The success of the first UU the Vote campaign in 2020 was enabled largely by partnerships with community organizations – many of which served and were led by young adults and people from BIPOC communities.
This year, the UUA Organizing Strategy Team (OST) is building on key voter education and mobilization activities while also branching out to build long-term organizing capacity. The new 2022 UU the Vote Legacy Fellowship is an investment in nurturing that capacity by supporting development of talented leaders.
Partnering with the College of Social Justice (a joint project between the UUA and UU Service Committee) the fellowship provides six UU-affiliated young adults and BIPOC individuals with short-term funding, consultation expertise, and a network to advance their own action plan proposal. The fellows were awarded both a project budget and a stipend to enable their work over six months, concluding in November.
In the first of three installments, we’re introducing two of the six 2022 fellows and providing a glimpse of the projects they’re undertaking.
Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario is the Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE) in Brooklyn, NY. The organization, which Marissa founded in 2013, helps young people amplify their voices and advance support for human rights in their communities through the visual arts.
Marissa became active in both art and Unitarian Universalism growing up in Montclair, California. She believes art is a key tool for building momentum for human rights and racial justice, among other causes. Marissa is a visual artist in residence at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought while also teaching courses like Protest and Art at City College of New York. Her curriculum explores questions like “how can public art be used to cultivate global understanding and human rights education among young people.”
She’s answered her own question in her writing, saying, “Art-making involves critical thinking and provides space for creators to understand an issue from different vantage points, move away from stereotypes, and think about a particular issue on a different level.”
When asked for a favorite example of art boosting activism, Marissa cited Poland, where the symbol of a red lightning bolt has become an instantly recognized symbol for reproductive rights advocacy. Her example reminds us of the power symbols can provide to help unify strangers in an instant.
Marissa’s UU the Vote fellowship project will directly recruit BIPOC youth, ages 13-18 from communities nationwide–many of whom have little to no access to arts or art education. Using visual arts projects as a springboard, the program gives young participants agency through the act of art creation. The arts element flows into broader training for this generation of potential young community organizers.
While Marissa mentioned common tools like posters and banner drops among the ways art can advance activism, her interest also extends to more subtle approaches to engage people and reach their hearts. “Art gives people a space to reimagine the world,” she told me.
Marissa is one of two UU the Vote fellows focused within the category of Art and Cultural Organizing and cites challenges like “How do we prepare young people to become active in democratic systems before they have the right to vote so that when they turn 18, they’re already involved,” in her planning. That may not be an everyday topic for, say, high schoolers, but “art can help create space for people to talk about issues they normally don’t,” Marissa observes.
Alberita (Albie) Johnson is the second UU the Vote fellow focused within the Art and Cultural Organizing sector. Albie spent much of her life in New York City, but launched herself into activism only after retiring and relocating to Fort Myers, Florida. There, Albie got involved in the UU Congregation of Fort Myers and the Coalition of Imokalee Workers (among others), which worked to raise wages for immigrant agricultural workers picking tomatoes, improve working conditions, bolster economic self-sufficiency, and more.
Among her multiple roles, Albie is immersed in her second year of a commissioned lay ministry program with the Unitarian Universalist Association and was accepted as a BLUU (Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism) Haven Coordinator for her region in Southwest Florida. Albie also has engaged other Fort Myers UUs to work toward facilitating a more inclusive and welcoming congregation in doing outreach into local Haitian and Hispanic communities.
“Florida, from my experience as a Black lesbian woman, is not friendly to marginalized people, says Albie. “You get into cliques, because that’s where you feel safe.”
That feeling helped provoke Albie’s UU the Vote fellowship. Albie is an award-winning poet and her project will be “race, religion and politics in poetry and spoken word.” She’s working with fellow congregation members to stage a local event with the goal of inviting and inspiring people — including those with no poetry experience — to engage in a public reading and community-building event.
The gathering will also include various democracy engagement activities and, hopefully, catalyze a monthly poetry gathering to further build connections and community. When asked about her desired outcome for the project. Albie said she hopes to create a bridge to connect people from those different cliques and generate more personal connections, confident in the good that will follow. Beyond that, “who knows what may happen,” said Albie.
Learn more about UU the Vote.