By Catherine Foley, Communications Manager
What happens when community organizers, workers, and activists step into the shoes of theater producers, opera singers, and television writers? For three organizations in our network, the results are powerful stories that entertain, delight, and educate audiences, while also moving forward real-life campaigns for housing justice, worker power, and community governance.
Here’s the story of Dot’s Home Live, an interactive play about time travel and housing justice in Detroit; The Workers’ Opera, a musical featuring Amazon warehouse workers in Missouri; and MINE, an animated science fiction series about self-determination, community, and abundance.
Housing justice takes center stage in Detroit, MI
Dot’s Home Live made its theatrical debut earlier this summer! After months of brainstorming, scripting, and rehearsing with our affiliate Detroit Action and our partners Rise-Home Stories Project and A Host of People, the show premiered with over 300 attendees. Adapted from the award-winning video game “Dot’s Home,” Dot’s Home Live follows the story of Dot Hawkins, a young Black woman living in Detroit who travels through time and confronts the racist housing policies her family has endured for generations.
For the live performance, we wanted to transform the single player gaming experience into a collective one, where the audience could engage with the emotional, sometimes challenging, subject matter in a way that was still playful and joyful. The result was pretty magical. With every seat filled, the audience was engaged, moved, and fired up about seeing their own stories and histories reflected on the stage. They cheered for Dot and her family, and booed at the predatory real estate speculator trying to snatch their home out from under them. Afterwards, Detroit Action facilitated a community conversation about housing insecurity, neighborhood disinvestment, property tax reform, and other issues in the city, as well as ways for folks to connect with them and take action for housing justice.
Dot’s Home Live ran for two performances, and its impact continues to be felt by Detroit Action members and the community who made it such a success. Hundreds of individuals from different locations, industries, and interests came together to produce and experience the show—and they are now tapped into Detroit Action’s vision and work.
“Works of art, especially ones that are collaborative, sincere, and genuine, tend to have a long life and sometimes take on a life of their own,” shares Christina Rosales, our Housing and Land Justice Director and co-producer of the show.
What’s more, for many of the organizers involved in the show, they stepped into unfamiliar but key creative roles, stretching new muscles and building their individual skills to bring the show to life. Dot’s Home Live was a powerful collaboration between different people and groups, but it was also an experiment that revealed how, from a video game to a community play, art in social change movements is evolving. Now that the show has concluded, Detroit Action is building on a renewed sense of urgency for their campaigns, including a tenant bill of rights and financial support for Detroit homeowners experiencing wrongful foreclosure.
Amazon workers in St. Peters, MO share their stories through song
Building on the tradition of protest music and picket line songs, The Workers’ Opera is a musical performance that tells the story of Amazon workers dealing with issues like unsafe working conditions, low pay, surveillance, and more at the STL8 warehouse in St. Louis. Over the course of just two months, workers with the STL8 Organizing Committee, Missouri Workers Center, and local arts group Bread and Roses Missouri worked together to write and rehearse the performance before its debut in May 2023.
In March, the STL8 workers led storytelling sessions where they recounted their experiences in the warehouse, identified shared issues, and began thinking about the story and flow for the performance. Following their story-gathering sessions, they met three times a week to write and rehearse with theater professionals with Bread and Roses. Most of the STL8 workers had never written a song before, let alone sing on stage in front of a crowd, but they jumped into the experience.
The end result was a worker-led, hour-long show featuring songs that wove together labor history, current events, and the workers’ own lived experiences organizing for better working conditions. Similar to the folks involved with Dot's Home Live, the STL8 Amazon workers felt a sense of ownership over the performance, flexed new creative muscles, and built power with other workers, local organizations, and community members.
“It really helped me step out of my comfort zone, and I got to tell my story. I talk to people who will now listen to me about how important it is to organize,” shares Josyland Rucker, a member of the STL8 Organizing Committee and one of the performers in The Workers’ Opera.
Three days after the performance, more than 400 STL8 workers signed a petition calling for safer working conditions at the facility. Two months later, 14 STL8 members filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration citing dangerous working conditions, job-related injuries, and Amazon’s failure to provide adequate treatment to employees. STL8 members like Josyland are doing the critical work of sharing their stories with other workers, building connections and power together, and then taking action to demand better from the corporation.
Envisioning just, equitable communities through sci-fi and animation
In 2018, our Minnesota affiliate ISAIAH joined the Rise-Home Stories Project, a cohort of storytellers, artists, and organizers working to change the narrative around housing, land ownership, community, and our collective future. Together they began working on MINE, an animated science fiction web series set in the near future that explores themes of survival, community, and abundance. It follows the story of Blaze, a teenager living in a near-utopian society where every aspect of life is powered by a miraculous, magical water. When their water source is threatened, Blaze sets out to find answers and save their home, but uncovers unexpected truths about their community.
For nearly two years, the ISAIAH team helped to develop the show concept and storyline, build out the characters, write the scripts, and—after being temporarily delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic—worked with voice actors, animators, and artists to bring the show to life. In 2021, the pilot episode of MINE premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Since then, it has been screened at film festivals across the country and around the world, and has won awards for Best Web Series, Best Episodic Web Series, and Best Animated Film. On an organizing and campaigning level, ISAIAH has used the language and themes developed in MINE to fight for Minnesotans’ right to clean water, resulting in a recent bill that provides $240 million to replace all of the lead pipes in the state.
For the ISAIAH team, working at the intersection of housing, land, and racial justice means confronting the challenges and problems that everyday people face, while also offering a vision of the world we want to see. There aren’t magical bodies of water in Minnesota, but MINE tells a story that still rings true: everyday people are working to envision and build equitable, just communities.
We need art in our movements. Street murals, protest songs, political posters, and other forms of art and cultural production have been critical to our struggles for justice and liberation. They are also constantly growing and expanding, from the people who create art to the new technologies and mediums available to us. We’re seeing community organizers, warehouse workers, and activists develop video games, write musicals and webseries, and stage entire plays. For folks to step into these entirely new worlds and embrace leading creative roles is exciting, and it goes to show how art and culture can feed our organizing strategies and advance our movements.
*Photos courtesy of Philip Deitch (Missouri Workers Center) and JaNaé Bates (ISAIAH).