We Can’t Extricate Culture From Liberation

“Art offers us another way, another possible reality. Art opens up the beauty inside of us and the ugliness inside of us, so that we can confront our conditions and our situation.”

-Jasmine Araujo

The beginning of the pandemic was a tough time for everyone, but in a specific way in New Orleans. A town built on outdoor interaction and intersections, creative levity, and joy became silenced and dull. I walked around my neighborhood, Bayou St John, got a dog, and drank too much. But a bright spot appeared in the form of Southern Solidarity, a mutual aid collective of artists and organizers that delivered meals to houseless people in New Orleans. The project inspired many people with secure housing to act by cooking meals, doing drop offs, signing people up for government services, and advocating for equitable resources for folks living in precarity. In sleek black and white photos, t-shirts, and promos, the group seemed to strip away any complexes one might have about getting involved in a mutual aid project and urged you to just jump in. In this interview, I had the privilege and pleasure of speaking with Jasmine Araujo, the founder of Southern Solidarity, about how organizing is an art form, how to get many people on the same page, and what revolution looks like in the everyday. 

The New Orleans Southern Solidarity team poses for a photo after team gathering, 2020. Photo courtesy Jasmine Araujo.

Lou Blumberg: Thank you so much for agreeing to do an interview with me. I just started an MFA program out of Portland State in Art and Social Practice. In thinking about what those things mean to me, I immediately thought of your project, Southern Solidarity. Living in New Orleans during the pandemic was super intense, for, as you know, so many reasons, and I feel like what y’all were doing was so inspiring to so many people. It was really such a principled political project, as well as one with aesthetic components. So I was curious to hear you describe it, how it came about, any takeaways or lessons, and where it’s at now.

Jasmine Araujo: We started in New Orleans at the height of the pandemic. I was going for a lot of walks and noticing that a lot of houseless people were coming up to me because they had no idea what was going on, and it seemed cruel. So we started Southern Solidarity with the intention of keeping houseless people informed and keeping them fed. A lot of the shelters were not feeding as regularly, or they were feeding within one site, which is dangerous during the pandemic. So we were, and are, delivering food directly to houseless people. We were delivering food every single day. Once the 2020 rebellions began we were participating in those–closing down bridges, opening abandoned buildings for houseless folks, and making sure that they had a shelter. We also protested, and were able to relocate a hundred people into housing by pressuring the government. We continue to meet with government officials to demand that they open up affordable housing in New Orleans.

Lou: Awesome. Do you see it as an art project? Do you see it as a mutual aid project? What sort of categorization would you give it?

Jasmine: That’s a great question. It’s definitely a liberation project that includes mutual aid and survival programs as part of the way we function day to day. But really, we talk about ourselves as a liberation project in conjunction with houseless people. So it’s a mutual liberation project together. And I think that one thing that’s different about Southern Solidarity, that ties into this intersectionality in our politics, is that a lot of artists are part of Southern Solidarity. A lot of musicians and visual artists are part of the project, and we find ways to make those connections even stronger through art auctions and through fundraisers that incorporate the artists so they are inspired by the work that they do with us. I think that’s where the alignment is. 

Lou: Yeah, totally. I’d love to hear more about that. What does it mean for artists to be the ones who are part of that liberatory project?

Jasmine:  It plays a really important role in liberation projects. In the mainstream, we’re trained to see the world from the eyes of the oppressor, and art offers us another way, another possible reality. Art opens up the beauty inside of us and the ugliness inside of us, so that we can confront our conditions and our situation. And I think that a lot of artists who are members in Southern Solidarity see that and have been inspired to kind of activate their work through Southern Solidarity. Other organizations are doing amazing work but maybe they’re not targeted towards getting artists on board because there’s such a focus on researching Marxism and reading. And that’s important! But we’re coming to our research from the lens of art. For instance, one of the first consciousness raising events that we had was reading a book called We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women 1965-85. It was solely about the interconnections and intersections between art and politics for these women who were organizing. Their liberation work was completely tied to art, and there were artists and collectives that would work together to create a vision for the liberation movement.

