Thursday, June 29, 2006

Alli Chagi-Starr, Art in Action/Ella Baker Center, Podcast Interview Transcription

Today's Big Vision Podcast transcript is from an interview with arts activist, Alli Chagi-Starr.

You can hear the orginal podcast on Gcast, Odeo or iTunes.

Britt: Hi. Welcome to the Big Vision Podcast where we talk with individuals and organizations that are creating positive change. We'll be taking with arts activist Alli Chagi-Starr, the Cultural Arts Director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights' Reclaim the Future Program. Alli is also the co-founder of Art and Revolution, and founder of Art in Action, Dancers without Borders, and the Radical Performance Fest. In addition to being an artist, performer and dancer, Alli is also a writer whose most recent piece can be found in the Code Pink anthology, Stop the Next War Now.
Alli: Well thank you, first of all Britt, thank you so much for having me be on your podcast, is that the name? And I work here at Ella Baker Center. It's really an honor to be working here doing some amazing work with a new program, Reclaim the Future. The slogan is "Green Collar Jobs, not Jails" and what we're trying to promote a big vision which includes being able to employ formerly incarcerated people from the Oakland area, "at risk" -- quote unquote -- people from this area into jobs which don't hurt the environment, that actually help sustain us as a community.

So there is a green wave going to be coming through California and what we want to do is make sure that it also hits the Oakland area and, in addition, that the people who benefit from this green economy are the people who need those jobs the most. So the Ella Baker Center is being an advocate for people to be trained up and be ready to be employed by these jobs, and also the green business owners, in solar energy, and alternative fuels and alternative transportation, and these kinds of jobs that are going to be coming through are employing those people from the community and really supporting a change in our environment, as well as in our workforce.

I think one of the main things we've talked about is how can we lift all boats and I think a true vision includes a lot of different aspects and a lot of different people, so it's not a single issue. We're looking at building bridges between environmental movements and social justice movements. How do we stop violence and how do we eradicate poverty in our communities, and uplift people, and how do we also do that in a way that respects the environment, that looks at innovation, and that addresses issues like global warming and peak-oil and environmental racism? How do we build new visions and programs that serve everybody?
Britt: Tell us a little bit about your work here, like what does your day look like, what kind of brought you to this work, for people who are like, "Oh, I want to work in a project like that!" Kind of like what brought you here, what skills and things like that?
Alli: Interesting question, like what is the road that gets us anywhere, I think they're always somewhat circuitous and unplanned. My background is as an arts activist and I moved to the Bay Area in 1985 to go to school at UC Berkeley and I ended up leaving UC Berkeley my third year not finding what I was looking for there and starting some arts benefit event projects particularly around woman and children living with HIV and AIDS and shortly thereafter producing anti-war benefits, for the first Gulf War, if you can remember way back in '91, way back when. We're still struggling with the same issues

And what I wanted to do is to find a way to inspire artists to make work that was relevant to the crisis of our time and at the same time encourage the activist community to become more magnetic and more inspiring, more creative and incorporate art and that kind of innovation into our movement for social justice. So I really didn't know what I was doing, and sometimes still don't know what I'm doing, but I'm still trying to build bridges between the world of art and activism.

I met Van Jones about 10 years ago and he was doing criminal justice work and building the new program here, which was Police Watch, and really addressing police brutality, and we met in a Challenging White Supremacy workshop lead by Sharon Martinez back in 1995. He came and talked about affirmative action, we became friends at that point, and started to learn about the different work that we were each doing. I got involved in some of the anti-globalization work at that time and my group, Art and Revolution, was doing a lot of education and outreach through dance and giant puppets and theater and doing a lot of tours to mobilize people to come to Seattle. Van, who already had his plate full here in the Bay Area doing police accountability work, ended up deciding to bring a group of people up to Seattle from his community and look at what were the links between anti-globalization and social justice and community issues and try to figure out what those links were. Van really educated me a lot on what was going on with racial justice struggles here in the Bay Area.

So it's been a ten year awakening and sort of linking the issues, experience how do we think broader and vision bigger and play bigger in our movement? So, last spring Ella Baker Center, to launch its new program Reclaim the Future, took a big role in the United Nations World Environment Day Conference that was happening here in San Francisco. And it was a sixtieth year anniversary -- or sixty year anniversary of the UN World Environment Day -- and we wanted to make sure that issues that are of concern to communities of color were highlighted and forefronted and Van and Ella Baker Center decided to really promote what we called a, "social equity track," that was incorporated into the UN World Environment activities.

