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By Cynthia Menzel

A self-described “healer and trickster organizer disguised as an artist,” Ricardo Levins Morales is nationally recognized  for his depictions of social justice and the labor movement. He also brought to life the 2020 California Day of the Teacher poster with the theme: California Teachers: Inspiring Generations.

Levins Morales said the imagery he started with involved teachers being a gardener to their students. “Teachers are important. They are tasked with the job of being gardeners, creating an environment where children can flourish. In good times and bad, teachers provide the consistent element of teaching, which is about watering roots, cultivating, and weeding, so students can flourish and pollinate and be part of a community.  It’s an ecosystem, a web of connections and relationships,” he said. “That’s true of organizing. That’s true of families.”

He immigrated from Puerto Rico as a youngster and dropped out of school. Levins Morales developed his art on the shop floor. “I first started using my artwork as cartoons in an organizing context when I was a janitor in a Boston hospital in the mid-1970s.  I was part of an internal organizing committee,” he said. “Throughout the decades my work in the labor and social justice movements has always been deeply relational.”

Levins Morales’ activism includes participating in or acting in solidarity with farmers, environmental, labor, racial justice and peace movements. Increasingly Levins Morales sees his art and organizing practices as a means to address individual, collective and historical trauma. He co-leads workshops on trauma and resilience for organizers as well as trainings on creative organizing, social justice strategy and sustainable activism, and mentors and supports young activists.

In fact, Levins Morales participated in a mobile picket line April 8. “I was never so happy to see a traffic jam,” he said. “There were lots of cars and honking, it was quite impressive.” The protest rally involved dozens of cars, all with signs in the windows, circling a downtown Minneapolis bank to demand cancellation of rents and mortgage payments. Organizers from Renters United for Justice and immigration rights organizations wearing masks and vests directed traffic. “There were doubles row of cars, and a joyous, raucous soundtrack of rhythmic honking.”

Ricardo Levings Morales works on the CTA “Inspiring Generations” poster. Photo by Paula Holden

In this moment, he notes low wage workers, service, front line health care, retail, delivery are hailed as heroes, even though mainstream politicians subjected them to low wages and terrible treatment. The lesson to be learned now and for the future, he says is “we’re getting through this thanks to working class people” And there are labor actions in non-union places – implementing safety protocols, sick leave and time off, Levins Morales added. “This is a time where I hope union leadership will catch the virus of visionary actions from their rank and file and carry that forward because there’ll come a time with the autocracy will want to take back all these things that have been granted.  If sharing and generosity are the only things saving us, I think the elite will be terrified that the idea might catch on.”

The most generous, through the generations, have been teachers. Look what educators are doing, he noted. “Food lines, providing all sorts of services – mostly unfunded, of course. I see those memes and I notice what’s behind them: desperate parents saying, ‘oh teachers – next time you need something we’ll be there for you. How do you do this every day – OMG!’”

Levins Morales encourages educators to “Hang in there. And thank you for what you’re doing . Be prepared for battles to come. Doing justice for children in the classroom requires being powerful in society, and we’re in time when we have to  build collective power and expand education so that it’s pro-child and not pro-corporate think tank. You have real allies in protecting and supporting what children need. I encourage you to demand the additional supports you and your students need,” he said. “We need to understand what teachers know. That it’s real obvious we need each other.  That supporting safe housing is supporting teachers.  And that supporting children is supporting health care. That a social justice agenda is a public health agenda.”

During this pandemic Levins Morales put out a series of animal pictures with phrases like check in with each other, rest, wash your hands, support the most vulnerable and organize. He’s heard from teachers, parents and psychologists that his artwork helped get across to children what to do a calm, engaging way.  “Rather than panic images, these gentle, calming images are child-friendly.  I didn’t realize it’d be downloaded and go over all over the world, so I created coloring books to go with it,” Levings Morales said. “Art really is something that speaks to our secret selves in way words can’t.” Find his Color For Justice, Color For Calm booklets here. Samples from the coloring book are below. Also see “What to do in a pandemic” on his website.

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