Beehive Design Collective and the Youth Activism Conference workshop series
Sakura Saunders in an environmental justice and indigenous solidarity activist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She’s been organizing in Canada for close to thirteen years, and is currently a member of the Beehive Design Collective, an arts and activist organization that creates intricate and metaphor rich murals to act as centrepieces in educational campaigns around social justice issues. Previously, Sakura also worked as a media activist in the United States.
On Sunday, February 3, Sakura visited the StFX campus to facilitate the first of the Youth Activism Conference workshop series. The workshop centred around creativity and art in activism, and story-based strategies for organizing.
AS: What role do you see art and story occupying in activist and protest work?
SS: I think that story is fundamental to creating narrative. We need to create narrative that represents not only the reality that we live but the reality that we want to see, and we need to challenge dominant narratives and myths around the inevitability of the status quo, especially considering that right now, the status quo is driving us towards climate chaos and an extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of very few people. We need to be challenging that system of economics and getting back to the basics, saying “we actually need to rebuild our economy in a way that prioritizes both people and the land that sustains us,” and this is actually going to be better at meeting the needs of most people. We have a convincing narrative because it’s not very hard to prove what our current state of capitalism has done in terms of environmental devastation and wealth inequality, and the fact that people feel so powerless. So many people don’t even feel comfortable speaking out in their workplaces about injustices that they face because workers in our current economy are disempowered and afraid of losing jobs. We really need to assert that our economy doesn’t necessarily need to be this way, that our society doesn’t need to be this way, and that, supposedly, we live in a democracy and are able to choose a different path. As for campaigns for a higher minimum wage, they’re not extraordinarily ambitious, but they are illustrative in the gains we can make that are good for people and are beneficial to the overall economy. I think that there are lots of instances where if we assert the necessity of taking care of each other and the planet, that is actually going to be better for our society, and not cost society as the dominant narrative would suggest.
AS: What about art makes it so conducive to social change?
SS: When I think specifically of the Beehive Collective art, it’s really beautiful, detailed illustrations of animals, and plants, and machines, and the quality of the artwork makes even people who don’t share our political values curious. They want to understand what’s happening in the images, and they become curious and disarmed by it. When you tell someone a story, you’re not telling them what to believe. You’re telling them a history, and then if they listen, the lessons are embedded in that. It’s a softer way to approach people that allows them to make those connections on their own, but at the same time, we created that art with the intention of changing hearts and minds, enabling people to see a different way of being, and to understand the trajectory that they’ve been on through examining histories and seeing how the system has perpetually undermined people and taken away their power, and as a result have made it so that decisions are being made far away from where those decisions are having impact. We’re just getting worse and worse off as a society. We’re getting more poor, and we’re having less control over our lives
AS: What makes a good story?
SS: I ran a training today based on how to construct effective narratives. This is based on a methodology I learned from what is now the Centre for Story Based Strategy, and a smart story, a good, effective narrative, is one that reframes an issue, that opens fissures in the dominant narrative, takes those contradictions in the popular narratives that we’re fed and opens those wide up to expose their absurdity. It has as primary characters the agents of change, who are the people that are most impacted by the negative aspects of the status quo or the dominant narratives. It creates new characters, new heroes, and it foreshadows the outcome that we want to achieve while building a frame that has all sorts of necessary underlying assumptions that reflect a value system we think is fundamental to the new world we want to bring. And that is, fundamentally, a value system of care. If we prioritize taking care of each other, and taking care of the environment, I think you’ll find that people will be plenty busy, people will have more agency, and people will be happier - it will be a happier society overall, we’ll have less social issues.
AS: Can you tell me about a specific moment when you witnessed art playing an import role or impacting a movement you were involved in?
SS: I don’t know if I’d call it art, as much as culture. I’m so inspired by the Indigenous resistance and resurgence taking place in Canada that is so based in traditions, and the reclamation of language, and implicit in language and traditions is a centering of future generations and the land. I think that’s very powerful, and I think it simultaneously reinforces indigenous sovereignty, which is something that’s glossed over a lot, even though the vast majority of the population in Canada lives within 100 miles of the US border, and somehow people feel very entitled to this entire country. I think that what is happening right now with the conflict in Wet’suwet’en Yintah, that’s created conflict across the entire Canadian landscape. In learning about the hereditary system, and how it isn’t like kings (that’s a very western way of looking at it), but it’s more like a system where people have roles and responsibilities, and you’re raised with certain responsibilities, and if you don’t live up to those responsibilities there are checks and balances to remove your title and remove your names, but that fundamentally embodied in that role is not some shallow notion of democracy or popularity, but actually this responsibility to future generations.
AS: For those among us who don’t identify as artists or storytellers, do you have any advice on how to incorporate creativity into activist work?
SS: Creative activism isn’t necessarily about 2-D art, or musical art, or anything like that. I gave examples of creative actions today that included musical flash mobs in shopping malls, or pranks, where different types of creativity are at play. If you’re a writer, if you’re an athlete, if you’re a visual artist, if you’re a musician, or just someone who’s very bold - creative action is about symbolism. It’s about forwarding a narrative, forwarding a set of values, it’s about winning hearts and minds, it’s about knowing who you’re speaking to, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the skill you have to render a certain image. And if you still feel like you don’t identify as a creative in any of those capacities, you can still work with others. I think that the best work is work that incorporates a lot of different perspectives. We all have a role, and we build from below. If you’re interested in doing creative actions but don’t feel creative yourself, just get together with other people. Check out methodologies that exist that can take you through questions to help you shape an action that will be both creative and effective in reaching your goals.