Lou: I really appreciate naming that because we just did a unit in my History of Art and Social Practice class about the Black Arts movement. I had, of course, learned about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, and the revolutionary side of that, but I had never heard about the art structure behind that. And I’m craving to find that in today’s world as well. Who are some visionary artists or movements that you feel are painting that sort of, like, beautiful liberatory potential that we as activists, as artists can be working towards? Which is a totally long winded way of asking, do you see that sort of art movement informing justice work today? 

Jasmine: I think there’s not as many artist collectives as in the past, like with Leroy Jones, with Max Roach, with Quincy Church. I think that those pockets of artists that we had, that were all engaged in liberatory work, have shifted recently. But I do think that there are individual artists that are doing great work. There’s Noname, who I’m sure you’ve heard of, she’s doing great work. There’s Aja Monet, who’s a poet who does a lot of revolutionary work. I think that the function of artistic technique and of the Black aesthetic is to make the goal of communication and liberation more possible. What these artists are doing is that they’re communicating the kinds of visions that they have for the world on a mass level in an artistic way.

Lou: I love Noname’s book club as an artistic and political practice. That’s so inspiring. If there isn’t a collective of people, what do you think is gained by just having people who are working in their own ways towards the same goal?

Jasmine: You know what? I don’t wanna say that these artists are working individually, cause they’re not actually–Noname has her book club and Aja Monet works with a lot of other activists and artists. She does a lot of work with Robin D. G. Kelly. But I think that there is something so powerful about forming a large collective so that we can begin to kind of peel away at the celebrity cult that America is ingrained in. I think we need to tear down as much as possible these celebrity cults that we establish. I think having a lot of voices in an artist collective can help us be more of a non hierarchical group that is embodying the kind of socialist practices and abolitionist, anarchist practices that we want to see in the world. 

Jasmine Araujo in the back of a pickup truck in 2020, delivering food and supplies to houseless people. Photo by Annie Flanagan.

Lou: I’m curious to know more of what you’re up to now. I saw that you’re at NYU in an MFA program, right?

Jasmine: Yes, I’m in my last semester of my MFA Program. I’m teaching and I’m still doing Southern Solidarity. We started a branch here and we go out every week. We go to protests together and we’re still organizing as strongly as we were during the pandemic.

Lou: I wanna get into the nitty gritty of how you do that. I’d love to hear more about how you navigate the decision making part of organizing and how you’re putting your politics into practice.

Jasmine: I think at the very crux of our organization, what sets us apart from other organizations, is that everyone on our team has access to the funds. We do grant writing as a team, and then we are able to get funds from various sources, either private donors or from the government, or from other nonprofits. We are on Open Collective, and I really hope that other organizations start getting on Open. It’s such a great site. All our funds are moved in there. There’s a pool for anyone on there in the organization to use as long as they show receipts; it holds everyone accountable. Everyone knows the budget. Everyone knows how much money we have left. Everyone can say, hey, I have this idea, can we get a bulk order of pants for houseless people this week? And then that person orders it and shows the receipt, and there you go. Also houseless people can say, hey, we need Narcans this week, and we’ll go from our pool of money, and we’ll get Narcans. And so everyone, the community members and non-members, houseless people and non houseless people are engaged in a shared vision with resources that we have.

Lou: I love that. That’s like a mini participatory budget project. 

Jasmine: Exactly. It’s really, really helpful and then, beyond that, when we are making decisions, we usually have a group chat or we’ll have a Zoom meeting to get our heads together around something, and to get to a common ground. The biggest challenges are kind of ideological differences, even amongst the left. One of the ways we mitigate that is by having a lot of consciousness raising events that help us get on the same page around some important things that align us more closely to our vision of liberation. So we’ll have a Black anarchist come and speak to us. We’ll have someone who’s trained in Black socialism come and speak to us. And in that way we can come together. 

Lou: Having a shared political understanding can be so important. I’m curious to know about how you navigate your days as an artist and as an organizer. How do you find balance for yourself and your own practice? 

Jasmine: I think last semester I was teaching 2 days a week. I was going to Southern Solidarity every Saturday, doing grant writing every Sunday, and doing fiction writing any other time that I wasn’t doing that, which was about 4 hours a day. It was definitely overwhelming but it was totally doable. I really enjoyed having those different pockets of my day.

