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Keeping Grass Roots Alive in the Age of Social Distancing

Stephanie Klein-Davis

Over the last few days Virginians upset by police treatment of George Floyd and other people of color took to the streets of many cities and town. 

But for people in rural areas, gathering large groups for public protest isn't easy.  That's why opponents of new gas pipelines came up with another way to make their feelings known

Artivism Virginia was born three years ago – an alliance of artists and activists who oppose construction of the Atlantic Coast, Mountain Valley and Virginia Natural Gas Pipelines. They’re complicated projects, so co-director Kay Ferguson says musicians, poets and fine artists are needed to translate.

“I mean it’s scientific, it’s economic, it’s political, it’s geological, it’s regulatory,” Ferguson explains, “but what artists know how to do is translate complicated information and questions into heart messages.”

If people are moved emotionally, she says, they’ll be motivated to learn and to act.  The artists bring skills to attract and entertain – “good graphic design, visual art, puppetry,” says Ferguson. “Good stage production – all those things that artists really know how to do.” 

So when the pandemic hit, Artivism turned from live, in-person performances to online shows every other Thursday at 7.

“Hi everybody,” says Emily Blankenship-Tucker, who stands alongside a bass that’s taller than she. “Thanks again for tuning in to join us this week.  I’m Emily. This is Rachel. We’re doing really well.  We’re here at our home in Ferrum, Virginia – watching things grow, working on some new projects and trying to keep our goats out of the garden.”

She and Rachel, on banjo, bring bluegrass to the party.

Tonight’s audience – about 1,500 viewers with more to watch at at their convenience. 

“If you can’t get there in the moment live, your Internet is clicking in and out, there it is to get there when you can,” Ferguson says.

And the following Thursday, while the artists rest, the activists get busy planning for a time when the group can gather again to make their views known.

“Working on chants and song and street theater and poster-making – those kind of skills,” Ferguson says.

Tonight will feature a poet from Richmond, and a musician from Roanoke.

“Hello, hello,” says Bernadette ‘BJ’ Lark. “I am sheltering in place at home.  My family and I are doing well, and I pray the same for you and your loved ones.  Tonight I will be presenting an original piece, and I hope it is encouraging and uplifting to you.”

“Have you ever met someone who owns nothing but their name?” she says over the notes she plays on her keyboard.    “Well I have,” she continues, before launching into the opening lyric about clean water as a human right.

Also on the bill, the Bakti Boys – a group formed in the bosom of Yogaville, a spiritual community near Union Hill, where Dominion hopes to build a large compressor station for its Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

The next show is June 4th on YouTube live, Facebook Live and Vimeo. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief