EJ Music, Eco-theater, community art-making, an inaugural EJ Anthology and More: the EJWG arts and humanities year in review
By Emily Poly & Tanvi Dutta Gupta
During the Environmental Justice Working Group’s annual retreat this year, organizers from Movement Generation led a two day training to help us envision and strategize how to move our EJ work forward in the new School of Sustainability and at Stanford more broadly. One of the wise mantras they repeated was, “If it’s not soulful it’s not strategic.” Grounding their work in Just Transition frameworks, Movement Generation collaborates with artists and cultural workers to “reimagine dominant narratives and build cultural infrastructure that transforms culture towards economies based in deep relationships.” And they always center the soul in it.
Inspired by this work, and recognizing the need to prioritize it in our own efforts, this year the EJ Working Group devoted a significant portion of our time making, building and nurturing connections with environmental justice artists, photographers, musicians and creative arts-centered community engaged thought leaders.
As Tanvi Dutta Gupta, one of the EJWG Arts coleads noted in her op-ed for the Daily, “Nearly every major EJ movement has included art and artists at its heart. By its nature, art encourages breaking disciplinary rules. It allows us to imagine beyond a constrained set of tools for pre-defined exploration and knowledge generation. It lets us think beyond our current realities. Researchers have recognized art as “the missing anchor” in environmental action.”
Below we share just a few highlights from our year of EJ community building around the arts.
This October we were deeply inspired by and honored to support a talk by Aileen Mioko Smith, a renowned anti-nuclear and environmental justice activist and photo journalist, well-known for her work in Minamata, an early environmental disaster that caused widespread mercury poisoning. Her talk Environmental Justice, Activism, and Photo Journalism: Lessons from Minamata for Today’s Challenges, included many of her and her husband’s amazing photographs of her experience as an environmental activist for more than half a century. Smith shared her reflections on the tension between activism and art, how documentation supports social change and what it means to gather community investment in art.
The following month, the EJWG partnered with Stanford Live, the Notations in Science Communication and Cultural Rhetorics, and the Center for African Studies, to host Ghanaian musician Okaidje Afroso at a standing-room only event at the Stanford Farm. Stanford student and musician Samuel A Ogunsanya engaged Afroso in a lively conversation where he shared the ways he draws inspiration from the ecological knowledge of the Indigenous Gadangme fishermen of Ghana’s Atlantic Gulf of Guinea and grapples with what it means to commune with the spirits of the sea in the face of climate change and modernization.
Afroso’s conversation and soul-stirring music spilled over the farm and fueled us through the much-needed rainy winter, where one of our highlights was getting to join an interdisciplinary Stanford student and faculty science and arts group convened by the wonderful Director of Interdisciplinary Arts Programs, Ellen Oh. Our conversations with this group have led to big dreaming and concrete planning for future EJ arts initiatives.
Towards the end of winter, we worked with Stanford postdoc Dr. Alireza Namayandeh and (future) Dr. Shagayaeg Navabpour to hold an inaugural environmental justice theater workshop. Twelve engaged students from across campus came for six hours of dreaming, improvising, and acting, which resulted in the production of two plays exploring the justice implications of wildfire smoke!
We returned to the farm once more to co-host (with Stanford Roots and the Notation in Science Communication,) a visit from community engaged EJ artists Artists Kim Anno and Gao Ling for a conversation with Earthtones festival (more on that later!) co-director Aiyanna Washington. The artists shared their creative processes and the role their art plays in contributing to movements for environmental justice. After the panel, Anno and Gao along with dozens of students, staff, faculty, and other community members came together to draw their own vision for environmental justice on pieces of fabric that will be made into a banner and hung in the new Environmental Justice center in the new school. Brennecke Gale wrote in Stanford Earth Matters Magazine, “Art and artists also have key roles to play in advancing, reflecting, and shaping solutions to environmental problems — particularly for communities who disproportionately experience harmful impacts.” The experience of collective art-making was a powerful reminder of the ways in which the process of collective creating can be as powerful in building community with and solidarity for each other as the content and substance of the art itself.
The fabric and the dyes for the banner were donated by Stanford Roots. Student artist Diego Perez painstakingly dyed each banner the week before the event with plant-based dyes, and we measured and cut them up into squares people could decorate individually before performing a second dye on some of them.
More people painted the pieces of fabric at the Earthtones festival the following week! Earthtones is an environmental justice festival now in its fourth year, bringing together students, activists, artists, teachers, and more from the Bay Area and beyond. Earthtones this year, centered around (re)envisioning a just future, presented another beautiful day of flower-crown-making, seminar-listening, screen-printing, zine-reading, and more, as people entered the farm and encountered so many of the ways environmental justice and the arts intersect.
Last but certainly not least, this year marked the first inaugural Environmental Justice Anthology. A student-led effort at the helm of Tanvi Dutta Gupta, it is nearly 200 pages long and filled with dozens of essays, poetry, and art from across generations of contributors. It is a collection of environmental justice storytelling at a pivotal moment in Stanford’s — and the world’s — history. From the introduction, “We witness and experience the many ways that intersecting global crises repeatedly make marginalized communities pay the biggest prices. Understanding how complex pasts and presents of systemic racial and colonial oppression and dispossession shape environmental challenges is critical to recognizing, and fighting them. It is also critical to understanding that frontline communities have always been (re)imagining and working to build more just futures.” We hope the anthology will serve as a source of inspiration, reminding us of where we have been and where we aim to go.
Please don’t hesitate to contact us for a copy! You will certainly be able to find one in our new EJ Center, which is in the planning stages now, along with our banner, and our collective, creative, and soulful visions for a more just, equitable, healthy and joyous world. Join us!