Jun 9, 2021

What Nourishes Us Requires Nourishment In Return: Voices of the People for Environmental Change and Creative Economy

by: Interviews compiled by Katelyn Rivas.

What is the intersection between art and environmental justice? 

Tessa Hulls: Art and environmental justice are both, at their core, about being connected to a larger whole that nourishes us and requires nourishment in return. We live in a society that is profoundly cut off from its relationship to the land. Indigenous voices and groups who have chosen to align their values outside of mainstream capitalism have been sounding the warning for generations about what we lose—physically, emotionally, spiritually—when we cease to see ourselves as part of an environment held in collective balance. We have severed ourselves, but the weight of this estrangement falls disproportionately on the people who have the least, and art is a powerful tool for calling this out and finding ways to address it. I see glimmers of hope in the ways in which mainstream white society is beginning to consider how to make itself responsible for what has been stolen and broken, and artists are a huge part of finding ways to begin these conversations. The role of an artist is to remind a society of its larger connections, and in that way artists are essential workers in galvanizing a disaffected public into taking responsibility for environmental justice. 

Israel F Haros Lopez: The intersection for me between art and environmental justice is to understand what Roseane Rodriguez would always tell me, that “without art there is no movement”. It is the wake up call to the people. Art disrupts the patterns in the social fabric. Art heals the social fabric. It becomes the place where people can look at and find themselves and what is relevant. Art is always political, even when it’s devoid of politics. But when we choose to use it as a tool for creating social change we can activate all peoples from all walks of life. We are at a tipping point with our mother earth and it’s important that we find all the like minded people that can create local and global awareness around the multitude of environmental issues. Each effort big and small matters and creates seeds of relentless hope. 

Rebecca Zorach: Art can express ideas about environmental justice or find creative ways to engage people in reflecting on their own connections to it. Some ecological practices might not immediately look like art, but they are imaginative interventions that can contribute to a more just relationship to land, water, air, and plant and animal life. I really appreciated the points in the conversation where speakers talked about expanding the notion of what counted as “art.” This came up in many panels—in the Land & Liberation panel on Tuesday Carlton Turner said “there’s no culture without agriculture” and in the final panel Laura Zabel mentioned that Springboard for the Arts defines art as “meaning making in everyday life.” Art can be about the experience of growing plants for food, or tending forests and other wild places, or working together to repair damaged land in urban settings. It could mean making useful objects or building social relationships.  When art is understood outside of a narrowly European/Euro-American perspective it can be completely aligned with environmental justice. This seems especially clear in Indigenous traditions or others that are in dialogue with them.

Dr. Christina M. Castro: For Indigenous people, art is something infused into all aspects of our culture, whether it be song, dance, ceremonial regalia, traditional arts, etc. We are natural artists, and have always used earthen materials to make beautiful things. Art is just an extension of who we are. Families in our New Mexico tribal communities are known for their various types of artistry, from pottery making, jewelry, to the making of moccasins and other traditional items. Detailed design work and an eye for aesthetic beauty is something we take pride in, as evidenced by our visually ornate ceremonial doings. So it is only natural we would use art in all its forms to bring attention to the environmental issues that affect us, whether it be fracking, MMIW, resource extraction, the list goes on. My organization, Three Sisters Collective, also uses art, or “artivism” to highlight the marginalized voices of our communities and as a tool for “culture shifting” in order to reframe the terms of engagement for how our city engages with Indigenous people. Some newcomers don’t even realize Indigenous people live in Santa Fe, much less its original Tewa name of O’ga P’ogeh. We are using art to tell the story of the original peoples of this area, which in turn humanizes us and encourages our community to learn about our current day issues and lived experiences. It also asks them to take responsibility for their part in ongoing settler colonialism, gentrification and the extractive economies that further erase our presence and negatively impact our landbases, waterways, depletes our resources, and diminishes our overall quality of life. 


What moment during the A&E Symposium impacted you the most? 

TH: It wasn’t a single moment; it was the accumulation of so many individuals telling the same story of action through mutual aid. In the panels I attended, organizers from long-neglected communities talked about the painful and predictable pattern of being passed over and ignored, particularly in terms of COVID-19 aid. Over and over again, I heard the message: “No one was coming to save us, so we saved ourselves.” On the Land and Liberation panel, I heard Dr. Christina M. Castro of the Three Sisters Collective in Santa Fe/Ogha Po’oge talk about how COVID cut urban natives off from their pueblo communities, and the huge loss of ritual and connection inherent within that severing. She talked about how that prompted their collective to start urban land spaces in order to create that sense of kinship in community outside of the pueblo. It’s saddening that this new community beacon had to come from a place of severing, but it was powerful to hear what grew from the need to find new ways to connect.

