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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Meeting Favianna Rodriguez

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.
"The voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass, but the arts do live continuously ... they outlive governments and creeds and societies, even the very civilizations that produced them." (Author Unknown)
Monday, April 7, 2008, I met Favianna Rodriguez, internationally renowned muralist, graphic artist, printmaker, and political activist. Favianna attended our Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) monthly general membership meeting as a guest speaker.

As an activist, Favianna was one of the founders of the EastSide Arts Alliance, an organization that supports Oakland neighborhoods through art programs. She has also helped to make available performance, studio space, and affordable housing units. She is a co-owner of TUMIS, an East Oakland-based design firm that provides design, technology, and communication strategy services for social justice and nonprofit organizations.

Favianna co-founded Visual Element in 2001, a graffiti arts program that trains young artists in the traditions of muralism and graffiti for social change. She coordinated recruitment, instruction, and retention of young graffiti artists of color, ages 17-20. She has developed a street-based arts curriculum and fundraised over $75,000 annually from city grants, foundations, and private mural commissions.

While in Michigan, Favianna was doing a residency with Michigan State University Department of Arts and Humanities. She met our Latin American Spanish-Speaking Organization (LASSO) sponsor who invited Favianna to attend our monthly LASSO meeting and present about the activism and social justice work she does through art and printmaking.

Before Favianna presented, I spoke to the group about the importance of art, particularly as it relates to the struggle for social justice. I told those in attendance that art is a powerful expression of who we are and our views of the world. It is a culmination of experience, history, and culture — it is a vivid expression of life itself.

Through art we convey our vision, dreams and hope. We preserve the memory of our people for generations to follow. We are also able to shape the consciousness of the global community. Each piece of art is a tentacle with boundless measure.

As Suzanne Lacey, Executive Director at Museum Without Walls, puts it, "Artists as reporters represent their world. Artists as experiencers give tangible form to their feelings about the world. Artists as analysts look beyond the immediate to reveal hidden universal truths. And artists as activists help us see the world in new ways."

During her presentation Favianna covered a broad range of issues. I couldn't help but quickly recognize that she is totally committed to social justice and the elimination of every form of discrimination. It was also clear that she is passionate about the causes she supports and is unapologetic about her positions. Favianna says her work "reflects a growing national consciousness that speaks to the contemporary urban barrios, rebelling against racism, homophobia, sexism and corporate irresponsibility."

During her presentation Favianna shared several colored copies of artwork she has done. Everyone in attendance received a copy. She also shared art she is making available for free to be used for noncommercial activist purposes. They will be available online and in a new book Favianna co-edited titled "Reproduce & Revolt: Radical Images for the 21st Century."

She told us the story behind each piece of artwork she graciously shared with us, and explained the various processes she uses to create them. Her presentation was very interesting and captivated those who were in attendance. What began with Favianna saying, "I'm going to tell you a little about myself," concluded as a 45-minute political art discourse.

The range of topics that Favianna included in her presentation was vast. Sometimes it included subjects about femicide, day laborers, and genetically engineered food, other times she talked about politics, the Olympic Games protests, and upcoming events she would be a part of.

Favianna spoke to us on the day that members of The Ruckus Society climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to support Tibetan independence. Members of Ruckus hung two large banners that read, "One World, One Dream: Free Tibet." San Francisco is the only city hosting the Olympic torch in the United States. Favianna is friends with members of Ruckus and has collaborated with them on projects in the past.

Listening to Favianna speak about the social activism she does was a great experience. I felt proud to be in the company of a person truly motivated to do all she can for the advancement of people worldwide. She is acutely aware of the many facets to social activism and the need to maintain an all-encompassing approach to avert any possible exclusion.

Favianna recently wrote in her blog how proud she was to see the unity between Black and Brown prisoners who were in attendance at LASSO the evening she presented. What she didn't know is that not only is there a strong unity of Black and Brown prisoners in the group, there are also White prisoners who regularly attend the meetings and help foster the cohesion that is created.

