If you live in a community plagued by violence, poverty, and health problems, it can be hard to see our collective ecological crisis as more pressing than the everyday crisis of survival. That’s the problem artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, founder of the national Youth Speaks poetry program, set out to tackle with his Life is Living festivals, which he describes as an effort to “green the ghetto” by asking first, “What sustains life in your community?” The festivals have been held in Chicago, New York, and Houston, and happen every year in Oakland, where Joseph lives. They bring together artists, philanthropists, environmentalists, community organizers, social service organizations -- “folks who share values but have different modalities -- around this one value, which is life.”
Joseph created a work of performance art based on the Life is Living festivals called red, black, and GREEN: a blues that’ll be performed in different cities over the next year. Incorporating song, dance, spoken word, monologue, and multimedia visuals, the piece tells the stories of people Joseph met who fight every day to sustain life around them -- a Chicago mother coping with the loss of her son to gang violence, folks cultivating a garden built on an old junkyard in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Joseph’s own struggle to explain the Black Panthers’ legacy to his young son. The heavy material is buoyed by moments of humor, like the depiction of hard-core enviros’ holier-than-thou approach to green living (“Are you eatin’ local, organic, non-packaged, and fresh? Are you a vegan, eatin’ in season, freezin’ what’s left?”) that made a diverse Seattle audience laugh in recognition.
The show doesn’t offer an easy answer to the question of how to transform the environmental movement into a universally inclusive one. Instead, it interprets the movement from the perspective of communities where sustaining life is about a lot more than changing light bulbs -- a perspective too often missing from mainstream conversations about sustainability.
I talked to Joseph before I saw the show.