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Advocacy Innovation Lab: Free the Vaccine for COVID-19

“Free the Vaccine for COVID-19” is the first implementation of our Advocacy Innovation Labs, designed to train participants in artistic activism while generating new, creative, and innovative tactics to solve urgent problems.

The Issue: What’s the Problem We’re Addressing?

It’s hard to imagine the day we read the headline “COVID-19 Immunizations Begin.” However, history shows that it’s only a matter of time until we have a vaccine for COVID-19. This day will arrive. And in that there is hope. 

The problem is this: when we do have a vaccine, will everyone have access to it? Without affordable access for everyone, across the globe, the vaccine can’t really do its job. Already governments around the world are investing billions in tax-payer funds into the research and development of diagnostic tools, treatments, and a vaccine for Covid-19. Since the SARS outbreak, the National Institutes of Health alone has spent nearly $700 million on coronavirus research and development. This virus is now a pandemic, following those of Ebola and Zika, yet experience tells us once the vaccine is discovered, pharmaceutical corporations will want us to pay again to acquire it. This means that payment will be demanded for something already paid for from public funds. It also means that not everyone will be able to afford access. 

More urgently than ever the global need for collaboration and solidarity is being felt by people who had never before paid attention to these issues. Almost everyone, everywhere is waiting for drugs and vaccines that can change lives, history and the current narrative. And an urgent question needs to be answered: how do we ensure access for all? 

Communities Served 

People from all backgrounds, ethnicities, levels of status and wealth have been impacted by Covid-19. We are all vulnerable, but not all of us equally. Our goal is to ensure the vaccine is freely accessible to everyone in the world. Our primary targets include: 1) university faculty who can pressure their institutions to be socially responsible in patenting and licensing of publicly funded medicines like vaccines developed in university labs, 2) Ministers of Health or other funding bodies, and 3) Pharmaceutical CEOs.

When we win, the people who will benefit will be residents of entire nations, often those historically written off by pharmaceutical providers because they are too poor to profit off of. When we win, uninsured residents of wealthy nations will have a chance to survive. When we win everyone benefits because flattening the curve isn’t enough – we can only eliminate the curve after everyone is vaccinated.

Strategy: How Does it Work? 

The social-political landscape has fundamentally shifted. We won’t win through old methods – holding up signs at a traditional crowded protest march is not an option. So we’re finding new, better ways that work in our current context through an “Advocacy Innovation Lab.” While the virologists are working in their lab developing a vaccine, we’re working in ours making sure that vaccine is freely available.

We implemented  a global program designed for the time of physical distancing with weekly online courses on innovative advocacy and best practices in access to medicines advocacy. From 300+ volunteers we have formed “Salk Squads” of 4-6 people (named after Jonas Salk who gave the vaccine for polio to the world). 

Each week, Lab participants meet online for training and lessons from special guest experts who have successfully fought for equal access to medicines. Then the participants, in small teams of 4-7 that are regionally-based, do weekly assignments to both learn more and to perform action experiments. They may experiment with narratives and ways to use social media to encourage health officials to pledge to support equal access to treatment. They may test social distancing performances that encourage people to pressure their governments. Over the course of 4 months, hundreds of actions will be implemented, and each group will be guided to reflect and refine their actions in order to learn from them and share with others. 

Their advocacy experiments and results are shared within regional groups where they are collaboratively evaluated and refined with an assigned mentor. Successful tactics are shared across all the regions so they can be iterated upon and deployed globally. We plan to learn new ways to promote equity in access to medicines from this massive number of experiments and assessments, while developing and building a grassroots movement ready to implement them. The methods, case studies and best practices will be shared with the public to encourage use by anyone.

Impact 

Already the impact of the campaign can be felt in our participants where, a few days after meeting, hundreds of people are remotely coordinating, planning and working together to ensure global equity in access to medicines.  Within days of our announcement we had over 600 sign up. Shortly after over 300 volunteers committed to work on the campaign weekly for the next four months. They are from 29 countries on every continent (except Antarctica!). They are young (79% are under 45), 66% identify as women, 60% as activists, and 36% as artists or designers.

We believe in this campaign’s future impact because, while it is a new and innovative concept in massive, rapid online organizing based on creativity and experimentation, it is built on many years of work by organizations with excellent track records.