This is one of the things about LASSO that I have worked so hard to accomplish as the group's president. Having a vast background in social movements, Black history, and Chicano/Latino history, has equipped me with the necessary tools to help develop mutual respect and harmony between every race of people who attends LASSO.

Few people have been able to accomplish this because they lacked the knowledge about various cultures, history, and religions to create a human tapestry that is all inclusive. One must understand the commonalities that people share before they can truly bring them together and create harmonious relationships.

My ability to do this is a much needed skill that can be utilized in society as well. The model that I have created in prison to unify people and teach them how to respect one another and work together will significantly benefit the global community when I am one day released.

It was great hearing Favianna talk about various people she has worked with in Black and Brown communities. I was able to relate to everything she said because vicariously I have shared her experiences. I have always maintained an all-inclusive mentality when teaching people because I recognize the value that this has over employing a narrow approach.

Teaching about various cultures and history helps us better understand each other and appreciate the struggles we share. It helps us realize more and more how similar we are and, rather than be afraid of each other due to our ignorance, we grow closer as a unified body. Segregation breeds evils and is destructive to the human spirit.

I was also grateful that Favianna shared her thoughts with us about gender and women's liberation. They are issues eschewed by many males but need to be discussed. I have always been a strong proponent of the need for women to express themselves and compel others to respect their status in the world.

The mentality that relegates women as second-class citizens or tries to make their roles as footnotes in history is nothing short of disrespectful and oppressive. Having a strong accomplished Latina speak about her strengths and the need to respect and appreciate women in front of a room full of men, particularly in a prison, took courage.

During a conversation with Favianna I learned that she knew one of my supporters and a person I admire, Dr. Elizabeth "Betita" Martinez. Favianna worked closely with Betita for several years on the book "500 Years of Chicana Women's History/Años de Historia de las Chicanas."

According to Rutgers University Press, "500 Years of Chicana Women’s History offers ... a vivid, pictorial account of struggle and survival, resilience and achievement, discrimination and identity. The bilingual text, along with hundreds of photos and other images, ranges from female-centered stories of pre-Columbian Mexico to profiles of contemporary social justice activists, labor leaders, youth organizers, artists, and environmentalists, among others."

Betita is a prominent and highly respected figure in the Chicano/Latino community. She has a long history as a leader in the struggle for social justice. I was able to learn about her experience working with Favianna on the book and about how their historical project materialized.

I made a donation to the Immigrant Rights Poster Project that Favianna is spearheading. An immigrant rights conference is being held May 12-17 in Mexico City. The event is being convened by TIGRA (Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action), SEDEREC (Ministry of Rural Development and Community Equity for the City of Mexico), and CENCOS (National Center for Social Communication).

The event will bring together more than 300 migrant leaders from the USA, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Favianna is collaborating with other artists to create five posters for the conference. She will have 5,000 posters printed of each design to be distributed free of charge to groups supporting immigrant rights all over the world. I chose to use some of the money I received for my birthday to help with this project.

Now when the conference is held I can truly say I helped make it a success. And, whenever I am eventually released, I can begin attending global immigrant rights conferences — and other social justice conferences — as well and be an active participant. It's just one of the many things I look forward to doing one day.

It was an honor having Favianna visit us and be the first group of prisoners she ever presented to inside a prison. We were privileged to have her as our guest and show her that the misconceptions and generalizations often made about prisoners aren't always true. We represented the full inversion of the lies presented in the media.

Who knows, maybe Favianna will even do an art project to memorialize the event one day.

To learn more about Favianna Rodriguez and her amazing work you are invited to visit her web site at While you're at it please read her writing, "Please Help Fund This Immigrant Rights Poster Project," and make a contribution if you are able to.■

Friday, April 4, 2008

Invincible Hope Flourishes After 20 Birthdays in Captivity

"Real difficulties can be overcome; it is only the imaginary ones that are unconquerable."--Theodore N. Vail

by Efrén Paredes, Jr.