We produced somewhere around ten events and sponsored about ten events during that five day period to bring those issues to the forefront, so, "green jobs, not jails" and looking at eco-apartheid, as opposed to eco-equity, and had a lot of panels and different events. So that's when I started working here more formally, and then this last fall I ended up coming to Ella Baker Center full time as the Art and Media Director of Reclaim the Future.

This last fall we produce a CD called Eye of the Storm which has been an amazing project, just the creativity and the generosity of the artists who participated on this CD still blows my mind. It's an amazing act of love really in response to the hurricane and the racial neglect that occurred down on the Gulf. And I think it's a testament to the power of art and the power of the Bay Area artist community that we were able to pull off this CD with 21 tracks in less than two months and had a standing room only CD release party, and we're still promoting it. And every dollar goes to support on the ground activities to rebuild New Orleans and the grassroots community, as well as the people here who have been displaced.
Britt: And in addition to your work with the Ella Baker Center, you also started your own organization, Art In Action, could you tell us a little bit about what you guys do?
Alli: So Art In Action came out of some of the work that I had been doing previously with Art and Revolution and Art and Revolution was a multi-city movement of arts activists and a lot of protest politics, and it was predominately a little bit of punk rock, a little bit white, a lot of courageous, really well-meaning people doing great work, but I felt at a certain point that it was time to do some skill sharing. I really wanted to support people to be on the mic whose voices are often silenced in our society, and the people who are most impacted by poverty and environmental racism and some of those things we've talked about.

And so we started Art in Action camp six years ago to invite 25 youth from urban areas to participate in skills-building, giant puppets, dance and theater and we've also done a lot of work around diversity and anti-racism and looking at gender and looking at homophobia, and then we do a lot of personal empowerment work, really building up people's self-esteem and cultivating their leadership individually and on a more emotional or spiritual level, if you will. So we're bringing a lot of elements together, the innerpersonal the activist. We do workshops on linking the issues, and connecting the war at home with the wars abroad, etc., and looking at how our issues are linked across race, class, gender, country, origin, religion, everything. And then we're also giving a ton of art skills: dance and hip hop and banner painting and we record a CD every year in a ten-day period. The youth are amazing manifesters. They come up with an entire CD of music and poetry and we perform them on the last day of camp, so it gives people a real opportunity, hands-on, to really get out there and share what they've learned.

It's all about collaboration. I don't think we learn very much about collaboration in our culture. I think there should be whole semesters on how to work with other people. How to have relationships. How to have better practices in communication, and I think one of the things we do at Art and Action is model collective leadership. The leadership team includes about nine of us and we're different ages, races, genders, orientations, you name it, and we work together in a democratic fashion. So we're modeling collective multi-racial, multi-cultural leadership at our camps, and lot of people have just never seen that in action. We never saw it in action before we started doing it.

But I think what helps is that all of the facilitators of Art in Action camp share a lot of the same ideology and ideas about how our society could be, and a lot of us have done the same work as far as building social justice movements through the arts, so we come together like that, and our youth have this experience of working with youth from other cities, and completely other cultures, and at first they are not so sure and they are kind of looking at each other.

We always hire a Native American Elder, Patrick Orosco, from Watsonville, who comes in and talks about the original inhabitants of the land and the original stewards of the area, where we do out summer camp in the Santa Cruz mountains. He talks about respecting the land and the other creatures of the land and each other, and it really sets the tone. Starting that way I think really changes the dynamics, so by the second day people are braiding each other's hair and sharing food and taking walks together and by the end of the camp people are hanging on each other they don't want to leave. They create list servs, they create projects together.

And so we're also building a community that's kind of unheard of. People who are not traditionally supposed to get along in our culture are not only getting along, but they really find love in each other and how close love is to the surface. It's just not that far away, and I think our culture would have us believe that it's going to take years, and massive therapy, and who knows what else for people to learn to love each other. I think we want to love each other. I think we want to respect each other, care about each other, and we have to do the work that's necessary and create space where that can happen, where we can cultivate that, but it's not as hard as people think.
Britt: That sounds like some of the things that are the most joyful parts of the things you do. What's the biggest challenges in activism and using the arts and activism and how do you keep from giving up? Because there are lots of people who would say, "Oh, I want to be an activist, I want to make a difference," and then they get discouraged and give up.
Alli: There's a few answers to what are the challenges and how do we keep going. I think there is a challenge for all of us in our movements to change the world, to keep going and to stay inspired when we are confronted with so much misery and so many travesties and so... a corporate media that lies to us every day, and when you can see through it at a certain point. And it, it just sets your teeth on edge having to be witness to the devastation of our planet and the oppression and neglect of so many people worldwide, and it is hard to keep going sometimes.

