“Time is your most valuable asset and use it wisely.” With Penny Bauder & Favianna Rodriguez

I am passionate about igniting change where art and social movements meet because I’m an artist myself. Based on my lived experience and on data, I know there is massive inequality in the realm of culture, whether it’s Hollywood or music or the visual arts. Our entire arts sector is dominated by white men and […]

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I am passionate about igniting change where art and social movements meet because I’m an artist myself. Based on my lived experience and on data, I know there is massive inequality in the realm of culture, whether it’s Hollywood or music or the visual arts. Our entire arts sector is dominated by white men and most of the narratives that we see are through the lens and through the experiences of white men. This absolutely has to change, because art is something that is for ALL of us. And art should reflect our many diverse experiences and be the thread that unites as human beings. It should not simply reflect the experience of one dominant group.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Favianna Rodriguez.

Favianna is the co-founder and President of The Center for Cultural Power, a national organization investing in artists and storytellers as agents of positive social change. She is an award-winning artist, cultural strategist, and social movement leader who has partnered with national organizations and progressive advocacy groups to design effective cultural campaigns.

She embodies the perspective of a first-generation American Latinx artist with Afro-Peruvian roots. Her art and praxis address migration, economic inequality, gender justice, and climate change, boldly reshaping the myths, ideas, and cultural practices of the present, while confronting the wounds of the past. A strategy advisor to artists of all genres, she is regarded as one of the leading thinkers and personalities uniting art, culture, and social impact, collaborating deeply with social movements around the world.

She also helps to lead cultural strategy design and investment by helping to organize the philanthropic sector, with a focus on foundations addressing gender justice, racial justice, climate change and cultural equity. Her projects include creating art for Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist, partnering with Jill Solloway to create 5050by2020, collaborating with #TimesUp Entertainment, and facilitating immersive artist delegations to the US Mexico border. She is the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship for her work around immigration and mass incarceration, and an Atlantic Fellowship for Racial Equity for her work around racial justice and climate change.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Igrew up in East Oakland in the ’80s, during the birth of hip hop and the era of the crack cocaine epidemic. Those two cultural phenomenons absolutely shaped my experiences growing up. As a kid, I always wondered why I lived in a neighborhood that was so neglected. So, I had to find my own way of staying busy and entertaining myself, and that was art. While I witnessed a lot of suffering, drug addiction and violence in my community, I also witnessed resilience and tremendous creativity. I grew up surrounded by murals, colorful graffiti, and hip-hop music. Eventually, when I was in my last year of high school, I also witnessed the birth of the Internet and that changed my life because I found a new tool to express myself. All of those experiences have shaped my work today. I am the daughter of immigrants, and my parents were very careful about where I went and what I did because back then, Oakland was a homicide capital. Since I had to spend hours and hours reading and studying, I was an excellent student and a very productive and busy kid.

You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

In my work, I empower and organize artists so that together, we can help shape the narratives and politics of today. I believe that artists have superpowers — including the capacity to transform our imagination. My organization gives artists the tools to do that. We also collaborate with a number of social justice movements focused on issues like gender equity, racial justice, climate justice and immigrant rights. We design strategies to work with artists in effective ways, to increase the impact they make through their art and their cultural leadership. And personally, as an artist, I’m also trying to change the world, and I like to share my secrets about how I do it. One of the reasons I started the organization is because I realized that as an artist from a marginalized identity — as a Latina and woman of color artist — there were significant barriers that I faced. Despite being a great artist with a large fan base, it was very hard to navigate the art world, largely because the art world is not an inclusive place. So, I created an organization to help artists tap into their power and be change makers.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I am passionate about igniting change where art and social movements meet because I’m an artist myself. Based on my lived experience and on data, I know there is massive inequality in the realm of culture, whether it’s Hollywood or music or the visual arts. Our entire arts sector is dominated by white men and most of the narratives that we see are through the lens and through the experiences of white men. This absolutely has to change, because art is something that is for ALL of us. And art should reflect our many diverse experiences and be the thread that unites as human beings. It should not simply reflect the experience of one dominant group.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

My first aha moment was when I first met the founders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (originally started in Oakland, CA). It was at that point that I really understood how powerful activists could be in shaping not just national narratives, but global ones too. I especially remember when I first met the artist Emory Douglas, who was designing the illustrated covers for the Black Panther newspaper. I was so amazed and impressed at how bold and unapologetic his images were. They spoke of police brutality and of neglect. I was impressed that there was a group of Black people who were speaking truth to power, challenging our racist governments, and dressing up in a way that celebrated their culture — Black Power! They were confronting the U.S. government about just the sheer abuse and neglect of Black people. And they united with Latinx people too! It was then when I realized that a small group of people and even individuals can change culture significantly. I felt that being in relationship to the Black Panthers meant that I could continue their teachings and that I myself could be bold and unapologetic, and that I could also confront systems of oppression. So, in my 20’s, I learned to stand in my power, and I realized that I was capable of being a leader. While I’ve always been a natural leader because my mother was a very independent and entrepreneurial woman, I didn’t understand the potential impact of my leadership power until I was politicized.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

