San Diego therapist and artist wanted to do more for social change and founded Printmakers Against Racism
Desiree Aspiras is the founder of Printmakers Against Racism, a project she started in 2020, raising money for social justice causes
In 2020, while much of the world was confined to our homes, navigating an overwhelming uncertainty about the future, Desiree Aspiras was also at the start of something of a shift in her social consciousness.
“For a while, before 2020, there was a part of me that wasn’t critically conscious. At least, not enough. I wasn’t paying attention enough,” she says. “There was part of me that was essentially operating on the belief of, ‘I’m becoming a therapist, I’m helping others, I’m dedicating my life to being of service to others, surely that’s enough. I’m modeling being a good parent and trying to teach my children all the ways to be a better human being.’”
Inspired by an Instagram story on the work of an organization of bakers who were hosting individual bake sales to collectively raise money for racial justice organizations and causes, she reached out to them about using their model to do something similar, but with printmakers. That year, she started Printmakers Against Racism, which helps organize and provide resources to printmakers like herself who want to create and sell their art, donating the proceeds to social justice organizations they choose. They’ve raised nearly $50,000 for Black Lives Matter and other causes, and their latest campaign, “Fight for Trans & Queer Lives,” concludes today. On Tuesday, she is the featured speaker in an online artist’s talk in partnership with the Women’s Museum of California to talk about the intersection of art and activism.
Aspiras is a practicing couples and family therapist who also teaches graduate-level counseling and therapy students at the University of San Diego and at Bastyr University San Diego. Her latest project is the Deep Breath Network, a diverse mindfulness and meditation space to support people who are active in social justice work. She took some time to talk about Printmakers Against Racism, her upcoming artist talk, and navigating her own process of growth and learning in the causes and communities she wants to support. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For a longer version of this conversation, visit sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-lisa-deaderick-staff.html.)
Q: You founded Printmakers Against Racism during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? Tell us about your organization.
A: It started in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I think, like many other people who maybe hadn’t been engaged in any kind of social justice work, or volunteering or even learning and thinking about ways to be involved, I was looking around at what are some of the things that I might be able to do. One of the things I enjoy doing has been creating art, printmaking, so I thought, ‘Well, are there other printmakers out there who are selling their art to raise money to possibly support organizations and mutual aid funds that are fighting racial injustice?’ Although I saw many individuals and artists doing things on their own and in their small pods or groups, I was yearning for something to kind of jump into and belong to. I thought that maybe there are other folks like me who haven’t really been engaged in this way. Maybe other people are waiting to be invited, as well. That’s part of what drew me to starting the project.
There are many activists and artists who have been doing these things for a really long time, but I guess what was really important to me in putting this project together is having it be an invitation for wherever someone is in terms of the art that they’re creating, their own level of critical consciousness. It’s an invitation to either come back and do more, or if it’s their first time, a way to dip their toe in and make some art. Part of the ask is that, if you’re going to participate, that you do research what is happening in your local community and find organizations and mutual aid groups in your neighborhood to support. And, to commit to learning more. Hopefully, it’s a gentle invitation for people to do a little bit more than they have been doing, with the hope that that spurs more action and learning in their own life, in this work.
Q: How does this function?
A: Part of the idea to create this was inspired by an Instagram story I saw about this group called Bakers Against Racism. The story said they’d raised almost $2 million just from bakers all over the globe holding bake sales and donating their proceeds to local organizations supporting racial justice. I thought that might be a model I could copy where I’m not doing all of the work, I’m just inviting people to organize themselves, essentially. I reached out to the creators of the [Bakers Against Racism] project to say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this. How have you set up your own system? What are things that I need to be thinking about so that I don’t get overwhelmed with how to do this?’ They put out the call to people and have a form that participants fill out that says the person is interested and says what they’ll be selling. I choose a week, post the call out, there’s a sign-up form that lets me know who people are, where they’re doing this from, and what organizations or mutual aid groups they’re going to be supporting. That’s all data that I can gather and collate, and continue to share from my end. After that week of our collective fundraising is done, I ask everyone to fill out a final donation tally, where they say, again, who they are, how much money they raised, and who the money went to. Each person is essentially managing their own community activity or sale. They’re letting people know through their own social media platforms, or websites, and then they’re reporting back and then I’m sharing that information out with everyone. I do ask that people post their receipts or confirmations online with any personal information redacted. That’s our attempt at some form of accountability for people who are participating.
