3 Artist-Activists You Should Know About
“There’s a radical – and wonderful – new idea here. That all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world. It's an idea with revolutionary implications. If we take it seriously.” — Deborah Meier, educator and founder of the modern small school movement.
Youth today is more engaged than ever in social causes. Millennials are reshaping company values and public policy, while Gen Zers are growing up with a strong sense of collective responsibility and vocalizing -- at an even earlier age -- their opinions as activists. The young generations of leaders today are uniquely placed to galvanize open discussion and social movements through increasingly accessible and democratized multimedia platforms. Here are three artist-activists that have used photography, dance, and music to further their social mission and overcome obstacles.
Tara Todras-Whitehill, photojournalist and entrepreneur
Tara Todras- Whitehill is a photojournalist and entrepreneur who has over 10 years of experience in documentary photography and is passionate about telling human stories, especially those of women community leaders.
She worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. To cover such events, Todras- Whitehill has not only shown immense bravery and fortitude of character in putting her own life at risks, but also a deep understanding of the power of the image, the impact that photography can have on documenting and shaping historical events.
She is also passionate about working with nonprofits and community organizations such as the Ebola Survivors’ Football Club which provides a support network for survivors of the disease and helps battle negative stigmas in the community. She explained: "There's a lot of stigma attached to Ebola survivors... and in Kenema, which was one of the worst hit places, this was a nice thing that had come out of such a horrible tragedy." The Club was founded by Erison Turay, who lost 38 members of his own family to Ebola, in his hometown of Kenema, 300km east of Freetown [Sierra Leone]. Todras-Whitehill’s photographic work was awarded in the 2016 World Press Photo Contest, winning 3rd place in the sports category for showcasing the Ebola Survivors Football Club.
Despite the ravages of diseases like Ebola in different marginalized communities, Todras-Whitehill preserves the humane in her photographs and shows people as survivors and not as victims. Whatever country or context she works in, she continues to document important socio-political events and work with nonprofits in the most empowering way possible.
In this vein, she created Vignette Interactive, a multimedia and software development company that brings storytelling to the next level, by partnering with NGOs and media organizations to tell in-depth stories in new and compelling ways. What is innovative about her company is more than just empathic storytelling- it is also its use of data visualization and interactive mapping. Moreover, Vignette Interactive provides media training, video production, and accounting expertise to NGOs to better communicate about their work, engage with their supporters, and manage their financial resources. This makes it clear that Todras-Whitehill is a multipotentialite and a creative leader who facilitates the collaboration and intersection of different media disciplines with organizational priorities.
In an increasingly visual and media-centric society, young photojournalists like Todras-Whitehill play an important role in challenging and broadening the role of documentary photography, from raising awareness to being a true agent of change.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, climate activist and hip-hop artist
16 year- old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is an Aztec descendant American from Boulder, Colorado. He has become a frontline face of the youth-led climate justice movement. He was raised to understand the importance of protecting the natural world around him, especially for indigenous communities who have been “activists” before the term was formalized. Since he was 6 years old, Martinez has been concerned with the protection of the mountains, forests, and rivers of Colorado. He has collaborated with over 50 environmental organizations to eliminate pesticides from Boulder's parks, require a fee for plastic bags, contain coal ash, and get a moratorium on fracking in Boulder County. Along with other young people, he is currently working on a statewide ban on fracking through a lawsuit he filed against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Martinez’ work and devotion to climate justice activism shatter the negative stereotypes about the younger generation today, often portrayed as entitled. The only thing that Martinez feels entitled to is a clean and safe planet to live on.
Martinez gives presentations on fracking and climate change in schools and conferences nationally. His work on climate change has led him to become a youth plaintiff against the United States for failing to protect the atmosphere. To support this litigation, Martinez met with representatives from all three branches of government working to garner support and create a climate recovery plan based on NASA scientist James Hansen's work.
In 2012, Martinez was one of the youngest speakers at the RIO+20 United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He spoke on UN panels and side events, and had the honor of lighting the sacred fire with indigenous elders from Brazil. He was also a keynote speaker at the GINParis 2015 Conference that was organized in partnership with COP21.
He is now traveling with the international Earth Guardians crew around the globe to rally the other Earth Guardians crews in Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Mexico, and Brazil. During his speeches, he emphasizes how climate change is a human rights issue, and how his generation will be the most impacted by climate change so there is no time for inaction.
Martinez uses hip-hop dance and rap to spread his message to his peers and carry on the tradition of the protest song with an indigenous voice. His music was first used in the documentary "Trust Colorado," which was shown in over 100 cities worldwide and received the 2012 Best Environmental Film Documentary of the Year. He wrote and produced the Earth Guardians' album, Generation RYSE.
Despite multiple security threats and criticism from energy & oil companies, Martinez persists in fighting for what he believes in. He is an inspired youth, eloquent and confident beyond his years. It is very exciting to see such drive and determination in the younger generations.
Thao Nguyen, folk singer and gender justice ambassador
Thao Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American folk songwriter who works with nonprofits and advocacy groups in the San Francisco Bay area, including the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. She uses her music to tell the stories of the women she meets who were incarcerated, in particular, a woman named Valerie Bolden who is a domestic abuse survivor serving a life sentence. She released the album “We The Common” with her band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. It covers topics of the Valley State Prison For Women (VSPW) conditions, women’s rights, freedom, the Occupy movement in Oakland, identity when being rootless etc. She views music and activism as intertwined disciplines: “I think I'm more effective as an activist if I stay in music, to be honest. Music, the way it reaches people and transcends divisions, is a really effective and powerful forum.”
She has also been active around body positivity issues by working with Oxfam America as a Sisters on the Planet Ambassador, and with her 2010 music video “Body."
Nguyen is also an activist in the sense that she is breaking out of musical stereotypes around Asian singers. It shows bravery to break musical genres and expectations this way without knowing if the musical community is going to be receptive or not.
These three artists make activism accessible to younger generations by exploring society’s boundaries and their own self-limitations, and addressing important questions through art and creativity. They are comfortable speaking about their fears of climate change, political turmoil, and gender persecution, but still face them head on. And for that, regardless of age, they are brave leaders.
This article was written and edited by Jessica Newfield.