Art & Activism
For Freedoms harnesses the power of collaborative art to inspire social justice
“There can be no love without justice.” —bell hooks
Against the backdrop of a national uprising and reckoning, For Freedoms—the US-based, artist-led nonprofit—has dedicated itself to harnessing the accessible and emotive nature of art to cultivate civic engagement, discourse, and direct action. Cofounded in 2016 by artists Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, For Freedoms collaborates with hundreds of artists and cultural institutions to create provocative and moving public artworks, exhibitions, and programming to address the major issues of our day: systemic racism, gun violence, mass incarceration, the rights of Indigenous peoples, and beyond. Together, they explore the ties that bind and divide us, both past and present—with the intention of bringing more people into the conversation.
First launched as a performative art project, For Freedoms quickly transformed into an actual non-profit upon realizing the potential of a platform such as theirs—one that could navigate the powerful space where art and activism overlap, drawing in audiences who might otherwise take a pass on politics. The non-partisan group takes its name from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” address to Congress, which proposed four fundamental freedoms that people the world over ought to enjoy: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
For Freedoms, in turn, has identified its own set of essential freedoms, which are renewed with each incoming US presidential administration: Listening, Healing, Awakening, Justice.
Among other efforts, in 2018, the group launched what has since been called the largest public art project in US history: The 50 State Initiative, consisting of billboards spread across the country featuring timely, civically minded work by hundreds of artists. In 2020, in the leadup to the pivotal US presidential election, they debuted The Awakening, a year-long, charismatic campaign championing civic joy to encourage people—in particular those who are too often disenfranchised—not only to vote but also to embrace a longer-term vision of a “Great Awakening,” centered around the new Four Freedoms. Think music, food, and performance art; gaiety as a form of resistance and power.
We sat down with Executive Director Claudia Peña to speak about the role of collaborative art—and artists—in engaging and inspiring social justice.
For Freedoms launched in 2016, just as Trump was inaugurated, with the mission to model and increase civic engagement, discourse, and direct action—essentially encouraging more people to become more involved in the political conversation. In the years since, how has the organization evolved?
It's evolved, and it’s also stayed true to its mission. That central component you just identified, modeling and inspiring civic engagement and direct action, that is still the crux of what we do. But we’re also in conversation with hundreds of artists and institutional partners—museums and galleries and such—and you can’t stay in the same spot as you continually dialogue and collaborate with folks.
Over the years, we’ve evolved to a place where we may comment on a current event, which definitely wasn’t true at the beginning. For example, we’ve commented on the uprisings of 2020 and the increased violence that the AAPI community has faced in recent months, which is just a continuation of the violence AAPI communities have faced forever. We feel compelled to be part of the current moment as we keep our eyes on the prize in terms of the long trajectory of the work.
Also, because of the experiences we have in terms of large public art projects—especially the billboards—we’ve gotten to a position where we’re guiding and supporting others; sharing best practices and resources; sharing what we’ve learned to help others manifest their own projects.
One of my favorite things about For Freedoms is how we are constantly redefining and reframing language, concepts, and even issues. And more and more, as a result, we find ourselves becoming leaders in that way. When For Freedoms was born in 2016, I don’t think it really saw itself as a leader. But when you’re putting forth the types of ideas that we put forth and the kind of language that we choose to use, people look to you, regardless of whether you want that. So I think we’ve matured into that role.
When we were born in 2016, the contemplation was that the organization would be temporary. It started as a super PAC that was an art performance really. But then it quickly formed into a more serious entity. We’ve since carved out a pretty substantial, important, and needed path for ourselves, and it would be almost irresponsible to just walk off that path now. I think that today, For Freedoms has a pretty strong voice in a way that it never imagined.
Amid the uncertainty and polarization of the past five years, particularly in the US, For Freedoms’ voice has communicated messages of empathy and community. In reminding people of their potential and responsibility to participate, and in championing civic joy, it seems you’re offering people a sense of liberty or power—a feeling many of us have been sorely missing.
Ya, and reminding them of their powers as a superhero or a supershero! And the gifts that each person can be bringing to bear.
What are you most proud of so far?
One of the things I’m most proud of is how true we’ve stayed to ourselves, to the integrity of the work, and to the course. We really do let our values lead the way, both internally and externally. That’s not to say that we’re a perfect organization, but every time there’s something to decide—something tough, something controversial—we just go back to the values, and then it becomes really easy to make those decisions.
For example, the January 6th events in DC: There were a lot of feelings and emotions from folks on our staff, people in our immediate circles, and in the larger network. And part of what For Freedoms does is try to hold space for everyone in the moment.
So we hosted a meeting. We put it together within an hour or two, and 70 people showed up. The full range of emotions and reactions was present, and I think we did a beautiful job of just holding the space for everyone. Whereas maybe if we were an organization that was pushing for a very particular agenda, not everyone would have been included.
And why are artists so well positioned to help hold these spaces and lead these conversations?
The lack of boundaries in artists’ ways of thinking really allows for a whole other world to be imagined. And that’s what you need as a leader if you’re going to inspire; to be able to imagine something completely different than has ever been done.
Generally speaking, you get a group of artists together, and they’re gonna push past any obstacles that would be assumed—and not just assumed, but allowed to play the biggest role in the room—if you put together a group of elected officials, or a group of attorneys, or even a group of advocates.
I’m a civil rights attorney, and I've been a community organizer and activist for over 20 years. Having come from a background where I worked with advocates and organizers, it’s not that we didn’t have the ability to imagine something different, but we’re just so used to playing by the rules. And artists are constantly rewriting the rules.
Is there something about the accessible nature of art as well that allows audiences of different stripes and spots to be able to tap into that creative messaging?
I love that. Yes. You know, I have this big critique about the way public education exists in the United States; it is inaccessible to the full range of abilities and disabilities that people have and only speaks to a sliver of the way people process information.
If you are someone who functions well by having someone talk at you—such that you can process information this way, internalize it, and regurgitate it—then you can do really well. But that’s a small percentage of people. I happen to be one of them, but I know a lot of people who didn't graduate from high school who are brilliant.
Art allows the ideas, the concepts, the movement itself to be accessible to the ways that anybody processes. Any one piece of art, any one medium, maybe not to everybody. But if you put them altogether, then everybody’s needs accessibility-wise, and everybody’s form of processing, etc. will be directed to. Especially as we see, in the For Freedoms network, we have lots of artists who have differing abilities and disabilities, and so art is created in lots of different ways. Plus artists are truth-tellers.
That’s so powerful. As an organization, you’ve identified and committed to pursuing a new set of four freedoms—Healing, Listening, Awakening, and Justice—dedicating one full year to each. What can you tell us about this year’s efforts around the pillar of Justice?
Yes! Well, 2020 was Awakening, and Healing was originally going to be this year. After a rough four years of an administration that didn’t seem to care about the issues that we pay attention to, we figured it’d be time for some healing. And as we began transitioning into 2021, we were ready to dive in.
And then people just weren’t ready. It was too soon. January 6th came about. And then all the stuff happening in Atlanta, and not just Atlanta, but Georgia more widely with voter suppression. All the voting laws that were taken up all over the States. And nobody felt like it was time for healing yet.
The 2020 uprisings got everybody and their mother interested in justice, which is wonderful. And so we just organically pivoted to Justice as our main theme for 2021. Though we don’t let go of any of the other freedoms, because they’re so intertwined.
The name of our new campaign—you’ll actually be the first to hear it because we just came up with it—is “Another Justice,” and then the provocation is, “By any media necessary.”
But, conceptually we don’t think about Justice in the ways in which it’s discussed in most of our circles. We look to redefine Justice so that it cannot be untethered from notions of love or joy.
Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” bell hooks says, “There can be no love without justice.” So it’s our perspective that when you think about collectivity and when you approach community with love, with understanding, with empathy, with compassion, then Justice is a natural outcome of that.
From our perspective, if we had to describe it, justice would be a space where there is equity of resources, where basic needs are met, and where notions of collectivity and community are pushed as the central focus. When all of those exist, then justice naturally tends from there. And it is inequity, inaccess to resources, that leads to harms in community on smaller and larger scales.
So in order to address it, we approach it from the root causes—as opposed to thinking about punishment, or rehabilitation, or deterrence on a very individual scale that leads to the mass incarceration that exists on the scales of the United States.
So how might that look in terms of efforts moving forward? Are there any specific projects you can point to?
Yes, so we’re pushing forth at least 20 different initiatives, on both small and large scales. We’re partnering with Josué Rivas, with the LANDBACK initiative. He’s an Indigenous artist who is creating a billboard project around issues of native land. And then we’re doing a project with a group named Zealous, working with folks in Michigan who have written letters about their experiences in solitary confinement. We’re partnering them with an artist on the outside to create a piece, and hopefully that will become a touring exhibit. We also want to do a podcast on stories of reconciliation. And everything in between.
That all sounds incredible. Given the ambitious goals of Four Freedoms—such as trying to empower everyone in the country to feel part of the discourse—how do you measure progress or success along the way?
I love this question, because it’s not one we can answer easily at all. I worked at legal organizations before, where the easy metric was whether or not we passed a law or whether or not we won the case. And if we didn't pass a law, then at least how many votes did we get. There were very easy ways of measuring success.
And then we have partner organizations that measure their success by how many impressions they get—how many folks are following on social media. How many retweets or whatever it is. Our work can’t be easily measured in those kinds of metrics, because it is sometimes subtle. Sometimes it’s about the ripple effects of what we’re putting out.
So the 2020 Awakening, and our promotion of civic joy, was supposed to be a response to the idea of civic duty, this very sort of hard notion of why people should act.
We were interested in the group of people who thought, I do want to engage but that idea of civic responsibility doesn’t speak to me. And of course that would be true for the millions of people who make up communities of color, women, LGBTQ+ folks—all the groups of people who have been told by the State at some point that, “We’re not really interested in hearing from you. We did not contemplate you in the Constitution. And even when an amendment was made so you could participate, we did everything we could to get in the way.” And then to turn around and tell these people that they’re being apathetic, or that they’re not engaging in their civic duty, is absurd.
So we were interested in talking about how healing needs to occur. The State has a responsibility in repairing its relationship with its own people in terms of civic engagement. And one of the ways to promote healing is joy. So civic joy was born from that idea; that we could have music, food, and performances; that we could have artists who would start to bridge the divide that was created over centuries.
So civic joy was the idea that we were promoting, and we saw the effects of it. A lot of other organizations sort of took it on. And then Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in their acceptance speeches—one or both mentioned the joy of being engaged—and who's to say whether or not that’s connected to any of our work. Who knows, it doesn’t really matter. But the point is is that there’s a ripple effect of this kind of work. Say, a conversation that you have with 10 other people, maybe they go on and create something. Maybe they take an idea in a totally different direction, iterate on it, build on it, and make it better.
That’s the nature of our work. It’s to offer something—to give an offering that other people will continue to grow and build into something that really matters. It’s hard to measure.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like people to know about For Freedoms’ efforts at this moment?
I’d like to mention a couple of things. Last year, Wide Awakes redefined Independence Day as Interdependence Day. So instead of thinking about 4th of July as a celebration of independence for the United States, we’re celebrating it as Interdependence Day to honor notions of collectivity and being in community with one another.
So that will happen again this 4th of July. And you know Juneteenth was a big celebration last year and this year as well; we had many activations in New York and LA, and it’s been interesting to see the nation’s interest in Juneteenth grow and then to see President Biden sign it into law as a federal holiday. It was a very big deal—especially as it kind of relates to the idea of 4th of July, independence, and Juneteenth—the day of freedom, the day of jubilee.
Wide Awakes Day will be October 3rd again; we’ve registered it as a holiday. Last year’s event was celebrated in several cities and even multiple countries, so we’re really excited to see that grow even more this year.
And I’m thinking about the four freedoms and how they blend into one another. Even though our theme is Justice this year, we really can’t have Justice without the others. And that’s always the way. And we want to embrace that. And starting in 2024, we’ll start all over, and it’ll be time for the Awakening again.
Lastly, this is For Freedoms’ five-year anniversary, so we hope to celebrate this fall with an in-person congress again, just as we did right before the pandemic began in the US. So there’s plenty to look forward to!
Thank you, Claudia! ◆
To keep up with For Freedoms, follow on Instagram @forfreedoms