IHP: I was humbled by the opportunity to be on a panel with Carlton Turner, who has been doing BIPOC Art and Land based practices for an extremely long time and to know that the efforts we are currently seeding in New Mexico can some day flourish in similar ways because of the extensive knowledge and history of engaging that SIPP Culture has. COVID-19 has devastated us in many ways but the symposium was a precious reminder of all those in the nation and the world that are creating inspirational change right now. To be able to bear witness to these individuals for free was an amazing blessing. To know that we can continue to connect with so many knowledgeable people throughout the country is amazing.

RZ: The moment I was most struck by was in the Water is Life panel when the panelists were discussing the accessibility of art and Erin Genia pointed out that “art” as it is often understood, as the European tradition, has been actively harmful to Indigenous people as an agent of colonization. As an art historian I have been slowly coming to terms with this idea and Erin put it so clearly and succinctly. To say this doesn’t detract in any way from the ways in which people might invest the training they’ve received in that tradition into practices and goals that are liberatory, but it helps reckon with the history of harm that institutions and individuals often unknowingly perpetuate.

CC: I really enjoyed the short films segment as it allowed me to see the various community projects Mural Arts Philadelphia is supporting and make correlations between the issues Indigenous people are facing and how they are very similar to the Black community. It made me aware of the ongoing effects of resource extraction and the oil and gas industry’s impact nationwide and often impacting our most vulnerable people. I hadn’t actually made that correlation prior, which is evidenced by the lengths gone to make sure Black and Indigenous people are kept unaware of their common issues so that we as Indigenous people can maintain our overall Anti-blackness and not work towards radical community building for a sustainable future. It made me realize the need for Black Indigenous solidarity and it has actually motivated me to reach out to members of the local Black community, of which there aren’t many in northern New Mexico, in order to begin some effort at community dialogue so that we can support each other’s movements. As MLK said, “Until we are all free, no one is free!”

What would you recommend for folks who are interested in creating environmental change but do not know where to start? 

TH: The best place to start is where you are. My work is deeply tied to digging up history so I am definitely biased, but I think one of the strongest steps we can take towards any sort of activism and environmental change is to learn about the past that has brought us to our present. Mainstream history is an act of erasure, and stories are everywhere once you start looking for them. Learning which Indigenous people’s lands you’re living on is a starting point that will broaden you to an entirely different history than the one you learned in school. As you learn more about the place you inhabit, you will begin to be connected with people who are already working in areas of need, and can begin to plug in with those efforts.The culture of American individualism has a tendency to emphasize starting something new over aiding what is already happening, and that’s a big part of why people remain in stasis and don’t enact change. Not to be too Mr. Roger’s about it, but look for the helpers; they’re there, and they need you. Engaging on a deep level with the erased history of where you live will bring you into contact with where you are needed.

IHP: Anybody that is interested in creating environmental change can easily start by creating an Art Jam or art event for people to come and paint about what changes locally they would love to see. This again is the power of art and gathering people. It can also be a poetry event. Or it can simply be a small gathering at your house. What matters is that you start. And your consistency is what will generate the momentum. You will find your people. Creating something that is sustainable to you, whether it’s gathering once a month or once a week, whatever it is that you can feed and nurture, that will then feed and nurture others. But with our little efforts, our seeds do in fact create global changes. 

RZ: Maybe start by asking yourself a question like the one posed in the Tuesday panel with Police Free Penn and Fossil Free Penn about how the institutions and infrastructures you move in locally are also imbricated in climate crisis and carcerality. Are there things you can do to pressure them to change? Look for approaches that are community-based and not just about acting a certain way as an individual. See who is already doing the work, and approach them with humility to listen and learn and find where you can plug in. It’s often about putting in effort over a long period of time before getting results. At the same time, try to open your imagination—this is where art can be vital—since part of what holds us back is the failure to think beyond the systems of the present to imagine something different, even if it seems impossible. 

CC: Look into local Indigenous groups in your area and find out what the current environmental issues there are that are directly affecting them. Let Indigenous people guide you. We are not looking for saviorism rather for non Indigenous people to listen and work with us. Our literal survival at this point in our human evolution is to employ traditional Indigenous ecological knowledge and re-learn a reciprocal relationship with the earth to bring balance to this terribly out of balance world that has used and discarded Indigenous people, land and lifeways.