Friday, April 4, 2008, was the 20th birthday I have spent incarcerated. I have been separated from my family, friends, and society from my 16th through 35th birthdays.

While this is a very painful and unfortunate reality, I took time to reflect over recent events in my life and the hundreds of wonderful people who have joined my campaign for justice. I used this day to celebrate our campaign, life, and the concept of hope.

I thought about all the great presentations being made about my case across the state, the recent newspaper articles that appeared in The New Citizens Press and The Michigan Citizen, and the radio interviews done by members of The Injustice Must End (TIME) Committee in California and Michigan.

We have committee members also working fervently in Texas and Tennessee generating support as well. The Fast 4 Freedom concluded with over 100 people who fasted across the globe in support of our campaign. Almost daily, Helen receives communications from people from different regions of the country asking how they can contribute to our campaign.

Last week I was contacted by the coordinator of the newly created organization Youth for Youth Justice. The coordinator, a University of Michigan student, asked me to offer my insight about the juvenile life without parole issue. She also sought my feedback about ways to improve the efficacy of the group.

Youth for Youth Justice is a group of high school students who are beginning to make presentations and conduct workshops about the need to abolish the imposition of life without parole sentences on children. They are currently working on creating a council of youth to include students from high schools across the state. I will be working closely with Youth for Youth Justice to help them raise awareness about the work they are doing.

Last weekend I called and spoke to members of the Saginaw TIME Committee during two presentations made about my case in Saginaw. I also spoke to an activist who was in attendance named David, a former member of the Saginaw city council, and a high school student.

David took a lot of our information, business cards, and postcards and committed to help our campaign. He planned to visit various local groups he is affiliated with to make presentations about the case and get people's support. He was enthusiastic and found it very disturbing that I could still be in prison all these years, based on the facts in my case.

This former city council member volunteered to take my case and appeal to the mayor of the city to get involved and endorse our efforts. He was optimistic that he could also get others involved as well. Having a history of ties with various members of the community will certainly be helpful with the work he seeks to do.

During one of the Saginaw calls I spoke to a high school student, a 15-year-old Latino male. I reminded him that I was his age when I was separated from society and imprisoned. During the course of our conversation he expressed wanting to organize two local high schools around the juvenile life without parole issue so students can become instrumental in ending the practice.

He was very eager to begin circulating information about my case, educating people about the facts, gathering postcards, and helping in any way he can. According to Helen he even posted an image of our banner on his MySpace page. I will begin working closely with this student to help advance the work he is doing. I believe there is a lot of potential in getting students involved in this issue at the high school and college levels.

Helen and I also worked with two college students last week regarding the juvenile life without parole issue. One was a journalism student from Loyola University in Chicago, who was writing a story about juvenile life without parole for an assignment. We provided helpful information and responded to questions the student had on the subject. She learned about me through the TIME Committee web site,

The other student we worked with was from the University of Michigan. He was preparing a class assignment about juvenile life without parole as well. With Helen's assistance I was able to provide him relevant research info and offer guidance with his project. The student learned about me through the Abolish Life Without Parole Sentences for Children in the USA Facebook group.

Contacts like these are a reminder to me of the importance of the work that committee members have done circulating things to thousands of people via the Internet. They post information about my case on web sites, blogs, discussion boards, comment sections, Facebook pages, MySpace pages, and via e-mails. I am grateful for every post that people make. Each one has the potential to reach millions of people and advance our campaign all over the globe.

Needless to say the past 10 days have been very busy for me.

Around my birthday each year family and friends often ask me what I would like them to purchase for me, or ask if I would like them to send me money so I can order something for myself.

My response is almost always asking people to order books for me or periodical subscriptions. I am always excited to receive new reading material. Often times people print articles and information from the Internet and mail them to me to read. I have learned and experienced many things in life vicariously through reading.

