Favianna Rodriguez is an artist and an activist. She’s a renowned speaker and organizer. She’s the director of CultureStrike, an arts-driven social-justice nonprofit founded on the idea that “cultural work is the key to creating systemic change.” The list goes on and on. Her schedule would exhaust any of us, yet she STILL agreed to design the beautiful and striking pint for our new Limited Batch flavor, Pecan Resist.
Not only that, she recently took the time to talk to us about her work, her art, and her strategy to change the world.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Yes. I always knew. Since I was young, I've always expressed myself. I would draw a lot. My parents are both immigrants from Peru, and they definitely supported my creativity, but they were also fixated on me becoming a doctor or a lawyer. So, in my teens, I had a hard time, because I really wanted to take art classes but, instead, I had to take physics and chemistry!
And when did you start to think of yourself as an activist?
Art was always a way to express myself, but I was also very aware that I didn't really see images of myself portrayed in the mass media, because I grew up in the '80s, and Dora the Explorer did not yet exist.
Also, in my neighborhood, there were no cultural centers. All of my cultural experiences, whether it was the theater, or listening to music, or going to museum, were far from where I lived. By the time I was a teenager, I was acutely aware of just how unequal things were. So I became an activist at a young age and organized the first Latino high school group in my school. I also ran for student body office in my high school.
For me, being an artist means having a voice. I've always felt very much engaged in politics — not because I wanted to, but because inequality was just so blatant. I was often the only Latino kid in my honors and AP classes, and I would think to myself, "This is so wrong." All my other friends are in remedial English, or they're purposely tracked in a lower level, and that made me want to be socially active.
Have art and activism always been connected for you?
At first, they were happening in different realms. I realized that, on the one hand, I was fighting against something that negatively impacted me. And on the other, I was also really hungry to express myself. My art career started in the year 2000, and it took almost a decade for me to really merge my two passions together.
I think that all art is political. I think that art is always an expression of a human experience, and I very much believe that the arts are central to our society. It took some time, but now I totally see that art and activism very much belong together. Why? Because culture precedes politics. People have to be able to imagine a different world before that world comes into being.
And do you see your art as being part of that, creating that cultural imagination?
Absolutely. Now that's what I I focus entirely on. I focus on leveraging art and working with artists to tap the imagination and visualize possibility. I work with musicians, I work with actors, I work with people in the entertainment industry, I work with up-and-coming artists. We believe that our work as artists is to help other people imagine the future, and also to show human stories that can help us understand the lived experiences of others.
Can you talk about what it was like to work with Ben & Jerry’s?
When I connected with Ben & Jerry's team, there was a real natural alignment. I'm not just an artist that's going to make a pretty image. I believe in the power of stories, of narrative, so I was deeply interested in the story we were attempting to create. I felt strongly that we should lead with messages that are about the world we want to see. This moment is about women, about including people of color, and immigrants, and Muslims, and fighting for the environment. That means creating a welcoming, inclusive, and just society.
I believe that there are three pillars of social change. There's the cultural space, there's the political space, and there's the economic space. And when you have all three pillars working in unison on a particular issue, you can achieve lasting social change. Where people spend their money isa reflection of their values. In working with Ben & Jerry's, it was really exciting to get a better understanding of how the choices you make around what you eat are a reflection of the things you care about. For a long time, I'd been mostly working in the cultural realm and the political realm, and so this was a great opportunity to work in the third.
Tell us about your design for the Pecan Resist pint.
I wanted the design to feel positive, and I wanted the color palette to invoke the natural world. Our fight for the environment is connected to our fight for human rights. I wanted to have characters of color who look dignified, but who also look like they are having fun. For me, what I love about being an artist is that we have fun as we imagine the world around us.
When you really think about it, “resist” is an action word, a fighting word. And so, I wanted to balance out the word “resist” with a peaceful and dignified group of people. Also, I am an artist that loves color. I love color because I think that it can bring out a sense of there's room for all of us. I was very intentional with selecting a palette of colors that felt expansive and joyful, and also like a new world is coming. My perspective of the world comes through living it. Even my choice of colors is shaped by my cultural upbringing. People's lived experience really is at the core of what they create, that’s why I love to be an artist.
I really feel like the Ben & Jerry’s team has trusted me, and also that they're being exposed to another way of working, so it’s been a very mutually beneficial relationship.
You’re an artist and an activist. You’re constantly being asked to speak all over the country. You run a nonprofit. How do you manage to do all the things that you would like to do?
Actually, most of the time, I hardly sleep! But what I'm really trying to do in my lifetime is to show that artists can lead transformative change. I once heard someone say that an artist belongs at every table, and I strongly identify with that. We belong everywhere. As artists, we don't just belong in our studios, we belong in the policy space, we belong in the economic space, we belong in the public realm. My dream is to really open the doors of opportunity to many more artists, especially marginalized artists, but also to really understand the power of art and culture in changing politics.
Can you talk a little more about how that change can happen?
I think that people often think that culture is neutral, but culture is a major battleground. People have to understand that the culture they're seeing is reflective of a power structure that is impeding our progress as a society.
Consider the barriers that exist for women artists right now. The pay disparity between women and male artists is horrible. We hear it from women with power even in the entertainment industry. Thanks to #TimesUp we know now that women in Hollywood are expressing that they work in unsafe spaces. We have a real problem with entrenched power in the cultural space. I started CultureStrike to help create widespread systemic change in the arts and culture realms. We want to help artists get engaged in politics, but also to help the social justice sector begin to incorporate artists into social movements.
It begins with stories, because stories lead to narratives, and narratives leads to culture change. But politics always lags behind. For example, we're witnessing a huge shift right now with the conversation on sexual assault and harassment. It's going to take policy some years to catch up, for the power structure to shift, but the stories, they're here, and they're not going back to the closet.
You talked about not seeing yourself reflected in the culture around you as you were growing up. How are you working to change that for young Latinas today?
As a mixed-race Latina, I see my role is to inspire kids of color, and immigrant kids, and kids who have been marginalized. Because I really, really can't stress enough how hard it is for kids not to see themselves reflected in the culture they're growing up in.
My goal is to inspire girls through my art, especially at this moment when girls are seeing messages on mass media that essentially say, "Hey, boys will be boys." I think it's so critically important for girl to understand that they have a voice and that they have the power to tell your story. I say to them: there's room for your story, we want to hear your story, and we want you to feel empowered. We want to support you in feeling empowered. We want you to know that we see you, we are welcoming to you, we want to include you. That's one of the reasons why I visit tons of high schools and universities. And it’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this project. Ice cream! I mean, what better way to appeal to young people's hearts?