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No pandemic can stop activism, if San Antonio Poet Laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson has anything to say about it. Sanderson has teamed with the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) to create “action bags” for stay-at-home activism, available for free to anyone who wants one.
The brown paper bags include blank postcards, postage stamps, and contact information for local and State legislators and power brokers.
The idea of postcard activism originated among members of local advocacy group Black Lives & Allies in Community (BLAC), and became a reality with the help of Yohanna Tesfai, SAMA Public Program Manager.
Approached by Tesfai to collaborate on a project, Sanderson expressed empathy for people unable to participate in person for ongoing Black Lives Matter and police reform protests in the city whether for health reasons or caution around the coronavirus spread.
“It’s kind of a scary time to be out and about with other folks,” Tesfai said, “so I immediately latched onto the idea. … Words are so powerful, and I really like encouraging folks to get into activism in other ways.”
In a YouTube video promoting the project, Sanderson describes postcard activism as a personal moment of connection.
“Sometimes we get a little lost for words, because we’re overwhelmed by emotions. It’s okay to get into a quiet space and think about what type of changes you want to see, what type of legislation that could be made, how we could reimagine our world and in a better way,” she said.
Sanderson imagines each postcard as a “personal conversation” with leaders like Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Gov. Greg Abbott, each of whom has had varying experiences with enforcing pandemic safety protocols and public demands for police reform.
In the video, Sanderson emphasizes positivity, and does so in her own poetic terms. “Our words hold our virtue, they hold our integrity, and that there’s a life source in our words. … We can always speak about the problem, we can always identify what the problem is. But can you identify what the change is and what that looks like?”
In an interview, Sanderson encouraged people who feel helpless or that they lack influence to use the action-bag method of raising their voice. “This is just one simple act. No one even has to know you did it. You just go get that card and you get that bag. And you take action.”
SAMA and BLAC held an action-bag giveaway on June 16, then followed up with a giveaway at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on June 24. Out of the original run of 100 bags, Tesfai said only 10 to 15 bags are left, but more will be produced for future collaborations with community partners. Sanderson said she hopes the project will run through November, throughout election season.
Tesfai recommended emailing email@example.com with requests for bags.
In addition to the postcard materials, each bag contains a free pass to SAMA, and a card for a special 10 percent membership discount, putting museum membership at $45. The project is part of SAMA’s outreach to broaden the community it serves, Tesfai said.
“I think for SAMA this is the beginning of mutual aid work, and making sure that we can use our power to help other organizations and artists,” she said. In her public programming role, “I am trying to work with as many different folks as possible,” she said.
Sanderson said she recognizes efforts by city organizations and government to address equity in budgeting and cultural support. She described Nirenberg and wife Erika Prosper as ethnic melting pots in themselves, which helps them to “lead the charge. … They do care, they want to see the change.”
As poet laureate, she feels an extra motivation to build connections among the various communities she touches in her daily life, across gaps in communication she perceives.
“I’ve always felt that as a Black person, I’m going to try to bridge that gap, even when I don’t want to. Even when I’m pissed off and I don’t want to have those conversations,” she said, because explaining racism can become tiresome.
But someone has to do that work, she said, adding, “let me roll up my sleeves.”
There is no requirement for action-bag postcards to directly address racism, Black Lives Matter, or police reform although Sanderson said “we are encouraging people to use that as the focus. … We hope that you would use at least one of them to speak to issues concerning race and reform of laws concerning policing.”
But just the act of making a personal connection is enough of a goal in itself, she said. And as a person of words, she understands their potential.
“Use those postcards as you wish,” she said. “Maybe you just want to send a letter of encouragement to someone that you may know, because reading words off of paper that someone wrote with their own hand, that’s so powerful. That in itself is just a compassionate act, it seems, nowadays.”
On July 8, Sanderson will present “Abstract Womanism,” an online poetry event featuring Texas poets Aminah Decé, Anel I. Flores, Sunni Soper, and Dulcie David Veluthukaran, in conjunction with the SAMA exhibition Texas Women: A New History of Abstract Art. Registration for the free Zoom-based event is available here.