Q: What is your goal for Printmakers Against Racism?
A: The goal, essentially, is an invitation. Printmakers and printers are a smaller niche of people than your general, larger art community. They include people who do screen printing, letterpress printing, who carve images out of linoleum blocks and wood and then ink those to create these large- or smaller-scale images that you can repeatedly print from that block. It’s a niche group, but there have also historically been many printmakers who are activists and deeply involved in social justice movements. The invitation here is to invite them in to engage in some of this. Whether they’re just DIYers at home, or people who are running their own community print shops, or educators working with students, to invite all of them in and give them an opportunity to be part of a community that’s trying to do something. I acknowledge that making some prints and selling them and making some money won’t massively move the needle, but I have heard feedback from people that the invitation was just the thing to call them toward more learning and to be engaged a little bit more. I know this isn’t on-the-ground protesting or advocating or lobbying; this is a different kind of work, but I also think there’s value here in terms of how arts and this kind of invitation can be an on-ramp for people to get a little bit closer and do more.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your own understanding of racial justice work before the pandemic? And what was it that compelled you to become active in this way?
A: In 2020, a few things coincided: my own meditation and mindfulness practice deepened; then, as I think everyone did at the start of the pandemic as we were all hearing and seeing the visuals in the news related to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all of the visual impact of that; and being stuck at home, going nowhere, and following the different social media accounts of other activists, who are also artists, and listening to how to challenge everyone. There was one disability rights activist, in particular, I was listening to. Her name is Walela Nehanda and she was talking about the potential of the artist’s role in liberation, in revolution, in bringing other people into awareness, in how we can plant seeds in others that might blossom. Listening to her and following her really helped move the needle for me of, ‘Wait. What I’m doing right now is actually not enough.’ I know I can’t do everything and I’m only one person, but that was part of the process of moving me toward this being something that I can do.
It’s been really challenging, and I was overwhelmed with anxiety because there are all of these questions of not wanting this to appear performative. Who am I to start this when I’ve had no presence in this [racial justice] community? So, how do I approach this in a way that’s also just authentic to what I’m thinking about offering, in terms of an invitation? That’s been challenging for me internally and I’m hoping that I do my best. If I get critiqued, I can take that in and learn from it. I don’t know that I can always get it right, and that’s almost terrifying because you put these things out there and who knows what people might say?
Q: What has been your experience throughout your own learning and unlearning process, in an effort to effect change? What has this process been like for you? What do you do during moments of discomfort in the growing process?
A: I know that this kind of personal development and inner work looks different for different people. My capacity to be in the discomfort to challenge what other people are saying and to talk about things — and I do teach these things now, I teach about anti-racism and intersectionality in my human diversity classes — to be able to do it with less fear and anxiety, and more authentically, has been in direct correlation with my own mindfulness and meditation practice. And, being in a meditation practice community that is also engaged in having dialogue, workshops, trainings specifically related to social justice. It’s been a parallel process — as I’ve increased my mindfulness and meditation practice, it’s allowed me to stay in community more and have these uncomfortable conversations and meaningful learning and unlearning, and to learn how to speak in those spaces. That’s been a direct line for me and how I’m able to show up in therapy, how I’m able to challenge my students, how I’m able to stay in dialogue when family members or friends who are close to me are saying things that are problematic. Two years ago, I might have, as many people do, contracted and frozen up and just let the moment pass. It’s taken a lot of work to get a little bit more comfortable with it, but I just want to name that because the mindfulness and the meditation community I’ve been in that has a social justice lens has been a really significant part of how I’m able to show up in these other spaces and speak on these topics.