Dr. Christina M. Castro (Jemez/Taos/Xicana), a.k.a. Dr. X, was born in Southern California to  families impacted by both American colonialism, along with boarding school and federal Indian relocation policy. She currently resides in O’gha Po’geh, Santa Fe, New Mexico within her traditional homelands. She is a mother of one, writer, scholar, educator, community organizer, multidimensional artist, public speaker and more. 

In 2017, Dr. Castro, co-founded Three Sisters Collective (3SC), an Indigenous-women led grassroots organization devoted to art, activism, education and community building. Dr. Castro received her doctorate degree from Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation and Justice Studies in 2018 and is an independent consultant with Castro Consulting, LLC. 

Three Sisters Collective, along with Alas de Agua Art Collective, received a grant from Mural Arts Philadelphia to create murals in the city of Santa Fe that will highlight the ongoing contributions of Tewa, Pueblo, Indigenous, Xicano and Latinx people. This will be accomplished in tandem with the development of Full Circle Farms, a collaborative effort amongst several organizations to revive the farming traditions of northern New Mexico as a form of healing and cultural reclamation. Dr. Castro looks forward to the continued re-Indigenization and re-Matriation of O’gha Po’geh! You can learn more about Three Sisters Collective by visiting their social media pages on Instagram, Facebook or their website: threesisterscollective.org. You can also contact Dr. Castro for further information or booking at christina@castroconsultingllc.com. 


Rebecca Zorach is an art historian who teaches in the Department of Art History at Northwestern University, with affiliations in programs in American Studies and Environmental Policy and Culture. Her interests include early modern European art, contemporary activist art, the Black Arts Movement, art and ecology, and the multiple intersections of art and politics. She co-edited The Wall of Respect: Public Art and Black Liberation in 1960s Chicago (Northwestern, 2017) with Abdul Alkalimat and Romi Crawford and Ecologies, Agents, Terrains (Yale, 2018) with Christopher P. Heuer, and in 2019 published Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago 1965–1975 (Duke), a book about artists’ involvement with multiple communities in the Black Arts Movement in Chicago. She is a board member of the South Side Community Art Center, where she chairs the Archives and Collections Committee, and advises on exhibition projects and the Center’s PACE (Public Art and Civic Engagement) Capacity Building program, supported by Mural Arts Philadelphia. In 2021–22 she will be a Faculty Fellow at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern.


Israel Francisco Haros Lopez was born in East Los Angeles to immigrant parents of Mexican descent. He brings his firsthand knowledge of the realities of migration, U.S. border policies, and life as a Mexican American to his work with families and youth as a mentor, educator, art instructor, workshop facilitator and artivist. He is a recipient of the Kindle Projects “Makers Muse Award”. He studied at U.C. Berkeley and received a degree in English Literature and Chicano Studies followed by an M.F.A in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts. At formal and informal visual art spaces, Israel creates and collaborates in many interdisciplinary ways including poetry, performance, music, visual art, and video making and curriculum creation. His work addresses a multitude of historical and spiritual layered realities of border politics, identity politics, and the re-interpretation of histories. He was formerly the program coordinator at Adelante and is one of the founders and forces of energy at Alas de Agua Arts Collective and the New Mexico Murals Project. In 2020 he began working with YouthWorks, Reunity Resources, Mother Nature Center and 3 Sisters Collective to grow food for the community on county owned land at San Isidro Crossing.


Tessa Hulls is an artist/writer/adventurer illuminating the connections between the present and the past. As the mixed race daughter of two first generation immigrants who landed in a tiny town of 350 people, she grew up with no models of how she fit within American culture. Her family didn’t have TV and the internet didn’t yet exist, so she spent her formative years reading her way through the public library and roaming alone through the hills with a backpack full of books (she still does this). This fusion of solitude, research, and forward motion remains the bedrock of her extremely multidisciplinary creative practice.

She is the recipient of grants from The Seattle Office of Art and Culture and 4Culture and is a Fellowship recipient from The Washington Artist Trust and The Robert B. McMillen Foundation. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Ucross, and others, and was the 2019 recipient of the PEN Northwest Margery Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency, where she spent 6.5 months living alone in an off grid cabin with no cell service or internet. She never fully left the woods and has no plans–or ability– to fully re-domesticate. She has spent the past six years working on Feeding Ghosts, a graphic memoir forthcoming MCD Books in 2023.

Last updated: Jun 15, 2021

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