C4AA has helped thousands of people create successful advocacy campaigns around the world, and helped organizations and funders create visionary strategies that combine the best practices of arts and activism. Their research and publications demonstrate the astonishing impact of putting innovation, culture and creativity at the core of change.

UAEM has the depth of technical knowledge on alternative R&D mechanisms, licensing and global health. With over 100 chapters in more than 20 countries across the world, UAEM students work has successfully influenced policies at universities in order to ensure that products of biomedical research and development are made available to and affordable to the people who need them most.

Innovation: What makes this approach distinguishable from other efforts? 

This project is specifically designed to respond to this moment, facing its uncertainty with a movement that thrives on innovation, action, and collaboration. This is unique and groundbreaking for the access-to-medicines movement, which for the last decade has been heavily technical in their search for solutions to the access challenge.

Our entire program is aimed at propelling innovation in advocacy by emphasizing rapid, crowd-sourced experimentation and creativity. While traditional advocacy methods can rely on fact sheets and petitions, research shows that narrative, surprise, and creativity is more effective in the cultural and social change that propels policy change. And yet few advocacy groups know how to use those tools.

Center for Artistic Activism has been helping advocacy groups do this work for over a decade, and this is the largest, most concerted effort to date to apply the research and methods to a global campaign.

We are reaching and mobilizing people confined to their homes but desperately wanting to collaborate and use their diverse skills to ensure everyone has the care they need. This could be remembered as a moment in history that is about fear, isolation and suspension. This project counters with hope, collaboration, and innovation.

Suitability: What makes our organizations the right ones to address this issue?

This project is a partnership between the Center for Artistic Activism and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines.

C4AA has led dozens of workshops, in 20 countries with 2000+ people helping them use their creativity and culture to affect power. They’ve moved public health campaigns forward and conducted groundbreaking research on the impact of creative activism. This campaign is built on the successes of a similar anti-corruption program with artists, activists, and investigative journalists in the Western Balkans and West Africa.

UAEM has grown from a North American movement, with its origins in the HIV/AIDS movement, to a truly global one, encompassing regions with contrasting needs and contexts, working collaboratively towards a global objective of making medicines accessible to all. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed hard truths about the world’s preparedness in face of a global pandemic including responses that feed social inequalities and increased oppression of marginalised communities.

Long-Term Vision: If we’re successful, how will the issue be impacted?

We’re training hundreds of people in how to become the cutting-edge, creative activists of the future. Each will have the tools to develop innovative campaigns that can overcome a variety of obstacles, and build movements with everyday people, through accessible tactics, that embody local cultures, vibrancy, and life.

Our specific vision is to empower citizens to replace a medical R&D system that favors profit over people with already existing alternative models. Pharmaceutical corporations develop profitable drugs, not medication in the public interest. COVID has been researched for years with billions in public funds, but until a pandemic emerges, there’s no profit motive for pharmaceutical corporations to initiate testing, treatment, or vaccines. We are living within a system that has obviously failed. Hundreds of thousands have died and will die because of it. What must replace the current model is an ethical, human driven R&D system where publicly funded research leads to needed and affordable treatments. UAEM has mapped 81 alternative R&D models that were included in the UN’s High Level Report on Access to Medicines in 2016.

COVID-19 is undeniably shaping our future. Let’s make this the catalyst: transforming our access to medicines and improving millions of lives with it.

For more information contact us.

Op-Ed: Free the Vaccine, Free the People

“Signing the Open COVID Pledge is therefore not merely a technicality or detail about licensing policy, but a matter of ensuring racial justice in healthcare and opposing institutional violence against Black people.”

by Navya Dasari and Joyce Farley (of FreeTheVaccine.org)

This post also appears on Medium.com

As protesters around the country convene in large numbers to protest police brutality, Trevor Bedford, a research expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, WA, is worried about the potential influx of coronavirus infections and deaths. He isn’t alone. Minnesota health commissioner Jan Malcolm, although supportive of the protests, has shared similar concerns about the increase in viral transmission, especially given the significant toll the pandemic has taken and could continue to take on Black communities. According to infectious disease specialist Judy Stone, the use of pepper spray and tear gas by police is likely to exacerbate transmission. America is now battling two historical pandemics, both of them disproportionately killing Black people, who comprise only thirteen percent of the U.S. population, but roughly twenty-seven percent of the country’s deaths by police violence, and twenty-five percent of the country’s deaths related to coronavirus. These pandemics are COVID-19 (coronavirus) and police brutality.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) notes that despite its most common symptoms being a high fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, the novel coronavirus is capable of causing much more damage to the body. According to The New York Times, as of June 9, 2020, coronavirus cases in the United States now exceed 1.9 million, and the country has seen at least 110,000 coronavirus-related deaths. In the midst of this pandemic, racism is yet another blow to health outcomes and socioeconomic stability.

