Bring It On Home

A good day to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: shifting monthly donations from Portland-area organizations to ones in my hometown. The Pandemic has had me thinking a lot about the movement of capital, and how focusing my efforts on redistributing resources on a hyper-local level often feels more productive and meaningful that flinging money into national programs. Then again, there are many issues that transcend my immediate bubble, so I want to keep a certain amount going farther afield. I haven’t figured out an ideal ratio, really, it’s just been on my mind.

I grew up in schools that acknowledged the history of the Chumash people in this region, but didn’t go so far as to emphasize the full impact of settler-colonial violence on their communities—nor to focus on the crucial modern-day work of reparations. I’ve admired the Shuumi Land Tax program in the Bay Area and Real Rent Duwamish in Seattle, but hadn’t heard of a similar initiative in Ojai.

It turns out Ventura County doesn’t have an exact match, but we do have the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. I’m excited to become a recurring donor there and start to learn more about the programs they’re working on.

Q&A: Comics for Social Good

Over on Patreon:

When I shared some process images from my voting rights comic for Oregon Humanities over the weekend, Katie left a comment saying “I really want to get into comics as activism, because it’s kind of the only skill I have to offer, but I’m not sure where to start”. I’m sure this is a common concern, especially among folks who are part of Patreon because Patrons tend to be oriented toward both creative practices and social good, which is why you’re some of my favorite people.

The post I wrote in reply to Katie’s questions covers pitching, payment, research, and interviews, plus links to folks doing great work at the intersection of art and activism. Hopefully it’ll be useful to any of you thinking about this stuff.

Also relevant: fellow contributor Sarah Mirk’s comic on how Multnomah County passed universal preschool last November is now live on the Oregon Humanities website! She’s such a wonderful visual reporter. Go give it a read.

A horizontal spread of illustrated people from Sarah Mirk's comic. There's a woman wearing a mask holding a sign that says "Tax the rich, people over profit!" and a man in a yellow shirt that says "Universal Preschool Now!" holding a coffee. He's saying "This is how a democracy has to work. If we have a good idea people are passionate about, the only thing we can do is organize ourselves."

The NEH, Racism, Good Editors, and Me

A couple years ago, my friend and fellow cartoonist Tessa Hulls got a gig speaking with the Washington Humanities Speakers Bureau. Her role (which is still ongoing) involves being sent all over the state—from city libraries to rural town halls—to share her talk about women traveling solo in the early 20th century. (A talk written, I should mention, after she’d completed a 5,000-mile solo cycling trip from California to Maine. Bad. Ass.)

Hearing about her experiences with the Bureau was the closest I’d come to seeing what state-level humanities organizations were all about. I’d heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, but never really understood what it did. It turns out that there’s an entirely separate organization—the National Endowment for the Humanities—that Lyndon Johnson signed into law at the same moment in 1965.

The National Endowment for the Humanities established 56 state- and territorial-level humanities organizations all over the country in 1973—including our local branch: Oregon Humanities. These organizations all have marginally different aims, but their overarching goal is using the study of the humanities (defined very broadly) to nurture a society that is thoughtful, creative, equitable, and proactive about engaging with difference. Some organizations focus on grant-giving, others run public discussion groups or programming, and some (like Oregon’s) put out quarterly magazines. The amazing thing about this being a government-funded organization is that the magazine is free to anyone living in the state. Seriously: you give them your address and then they just mail it to you and it’s gorgeous and full of amazing writing and illustration and all kinds of good stuff. This is no fly-by-night operation.

Anyway that’s a mini history lesson about Oregon Humanities. Hopefully it explains why I was thrilled when their editor reached out to me at the end of 2020 about doing a comic on voting rights for the Spring issue. I’ve been cranking away at it over the last few months, doing a ton of research, conducting interviews, and trying to condense, condense, condense so I can cram a bunch of complex policy issues into six scant pages.

I learned an enormous amount about the history of the franchise (aka the right to vote) during this process and found that, as with most topics in U.S. history, the highlights we’re fed in school don’t tell nearly the whole story.

