“This is a “let’s do it” guide to action, an accessible and well-illustrated collection of strategies ideal for artists (and non-artists alike) who are willing to put themselves out there for the common good.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
“If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.”Rachel Carson
Creative activists can make an otherwise abstract, far-away issue relevant by making it personal, visceral and local.
The destruction of a far-off rainforest. The carnage of war thousands of miles away. People care, but usually not enough to act on that concern, at least until they understand viscerally what’s at stake. Here are a few ways to bring the issue home to people with creative visuals, powerful personal narratives and by highlighting localized costs.
Show the human cost
When the Iraq War was raging, mainstream media didn’t show the stream of flag-draped caskets coming off planes or images of bombed buildings and dead Iraqis. Most Americans, with the exception of military families, didn’t viscerally feel the war’s impact. To bring the human cost of war home, Nancy Kricorian, a CODEPINK activist in New York City, stood outside her senator’s office and arranged a row of shoes of all sizes tagged with the names of Iraqi civilians who had been killed, and asked passersby to “walk in their shoes.” Her gesture was picked up and repeated across the country. In a similar spirit, veterans have met on the beach in Santa Monica, California, every Sunday since the start of the Iraq War, to set up a field of white crosses in neat rows across the beach — one for each soldier who has died. A powerful reminder of the human cost of war, at once intimate and horrific.
Make it personal
Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum was recently planning to expand its operations in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. Well-researched pleas to halt the drilling got nowhere. That all changed when a delegation of native Achuar people (who would have been displaced by the drilling, their ancestral lands ravaged) traveled to the U.S. to share their story. The issue shifted from stopping an oil project to defending the homes of these people. Occidental had to cancel the project, and the Achuar are pursuing legal claims against Occidental for environmental damage already done. Bringing forward the names, faces and stories of your far-away issue makes the consequences of inaction far more real and relevant.
Put a price tag on it
If people don’t connect to the human cost of an issue, reaching their pocketbooks is another route. In 2005, when the historic Steinbeck Library in Salinas, California, was threatened with closure due to drastic budget cuts, farm workers and peace advocates joined forces and held a twenty-four-hour read-in to keep the library open, drawing attention to the money spent on waging wars rather than other priorities. Before the read-in, few in Salinas cared enough about the Iraq war to protest it; twenty-four hours later, the entire community understood how the high price of occupation affected them. When the local consequences of global policies are highlighted, people’s circle of concern often widens.
Be careful not to focus solely on the financial cost of the issue. Imagine if peace advocates only held up signs about the amount of money spent on war, with no mention of the lives lost. Use dollar figures only when it makes sense.