The world witnessed the smartphone-taped murder of George Floyd, a Black man, on May 25, 2020. The disturbing video went viral and was the impetus for global protests against racism and its systems. Floyd was asphyxiated from the pressure on his neck from the knee of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. This horrific incident mirrored that of Eric Garner, another Black man killed by a police officer on tape. Garner died from an illegal chokehold maneuver in July 2014 by former New York City officer Daniel Pantaleo. Both Floyd and Garner died from extreme police force, highlighting how little has changed for Blacks in this country despite the national pleas for changes in policing and its tactics. As protests once again ignite across the country, this time the Black community must also contend with the disproportionate rate of infection and deaths due to the pandemic.

Articles in The New York TimesThe Guardian, and Elemental have highlighted the racial disparities in coronavirus deaths, which for many is unsurprising. Again, Black people make up twenty-five percent of the country’s deaths related to coronavirus, which is estimated to be a staggering loss of 27,500 lives. This crippling figure is rooted in decades of injustice and inequality across social, political, and economic policy areas. The New York Times and ProPublica have written about the strong ties between race and issues of environmental racismlaborhousingwater infrastructure (ex. Flint, MI — where residents still don’t have clean water), and access to health care, all of which determine people’s vulnerability to COVID-19, as well as their (in)ability to recover from it.

What we need now more than ever is a transformation of our criminal justice and healthcare systems, equality, and equity. We need the moral leadership of research institutions willing to put Black people, and all people, before profit.

AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Inovio, three pharmaceutical giants, are leading the charge to develop a coronavirus vaccine. All have received significant federal funding for their efforts in coronavirus research. For example, AstraZeneca has received approximately $1.2 billion USD from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Moderna has received $483 million USD from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Inovio has received $11.9 million USD from the Department of Defense (DOD). However, once a coronavirus vaccine is finally on the market, it is unclear whether it will be equally accessible to Black people and other minorities. None of the companies leading vaccine research have been able to guarantee that it will be affordable. Furthermore, both the U.S. and U.K. governments should take critical steps right now to ensure that the vaccine is affordable and accessible, regardless of socioeconomic and health insurance status. Paradoxically, at a hearing in February, Alex Azar, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services, told a Congressional committee that while “we would want to ensure that we work to make [the vaccine] affordable… we can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest.” Azar was implying that if the pharmaceutical industry can’t make money, they won’t invest in necessary health research. However, Azar’s statement ignores the fact that vaccine research has received significant financial investment from the federal government, $2.6 billion USD from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, as of May 4, and the government a moral responsibility to ensure that its citizens can afford the products of the research they have funded.

While Azar is one of many on the Hill who may share this view, when it comes to our efforts in combating the pandemic, the focus should be on affordable prevention and treatment. To end the pandemic we will need widespread, indiscriminate access to the coronavirus vaccine, including and especially in the Black communities which have been hit the hardest. Recent history tells us that we cannot count on pharmaceutical corporations to prioritize justice and/or human dignity over profits. We need only to look at the actions of Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi regarding insulin to understand why. In the United States, some people with diabetes have been forced to ration expensive, but life-saving insulin, some of them dying as a result. Why are pharmaceutical companies able to price gouge insulin? The aforementioned three companies have monopolized the market by continuing to extend their intellectual property exclusivities, and are able to significantly increase prices as they see fit. Baffling, right? If that isn’t enough, insulin was developed with Canadian taxpayer dollars on a university campus nearly a hundred years ago, so there’s no reason it should be so expensive. In the event that corporations are able to obtain exclusive licenses for coronavirus-related intellectual property, what happened for insulin could happen for a coronavirus vaccine. Still today, one in two people who need access to insulin do not have access.

