Friday, May 28, 2010

Rebel Diaz Arts Collective Provides Model For Activists and Young People Locked Out of a Stagnant Economy

Dr Mark Naison
Fordham Unviersity

Last night, I had the opportunity to visit the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, an organization of activists, musicians and visual and performing artists which has transformed a former candy factory into a vibrant community space.

When I entered the building, I felt I had been transported into a hip hop community center in Berlin, or a loft in lower Manhattan that had been occupied by political activists in the late 60’s and early 70’s. There were murals and political slogans all over the walls, couches and chairs that had clearly been found on the street or donated by friends, a large room that had been transformed into a performance space, and smaller rooms that had been turned into a music studio, a computer room and the offices of an allied community organization. An outdoor sitting space was filled with graffiti art done by a combination of well known writers and neighborhood youth and a wall on the roof had a huge yellow sign, probably 70 feet long, and 10 feet high, that read “No Human is Illegal” that was easily visible from the Bruckner Expressway.

The people in the Arts Collective also had a familiar appearance. Most were people of color in their twenties and early thirties, with a scruffy, but hip look that would have made them seem at home in a meeting of Young Lords, the Black Panthers, or SDS 40 years before. My two guests and I, sixties veterans all, did a double take. It was as if we had been transported into an earlier time in the City’s history, a time when a collapsing social structure and a fierce political idealism spawned revolutionary dreams, and when the city’s faltering economy provided inexpensive spaces those dreams could be pursued in.

The three of us were so surprised by what we saw that we did a collective double take. Could this really be happening again? The political spaces we had spent our formative years in had, over time, been transformed into upscale boutiques and expensive apartments and the revolutionary dreams we once held had been rejected by three generations of young people in favor of the pursuit of wealth, security and a dynamic consumer lifestyle.

But what we saw in that abandoned factory in the South Bronx, we soon realized, was not a fluke, it was a sign of an emerging revolutionary consciousness among a generation of young people facing unprecedented economic stagnation, and a future that would soon render questionable the dreams of effortless wealth and consumption that many Americans had seen as their birthright for the last thirty years.

We all know the grim statistics about unemployment for people under the age of 30. Only a minority of college graduates are finding full time jobs following graduation a while job opportunities in law, business, education and social service are shrinking rapidly. No reputable economist that I have read thinks the economy will expand rapidly enough to absorb this huge, young surplus labor force any time soon, leaving many educated young people without the wherewithal to become economically independent, while young people with less education are being forced deeper into poverty and desperation.

There is already much pain and hardship being inflicted on young people, and their families, in both groups. But a few visionary young people, like the members of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, have seen an opportunity to create new forms of organization which allow people to free themselves from individualistic, acquisitive impulses which will only bring disappointment in this time of crisis

What gives this vision substance, and ultimately, more than a little practicality, is the sudden appearance of huge amounts of abandoned residential and commercial space in virtually every town and city in the country. Not only are there hundred of thousands of abandoned and foreclosed private homes in the country, they are tens of thousands of recently abandoned stores, warehouses, factories and shopping centers whose owners have gone bankrupt or closed down their operations.

Very few of these facilities are going to be rented at market rates any time soon. If they stay abandoned, nothing good is going to happen.. They are going to be stripped, vandalized, or set afire.

But if young people can seize these properties and convert them to community usage, or render them operational for less than market rent, both the original owners and the government may find this a better alternative than letting them remain vacant.

This is exactly what the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective has done. They have taken a huge abandoned space on a deteriorated block in the South Bronx and have made it into a community center by using volunteer labor, not only from the 15-20 members of the collective, but from people in the community and friends around the city and the country.
Not only have the created a space that both neighborhood people and progressive artists feel comfortable in, but they have used the facility to spawn income generating activities, whether it by selling CD’s or art works by members of the Collective, renting the space out for music video shoots, charging admission for concerts and films, or getting government grants to run summer youth programs.

What makes this income generating activity work is the communal spirit that animates the group. People in the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective share whatever income that comes in and it is this communal spirit, as well as the physical appearance of the space, that so moved the three of us Sixties veterans that came by their Center. Here are people who understand that when the meaning in your life comes from friendship, love, creative activity and commitment to social justice, than you don’t need to accumulate material possessions to mark your place in the world. I am not sure where members of the collective lived, or what they owned, or how much money they maid from other jobs, but it was clear that they felt infused with a higher sense of purpose that give them joy and happiness and allowed for the development of powerful friendships.

As I have watched this economic crisis unfold over the last four years, I have often said that young people today needed to discover the revolutionary communalism of the Sixties.

Well, based on what I saw at the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, they have already begun to do that. I suspect that what is happening on Austin Place, right off the Bruckner Expressway, is happening simultaneously in other parts of the city and the nation, and it gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, this so called “lost generation” is not going to passively accept the economic marginalization that economists and social scientists have declared to be their fate.

If they follow the lead of Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, they can become makers of history rather than a crisis they didn’t expect.

And that is a prospect that makes this Sixties veteran break out in a smile!

Mark Naison
May 28, 2010


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