I ended up centering the comic on three key areas: age, immigration, and incarceration. While the organization I wanted to interview about a non-citizen voting bill ended up having to postpone their efforts until the next legislative session, I still had plenty to work with. I took a deep dive through the state’s founding documents, explored voting access wins in recent history, and spoke to advocates about lowering the state’s voting age and securing the vote for people in prison. The resulting story, which comes out in just a few weeks, is dense, but gives a pretty solid overview of the issues at play.

The reason I’m writing this, though, is to document the most valuable part of working on the project.

My friend Sarah Mirk, who’s also contributing a comic to the issue, got assigned to help edit my piece. This was great news, since we’ve worked together before and I admire her skills and ethics immensely. When I turned in the first draft of the script, I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I’d ingested and worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it all justice in such a small number of pages. I was particularly scared to tackle the wide-reaching impact of racism and White Supremacy on these systems. It’s a topic that many of us have engaged with very closely in the last ten months (and beyond), and it can very easily come to feel obvious.

“Of course these systems are founded on rotten policies that disproportionately impact people of color,” said some part of my brain. “Everyone knows that.

So I punted.

I didn’t think I’d punted, but when I look at the first draft of the script? I punted. I turned in a comic that talked about a variety of issues and historical facts and angles, but never explicitly stated that voter disenfranchisement is inextricably entangled with racist policy-making.

That unwillingness to be explicit stemmed from a scarier feeling: “This is so big and I feel like I still have so much to learn—there’s no way I’m capable of doing it right”. It’s a feeling tied to zero-sum thinking and perfectionism (both hallmark principles of White Supremacy—surprise!) that ended up pushing me to elide crucial information.

And Sarah, because she is a great editor, read the first draft and twigged this right away and said “There is a huge piece missing from this story, and I know it’s a lot to engage with and weave in, but I believe you can do this“.

It turns out I just needed permission to try. And (again, because she is a great editor) Sarah had a ton of practical suggestions for quotes, sources, and imagery to include that would make these links and themes clearer. This piece as it stands wouldn’t exist without her.

I’m not saying the comic is now The Best Thing Ever—there’s still so much that had to be left out—but the reason I wanted to write all this up (rather that doing another “Here’s the roughs and here’s the inks and here’s the colors” kind of process post like I usually do) is that I think many of us have probably been in situations like this: moments where we recognize the impact of racism, but worry that we don’t yet have enough knowledge or language or mastery to call it out.

And the role we can play for each other, as editors or just friends with eyeballs looking over a project, is to create trusted relationships where we can encourage one another to lean into that discomfort and practice. It’s very easy to feel like getting this stuff wrong will doom us, but in fact the opposite is true. We don’t get better without being willing to goof it up sometimes.

So that’s a lot of words about relatively few pictures. I’m really looking forward to sharing the whole comic when the magazine launches later this month.


P.S. Go look up your local Humanities organization. I bet you won’t regret it.

Where to Put the Work

It’s been three weeks since Tansy was killed. I Rambled about it a little, but I haven’t really written about it. I didn’t write much of anything for a while there. I logged out of every online account I could think of the day it happened and told myself I would take a week at least to do whatever I needed to do to be okay.

That was new. Time was I wouldn’t have been able to give myself permission to disappear.

For the first few days I needed to tell people. I needed them to validate my experience, to affirm that it was horrific—as if every person I told might take some piece of it away with them, until I was left holding something I could bear. But I couldn’t stand the thought of the wider internet. I had to call my friends.

That, too, was new. It sounds like such a simple sentence. Of course you call your friends when something traumatic happens to you. But I didn’t used to be that kind of person.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to write about my cat or my friends. I was trying to talk about the fact that I haven’t been on Instagram or Twitter for the last few weeks, and that when I finally peeked today, this pair of tweets from Shing was at the top of my feed:

I read them, and faved them, and then I left.