As we confront both racism and the coronavirus, we must now challenge research institutions that are working on the vaccine, in the hopes they will eliminate exclusive licenses, ensuring that no company can obtain a monopoly on a coronavirus vaccine, therapeutic, or diagnostic. Universities should make relevant intellectual property freely available on coronavirus research, software, medications, and other critical information and tools. This will be rather easy for universities to do. The idea is not just our own; we have partnered with the UK-based Open COVID Pledge, which enables institutions to make this commitment, ensuring that the products of their research are manufactured at scale and at an affordable price point. This means that the vaccine will be available and affordable to all, which will help guarantee equal access for Black communities. Signing the Open COVID Pledge is therefore not merely a technicality or detail about licensing policy, but a matter of ensuring racial justice in healthcare and opposing institutional violence against Blacks.

The Open COVID Pledge isn’t the only initiative addressing access to the vaccine. The Free The Vaccine campaign is a new initiative with the goal of ensuring that the coronavirus vaccine is sustainably priced, available to all, and free at the point-of-delivery. The campaign is a partnership between Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), a student-led organization that works to increase access to affordable medicines, and the Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA), which trains people around the world to use creativity to influence power. In its current phase, the Free The Vaccine campaign has focused on advocating for institutions to sign the Open COVID Pledge. But if the goal of this campaign is not met, access to the vaccine will come down to two important questions: who has insurance? And, who has the income to pay for it? If this is the case, COVID-19 deaths will continue to discriminate by race and socioeconomic status, leaving very little to no hope of correcting the colossal injustices we’re seeing. If we do not address affordability, we will see prevention efforts stymied and possibly limited to wealthier, whiter communities and failing in poor minority populations, which means transmission will not be controlled.

As activists, and in collaboration with others, we demand an end to the interconnected pandemics threatening Black lives, both the coronavirus and racism. Therefore, research institutions and communities must realize that they are not exempt from our collective duty to humanity, combating racism, and public health. What we need now more than ever is a transformation of our criminal justice and healthcare systems, equality, and equity. We need the moral leadership of research institutions willing to put Black people, and all people, before profit.

To the titans of the scientific community: the Open COVID Pledge is waiting for you to sign.

How can we measure the impact of art and creativity?

Imagine you want to help young people in West Africa use their creative skills to engage their peers in political dialogue about gender violence. Or you want to train artists and scientists to collaborate on truly innovative and creative ways to teach people about pressing science issues like climate change. Or you want to create a performative ritual for formerly incarcerated people that reintroduces them into their communities. These projects have amazing objectives, but how do you know if you’re accomplishing what you set out to do?

When it comes to social change projects that work at the level of culture, and reaching people through emotion and creativity, it can feel intimidating to try to understand what “works.” How might we all best understand the effect AND affect of projects that combine creativity and social change?

We’ve been working on this challenging question for a number of years, and we’ve been loving putting it into practice through our most recent Assessment Advising work.

The examples above – the West Africa youth, the artist-scientist collaborations, and the ritual performance – are from our recent work advising Action Aid, Guerilla Science, and A Blade of Grass. We’ve been helping them measure and understand the impact of the fantastic work they’re doing at the intersections of culture, creativity, and social change movements. Read these case studies here, and learn more about how we do this work.

Stop Hate for Profit: Facebook Ad Boycott

The Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, and the Color Of Change have called for business to boycott advertising on Facebook “to stand in solidarity with our most deeply held American values of freedom, equality and justice.”

Their effort is gaining momentum, with brands singing on like Patagonia, the North Face, REI, Magnolia Pictures, and Ben & Jerry’s.

Stop Hate For Profit Logo

What would you do with $70 billion?

We know what Facebook did.

They  allowed  incitement  to  violence  against  protesters  fighting  for racial justice in America in the wake of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor,  Tony  McDade,  Ahmaud  Arbery,  Rayshard  Brooks  and  so  many others.

They named Breitbart News a “trusted news source” and made The Daily Caller a “fact checker” despite both publications having records of working with known white nationalists.

They  turned a blind eye to blatant voter suppression on their platform.

Could they protect and support Black users? Could they call out Holocaust denial as hate? Could they help get out the vote?

They absolutely could. But they are actively choosing not to do so.