This year one of my birthday requests was for family members to create an Online petition, web page, and Facebook group for me to support the approval of a high school charter by the Los Angeles Unified School District board of directors. I learned about this through my friend and supporter, Mario Rocha. He is organizing a grassroots effort to get the charter approved. After just one day I learned that the Facebook group I asked people to create for me has generated over 150 supporters in four days.

Generating support for the creation of an institution of learning for Chicano/Latino children is important to me because I know the children will benefit immensely. Their futures and education are important to me and many others in the Chicano/Latino community. One day I hope to be able to walk through the doors of the school and visit what is destined to become one of the premier high schools in the nation.

In the months to come I hope to devote more time to the development of a rites of passage program for Chicano/Latino youth I have been working on. I have envisioned the program for some time but have not been able to finalize it. My eventual release will allow me to complete the program. It will allow me the opportunity to utilize it, see its application, and gauge its efficacy so it can be finalized and implemented.

I may have lost many years of my life to wrongful imprisonment, but it has never prevented me from helping others along the way. I have often paused during my own campaign for freedom to assist other worthy causes and people. I know how important it is to receive support and assistance for worthy causes. I would be remiss to not assist others, while I have fought so hard to receive the assistance of others.

As human beings we have an obligation to share the gifts and talents we have been blessed to receive. Speaking and writing to help others is a very important contribution we can make. Each is a footprint left in the world we are striving to make a better place for us all.

I thought about this today during a conversation I had with a DOC officer. The officer was observing two prisoners talking and he commented, "Why is he wasting his time talking to [the person's name]? He's always doing stupid stuff. That's a quick way to get a bad rep around here." We were standing on the prison yard at the time.

The officer was referring to one of the young prisoners who is defiant towards staff at times and is argumentative. He is new to the prison system. In the short time he has been here he has managed to accumulate misconduct reports for his errant behavior.

I told the officer I thought that was an unfair assessment of the situation. To characterize the young prisoner as someone "always doing stupid stuff" because he is having difficulty adjusting to imprisonment. I reminded him that man was created to be free and have dominion over the earth, not to be held captive. Incarceration is an unnatural condition that human beings do not seamlessly adjust to. Some people never make the adjustment at all.

This is one of many interesting moments I have had throughout my imprisonment. But, as I always endeavor to do, I transformed the situation into an educational opportunity.

I commented that many of the problems in the world today exist because of similar observations, or perhaps "condemnations" is a more appropriate term. People are too quick to tear down other human beings. Rather than find resolutions to problems they choose to speak ill of others. It requires no effort on their part and creates within them a false sense of superiority to the detriment of others.

I explained that we will never improve the human condition when we engage in behavior that fuels negative attitudes about others. We also foster destructive analyses and perceptions that create a fertile environment for failure. And, the more often it is repeated the greater chance that it will metastasize into a worse situation.

How do we know that this young problematic prisoner isn't a long-term victim of abuse? How do we know he is mentally competent to exercise circumspection? Or that he is even guilty of the crime he is in prison for? I always wonder about the latter question because of my own experience.

Rather than try to examine the various potential causal factors for the young prisoner's errant behavior the officer chose to make negative inferences through the biased lens he used to draw his conclusions.

I asked the officer how he thought the young prisoner could be changed without the appropriate intervention of others. How could he be expected to would learn the error of his conduct or be influenced to change without someone reaching out to him. It is wrong to assume that people know how to improve their lives and desist engaging in destructive behavior on their own. Many people lack those tools inside prison, and even in society. Some people have been in dysfunctional environments all their lives and it is all they know.

My recollection was that the Governor's Visions and Values philosophy in Michigan includes encouraging state employees to foster excellence. Inherent in "excellence" is the concept of redemption and looking for the good in others. The root word of "excellence" is "excel," which means to surpass or do "better than others." As a civil servant that includes promoting courtesy, or polite behavior.