And what I always tell the students that I work with is, number one, stay in community. Do not isolate. It's so easy. I think the powers that be would love us to stay isolated in own our horror, in our own despair and apathy, and I think one of the most important things is to stay in community of like-minded people who can help keep us going and staying inspired. I think mentorship and respecting the people who come before, and really seeing the history, that we're standing on the shoulders of so many great people who were faced with such huge obstacles. When I think of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and the world that Alice Walker was born into, and the work that they've done, people who are contemporaries. We are surrounded by noble people and prophets in our day, to remember who's out there doing the work and the changes that have been made.

Certainly those victories are not being celebrated by the mainstream media very often and I think we really need to take opportunities to look at the changes that have been made by the labor movement, the women's movement, by anti-war movements throughout time. The other thing I think that helps me is to realize that we are seed planters, and that we are going to probably die before we see all those seeds become trees, and it doesn't matter. You just have to keep planting and just got to hope that other people will come along after you to water those seeds and to know that the trees our for our children's children. That's just the reality.

We are living in a time where we have to have faith in something that goes beyond us, that go beyond our own wish for success in our own life, but we also have to count the little successes. I think this podcast is a mini success right here, you know, that women and people of color are using technology to -- and social justice activists of all genders and races -- are using technology to get our stories out there. Look at us, how creative we are. We have a media that won't listen to us so we're creating our own media, I mean right there, that's a victory. So, that's one of the things.

I would say that funding is often a challenge, but I think we can get beyond that too because there are individuals throughout this country and throughout the world who are really awakening people of wealth who are using that financial energy, if you will, to change things. And it's up to us to not play small but to play big and ask for that resource, and to build partnerships instead of begging for scraps, and hoping and praying and complaining that there is nothing for us. Instead, see the power we have to build partnerships with people who also want to change the world, who are of some means, and can support our work, and to not limit ourselves by thinking, "Oh, it can't be done. Nobody cares. Rich people aren't going to support us."

The reality is, wealthy people have been supporting movements for social justice, and we don't even know their names for many, many years. Someone once said Jesus had fundraisers. So I think fundraising is a high art and a noble act and particularly people in privileged countries like ours, I think have a duty to do some of that elegant fundraising -- I like to say that -- a graceful kind of fundraising that empowers everybody, and teach those skills about asking for money and building fundraising infrastructures and organization. So I think that's been a challenge and some of it's the challenge of our own fears of smallness.

One other challenge I wanted to share, let's see, what was it... I think another challenge is staying in our bodies, and how do we stay sustainable ourselves. And I know for me as an artist, my biggest challenge is that I get so involved in organizing and the activism part and being on the phones and computers and running around to meetings that I don't actually manifest my own art or take care of my own needs for exercise and being in nature and remembering what it is we are fighting for anyway, or working towards. So, I think that's one of the big challenges for us is how do we balance, going to yoga class, and making sure that four hundred people show up to the thing on Friday. How do we do it all?

I think some people are modeling that quite well. There's a really, a huge, I would say, wave of people who are finding ways to be more sustainable in their own personal lives and that ends up benefiting their activism because then their communication is easier and softer. It creates a sense of... you know when you're around someone who's just fun to be around? They're grounded, their respectful in their communication, they're appreciative.

And I think one of the things we really need to do is build cultures of appreciation. We're so good at criticizing -- especially in progressive movements -- because there's so much to criticize, and we become excellent communicators, and we see things that could be better. I'm the best at that, and so what I've been trying to do is cultivate a sense of appreciation and gratitude, and I know it can kind of sound cheesy but it works when you look at everything as a potential blessing as opposed to a curse, or challenge, or controversy all the time and say, "What's the blessing in this moment and what can we learn from this moment and what new possibilities are here?"

I had an ex-Marine who's putting some eco-insulation in my housing unit, come by my house, and he's the one green insulator in the Bay Area, and he -- it turns out -- co-hosted the Green Fest, you know, this eco-business event that happens annually that Global Exchange and Co-op America puts on every year in the winter. He's an ex-Marine, has two sons in Iraq, is a arch Republican and right winger.

We sat down and had organic tea together and talked about, you know, "What did you think of the President's address?" He's like, "Oh I don't know if I should go there because I don't know what your politics are." And I'm like, "Well, let's talk about it. We don't have to agree on everything, and that's what it's all about, and I bet there are a lot of things that we actually hold in common."