99% of Facebook’s $70 billion is made through advertising.

Who will advertisers stand with?

Let’s send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.

Please join us.

Over two years ago we published an op-ed in ArtNet News about the Center for Artistic Activism’s withdrawl from Facebook. We tried to make the case for other non-profits to exit by focusing on the data and financial side while touching on moral and ethical issues. It’s not too late.

Alumni Anne Basting’s Creative Care

Anne Basting (alumni of our School for Creative Activism) is a pioneer in dementia and elder Care. She “developed a radical approach that combines methods from the world of theater and improvisation with evidence-based therapies that connect people using their own creativity and imagination.”

Her new book is called Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care.

Here’s a note from Anne

I have always felt an urgency to getting these tools to caregivers. But in this historical moment, the need is multiplied 1000-fold by the closing of social programs for people with dementia and the desperate need for meaningful engagement with elders now on lockdown.

This book chronicles my story of how I came to find the power of creative care; the elements of it and how it can be infused into care relationships; and how creative care practices can help transform our care systems themselves.

In the moment of COVID19, everyone is a caregiver. And creativity not only is a helpful tool, it’s our new way of being in this unprecedented time.

I hope you find these stories both soothing and inspiring. The team at my non-profit TimeSlips is working furiously to bring more and more creative engagement tools to caregivers in every setting. Sign up for their newsletter to get a weekly dose of Creative Care – inspiring prompts to help spark your imagination and engagements.

I’m offering a daily dose of Creative Care on my Facebook page.

Let your imagination soar… and may you be well.

— Anne

C4AA on the Nice Work! Podcast

Rebecca Bray and Steve Lambert were interviewed for the Nice Work! Podcast from the Super Nice Club.

Most of us want a safe, thoroughly tested vaccine for COVID-19, stat. But, what good is a vaccine if the people who need it most can’t afford it? NO GOOD is the correct answer. 

Which is why the Super Nice Club is actively involved as part of the FREE THE VACCINE effort — over 300 artists, activists and researchers around the world who are advocating for and pressuring key stakeholders to ensure that the vaccine, when ready and safe, will be free at the point of delivery. 

This week’s NICE WORK! podcast features Rebecca Bray and Steve Lambert. Together, they founded FREE THE VACCINE. Learn all about what we’re up to by tuning in to this week’s episode wherever you get your podcasts…

And just two episodes earlier, C4AA alumni, Prince Andrew Aradayfio was interviewed:

This is a great episode. Really inspiring to hear what passionate, intelligent humans can do when they leverage their interests to use advanced tools to make the world a nicer place.
In this episode, you’ll learn about ‘gamification’ and, specifically, how online gaming is being used right now to clean up the real world. We all know games can influence behavior, but do we know of the real potential for ‘making things 10% nicer’?

Artistic Activism during the Civil Rights Movement

From the mid 1950s to the early 1970s the Civil Rights movement involved tens of thousand of people and changed the civil rights for millions. It was also a consciously creative campaign.

Artistic Activism is not new. All effective activism contains creativity, uses culture. and employs artistic techniques. And from the activists and organizers that came before us we can learn principles of creative activism that we can use today.

Here are some lessons that we can learn from the US Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.

Martin Luther King giving the I Have a Dream Speech

This is how we often remember the Civil Rights Movement: The masses of people led by the shining star of courage and righteousness the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King was a brave and righteous individual, no doubt, but his – and the movement’s – power and efficacy was communal and cultural.

But the Civil Rights Movement would have been inconceivable without black churches. Not just their institutional role: being important institutions that could offer organization and leadership for the movement. But their cultural one: songs that served as the sound track to the Civil Rights movement, and the communal experience solidarity in singing. Creative material — images and narratives — to imagine a struggle against great odds and the possibility of arriving at a promised land. The story of Moses and slaves fleeing from bondage to the promised land. And a stage to collectively perform these acts of creation and imagination. Every week, church provided a stage where a different society, one not controlled by white supremacists, was enacted. The lesson?

Lesson: Build from foundations

Activists never start at ground zero, and it’s a mistake to think that we create something from nothing. We are always drawing from the repository of meanings and images and words that already exist.

This is what makes changing society so hard: we are stuck within the very culture we are trying to change.

But even within the most oppressive of societies there are pockets of counter-cultures: repositories of resistance that provide a cultural foundation: the stories, the songs, the cultural institutions — upon which we can build.


Here’s an epic moment in the Civil Rights struggle: Rosa Parks, a Montgomery, Alabama seamstress, tired after a long day of work, who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white person and sit in the back of a segregated bus. An act that launched the modern Civil Rights Movement.

tight shot of Rosa Parks, sitting, alone on the bus

At least that’s what we are taught. Here’s the real story: Rosa Parks was not just some innocent who happened to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. She was an experienced activist and political organizer, she organized around defending the Scottsboro boys in the 1930s, hosted “Voter League” meetings in the 1940s, became the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and trained at the Highlander Center, a progressive politics and cultural training center in TN. She later moved to Detroit where she protested against the Vietnam War, was a supporter of Black Power and fan of Malcolm X. Rosa Parks refused to move knowing full well what she was doing and what the ramifications would be.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery Alabama in 1955, she was tired and she could not sit in the front of the bus in the segregated South. But her act was a performance to dramatize the reality of racial inequality to a larger world that either didn’t know or didn’t care.

In fact, this iconic image was taken more than a year later, on Dec. 21, 1956, the day after the United States Supreme Court ruled Montgomery’s segregated bus system illegal. The man sitting behind her in this famous (here un-cropped) photo is not the Southern bigot who asked her to move, as one could easily assumed, but a United Press reporter asked to sit there for a staged photo well after the fact.

Lesson: Perform Reality

We often think of performance as creating a fantasy. It can be this, and this can be useful as it allows us to visualize and act out our dreams. But performance is also useful in dramatizing reality. The truth is important, but the truth needs help.


Nowhere was the Civil Rights Movement’s “performance of reality” is better demonstrated than the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) campaign to desegregate Birmingham Alabama in 1963. So many of our images of the brutality of the Southern racism and the Civil Rights Movement come from that demonstration: Men being attacked by police dogs…

School children being marched off to jail as part of the Children’s Crusade.

Protestors assaulted by fire hoses.

Everyone knows these pictures. What’s less well known is that the campaign to desegregate Birmingham Alabama was also staged, in fact it was staged twice. A year earlier, a similar protest had been attempted in Albany, Georgia: and it failed. It failed in part because the police simply, and peaceably, arrested everyone and distributed them in jails around Georgia.

The SCLC learned. They picked Birmingham because it had a long history of labor organizing, because of a recent spate of church bombings, but also because of Bull Connor – the acting police chief – a former Klansman who was known for his belligerent racism. The SCLC cast Connor in the role of villain and he played it perfectly. The result was the images we know now: images of black decency and courage, facing down white violence and racism. Broadcast around the world. It was a brilliant – and creative – act of “strategic dramaturgy” as social movement historian Doug McAdam has called it.

Lesson: Make the Invisible Visible

Again, to say these events were staged with an astute eye for aesthetics does not mean that they were fabrications. In the 1950s and 1960s African Americans in the South were not allowed to sit in the front of the bus, eat at segregated lunch counters, or protest in the streets. In the 1950s and 1960s African Americans who stepped out of line were arrested, beaten and brutalized. The activists of the Civil Rights movement were not fabricating fantasies, they were dramatizing reality – a reality invisible to most of the US and the world.


Lunch Counter Sit-Ins were a major creative tactic of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most famous was by Students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro North Carolina in 1960.

The Activists were assaulted and humiliated… but they were ready for this.

Before the sit-ins the activists trained for what they would encounter because they knew that how the protest would be remembered depended upon how they acted.

Lesson: PROTEST AS PERFORMANCE

And old friend and talented artistic activist, David Solnit, once told us “All protest is theater. The problem is that most of it is just bad theater.”

So consider how to make your protest a better performance.

  • Practice blocking
  • Know your lines
  • Consider lines of site
  • Create a tableau.
  • Consider your entrance and exit.

Think of protest as a dramatic performance.


The Civil Rights Movement trained a generation of activists about the power of the image and the performance, and the idea that aesthetic creativity was an integral part of protest politics. These lessons were passed on — most immediately to the Black Power movement and groups like the Black Panther Party.