Lou: How did you come to find your creative practice? Was it always something that you feel like you had? How did that evolve?

Jasmine:  I think that any time I have been at a really low point in life, the only thing that has gotten me out of bed has been the urge to write. If we think of ourselves as units of power, I think that I’m really activated when I think about the power that I have with writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. That is just something that I’ve observed that motivates me. I hope that can help someone. 

Lou: What are you writing now? If I can ask.

Jasmine: I’m working on a book that is loosely inspired by Kalief Browder‘s life. He was the 16 year old who was placed at Rikers for about 4 years without being charged with anything, And then, when he finally got out without ever having a trial, he committed suicide. I think that’s such an important story that’s not often told nationally. And so I wanted to kind of add some creative fiction to it.

Lou: That sounds super powerful. In the program, I’m learning so much about a push in some areas of the art world for art to have this socially engaged component. And I’m coming from a socially engaged place, being involved in anti surveillance work in New Orleans, and anti Zionist work, and I’m clarifying how that fits with my own art practice. I’m curious how other people see this: is activism work inherently an art practice?

Jasmine: I think that ties into the first question you asked. I think, yeah, you can’t really have organizing without thinking creatively, without breaking away from norms. And I think the only thing that helps us do that is art. I think with organizing we are engaging in a narrative of a community. That’s storytelling. So yeah, absolutely, I think organizing is definitely artistic. There are so many ways to kind of think through inspiring people to want to activate and self-actualize. So how do we do that?  At Southern Solidarity we had so many amazing artists. And I’m just thinking about how they thought about organizing and all the fresh ideas that they brought to the space. I’m thinking specifically about Spirit McIntyre. They are an amazing musician. And they engage in a lot of narrative work and helped us kind of figure out the culture of Southern Solidarity. And I think that artists do so much with culture, and we can’t extricate culture from liberation. 

Jasmine Araujo, center, participates in a protest with Southern Solidarity volunteers during the 2020 uprisings. Photo credit: Southern Solidarity 

Lou: I love that narrative change work that they’re doing of, “we have all this money, why don’t people have what they need?” It’s getting outside of the “deficit” way of thinking, right? Meaning, thinking that our societal issues are because we don’t have enough resources, which is totally false. Because America is actually a very abundant land. Resources are being taken away from people, even though they exist. So juicy. So, so juicy. Is there anything you’re curious to ask me?

Jasmine: Yeah, tell me about your artistic practice. 

Lou: It’s definitely new and evolving. I feel similarly to you, like in moments where I felt super low or hopeless, the only thing that feels like it can inspire me is making little sculptures of things, or doing little water colors, and that’s sort of how I got to an artistic practice during the pandemic. I definitely didn’t think of myself as an artist before that. I had been involved with Eye on Surveillance here in New Orleans and with the Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, and I was feeling challenged– how are we getting more people into this wider movement for justice? And, how are we selling our vision of the future that we’re really trying to build here? And I think what both of those movements have in common is this idea of safety; what does it mean to really feel safe? 

Jasmine: You know, I was just having that conversation of safety. And again, here’s where artists can come in and show us alternate visions of safety that don’t include police, that maybe even rest on indigenous ways of keeping each other safe.

Lou: Yes, I love that. I’m curious if you have specific examples of indigenous thinking on safety.

Jasmine: I think a lot about longhouses in indigenous tribes where you had 40 people in the same home. And I think about what kind of safety that must have created, what kind of levels of accountability that must have created without having this police invention, which began, I believe, in the 1800s in Britain, and then was brought over to the Americas, but always as a vestige of slavery. The fact that people even think of something like police as safety when it comes out of such a violent place is wild to me. 

Lou: Yes, absolutely. This is so at the top of my mind right now, of course, seeing how many Jewish folks believe that a violent nation state is the epitome of their safety, even though it’s making everyone less safe, especially Palestinian people who are under military rule. So thinking of that, how are we selling that vision of a sense of community that’s so much bigger than an identity, or a religion, you know? That’s really top of mind for me right now.

