Creative Resistance: Art as Activism

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #12 in August 2012]

The Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) provokes dialogue, builds community, and promotes change by creating opportunities for adults in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods to write, publish, and perform works about their lives. Neighborhood adults come together each week in our free, ongoing workshops to dialogue and write about their personal histories, everyday experiences, and reflections on their communities and the world. Twice a year, NWA delves deeply into a particular issue through workshops and its publication, the Journal of Ordinary Thought. In 2011, writers explored the theme of “Creative Resistance: Art as Activism,” drawing on their own participation in social movements, historical and literary accounts of changemaking, and visions for a more just world.

This theme grew out of writers’ increasing interest in documenting the role their own artwork plays in influencing their communities, and NWA’s desire to explicitly and collaboratively examine the social justice aspects of its work. In preparation for writing about the intersections between art and activism, NWA writers explored the legacy of the Freedom Riders, the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining, the artifacts and history of Malcolm X, and a variety of Chicago-based, national, and international movements using art as a means to bring about community change.

NWA is delighted to share several writings from our Summer 2011 issue of the Journal of Ordinary Thought, “Testify.” We hope these writers’ pieces will offer insight into the role of art as necessary to enhancing and inspiring movements for change.


Sharon F.Warner
I have marched, protested, and demonstrated.
I have written essays, letters to the editor, and poems.
I have participated in performance art, drama, and even comedy
that challenged the status quo.
But I have come to realize lately
that I am sometimes resisting the establishment
when I am just being myself.

My Buddhist altar opposes the notion
that all Americans should be Christians.
My calendar with family pictures challenges the idea
that other people’s images are more beautiful than mine.
The poems I write resist the presumption
that poetry should be either
circumspect, traditional forms (professorial poetry)
or rambling, raging rants
about anarchy and/or sex (slam poetry).

I write what I want,
I write what I think,
I write what I feel,
based on my life and my observations.
People can hear my writings
in places of higher learning,
in houses of worship,
in coffee houses, restaurants, and bars,
at fairs and festivals,
and of course, on the Internet.
I can be anywhere.

I wear my hair nappy and red
because I like it that way.
I also reserve the right
to change my mind about my hairstyle
at any time.
Zora Neale Hurston said,
“I love myself when I am laughing,
then again, when I am looking mean.”
Angry or jubilant,
I look forward to finding new ways
to speak the truth to power
and to creatively resist.


Stavroula Harissis

Let’s start a revolution!
Bring restitution
to the broken souls
too lost to find solutions.

They will RISE UP
when you show them that
it’s their responsibility
and their right
and to FIGHT.

to this way of life
and all the strife
we think we need
in order to fulfill
our GREED.

Who decided
that SILVER and GOLD
were worth more than
the beauty of growing old

There is a SYSTEM
and we’re in it
but let’s push it
to the limit
and see how far
they’ll really take it
before we BREAK IT
from within.

is immortal,
and FREE.

So shout your PROTESTS.
Sing your sorrows.
Paint your POWER.
Write your dreams.

Share them with all
whose senses still BREATHE,
who seethe at injustice
and weep at the BEAUTY
so strongly embedded
in this fragile world.

The system is run
by nerve-damaged men
who feel nothing but desire
for personal gain.
It is not THEM
but US
who will bring change.

Yes, we are the only ones.
So lift up your GUNS!
Even if
they’re only


Mary Gray Kaye

With “apologies” to Malvina Reynolds and her “Little Boxes,” written in

Little mindsets in the country
Little mindsets filled with tickytack
Little mindsets on the sidewalks
Static mindsets, all the same.

There’s a red one and a blue one
And a right one and a leftish one
And they’re all made out of tickytack
And they all smell just the same

And the people with their mindsets
All listen to their giant telletubes
Where they stare at their shining boxes
Where what comes out is the same

There are poor folks and some rich dudes
And some multi figure millionaires
But they’re all full of packaged tickytack
And they all sound just the same

And they all will carry banners
As they holler at their antagonists
And they all bring their little babies
Who will learn from their moms and dads

Learn to holler clever slogans
They’ll believe in ’til the day they die
And they’ll stand on their little boxes
But they still sound just the same

And the little boys grow into bigger boys
And the little girls try to grow up too
But the big shots on the top tier
Fill their heads with sticky glue

So they settle into blue states
And some fall into redder states
And they stick with their gooey tickytack
And it all just stays the same.

Delores Tolliver

What lyrics can be written to calm
the racial woes, or sooth the broken
spirit of someone’s taunted soul?
What song can we sing to mend our
festered wounds inflicted by another
whose sovereign rule controls?
How do we teach our children
what’s morally right or wrong when
leaders flaunt immorality knowing
these acts are wrong?

What words can be written to bring
injustice to its knees or halt the
crimes that plague our city with pain
as deadly as disease?

What work of art can be used to
rectify the harm, to restore the
conscience within us that has lain
dormant far too long?

Who dares to step forth and expose
man’s flaws? The poet, the lyricist,
the sculptor, the musician?

Is the artist with such a gift ready to
reveal man’s wrongs? Is the artist
with such a talent yet to exist?


Betsy Benefield

it’s my feeling,
my sense of falling
in a deep pit
when government support
is not enough.

Most of the time
I escape to festivals
and art fairs.

I ponder the intricate
worlds the artists at their
booths show.

Such beauty.
I no longer focus
on what I lack,
but on what inspires me
as an artist.

I escape into
the paintings
as if I were there.
Some tickle me silly. Sometimes I see myself in the picture
like looking at a glass figurine.

This is only temporary.
When it’s over
I’m back in the same pit.

The government needs creativity.
Use your imagination
and make it reality.

Give people hope
to become productive,
an open door to their talents,
not disappointments or barriers.

Maybe then there would be
no starving artists.


Marian I. Jones

politicians’ greed
solicitations no end
worrisome appeals

return envelopes
with your poetry enclosed
request no more mail

your money absent
substituting your great art
paintings, poetry

oppose their requests
using brushes or poems
create and resist

address your concerns
in a most creative way
feel satisfaction


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