For over 10 years, 33-year-old Marvin Bing has been a staple within the social justice movement. After growing up in foster care and getting caught up in the juvenile justice system, Bing has dedicated his life to helping the younger versions of himself. Bing has made good on that mission, from his work with Harlem Children's Zone and AFL-CIO to the NAACP, and now, Art for Amnesty.
Known as the "Worldwide Wes of Social Activism," Bing has become a leading social justice voice in the arts. The brainchild of Manifest Justice , the creator of Art for Rights and his most recent work, Usher's Art for Social Justice show, Marvin is well on his way to introducing the integration of visual arts and social justice to a new generation of young people.
Growing up you were in the foster care system in Philly and in and out of the juvenile justice system. How did that shape you? How did that lead you into social justice work? Growing up in both systems actually shaped my commitment to social justice from having actually experienced it from the reverse side. Being a subject of both systems at the time was very traumatic for many reasons (being labeled as someone with no family, a delinquent, and having to be reintroduced to new schools constantly, living in group homes, and being locked down as an adolescent away from the freedoms of teenage life and experiences) but it also made me strong mentally and emotionally. You learn to stiffen that bottom lip, trust less, expect the worst, stand on your own two feet and persevere through the emotional toll of sadness and fear. I'm stronger today because of it.
You’ve worked in social activism and politics in some shape or form for over 10 years — how did you come to combine that world with the art world? I think about this question every second of every day. When I was young going through the systems, the one thing that always kept me busy and sane was the arts. In juvenile detention we had drama and arts classes and I was always energetic in those classes trying to read skits, re-enact subjects in Hamlet and MacBeth and paint (even though I was horrible at it and still am). It gave all of us a bright spark in the midst of being locked down.
You sign all of your emails with “From the School of Bill Lynch” — who is he and how has he influenced your life? Bill Lynch was my saving grace. Bill found me at a time where I was still in my early twenties hustling on the streets and told me if I ever came to NYC to look him up and give him a call — that was on the Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee while I was at Freedom School. Bill Lynch was in my opinion one of the most prolific, impactful, strategic political minds and operatives in political history (international and American). To give it context (this will be long but needed) Bill Lynch is the Long Island potato farmer’s son who became known as the “rumpled genius” behind David N. Dinkins’s victory in 1989 as the first black mayor of New York City. Bill masterminded Mr. Dinkins’s campaigns for Manhattan borough president and mayor and was his deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, his closest adviser. He was instrumental in bringing the Democratic National Convention to New York in 1992, ran Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in the state that year and later became a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He also worked on John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 and was involved in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008.
Bill played a crucial role in putting together the administration’s response to racially charged disturbances in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn and the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, in promoting calm after the verdict in the Rodney King case threatened to ignite tensions and in leading the mayor’s support of the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Bill also worked on the presidential campaigns of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in 1980 and was a large part in bringing President Nelson Mandela to Yankee Stadium.
So Bill mentored me and taught me how to channel my pain, anger and fear in a constructive way. He gave me opportunities when many would never answer a phone call, email or even speak to someone with my background. He believed in me and showed it, and I will always acknowledge him and will go to my grave telling the world about this great man.
What makes art such a powerful platform to tell the social justice story and help shift a generation? It would be easy for you to dismiss art as unnecessary, a waste of money and resources, a luxury, a non-moneymaker for institutions and corporations. If you did this, you would be missing the point of the arts. The arts expose and help resolve issues of social injustice. As a cultural tool, the arts help humanize and actualize the emotions, grievances and fears of those who may not have another place to voice concerns. As an illustrative and journalistic tool, art shocks and inspires us to action. What art depicts can illicit a visceral, almost cellular, reaction, especially in this new generation that doesn't read a 200-page policy report or watch CNN all damn day, or read Politico or [hasn't] graduated from Harvard, Yale or Stanford. The arts always have been a powerful expression of a community’s voice and identity, especially when that identity has been repressed by years of oppression.
You lead Amnesty International’s new Art for Amnesty division. What’s the goal and mission of this division? Artists have a unique power to bring people together and to promote change. More than ever we need creative ways to acknowledge these human stories, to tell the world the truth. As the creative director at Art For Amnesty, it's my job to collaborate, partner with the creative community to bring power, creativity and passion of people who believe in freedom of expression to programs, campaigns and special projects at Amnesty International with the potential to reach new audiences and inspire creative activism around the world. I believe even small actions, brought together, have the power to generate great change and I don't believe in transactional work; we are fighting for transformational creative work. We ask the creative community to actually create with us, and we want stories to be told by the actual people whose story it is.
How was it working with Usher on Art for Amnesty’s “Art for Rights” event in New Orleans last December? I met Usher through Gina Belafonte, who heads up Sankofa.org with Raoul Roach. They were thinking about doing something artistic around the "Chains" video, and Gina was aware of the exhibit I was putting together in New Orleans around our annual write for rights campaign that highlights prisoners of conscience around the world during December and Human Rights Day, which is December 10. Usher and his team were so into it from an organic perspective and truly believe that the creative arts community is the way forward in the fight for social change. They came through and really spent time with the artists, hearing the stories behind the work, writing letters to free prisoners around the world, and really took a vested interest in the actual work, which made it special. Usher also spoke to now free former prisoner of conscience Albert Woodbox from his solitary cell while he was in Angola. It was a truly special event with real impact, and we couldn't have pulled it off without the many artists that came together to make it all happen, so it was pretty dope. I want to certainly give a shoutout to Tidal, Sankofa.org, Lil Wayne, Mannie Fresh, and the entire New Orleans community for their support also.
Who are some of the visual artists at the forefront of converging the worlds of social justice and art? This is never an easy question as there are so many who are well known and so many more who have yet to be discovered but are still doing the work. I would have to say: Favianna Rodriquez and the Culture Strike Fam, Hebru Brantley, Ndidi Emefiele, Nina Chanel Abney, Hank Willis Thomas, Sophia Dawson, BK the Artist, Brandan "Bmike" Odums, Derrick Adams, Alexandre Keto, CJ Hendry, Kristy Sandoval, Greg Siff, Jerome Lagarrigue, Tim Okamura, Adrian Franks, Sydney James, Kara Walker, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Shantell Martin, Knowledge Bennett, Michelle Papillion and so so many others.