Art and Grassroots Activism: Learning from Frontline Fighters

Left to right Portraits of: Taylor, a CNA / Lorenzo, an activist / Starr, Junior Creative Director of Black, Young, & Educated. Designed by Amulya Garimella

I have loved to draw ever since I could pick up a pencil. I doodled in the margins of my homework assignments and tests, and getting a digital art tablet at 13 was one of my happiest moments.  Yet I’d always relegated art to a hobby; an unrealistic career choice that couldn’t make money. But until recently, I was unsure of how art could fit into my life. I had always enjoyed drawing but never quite understood how art can impact the world and connect with individual people.

My English teacher motivated me to search for the deeper arguments, meanings, and layers of connection in art, whether it be a drawing, a poem, or a novel. I started to look at pieces differently. I started to consider not only whether a piece looked good on the surface, but what the artist was trying to convey, and began to learn just how powerful art could be.

Increasingly, I found myself inspired by artists like Janelle Monáe, a musician, and Diana Ferrus, a poet. Monáe’s albums use science fiction themes and intricate allusions to tell a story of liberation and power, and every performance is bold and beautiful. One of Ferrus’s most famous poems, “I’ve come to take you home,” is a gorgeous tribute to one of the first Black female trafficking victims, Saartjie Baartman. Ferrus’s poem is believed to be responsible for the return of her remains to South Africa from France in 2002, and was published in a French law.  These artists use their mediums to create change from very personal places. I realized that art gives people the power to speak out and amplify others’ voices.
I’m seeing the power of art firsthand in Pittsburgh, my hometown. Max Gonzales, a local artist, painted tributes to Antwon Rose II, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery downtown. A group of 15 Black artists and activists created a richly gorgeous Black Lives Matter mural by the Allegheny River, adding their own unique touches. Art as a tribute can bring not only catharsis and healing, but also urgency. These activists use art to call out from a voice that has been forcefully suppressed for centuries. In fact, some still try to suppress Black voices as these tribute murals are vandalized. Art can be powerful from the political and personal voice; in the current movement, the two dovetail.

“Being consistent in your actions will bring recognition. Recognition is a step to change.”

Starr, Junior Creative Director of Black, Young, & Educated

Starr’s quote is, to me, a powerful thought on the importance of persistent action in community organizing. Community activism is not about one-off gestures or quick fixes — it must be a long process. And recognition is not a goal — merely a stepping stone on the way to change.

During the ongoing pandemic and protests, I saw people from all different backgrounds creating art that tells a story. It is a way to stay connected in a time when it’s easier than ever to isolate ourselves. I considered ways that I could create my own art; ways that I could tell stories to aid the cause. I wanted a way to honor these individuals while still concretely promoting their causes. That idea led me to create the Draw Attention project: I draw portraits of essential workers and community organizers, asking them for a quote to include and a place to which people could donate — a personal Venmo, a mutual aid fund, Doctors Without Borders. Integrating these quotes and donation links seamlessly with portraits could move people to listen to those stories.  Living with an at-risk family member precludes me from going out a lot now, but through art, I can show my support for a movement and center important activist voices.

“Being a CNA is a lot harder than I think most people realize. Since COVID-19, my job has become more complicated but the continuous support from my community has made it so much easier to go to work ! The best thing you can do for the health care workers is by showing them your support, it makes such a difference. This means thanking them when you see them, even donating a cup of coffee and most importantly doing your part to keep our communities safe!”

Taylor, CNA

Taylor’s quote was really important to me because it shows that even small actions can help make a difference in communities. These small actions can really build up over time, and ultimately help support frontline fighters.

I started reaching out to essential workers all over. This took various forms: through a friend, to her mom, a nurse; emailing my mom’s coworker, a paramedic for a local department. I expanded my reach, talking to people over Twitter and Instagram. Since so many activists are taking to social media to voice their concerns and organize demonstrations, I could instantly get in touch with them through the Internet. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to and learn about the experiences of essential workers from all over the world — Taylor, a mental health worker in the UK; Darian and Haley, EMS workers; Teiona, a nursing student; Lexi, a lab tech — as well as community organizers right here in Pittsburgh like the students who founded Black, Young, and Educated.

It has been an incredible experience to learn from people who are fighting on the frontlines. It can be challenging: especially after these conversations, it’s absurd to see people complaining about wearing masks while volunteer COVID-19 testers work for hours in full PPE under the hot sun, and it’s enraging to hear about police blocking student marchers. After all the tweeted congratulations, clapping at 7pm, and performative do-better letters, how much do we actually care about, help, and support the essential workers and activists in our communities? 

“I do it because I care for everyone, not just those that think like me. I don’t know how else to explain to you that you should care about people.”

Noah, Patient care tech

Noah’s quote was really powerful and applies to a lot of the current events going on. Caring for other people can take many forms, but it’s an essential responsibility for all of us.

For me, the answer lies in centering their voices. Especially for new activists like me who come from a place of privilege and don’t have on-the-ground experience, I think it’s important to contribute to the movement by joining and centering those who lead the movement and are most affected. Through art, we can center other people’s voices and tell their stories.

It’s easy to feel as though your voice isn’t heard, especially if you’re young. Through connecting with the local activists working to make change in my city, I realized that supporting and becoming involved in local activism is an effective way to make changes that will have an immediate and direct impact on you and your community. From organizing protests in your city and spreading the word to attending school board and town hall meetings, local activism is important and often overlooked. By working with the local organizers in my area and, over the past few months, learning more about the issues directly affecting my community, I was able to find my voice.

“I’ve seen this play out time and time again. I’ve seen this with Trayvon Martin, with Tamir Rice. I’ve seen this with Sandra Bland. I’ve seen this with Antwon Rose Jr. You know, and I’ve seen this with George Floyd, and I’ve seen enough. So I definitely need some change.”

Nick, Co-founder of Black, Young & Educated

If you’re interested in putting your art, writing, coding, or design skills towards helping Black artists, business owners, and community organizers, sign up to be notified for new projects on Build for Black Lives. And if you’re a community organizer, activist, or essential worker interested in being featured in the Draw Attention Project, please email me at or message me on Instagram @art.mulya!

Edited by Varshini Odayar

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