In my work with Deep Breath Network, that’s something I’m hoping to offer more of here in San Diego and beyond. I know there’s a lot of meditation and mindfulness spaces out there in the world, and many of them are not that diverse, so that’s something that I’m looking to create. I do have a free, Wednesday morning mindfulness gathering on Zoom right now, but it’s something I’m hoping to continue to offer to the community because I know what a significant difference it’s made for me in order to be able to show up in this work.
Q: On Tuesday, you’ll talk about the intersection of art and activism in your online artist talk with the Women’s Museum of California. What can people expect to hear, explore, and learn?
A: They’ll be hearing parts of what we talked about here. I know part of what my interviewer [from the Women’s Museum of California] wants to know is how did this project develop, what is it about art, in particular, that can help activate people and move them toward learning and meaning and being in community and trying something different? When we activate that creative piece, it kind of opens up new ideas and alternatives for us and what we might be willing to do or try, so I’ll be talking about art as a tool to connect us to what’s meaningful to us and to explore and to express. Whether that’s to express pieces of who we are, or to express dissent or outrage, or incredible grief; all these deep emotions and responses to these really difficult things that are happening in our world, art has the capacity to hold all of that. That’s part of what I’ll be talking about, as well as inviting people in.
Q: What kind of relationship do you think art making and activism have with each other? How do you see them informing each other?
A: One of the first things that kind of bubbles up for me as I think about this question is how art can help us do so many things; it can help connect us to a community of other people. I think about these creative spaces that people work to cultivate, whether that’s a community of artists online, or these spaces like Hill Street Country Club in Oceanside, or the Brown Building in City Heights. There are these spaces that are creative and that are led by people with marginalized identities who are starting these conversations and inviting people to make art, be together, envision what’s possible, think about ways that they might, in their own communities, be activated and how they might work together to perform advocacy or to engage in activism. So, I think art has the capacity to bring people together.
Symbolically, it also plays an important role in giving us these images and symbols that people can share and that remind us that a cause is important and this is one person’s expression of their outrage or pain, or how this injustice has landed on their own bodies or affected their own communities. So, it’s also this way where we can express and help other people connect to and visualize, especially if they haven’t had that lived experience. It can kind of, powerfully, give other people a visceral connection to personal experience.
Q: What are some examples of art you’ve seen or experienced that has influenced your own activism?
A: The example that comes to mind is the Just Seeds Collective, which is on Instagram @justseeds, and it’s a collective of printmakers and artists who primarily create art to support different social justice movements. They’re constantly posting different kinds of posters and images that they are just sharing in their community, or specifically creating to support different social justice causes. The images are so powerful and well-crafted and it’s an amazing collective of artists.
Q: How have you come to see and understand yourself as an artist and activist, up to this point?
A: It’s just been such a process because it’s still hard for me to say that I consider myself an artist, number one, and then to even consider myself an activist. Again, what swirls around in my mind, rightly or wrongly, is ‘Who am I to say these things?’ I place such weight and gravity on both of those words, perhaps too much. Maybe I need to hold them a little more lightly. I think I also struggle, as many people do, with impostor syndrome. Maybe I’m more comfortable with being a creative person and that I organize and fundraise online, and I try to activate people. Again, I’m also very sensitive to people’s perceptions and, although this is out of my control, what people perceive and expect from someone who says they’re an activist. I guess I still have difficulty in feeling grounded in putting myself in a category, especially with all that other people do that I know are connected to those terms, who I feel are making such a profound impact. It’s just been a process in me continuing to ask myself, ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Is it coming from an authentic place that wants to offer and invite, and it’s not out of ego, or building a brand, or selling things to just sell them?’ For me, it’s not those things, but it’s a constant process of me wanting to be sure that whatever I’m putting out there is aligned with a real invitation and a real offering, and that it isn’t just self-focused.
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