from an Indigenous perspective, they are very different kinds of stories. They are stories about being stewards of the Earth, stories about protecting the salmon.
The power of art is that it can help us heal our relationship to nature and help us as human beings understand that we can move away from an extractive relationship toward a regenerative one. Culture can do that, but we have to do it by replacing the old fairy tales. Greta Thunberg called them “fairy tales of endless extraction” because, in reality, they are fairy tales. They are stories. They are a form of culture that has gotten us here—and largely a culture of colonialism that deemed some life could be exploited for the benefit of other life.
The narrative we need is to respect all life, including all human beings. How do we build our reconnection to each other as human beings? Because that’s what’s going to transition us away from an extractive economy and solve the climate crisis.