Favianna Rodriguez is an artist and entrepreneur based in Oakland, and the executive director and cultural strategist of CultureStrike, a national nonprofit focused on cultural equity. Rodriguez believes that the most effective way to create social, political, and cultural change is through representation and narrative. Through all of her endeavors Rodriguez empowers marginalized communities to change narratives and build power.
Rodriguez grew up in a Latinx immigrant neighborhood in the Bay Area, and developed an interest in art at a young age, benefiting from free art classes funded by the California Arts Council. Although she didn’t have academic training, through passion and dedication she opened a studio with three collaborators in 2003. In 2004 she was selected to participate in the Creative Capital professional artist boot camp, which jump-started her art career in earnest.
Rodriguez’s first business in 2001 was a design firm geared toward building websites for social-change agents and organizations. She was a founding member of the EastSide Arts Alliance, which spearheaded a project to identify and purchase an Oakland building that now houses a cultural center and sixteen units of affordable housing. Thanks to her activism, in 2008 she was hired by the Citizen Engagement Lab (CEL), a nonprofit incubator for social justice innovation, to launch Presente.org, the first online organizing effort targeting Latinx people. CEL would go on to invest $250,000 in Presente, helping to grow it into a stable organization.
In 2011, Rodriguez and several other cultural entrepreneurs banded together to create CultureStrike, an organization with a mission to empower artists to disrupt prevalent narratives around immigration and racial justice, and be inclusive of immigrants, women, people of color, gender-nonbinary individuals, and the disabled:
At CultureStrike we are constantly asking ourselves, “What are the narratives about immigrants and people of color out there? What are TV shows saying about immigrants?” We looked at the landscape and realized that immigrants weren’t telling their own stories. So CultureStrike decided to intervene, to develop programs and create more cultural equality in the stories being told in the United States right now.
CultureStrike’s initial funding—a $60,000 grant—came from Unbound Philanthropy, a foundation dedicated to migrant and refugee rights and immigrant equality. Shortly thereafter CEL also provided fiscal sponsorship along with support fundraising services and office space for their first year. By 2017, CultureStrike was raising more than $1 million a year. Rodriguez explains: “Unbound Philanthropy and CEL absorbed the financial risk for us at the outset. There weren’t then—and aren’t now—enough groups that are willing to risk funding artist entrepreneurs interested in social justice.”
Rodriguez creates and sells (through Favianna.com) artworks that address issues facing the various communities about which she is passionate; CultureStrike puts into place projects and activations that do the same thing, but on a broader scale, with greater impact. Favianna.com is a testing ground and hands-on artist space where Rodriguez conceives ideas and experiments artistically, while CultureStrike is a place to expand on those ideas, partner with artist organizations, and bring more artists into the fold. Rodriguez notes that the commercial success of Favianna.com leads many of her customers to more actively follow CultureStrike projects, and vice versa. By keeping a foot in both the for-profit and the nonprofit worlds, Rodriguez is able to enhance and amplify her cultural impact.
One of CultureStrike’s first and most successful projects was a five-day trip with a delegation of fifty prominent artists, musicians, comedians, and writers to Tucson, Arizona, and the US-Mexico border to witness injustices faced by immigrants in a state known for anti-immigrant sentiment (SB 1070 had just passed). The goal was to build the artists’ confidence in addressing immigration, generate new relationships among the artists and community organizations in Arizona, and stimulate ideas for more in-depth projects on the subject of immigration. The participants attended presentations about immigration policy, meetings with local humanitarian organizations, sessions with local officials from the medical examiner’s office and the school district, walking tours, and court processes. The artists’ ideas for new projects included new characters in fiction writing; poster series to engage and educate children in immigration-affected neighborhoods; writing op-eds about immigration; making an effort to influence media coverage of the topic; and a project examining the relationship between immigration and climate change.
One of the most visible outcomes came from comedian, television personality, and delegate W. Kamau Bell, who was seeing the US-Mexico border for the first time. He witnessed how dead migrant bodies found in the desert are processed, and observed seventy immigrants being deported at the border. This profound experience became the subject of an episode of his Emmy-winning CNN original documentary miniseries United Shades of America, which aired in April 2018.
Another key voice Rodriguez has amplified is that of Julio Salgado. When Rodriguez met Salgado he was working at Chipotle, full of ideas but lacking a substantial outlet for his artistic vision. Rodriguez helped him bring his vision to life, coaching and eventually hiring him as CultureStrike’s first employee. Working with Rodriguez, and with time, space, and financial support, Salgado’s creative vision has taken off. With Dreamers Adrift—a group of artists dedicated to taking back undocumented narratives through video, visual art, music, spoken word, and poetry—he has traveled the country as an artist and lecturer, and is a nationally recognized “undocu-queer” practicing artist whose work focuses on undocumented immigrants and queer activism.
Favianna Rodriguez and CultureBank
Rodriguez aspires to codify her artistic-entrepreneurial framework, creating a curriculum and a series of training modules that can be replicated and distributed, with the aim of spreading the knowledge she has gained from decades of work as an artist and activist. CultureStrike is an artist-led enterprise that has had great success in reclaiming immigrant narratives to be more accurate and truthful. Its impact is evident in projects like the trip to Arizona, where she was able to influence fifty artists and culture makers, and in her personal work mentoring individual artists like Julio Salgado. CultureBank can support Rodriguez’s work and the work of artists like her who are in a position to have great impact on their communities, but need help to propagate a culture of equity—empowering marginalized individuals to see themselves in a new light.