Jasmine: And how can we tease away at the ideas of nation state, which itself can be a violent idea, right? That is so deeply ingrained in our ability to navigate the world. It feels impossible to imagine something different. But there are some great writers exploring this idea. My good friend William C. Anderson is doing a lot of writing on kind of unpacking the nation state. He wrote a book called No Nation on No Map that’s totally great and investigates the legacy of Black anarchy. 

Lou: That’s sort of what drove me to apply to this program, wanting to really think of art as a way to see different futures and bring people into movements. And the classic Toni Cade Bambara, “make the revolution irresistible.” It’s a journey to figure out how to do that; I think it’s a balance between meeting the material conditions of folks, like what Southern Solidarity does, and then getting people who are privileged in this current setup, you know, like white people, my people, to get them to be like, this isn’t actually working for you, and to sort of unearth that and say, you have a stake in this completely, and your soul has a stake in this work.

Jasmine: That’s such a great way of putting it. It is definitely a balancing act. And I think this ties into what you were asking about social practice. What Southern Solidarity is doing on a daily basis is trying to show the vision in concrete terms. This is what socialism looks like. It looks like a reframing of what motivates us. What motivates us should be care, not profit. And this is what that looks like– taking care of people who are deemed to have no value in society. And whereas art gives us that and can give us that in an abstract way, what is it to reorient. 

Lou: I love putting care at the forefront of what is possible, as we have the resources, especially here in the US. What could it look like if care was actually the first and foremost value that we were foregrounding?

Jasmine:  Exactly. I think I talk to so many people who haven’t quite gotten to the left yet, and I think what I hear the most from them is that they’re saying they don’t believe it’s possible. They’re resigned to the present reality, where we’re fighting, where there’s wars, where there isn’t enough for everyone, and they believe that that is the way things actually are, that that’s realistic. And that we are just being too idealistic. And then I think art has such a big role in bridging that gap of helping us see it as more realistic.

Lou: Hmm, yeah, I love that. And I think that I’ve felt that from art, too. Yeah, to think that that’s what art can do and to know that that’s what art can do because it did that for me. That is powerful to hold on to. How do you think we get from here to there?

Jasmine: I think there’s always going to be a ‘getting there.’ I don’t think there’s ever going to be a moment where we’ve raised consciousness to the point where we’re happy with it. We’re going to constantly be emerging and growing. And that ties into my idea of revolution. It’s constant. It’s daily.

Lou: I love that. Are there ways for people to plug into Southern Solidarity? Now, if they’re interested, or any advice you’d have for someone who wants to make the world into this place where care is foregrounded?

Jasmine: This country is so good at making us depressed, and then it makes money off of our depression in so many ways. So I think that joining an organization, whether it be Southern Solidarity or any other organization, that kind of speaks to the ways in which you wanna change the world, right? If it’s environmental, then join an organization that focuses on environmental work. And I think that that’s where we get the sense of community that helps us get out of bed. The people that I’ve met through Southern Solidarity have been some of the best people I’ve ever met. Because they share similar values around viewing houseless people as actual people, and we don’t see that a lot around the world, or nationally. So I think joining an organization is first and foremost. To plug into Southern Solidarity, you can hit us up on Instagram and send us a message. If you want to help with grant writing, if you want to cook for us, if you want to distribute food; there are lots of options. If you want to help us with social media, just DM our Instagram.

Lou: Well, thanks! Yeah, I mean, it’s inspiring to talk to you. And hear about your vision for the world, it’s so needed.

Jasmine: Thank you so much. I just love doing interviews that kind of get us more into the abstract space. This was really fun. 

Jasmine Araujo (she/her) is currently a writer acquiring her MFA in fiction at New York University. She founded Southern Solidarity, a grassroots network that distributes 500 meals daily across two cities. She has written on liberatory mutual aid for Roar Magazine and is currently working on a novel that fictionalizes social death. You can follow her at @jas_araujo

Lou Blumberg (they/them) is an artist, educator, and facilitator living in New Orleans. Their work deals with questions of personal and community safety, vulnerability and intimacy, and how to live a good life. Hire them to mediate your next conflict by emailing them at loub@pdx.edu

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

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