Favianna Rodriguez on the Power of Art to Heal Polarization

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Favianna Rodriguez, President of The Center for Cultural Power, a national organization investing in artists and storytellers as agents of positive social change.

Favianna Rodriguez, courtesy of Favianna Rodriguez
  1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I wish I’d known more about the racial and gender barriers that exist for women of color leaders in the non-profit sector, particularly the arts and culture space. I knew how to pitch my ideas and raise money, but I lacked information on how to navigate situations in which I was experiencing unequal treatment due to my gender and racial identity. I was in many spaces where the safety of women was not prioritized. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years of being an institutional leader, I’ve experienced numerous uncomfortable situations including sexual harassment, the theft of my ideas by male leaders, being bullied by men when I challenged sexist assumptions, and being trained to lead in a boy’s club type of approach. Before, I didn’t have the language or tools to navigate these situations. But that has since changed, and I’m incredibly thankful for that because it gives me the opportunity to create safe spaces for other female and gender non-confirming leaders to thrive.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

My greatest professional challenge is to have balance in my life. For the past 22 years, I’ve been working nonstop as an artist-activist and institution builder, doing my absolute best to address inequality. The reality is that systemic racism and gender inequality require impacted people, like myself, to go above and beyond in order to achieve our goals. It has had a real cost on my body and mental health, and now I’m working to achieve life-work balance, to rest and replenish myself and make sure I am able to say no. I’m working with the next generation of leaders to teach them how to set professional boundaries and be more realistic about what’s possible. Because when resources aren’t moved, BIPOC women over-compensate through our work in order to address the significant issues that our communities face.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

I am deeply inspired to be able to do work with BIPOC, queer and trans artists, mostly women, who are creating content and cultural products that will enable our communities to imagine a different kind of future. I believe greatly in the power of culture because it moves our emotions, speaks to our heart, and has the ability to catalyze our empathy. I love working with, empowering and giving resources to artists that are creating a world where we challenge cultural inequality and make way for a pluralistic future. It’s inspiring because art moves our emotions and is able to bring us together in a time where there is so extreme hardship and polarization.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work?

My work as an artist is immensely shaped by my experience as a Latina and daughter of immigrants who grew up in Oakland during the era of the war on drugs. I witnessed an intersection of issues including police brutality, pollution, gangs, mass incarceration, underfunded schools and gender violence. But I also witnessed the power of art, including hip hop, murals, and protest graphics. Art literally saved my life. While all of these fields were dominated by men, I was able to make space for myself and to advocate for more gender inclusion as a young activist. As a child, I experienced significant systemic barriers in the arts because the art world is dominated by white men. The thing I wanted most as a young woman was to be seen and heard. I trusted the power of my voice and wanted to share the experience of what it means to be a girl and woman of color, and to show the power hidden behind the harsh narratives — especially during a time where it was mostly stories of violence, poverty, and drugs that dominated the news cycles. I wanted to show my own resilience and that of my community.

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?

The number one action is to invest in promising BIPOC women leaders with no strings attached. Twenty years ago, I was a young person on a trajectory to become a powerful leader. A lot of older changemakers saw that and they invested in me however they could, mostly with advice, support and connections. But what I most needed was funding. Had I been able to access financial investments faster, it would have accelerated my ability to make change. It’s taken twenty two years of my career to reach the level that I have and it’s cost me some aspects of my health. But this could have happened faster, and I could have accelerated the manifestation of my great ideas. We need philanthropy to take big risks with BIPOC women leaders and instill more trust, and give large investments to BIPOC women who are on a trajectory to make change and lead. We are not hard to find.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

I am someone who very much cares about reproductive justice and bodily autonomy. As someone who has had three abortions in my lifetime, I’m passionate about storytelling in this area. I think the narratives around reproductive justice have to radically change within the next 10 years, and it’s clear we’ll need to be very creative and break out of the current binary to do so. I want to transform the way we talk about building families and raising kids, and ensure that we have autonomy over our body when it comes to having children. The complexities that exist today around how we form families have been erased, while the right wing has coopted the concept of life. We must create different cultural ways to talk about and address this, particularly in a time of climate crisis and global racial injustice.

More on Favianna Rodriguez:

Favianna Rodriguez is the co-founder and President of The Center for Cultural Power, a national organization investing in artists and storytellers as agents of positive social change. She is an award-winning artist, cultural strategist and social movement leader who has partnered with national organizations and progressive advocacy groups to design effective cultural campaigns and unite art, culture, and social impact around the world.

In addition to being the visionary behind The Center for Cultural Power, Favianna embodies the perspective of a first-generation American Latinx artist with Afro-Peruvian roots. Her work examines migration, economic inequality, gender justice and climate change, and boldly reshapes the myths, ideas and cultural practices of the present, while confronting the wounds of the past.

Through her work with The Center for Cultural Power, Favianna helps lead cultural strategy design and investment by organizing the philanthropic sector, with a focus on foundations addressing gender justice, racial justice, climate change and cultural equity. Past projects include creating Ben & Jerry’s Pecan Resist, partnering with Jill Solloway to create 5050by2020, collaborating with #TimesUp Entertainment, and facilitating immersive artist delegations to the US Mexico border. She is a recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellowship for her work around immigration and mass incarceration, and an Atlantic Fellowship for Racial Equity for her work around racial justice and climate change.

This interview has been minimally edited.

In The News

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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