During my imprisonment I have helped many young prisoners. I have helped them mature and learn about themselves and life in general. I know how difficult it was to be young and in prison. I know the challenges they encounter and how difficult it is to adjust to the prison setting.

I told the officer I am certain there have been occasions when staff may have drawn the same conclusions about me that he made because I was trying to help problematic prisoners. I knew it had occurred before because some staff members told me about it after they learned that I was only trying to do something positive. I never allowed that to discourage me though because what I was doing was morally correct. I knew I could make a difference, and I did.

Somewhere along the line people have come to believe it is acceptable to permit human suffering. That it is alright to turn their face to injustice. It is sad and very unfortunate that the moral fabric of society has decayed to this point.

I told the officer there have been numerous times that I have heard prisoners defame the character of officers or other staff members that were undeserving of the scathing remarks made. If I were to adopt the thinking of the officer I was speaking to, I should have just stood there and allowed it to occur. But, I didn't.

Instead, I have defended the character of officers and other staff if I knew the assaults on their character were unwarranted. And, when I have done this I put myself potentially in harm's way each time. It isn't looked upon favorably by other prisoners for a prisoner to defend the character of an officer or staff member. It can result in the prisoner being treated as a pariah or being physically harmed. I never did this because I had to. I did it because it was the right thing to do.

Even knowing this it has not deterred me from expressing myself or speaking the truth. I vowed many years ago to not let this experience compel me to compromise my principles and I have remained faithful to that promise to myself.

After our discussion the officer looked at me and said, "You know, you're right. I hadn't looked at it that way. I shouldn't have said that. We all need a reality check sometimes I guess. Nobody is perfect."

He was right ... "nobody is perfect."

Our conversation just reinforced my feelings about always being honest with people and not letting others or circumstances dictate the course of my life. Being true to myself and others is more important to me than popularity.

Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions in life that aren't popular. We have to realize we will never make everyone happy though. If we go through life seeking fleeting moments of happiness that masquerade as permanence we will be chasing transient illusions our entire lives.

One of the marks of a strong leader is having the courage to do the right thing even when faced with opposition. As a firm believer in the Creator and the revealed Holy scriptures, I have an obligation to the Creator and my faith to do those things that are pleasing in the eyes of the Creator.

"No one can serve two masters." (Matthew 6:24) We are also reminded that, "A double minded man is unstable in all his ways." (James 1:8) If we live our lives trying to please other people we are not living a life pleasing to the Creator. This is why I can never abandon the idea of redemption and the belief that people are deserving of second chances.

If I didn't employ this philosophy about life I could never help all the people I have. I have to remind myself, "How can I ask the Creator for forgiveness if I don't forgive others?" I must also remember that the scripture says that by the same yardstick we use to judge others, so will we be judged.

Depriving someone of the opportunity to rebuild their life is synonymous with denying them life and robbing them of hope. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Clouds of despair are floating in so many of our mental skies. ... In the midst of hopelessness, there is the need to explore the meaning of hope."

He continued, "Hope is contagious. If you really hope, it has a way of getting over to others, and it generates something with them. ... Hope has a way of firing hope. ... Hope is necessary for life. Hope is necessary for freedom. It is necessary for creativity and for spirituality."

Dr. King delivered this message of hope 40 years ago on March 15, 1968. He delivered it the same day of my arrest (i.e., March 15, 1989).

We can all make a difference in the world. Every contribution has infinite potential. From a prison cell I have affected change in colleges, schools, churches, organizations, and in the lives of countless individuals. If I can impact the world like I do, totally separated from the lives I affect, whenever I am eventually released the depth and breadth of my work will be able to increase exponentially.

The path to self-discovery has been elusive to many for so long. Many don't even know that it exists. Our job is to shine our light into the world so that others can feel the power of its radiance and, like Dr. King said, make it "contagious."■