Being Grounded in Oakland Feeds My Artist Power

11.2 / In/With/For the Public

Being Grounded in Oakland Feeds My Artist Power

By Favianna Rodriguez January 15, 2020

In/With/For the Public is supported by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.


I am an artist disruptor who collaborates with social movements and national organizations around the country who are working for racial, gender, and climate justice. I’m also the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Power. We organize artists and culture-makers who are directly impacted by systems of oppression and who are working towards solutions with large impact.

I was born and raised in Oakland, and Oakland has shaped my artistic practice. Whether it was the graffiti in the streets, the Black Panthers, or growing up in a hood that was very Black and Latinx, my local conditions had a tremendous influence on me. In the 1980s and 90s, Oakland was a place that was artistically thriving, but it was also a very hard place to grow up in. I witnessed a lot of trauma and violence in my life—violence that was due to systemic racism and inequality. I witnessed the effects of the crack cocaine epidemic in my community. I remember looking out my window and seeing brown kids getting jumped into gangs on my block. I grew up feeling afraid to walk around my own hood, and developed hyper vigilance because there was constant violence all around me. Like many working-class people of color, my family was forced to live in a neighborhood plagued by violence, police brutality, food deserts, and pollution.

Favianna Rodriguez. I am Healing for Myself and for Past Generations, 2019; collage. Courtesy of the Artist.

Today, Oakland is still my home, yet the city has drastically changed. My childhood experiences in Oakland inspired me to be an agent of change, with a focus on art and culture. There is not a single week that goes by when I’m not on a plane, helping to shape a national strategy or speaking about my work. I stay grounded through self-care, therapy, and plant medicine. Staying grounded means healing from injustice and from the violence I witnessed as a kid. I was lucky that I didn’t use systems of coping that were self-destructive. I lost a lot of friends to drugs, violence, and mass incarceration. My way of coping was through art, like listening to weird music, reading a lot, and creating—creating ALL the time, because that allowed me to have a voice, to imagine something different, and to process my human condition. Art allowed me to create my own reality in my imagination and that transported me into another world.

My local reality made an imprint on me that shaped my artistic practice and activism. Oakland was a city just like many other cities. My lived experience was also a state-wide condition, and even a national condition. I believe that the local conditions, especially of people impacted by oppression, allow them to have a comprehensive perspective of not just what the problems are, but also what the solutions are. This is why we have to listen to people who are closest to the pain. As impacted people, many of us live at the intersections of racial violence, gender violence, climate chaos, and economic inequality. Yet, that also leads us to a powerful understanding of the world and interlocking systems of inequality. My experience as the daughter of immigrants growing up in Oakland allows me to connect with people facing similar conditions. I leverage my local knowledge and my strategies of resilience to be able to scale models that can have a national impact.

Favianna Rodriguez. HEAL, 2018; collage. Courtesy of the Artist.

In order to do national work, I first had to build my confidence and my voice, share my story, and move with authority and self-awareness. My migrant family didn’t have access to healing mechanisms and that had a negative impact on them. I work on my own mental and emotional wellness by working with coaches and psychotherapists, and by paying attention to the needs of my body. I invest in myself and in unlearning the systems of oppression that have caused harm to my community. I had to unlearn my own internalized stuff in order to be able to speak from a place of power, and trust that my art and leadership were going to be able to mobilize and inspire other people. I learned how to assess social and political problems through the lens of my lived experience. 

What's amazing about doing national work like I do now is that I can visualize solutions and propose big ideas. I love working in the realm of ideas. I love to imagine a big solution to a big problem, like cultural inequality. I like to play in that space precisely because I'm an artist, and my lived experiences give me the tools to speak from a place of knowledge. I recognize that it takes years for national concepts to translate into local policies, but all great ideas take time. We have to start somewhere and dream big.

Art is critical to my healing because when I can tell my story, I'm able to be witnessed, able to be acknowledged and seen for what I've experienced in my life, the wonderful stuff and the suffering as well. It is my hope that in telling my story, I am able to inspire somebody else to do so as well. That's how I can impact generational change: to create safe spaces for people to break the silence, shed shame, and move towards healing and justice. It’s important for me to embody and model the kind of transformation that is needed for true leadership. In order to cultivate a revolution of the imagination, I have to do my own work so that I can prune the thoughts that limit me—the thoughts that are the product of a colonial cis white male patriarchy—so that I may think expansively about what's possible. 

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