Shing often says things I’ve been thinking with such clarity that I check behind my ears to make sure my brain hasn’t been bugged. The choice of language here—this idea of alignment—encapsulates so much of what I’ve been thinking about lately. Values and how we enact them. The moments when carving away is actually carving towards. It’s also present in Ashon Crawley saying “abolition is performative, it only happens when you do it” as part of a beautiful thread from December 15th, 2020.1

Critical Resistance Portland, the organization I’ve been writing letters with, are currently helping to get information about Economic Impact Payments into the hands of people in prison. Today I printed 25 info packets. Tomorrow I’ll address 25 envelopes, a couple at a time, here and there, and put the packets in the envelopes and then mail the envelopes to people imprisoned in Oregon. Maybe some of those people will be able to get their stimulus checks as a result. It isn’t complicated or particularly glamorous work, but it is important.2

And the thing is…it doesn’t take place on Twitter. All of the people I speak to on Twitter are privileged enough to have access to Twitter, for starters.

Having been off of Twitter for a few weeks, I do realize that I am, in many respects, less informed.

But I’ve also used the time I would’ve spent absorbing that deluge of information (much of it horrific) to distill and illustrate hours of interviews with voting rights activists about felony disenfranchisement and lowering the voting age in Oregon. I’ve reclaimed enough of my brain to align my skillset with my politics—something that is much, much harder to do when I’m caught in the mental landscape of social media, the one that screams “If you’re going to make art about this, it has to be done NOW.

I have so little time these days.

I mean, time is stretching, in the strange way it often does in Ojai, but there is relatively little of it that is mine and mine alone. I don’t have room to drink from the misery firehose. Instead, I am carving away everything that isn’t aligned. I am dedicating myself to the slow accumulation of calcium carbonate on stone. The drip, drip, drip of incremental progress.

Shing says “my hope in change lies there” and I know, immediately and without question, what they’re talking about.

It’s here, in the practice.

1. It’s been three months and I’m still thinking about it. I could write so many blog posts about the positive use of “performative” alone. He’s a gem.

2. If you’re the kind of person who wants to help with that work, you can sign up to get your own list of names and addresses here.

Beyond Urgency

About a month ago I signed up to participate in #WriteThemAll, a campaign organized by Critical Resistance PDX with the goal of writing to every incarcerated person in the state of Oregon. (That’s 14,500 human beings, in case you were wondering.)

I joined for a few reasons:

First: I love writing letters. I send a lot of mail, and the realization that I could leverage that love for causes I care about has informed a lot of my activism this year. Letter writing is also a slow motion activity—a category of thing I’m trying to spend more time in these days. (There’s a separate post in there, I’m sure, but I’ll leave it for now.)

Second: I’ve read more about abolition this year than ever before, which is great, but I made it a personal goal to pair insight with action in 2020 so it felt like the right time to step up and do more than learn. Abolition feels like a vast and occasionally overwhelming conceptual goal, but I think engaging with it through a slower activity like writing letters is a good way to operate at the edge of my comfort zone and become more familiar with the concepts in practice.

Third: CR PDX has a mail night once a month where folks can gather on Zoom and write letters together. This is very good. I’ve found a lot of solace in Kat Vellos’s Connection Club during 2020, and am glad for any opportunity to sit in companionable silence with other people (even remotely) and work towards something we all believe in.

Fourth: I needed to plug into something that wasn’t about the election. I wrote many Vote Forward letters and Sunrise Movement postcards to young voters last month, but if 2020 has made one thing inescapably clear, it’s that voting is just the tip of the iceberg. The urgency of this moment makes it easy to feel like getting out the vote is THE most important thing, but our country is failing so many communities right now, and they will continue to face the same challenges on November 4th, and December 4th, and January 4th, and so on.

When people scream “WE’RE OUT OF TIME” I try to take a deep breath and remind myself that I don’t believe in zero-sum games.

Instead, I think about the things I can still work towards next week, next month, or next year. None of this is over. Not racism or injustice or climate change or my creative practice or the love I have for my loony parents or the to-be-read pile on my bedside table—and certainly not the list of letters I signed up to write.

They will very likely reach their destination after the election has come and gone, and there will still be work to do. These days I find that state of ongoingness a comfort rather than a burden.

We get to keep up this practice, day after day. What a gift.


If you’re curious about #WriteThemAll, here are some ways to learn more and get involved: