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Art Build at the NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice in Minneapolis

July 4, 2018

A week ago, five of us from Milwaukee traveled up to Minneapolis to work on a two-day art build during the NEA (National Education Association) Conference on Racial and Social Justice. The conference was from June 28-29 and brought together 1,000-plus people – primarily, but not exclusively, K-12 teachers who are part of their local teachers union, under the national umbrella of the NEA. Our task was to paint 15 large-scale parachute banners (24′ wide) throughout the duration of the conference. The goal was to showcase the tactics and the power of art builds, to create specific banners for the June 30th march in Minneapolis (in conjunction with the National Day of Action: Families Belong Together), and to supply the NEA with 15 parachute banners for their emerging banner-lending library. Our art build crew included myself and Paul Kjelland representing Justseeds, Kim Cosier, Claudio Martinez, and Joe Brusky of the MTEA union. (Note too that all the photos of the art build are from Joe Brusky.)

Prior to the NEA Conference we dialoged with a team of NEA organizers on the slogans and themes that they wished to see. Then we designed. Here are some examples of our designs:

Claudio Martinez:

Nicolas Lampert:

Kim Cosier:

Paul Kjelland:

Next, after all the designs were approved, we had all the materials ordered (blank play parachutes and acrylic artist paint), and then traced out the 15 designs in Milwaukee:

We then got a head start painting in Milwaukee with help from our art build community and friends in Voces de los Artistas as painting 15 parachutes in two days did not seem feasible. (It wasn’t):

In Minneapolis, we set up the night before the conference was to begin in a corner of the Minneapolis Convention Center and began painting. The next morning at 8:00am the conference was in full swing. And so were we: painting at lightning speed with an steady stream of volunteers (conference attendees) who would stop by and help out.

Joe Brusky and I also gave a presentation during a workshop session called “Plot, Paint, Power: Building Creative Community.” It was really interested to present with Joe on art builds as we were approaching it from different vantage points. Myself as an ally to NEA and as an artist in Justseeds and Joe as a MTEA union organizer and a photographer who uses social media to help organize within his local. Prior to presenting we came up with a list (with help from Kim, Paul, and Claudio) on why art builds are so essential – especially in the context of organized labor.

1. Provides creative entry point into the union and its organizing for members and the community.
2. Honors the Intersectionality of Movements / Builds coalitions.
3. Honors a multiplicity of voices / collaboration / inter-generational.
4. Creates a Space for engagement and action / a space for healing / art builds nurture the soul.
5. Engages/invites  artists to create art for the movement.
6. Generates social media during the art build: promotes the upcoming event / creates  buy-in / a lasting memory.
7. Art in the streets: visualizes the message / creates cohesion / attracts the camera – the media / art brings joy to the demonstration.
8. Movement Imaginary. Helps visualize the world we want to live in.

The art build itself was perfectly located in the conference center space. While we painted we could listen to the keynote speakers, the DJ (Rich Medina), and we could welcome anyone in the conference to take part in the art build. During the two-day conference we heard presentations by some of the best organizers working today: Rashad Robinson, Shaun King, and Rinku Sen.

Rashad Robinson (Color of Change) (photo by Joe Brusky)

Shaun King (photos by Joe Brusky)

Considering how disastrous the news of the week had been (The Supreme Court decisions upholding the overtly racist Muslim ban, the Janus decision, and the announced retirement of Kennedy) it was therapeutic to be in a room of others who were equally appalled AND equally committed to organizing and fighting back.

During the art build we made numerous new friends and spread the goodwill and the tactics of art builds to people from all 50 US States and beyond:

Kenny Chin!

It was inspiring to see how much the banners resonated with those at the conference:

It was even more inspiring to see the banners in the streets of Minneapolis for the National Day of Action: Families Belong Together:


photo by: Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

And awe-inspiring to see tens of thousands of people marching in Minneapolis and across the US to reject the Trump agenda:

In closing, a heartfelt thank you to all the NEA conference organizers, to all who helped us paint the banners in Minneapolis (and Milwaukee), and to Nate Gunderson for suggesting that an art build would be a great idea for this year’s conference. Indeed, it was. Solidarity Forever.

EducationLaborMigrationRacial JusticeSocial Movements

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