by Tori Frank
One of the things that struck me the most from the 2022 Arts and Climate Collective showcase and resource fair was the USC Office of Sustainability’s business cards. Yes, at an Earth Week celebration event overflowing with vegan food, amazing people and inventive projects, I couldn’t stop thinking about these business cards. See, they were no ordinary business card– printed on bleached stock paper bearing sharp corners. Rather, they were made out of recycled paper, and although they had all the functional features of a regular old business card, they were magical. When the card had served its purpose, it could be planted in the soil, watered daily, and from it wildflowers would grow.
I knew in that soft card there had to be a message somewhere waiting to be uncovered, so I kept the object between my fingers as I walked around the numerous presentations. And don’t get me wrong— I was also blown away by the output of the Arts and Climate Collective, an offshoot of the Annenberg Innovation Lab that brings together student artist activists in their united efforts against climate change. One of the student cohort members, Gwenan Walker, walked me through the labor-heavy process of bringing to life her animated film The Voyager. For Gwenan, this meant erecting an entire world set 250 years into the dystopian future, conveying through cartoon characters the lived pressure of growing-up with an imminent climate crisis, all while independently starting an online art auction charity. At another stand, Josh Squash / Palmer, a computer science PHD candidate, used his table to physically represent their difficult journey of shifting technologies into paradigms of nourishment and spiritual connection. Take time to talk to the barefooted hang-drum player, and you’ll gain great wisdom into trees of life, ancestral connections, spatial mapping and centering the “full spectrum of what it means to be human.”
These conversations were intense, but pulsating with vibrant energy. Like a tiny stream turning into a raging river, I could feel the ever-growing momentum of the ACC. So much had recently come to fruition, such as two documentaries about local environmental justice activists made by ACC member Jaime Lopez. However, during the Q&A section of the event, I caught a glimpse into the past, before the waters raged as they did now. One of the speakers, Diana Salinas Vargas, as explained by moderator and Executive Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab Colin Maclay, chose “not to do a [traditional] project, but to do the project that is to build ACC.” Diana took her first step into the world of climate activism when they became an intern at the ACC. “It was scary,” she said during the panel. “It’s scary when you don't have much of a background or experience with environmental justice issues, and it seems like everyone has a long resume of activism, of work. Sometimes when you want to go into [something] for the first time, it’s frightening. But ACC was very welcoming, I’m learning as I’m working here.” Listening to Diana speak candidly about the significant barriers of entry into a space in which she was now literally center stage felt very representative of the event's mission at large; not just a celebration of success, but a garden of opportunity for anyone new to freely enter.
Sitting next to Diana on stage was Eytan Stanton, a 2022 cohort member and good friend of mine. Last semester, Eytan and I attended Regenerate, the 2021 ACC showcase. Afterwards, we sat in the Roski courtyard and gushed over the talent and inspiration we had just experienced. In between bites of buffalo cauliflower wings, Eytan opened up about his recent questioning of the fence around USC's campus. A couple months passed, and through countless hours of textual research, media mixing and bike-backed community canvassing, Eytan emerged to proudly present his visually demanding project Interra-gate. “Can I ask you, what’s the number one public area in this map extent that you spend time?” Eytan asked the attendees, then guided them to actually mark the map with their answer. Would they too leave the event with racing thoughts about the relationship between USC’s gated campus and its surrounding neighborhood? Would the ACC tree grow another branch, a new member in its flourishing cohort?
Through attending climate justice events and presentations such as this one, I keep encountering a cyclical pattern of amazement into action. A project here sparks a conversation there, recognition from one becomes motivation for another. This connectivity is how we are sustaining a movement, especially one that is up against existentially important issues. There is no shame in admitting the anxiety and fatigue that accompanies this fight. However, our cumulative efforts are both tremendous and impactful. Until that day, I would never have thought that something as simple as a sustainably designed business card could bring me such hope. But that one idea helped me to imagine the sheer amount of other idea seeds out there, just waiting to be planted and improve upon the unsustainable normal. We are living through a treacherous age, but with enough water from one another, wildflowers will surely grow.