The Black Panthers formed in 1965 in response to northern police violence against African-Americans. Distancing themselves from the suits and ties of the Civil Rights Movement, they dressed and acted the part of militant revolutionaries

Wearing Berets, black leather and, where they could, guns.

Quite simply: they were baddest, coolest, hippest looking people around.

Lesson: STYLE MATTERS

We, as activists, are part of the art of activism. How we, appear matters: it communicates a message as powerful as the words on the pamphlet you hand to someone. People associate the message with the messenger. Perhaps more important: People associate the very idea of activism and being an activist with how we present ourselves. This is why early civil rights activists dressed in coats and ties and the Black Panthers wore leather and berets: both communicate the message, to different audiences and in different contexts: this is what an activist looks like. But it’s not just about clothes, it’s the attitude you wear.


Militant message and style resonated with younger activists and it spread from the African American community to others: Chicano Brown Berets, Puerto Rican Young Lords, and the American Indian Movement (AIM). All these groups were were masters at staging dramatic actions, and one of the most brilliant was AIM occupying the former prison on Alcatraz Island off San Francisco in 1969 and declaring it a new Indian Reservation.

We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.

We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty: We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years.

They then issued and publicized a humorous “proclamation” to explain their action to the public:

We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian Reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations, in that:

1. It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
2. It has no fresh running water.
3. It has inadequate sanitation facilities.
4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
5. There is no industry so unemployment is great.
6. There are no health care facilities.
7. The soil is rocky and non-productive; and the land does not support game.
8. There are no educational facilities.
9. The population has always exceeded the land base.
10. The population has always been held as prisoners and kept dependent upon others

SERIOUSLY FUNNY

Indigenous Peoples have few reasons to laugh at their plight. But these AIM activists understood that humor is a key element in successful creative activism. Through humor you can reach people who would otherwise shut you out; through humor you can bring up “serious” issues in a way that doesn’t threaten your audience.

But humor is also important for activism in another way: it builds bridges. It takes two for a joke to work. This is something painfully aware to any stand-up comic. But when a joke does work it builds a bond between the person making the joke and the person laughing. They share the message and an understanding (even if they don’t agree).


But most often the image projected was not one of humor but of militancy: the berets, the clothes, the guns. This uniform was a potent symbol of black, brown and red power to young people of color who were impatient with and saw the limits of the legal reforms of the Civil Rights movement.

The Black Panther Party did a whole lot more that stand around looking like revolutionaries. For example, they created programs to directly help people in their communities like their free food and free clothing program, and best known: Free Breakfast for School Children program started in Oakland in 1969 that then spread across the US.

But the militant style and rhetoric projected by the young activists gave the police and the FBI the justification they needed to harass, arrest, and murder members of the Black Panther Party, AIM and many others. For instance, in 1969 the former NAACP and current Black Panther organizer Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago police while he was still in bed. The symbol of militancy had a double edge.

SYMBOLS ARE SLIPPERY

The lesson here is a serious one: Symbols and messages can be interpreted differently by different audiences. And our opponents can consciously manipulate our symbols for their ends. Always assume they will.

But the original, inspiring symbol of the Black Panther still perseveres and still mobilizes.


Thank you for reading. We include this as part of the history of artistic activism in our trainings on the history of artistic activism. Please feel free to share, with attribution, as all our work is Creative Commons licensed.

Update on Free the Vaccine for Covid-19

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 is a campaign to ensure equal access to treatments, testing and a vaccine for COVID-19.

The campaign is run through our Advocacy Innovation Lab, a platform, training ground, and methodology that combines social justice organizing and creativity to advance advocacy work quickly and collaboratively, online.

What’s the Problem We’re Addressing

It’s hard to imagine the day we read the headline “COVID-19 Immunizations Begin.” However, history shows that it’s only a matter of time until we have a vaccine for COVID-19. This day will arrive.

Download a brief

4 page PDF summary of the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 program and campaign

The problem is this: when we do have a vaccine, will everyone have access to it? Without affordable access for everyone, across the globe, the vaccine can’t really do its job. Already governments around the world are investing billions in tax-payer funds into the research and development of diagnostic tools, treatments, and a vaccine for Covid-19. Since the SARS outbreak, the National Institutes of Health alone has spent nearly $700 million on coronavirus research and development. This virus is now a pandemic, following those of Ebola and Zika, yet experience tells us once the vaccine is discovered, pharmaceutical corporations will want us to pay again to acquire it. This means that payment will likely be demanded for a life-saving medicine already paid for from public funds. It also means that not everyone will be able to afford access.