First, I was a keen observer and learner. I was always open to being mentored by people who had done this before. I was constantly asking questions and paying close attention to the things that people older than me did. Because I did not go to art school, a lot of my education has been through mentorship and self-teaching. I had also dropped out of college because, although I was getting a full scholarship, I didn’t feel like I was learning what I really wanted to learn. I wanted to learn how to start my own business, but because of family pressure, I was instead on a track to be an engineer. Yet I had a passion to be a leader and to create. So, I dropped out of college after three years and I began to be mentored by people who were starting their own organizations and small businesses. I was mentored by feminists and leaders of color. I spent time understanding all the different aspects of what it means to run an organization. I’m talking about things like how to raise money, how to have strong administrative skills, how to be a public speaker. I would learn these things and practice them. The key thing is to create a roadmap for yourself and see what other people that you admire are doing, observe them, emulate them and ask them to mentor you.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting thing that has happened to me is that I am now working with creative people in Hollywood. I’ve always considered myself predominantly a visual artist. But when I began to collaborate with actors, producers and showrunners, I realized that there’s a bigger world of culture out there and that my skills were needed in that world. That was a huge eye-opening experience because like many others, I had felt that Hollywood was a distant place. But Hollywood is made up of workers just like every other industry. And there are a lot of voices in Hollywood, especially women of color, who want to change things and who recognize there is a big problem of male domination. When I began to build relationships in that space and understand how they do things, the world of television and film began to be demystified to me. Now I’m working on my own short pilot, which would not have been possible if I had not met people in the entertainment industry who opened doors for me and who helped me understand the form — folks like Jill Soloway, America Ferrera, Tanya Saracho, and Gloria Kellet Calderon. This taught me that as artists and creative people, we must always be learners, we can learn many different mediums and expand our toolset. As artists, we don’t have limits to our work, and we should embrace expansion as opposed to contraction.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

A funny mistake I made when I first started was that I had relationship flings with people I was working with. That was a huge lesson for me, because I realized that it was absolutely NOT OK to have romantic relationships with co-workers because it leads to a problematic power dynamic. That was a mistake I committed when I was first starting out as an entrepreneur. When you work closely with someone and spend a lot of time with them, there can be a tendency to get close in a romantic way, but it’s very important that there be strong boundaries. I learned that lesson the hard way and I now have stronger boundaries and professional standards.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

See above

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The artist Yreina Cervantez, who I met while I was in college, was very significant figure in my artistic path. In 1999, I was taking a Chicana Studies class and my professor invited Yreina to be a guest faculty. Yreina taught us about the history of Latinas in the arts, and I was captivated. She also taught me about linoleum printing, and I was completely fascinated this was a new process for me. Although I was in humanities class, I was thrilled that my professor at the time had invited an artist who gave us hands-on art projects! This was life-changing for me because I was able to make art in a university setting. Yreina saw my work and immediately realized that I was very talented. She said, “Favi, you are so talented that I want to invite you to participate in an all-women’s printmaking portfolio project in Los Angeles at Self-Help Graphics.” I was floored! Self Help Graphics back then was one of the only Latinx art centers in the country and I was going to be the youngest participant in the project. That completely changed the trajectory of my art career because it was the first time that I ever worked in a professional art setting with other professional artists — and they were all women! I would not have gotten this opportunity if it were not for Yreina choosing me for the project. It demonstrates that there are people who can open doors for you, and when those doors open, it’s important to show up as your best self and try your hardest.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Support artists of color, especially women of color artists by buying their work. We all love art. But in order to support artists, we have to buy their work, buy their music, buy their books. We have to invest in them. It is very important to be diligent about supporting women of color artists because that is what helps artists succeed.
  2. The most important single act anyone can do to address climate change is to stop eating meat and transition to a plant-based diet. Eating animals tremendously impacts the global environment because animal agriculture is the second leading cause of climate change. The systems of meat production also exploit people of color, especially immigrants, and devastate our communities. I believe that we both have to fight for systemic change as well as change our own behaviors
  3. We must support young artists by demanding that every single school have a strong arts program. I want art in all our neighborhoods and schools, regardless of economic class. While we all love art, the reality is that a lot of poor and working-class kids do not have access to art, and that is also a form of inequality. I encourage everyone to get informed education in your city and state, so that you can advocate for arts programs for children and youth.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Time is your most valuable asset and use it wisely.
  2. Don’t try to rescue people and don’t spend energy on trying to fix people, focus energy on yourself.
  3. Save as much money as you can and learn about financial literacy so that you can control your resources and make them work for you.
  4. Experiment and play with your ideas and allocate time to be playful. Build a practice of having a daily artistic play time without any pressures for it to be perfect.
  5. If you are going to start your own business or organization, find the right team of people to work with that match your personality, that can take feedback and that are aligned with your values.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them what we eat has a tremendous impact on the world around us, and that the single most powerful thing a human can do is to stop eating animals and using animal products. We must adopt a plan- based lifestyle in order to help our planet, and we must do everything they can to fight the fossil fuel industry. We only have one chance to save our world and it starts with personal choices and with demanding systemic change and saying NO to oil.

How can our readers follow you online?

IG @culturestrike www.culturalpower.org and @favianna1 IG www.favianna.com

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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