So I think being at a place where you are grounded enough in yourself that you can extend and embrace people who are would-be enemies and turn them into would-be allies instead... that's our work. And if we are not really interested in movement-building, we don't have to do that. We can just stay in our little camps and be right and everyone else is wrong and just be more and more right every day, but I think the challenge is, how do we build movements outside of our own small communities and bridge to other communities in ways that are respectful and meet people where they are.
Britt: And so I'm sure when people are listening to this they are going to be very inspired now and say, "I want to make a difference. I want to do something." What is... if everybody listening did one small step -- and not necessarily for a specific issue -- what is something that they can do?
Alli: Well, I think there's a lot of things that people can do. I think taking a moment and really realizing that you have the power to change the world, that your life matters, that is the first step, and then to find out well, what am I passionate about, what do I really care about? You don't have to be passionate about the thing that your neighbor is passionate about, or even what your girlfriend or boyfriend is passionate about. What are you passionate about doing? Is it children and literature? Is it about toxins in West Oakland? Is it about creating forests, cultivating forest lands for future generations? Is it about, everyone deserves clean water? Is it about political prisoners and our brothers and sisters, two million of them, living behind bars right now in the United States alone?

What is it that you really feel passionate about? And then look at your own personal talents and skills, and how can you apply your talents and skills to your passion. And Britt, you're so good at this. You've been really great at supporting me and others in the community to find ways to connect what you care about with what you're good at, and what you like doing. So it might be researching. It might be writing. It might be teaching. It might be bringing people together.

And we live in such a rich area in the Bay Area. There are so many resources and nonprofits, and we have great search engines where we you just can put in what you're interested in and start going to meetings and checking things out and sometimes I'm in places like central California and people say, "Hey, I want to be a dance activist. How do I do it?" And I would say, "How would you throw your own birthday party? Let's see, call some of the people you know and like already, put up a flyer maybe, or an invitation, post on some sites around your school, or around your neighborhood, or at your church or community center -- wherever it is you hang out -- and it could be just what it is you want to do? 'Gathering for people who are creative and want to address a toxic issue in the community' -- whatever it is -- and see if there are any other organizations doing like work in your area, and start pulling people together in your community, and it can be as small as two or three people."

It's amazing what you can create, and even if it's just yourself deciding to put out an article and post to everyone, you can inspire people that way as well. But if you are interested in creating something with other people, and doing something collectivist, then I really recommend seeing what you can do to pull together a meeting, and make sure that there is food, and make sure that it's fun, and make sure that it's in a place that people like to come to, and it's convenient for people and the basic kind of things, you know. Take care of people who are coming, and treat those relationships as the utmost important thing.

Ultimately whether or not you achieve the goal, the event will come and go. The date goes and you're like, "Okay, well, we had 300 people come instead of 400 people," or, "We made a puppet bird instead of a puppet dog," or something is going to be different then what you originally intended, but, if the relationships are good, after you leave that event, then you have built something.
Britt Bravo: I'm very inspired, and I guess finally, is there any book or piece of music or film that you could recommend that's inspiring to you for other people to see or read or listen to?
Alli: A great question. I do think there's a lot of inspiring things. There's Stop the Next War Now, that's edited by Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans. There's an amazing group of articles in there. I have a small one -- just three pages -- which I think will be somewhat useful, but I think there's a lot of really amazing testimony and ideas in that book. There's another book called Globalize Liberation that a colleague of mine, David Solnit, edited, and it has a lot of interesting articles, as well. And I think the Ella Baker Center website -- I can speak from being so close to it here -- is really useful as far as learning about some of the work we are doing here with Police Watch, Books Not Bars, and the Reclaim the Future Program.
Britt: So I think to wrap up, if people want to get more information about the Ella Baker Center or the stuff you're doing, where should they go. What should they do?
Alli: If people are interested on being on my list serve, I email out regularly different creative actions and events that are coming up in the Bay Area, and I'm somewhat sporadic. Sometimes you get three, and sometimes you won't get one for a month. I'm not very like, "Okay, every second Friday you'll get an email from me." But it's more like this amazing thing just came my way and I have to share it with you. If you're interested in being on that kind of list serv, kind of creative action Bay-Area-based events, then you can email me at, and if you're interested in more information about what we're doing here, again the website is
Britt: Thanks for listening to the Big Vision Podcast. For more information about Alli's work with Reclaim the Future and the Ella Baker Center, go to You can also order the CD she mentioned Eye of the Storm on the site. If you'd like more information about Art in Action camps or to contribute to a youth scholarship, email, and if you like the opening music, it was an excerpt from Mango Delight by Kenya Masala, and if you'd like more information about his work and music go to I'll post all this information in my shownotes on my website, Thanks for listening.

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