More urgently than ever the global need for collaboration and solidarity is being felt by people who had never before paid attention to these issues. Almost everyone, everywhere is waiting for drugs and vaccines that can change lives, history and the current narrative. And an urgent question needs to be answered: how do we ensure access for all?

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 Logo

The Goals

We will ensure that publicly-funded diagnostic tools, treatment, and the COVID-19 vaccine(s) will be sustainably priced, available to all and free at the point of delivery.

We seek to grow the access to medicines advocacy movement, train people with new kinds of skills, knowledge and confidence to fight for equitable access to medicines, and share the Advocacy Innovation methodologies to help other advocacy organizations seeking to thrive in this new climate.

How Does it Work?

The social-political landscape has fundamentally shifted. We won’t win through old methods – holding up signs at a traditional crowded protest march is no longer an option. So we’re finding new, better ways that work in our current context through our “Advocacy Innovation Lab.” While the virologists are working in their lab developing a vaccine, we’re working in ours making sure that vaccine is freely available.

We are implementing a global program designed for the time of physical distancing, with live weekly online courses at two different times to cater to different time zones around the world. From more than 300 volunteers from 29 countries we have formed “Salk Squads” of 6-10 people (named after Jonas Salk who gave the vaccine for polio to the world).

Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 “How it works” diagram

Where We’re headed

Right now, in the weeks since we launched the project in March 2020, we have 300 diverse people committed to work on the campaign weekly for four months, through July 2020. They are from 29 countries on every continent (except Antarctica!). 66% identify as women, 60% as activists, and 36% as artists or designers. By July, these people will have created and deployed dozens of simultaneous advocacy actions, and we expect to see significant impact in the form of many more institutions who have pledged to keep COVID-19 treatments, testing and vaccines fully accessable, affordable and free at the point of delivery. At the end of these first 4 months, we will have dozens of trained, creative and motivated advocates around the world, and we already are fielding interest from hundreds more for the next round.

How to Get Involved

Take Action: Check out the short actions anyone can take.

Stay Updated: Get short weekly emails, including new actions you can take, and inspiration from ongoing projects. Sign up for the newsletter .

Be Part of the Next Round: Individuals and advocacy groups are encouraged to Sign up for the newsletter to receive first notice when applications are open for the next rounds.

Support It: We are currently seeking funding in order to conduct a Fall session of the Advocacy Innovation Lab. You can donate as an individual or share our 4 page funding brief with organizations looking to support projects like these.

Talk with Us: We love to share what we’re learning, and are happy to discuss the project. Email campaignleads at freethevaccine dot org.

Call: Impact Prize to end mass incarceration

The Frieze Impact Prize is a new award to recognize artists’ role in the movement to end mass incarceration in the U.S. The prize seeks to lift up artwork that highlights the inequitable aspects of the criminal justice system and challenges its racial bias. Special consideration will be given to work by justice-involved artists. If there is anyone you know who may be a candidate, please share this announcement with them.

The Prize will award $25,000 to an artist 18 years or older for an existing work of art that can contribute to the movement to end mass incarceration. Artists may apply online until Friday, July 3 at 5pm EST. For more information, please check out the FAQs or contact meredith.reed at frieze.com

Webinar #27: Avram Finkelstein

Avram discusses collectivity and communicating in public space for participants of the Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 campaign.

At our last Free the Vaccine for COVID-19 meeting some participants said they wanted to know more about working in collectives. We immediately went to Avram Finkelstein who has a wealth of experience with working in collectives on public health topics.

Avram agreed to share his insights on working in collectives like ACT-UP and GRAN FURY, as well as working in public spaces with broad, non-art audiences. We originally intended this to be about 15-30 minutes, but then the conversation just got rolling and was of such high quality, we rolled along with it.

Avram Finkelstein is an artist, activist and writer living in Brooklyn, and a founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives.

Merith Basey is Executive Director of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines in the United States. Rebecca Bray and Steve Lambert are co-directors of the Center for Artistic Activism.

Video

Examples of projects Avram contributed to mentioned in the video: