Celebrating creative activism

This year, Green Briefs will feature island organizations working for climate justice.

Editor’s note: Green Briefs is a regular series of commentaries by eco-leaders on Vashon, presented in The Beachcomber in partnership with The Whole Vashon Project.

This year, Green Briefs will feature island organizations working for climate justice.

One of our own just celebrated its 20th anniversary — the Backbone Campaign. Founded in 2004 by an affinity group of Vashon artists, Backbone has grown into a nationally connected and respected organization, working on social and environmental issues in our region, nationally, and even internationally.

Through artful activism, Backbone has supported thousands of actions. Last year they projected messages onto the headquarters of the USDA and Department of Interior in Washington D.C., calling on U.S. leaders to protect climate forests with messages like “Worth More Standing” and “Who speaks for the trees?”

Artful activism takes a lot of forms. We’ve all been in awe of their many inflatable creations that appear at various large public events, including our own annual Strawberry Festival. Just a few of their giant movable objects include a 20-foot-long inflatable orca that is a replica of Tahlequah, the orca mother who showed us the difficult conditions faced by Southern Resident orca due to a lack of chinook salmon; and an 11-foot globe of the Earth; and inflatable chinook and sockeye salmon.

An inflatable elephant was recently used to bring attention to the “elephant in the room” — the military-industrial complex — the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. There is also a large “Declare a Climate Emergency” banner that has been deployed at state capitols and in front of the White House.

Kayaktivism is another form of protest that the Backbone Campaign has led globally.

This powerful waterborne tactic was developed in 2009 during the island fight against turning Maury Island into an industrial gravel mine, then utilized in the fight against Shell Oil in 2015, during the ShellNO! campaign near Alki. Several kayaktivist events have been organized to call for the removal of the Lower Snake River dams to “Free the Snake!”

Other Backbone props include large banners that can be used at actions for messaging or held on highway overpasses. This banner technique, using orange painted Typar on deer fence netting, was invented by gardeners on Vashon and today is used across the planet. Backbone’s website includes instructions for making these banners; a banner tool kit is also available to purchase at cost.

For events like Earth Day and World Rivers Day, Backbone organizes multi-city banner actions. A typical multi-city action will have at least a dozen cities participating with a unifying message, displayed to commuters at intersections and overpasses or even at our own Vashon ferry dock. Holding a banner on a busy overpass is a free and effective activist billboard, reaching up to 10,000 cars per hour.

Backbone Campaign’s creations take shape in their amazing workspace space in the Sheffield Building, made possible thanks to a generous donation from the Bangasser Family. The warehouse space is filled with tables and materials for art builds, available to groups working on progressive issue campaigns. The warehouse also houses a lending library of props, banners, and LED letters that people and groups can check out for their use.

With spring coming, Backbone is organizing Human Orca Murals throughout the region — a giant orca-shaped grid that is placed on land and filled in with people wearing black, holding black umbrellas.

Aerial footage captures this gigantic organized protest statement. The first Human Orca Mural was done at a victory party at the Maury Island fight in 2009. Several have happened throughout the Salish Sea region, as well as in Spokane and Portland, to deliver the message that orca need chinook salmon from the Snake River.

Bill Moyer, Backbone’s co-founder and executive director, attributes its successes to the people who built and have been part of this journey, from the co-founding artists on Vashon to the puppet makers, designers, and talented builders across the region and the country. Whether building inflatables or building coalitions, both practices rely on the collaboration and generosity of many, many engaged and concerned people fighting for climate solutions.

Islanders are encouraged to get involved. A Human Orca Mural is in the works for Vashon in the upcoming months. Trainings in light projection and banner deployments happen regularly; contact Backbone Campaign staff (info@backbonecampaign.org) to learn about opportunities.

Action is the antidote to despair. Through the Backbone Campaign’s use of tools, materials, space, and organizing support, our community can use Vashon’s creative energy and generosity to inspire action and to protect our environment.

Happy anniversary, Backbone!

Lynn Greiner collaborated with Bill Moyer and Amy Morrison in writing this commentary. She lives on Maury Island and is active in various island organizations, including the Whole Vashon Project. Find out more about the organization at wholevashonproject.org.