How can we use art to respond, adapt, and heal from the climate crisis? How can art be used to help us move away from an extractive economy and toward the just transition? That’s what Creative Wildfire—an organizing project supporting artists, cultural workers, and organizations—seeks to do. Created by Movement Generation, the New Economy Coalition, and the Climate Justice Alliance, Creative Wildfire supports artists and cultural workers to create art for the climate justice movement, just transition, and community power.
Creative Wildfire’s Beginnings
“We also need culture and art because that’s what’s going to move people within their hearts, in their bodies and emotions—and providing folks with a way to tell their story is so important.”The first iteration of Creative Wildfire started in 2014 with Josh Healy, a former Movement Generation collective member. After attending one of Movement Generation’s justice and ecology retreats, he eventually joined the organization’s leadership team. He helped to bring their teachings to broader audiences through storytelling and creative writing, leading to the Make it Fresh series. The series was a performance showcase for artists, organizers, and movement builders to tap into their creative energy and share their stories. According to Quinton Sankofa, codirector and collective member of Movement Generation, “As we continued to do our workshops and retreats, we just wanted to experiment.”
As the organization started to create more content focused on narrative and the environment, it reached wider audiences. However, Movement Generation realized that they needed to do something bigger and more collective. In Sankofa’s words, “what do we do to take it up a notch?”
That’s when they began to look at their justice and ecology retreats differently. Initially intended for organizers, the retreats widened their target participants in the summer of 2014 to include artists and cultural workers who had been traditionally ignored in movement spaces. “We also need culture and art because that’s what’s going to move people within their hearts, in their bodies and emotions—and providing folks with a way to tell their story is so important,” Sankofa says. From this, Movement Generation began to explore the power of narrative and culture shift.
The retreats found their home at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, an 80-acre ecological reserve in Sonoma County, CA, where retreat participants could learn about ecology, the climate crisis, and biological and cultural diversity—and have the space to brainstorm ways to use their art for a better future. Then Movement Generation, now an incubator for this narrative and culture shift, held a showcase in October of that year for the artists and cultural workers to share their storytelling, sketch comedy, visual art, and more.
Creative Wildfire’s New Iteration
As the global pandemic and the nation’s racial reckoning descended upon the country, Movement Generation, with the Climate Justice Alliance and the New Economy Coalition came together to help Creative Wildfire reemerge and solidify itself as a space for art and reimagining a just transition. This time around, Creative Wildfire “was really born out of us being here in California and experiencing wildfires,” says Sankofa.
After back-to-back wildfire seasons, the partnering organizations focused on harnessing and redirecting energy toward transitioning out of the climate crisis. They first launched an open call to artists on social media to commission pieces examining why wildfires were becoming more extensive and destructive.
By 2021, Creative Wildfire was ready to relaunch formally and pulled upon the expertise of Layal Camargo, who came on as Creative Wildfire’s project steward. Camargo created an initiative to select and support seven artists through funding, political education, and project creation. The application process for Creative Wildfire was generative, and applicants had the freedom to choose how they presented their projects, in writing, video, or audio. “There was so much autonomy in the application process, and it deeply resonated with our being,” says Ebony Gustave, a 2021-2022 cohort member who is now on the new stewardship team.
Working within the solidarity economy gave space for everyone in the cohort to reimagine an economy rooted in indigeneity, where artists and cultural workers would not have to compromise their values to make a living.
But it was hard to narrow down the applicants to just seven people. So, the three organizations went back to the drawing board to fundraise.
With extra funding secured, they were able to accept a total of 19 artists and cultural workers into the cohort and support 14 projects.
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Each of the three partners led political education sessions according to their expertise. “It was beautiful because each of these artists were at different levels and each person was able to take something from it,” Sankofa remembers. In November, the cohort showcased their projects, which ranged from immersive augmented reality, musical albums, mixed-media children’s workbooks, and more.
One project eventually became an offering for the cohort: Ebony Gustave and Robin Bean Crane created a series of participatory art workshops in collaboration with Anticapitalism for Artists, which exposed artists to the solidarity economy—prioritizing the wellbeing of people and the planet versus capitalistic growth—and how they could meet their basic needs within it. Gustave and Bean Crane were both later tapped to be part of the stewardship team alongside the widely known visual artist and cultural strategist Micah Bazant. The pair also created a multimedia digital archive of art focused on the solidarity economy called Cooperative Journal Media which compiles solidarity economy-focused art and stories.
Working within the solidarity economy gave space for everyone in the cohort to reimagine an economy rooted in indigeneity, where artists and cultural workers would not have to compromise their values to make a living. This reimagining became a crucial part of the cohort’s learning experience.
Creative Wildfire in 2023 and Beyond
The stewardship team aims to help the 2023-2024 next cohort share their art more strategically and meaningfully and build relationships with aligned organizations to help artists integrate and use their art within their communities. They see Creative Wildfire as a pipeline to educate, inspire and respond to the climate crisis in a deeply imaginative way that values the work of artists. “As artists, we’re building long-term relationships with each other and with organizations. We’re organizing to make artists’ labor more financially stable and to create on-ramps for emerging artists in our movements,” says Bazant.
Creative Wildfire is also a creative springboard for artists to dream bigger. This goes beyond artists just accepting commissions, which is a common way to make their living. Instead, it is an opportunity to help artists maintain autonomy and funding to do their own work while having the support, skill building, and connections with other artists to dream up large-scale projects. For example, artist Coco Peila worked on a bicoastal hip-hop series, and Jackie Fawn Mendez is visiting Native nations across the country to create a coloring book focused on themes such as clean energy, food security and mutual aid networks.
Creative Wildfire works in part because the partner organizations practiced building long-term relationships across communities that were not transactional. “That’s been transformative for me to actually have an organization believe in my work,” says Bazant. This long-term investment with artists is the biggest gift that Bazant wants to share with artists in the cohort—especially artists that come from communities that have historically experienced decades of cultural theft and plunder.
“How do we unearth and reclaim our stories of resistance to fuel our ongoing struggle and joy and reclaim our creativity?”
As the stewardship team begins to plan for the 2023-2024 cohort, it will continue to focus on artists’ autonomy and aim to support and encourage a wider variety of mediums. “Everyone I know who is doing this work is trying to figure out these questions of how to make sure art has impact, how to support organizers and artists to work together—especially when grassroots organizers are stretched so thin,” says Bazant. For the incoming cohort, the team will pair artists and cultural workers with organizations to help tell stories of resistance. “There is a big narrative shift part of this. How do we unearth and reclaim our stories of resistance to fuel our ongoing struggle and joy and reclaim our creativity?”
Creative Wildfire is working on modeling equitable collaboration between artists and organizations and giving artists the power and support to shift the dominant narrative. Working together, Movement Generation, Climate Justice Alliance, and New Economy Coalition have been able to navigate and adapt to the needs of artists and cultural workers in the movement. “I think that’s the power of how emergent and relational they are,” says Bean Crane. So much of this is like growing food, explains Bazant, as this organizing project is doing much of the quiet deep building that will eventually nourish networks of cultural workers and artists. And Bazant is looking to the future: Creative Wildfire aims to grow so that “when there is a strategic opening as the climate crisis continues, we will have all these tools to offer people.”