Arizona getting you down? Here's some activist inspiration.

Voto Latino's anti SB 1020 campaign asks for Latino voices to be included in the debate

Two things I learned about Rosario Dawson last night:

  1. When she was little, she spent time living in a San Francisco squat with her “free spirited” mother.

  2. She's heading up one of the most important non partisan political organizations in the country.

Dawson was honored with a Redford Center “Art of Activism” award at the Sundance Kabuki Theaters last night -- and definitely not (should I feel bad saying this?) because she is the kind of natural beauty that made the host of the program and other honorees stutter through their on stage exchanges with her.

Voto Latino is an organization that was co founded by Dawson, Maria Teresa Kumar, and Brandon Hernandez as a way to encourage Latino participation in democracy. Which, given all this insanity in the aftermath of Arizona's Senate Bill 1070, strikes me as what's been missing in the back and forth vitrol; what it means to the people that it explicitly denegrates.

Dawson told the Art in Activism audience last night that her group's mission is to take back the immigration issue from the divide and separate tactics of conservatives. Voto Latino's anti 1070 ad campaign, which is slated to debut on national televisions shortly, is “about us together,” says the actress-activist. Privileged or not, she emphasived, we've all gotten to where we are today based on the labor of our community, even gorgeous movie stars.

The organization has been a pioneer in young Latino involvement in politics. They put together one of the first text message based political campaign in 2006, sent Latino youth to report on the 2008 party conventions that the young people identified as important to them, and have produced a tongue in cheek telenovela series, La Pasión de la Desición, that interjects talk of voter registration into the florid embraces of the popular genre. To combat the negative messaging of Arizona's legislation, Dawson says they'll be assembling an online map of the country where Latinos can publish their stories, becoming visible in a debate that often leaves out their voice.

Rosario Dawson and Wilmer Valdarama star in an episode of Voto Latino's La Pasión de la Desición

So yay, Rosario's awesome. We're all awesome.

Although I must say, some of us may be extra-super awesome. Dawson was definitely upstaged last night by another one of the evening's honorees; East Oakland's Mandela Food Co-op worker-owner (and last week's SFBG interviewee), the inspirational James Berk.

Berk, wearing a crisp suit and glasses, took a no-nonsense approach to a ceremony that at times ran dangerously close to hyperbole. It was immensely refreshing, especially when the 19 year old cautioned the audience not to regard him as an anomaly in the social activism field on account of his youth (Dawson took the moment to compare his struggle to hers with the media's insistence that celebrities are different from us in some way, evoking about zero sympathy on my part. Still love you, Rosario!).

In all the labored modesty of the evening, Berk came across as a man who knows the worth of what he and his team have been able to accomplish. This is a guy who has gone from a malnourished teen whose neighborhood's sole food sources were the corner store's nutritional garbage, to the co owner of a place that sells low cost, fresh local food to his neighbors.

When asked what he wanted the people sitting out in the audience to take away from the night of awe inspiring activist stories, he took a moment to fully gauge what he was about to say. When he spoke, his message was clear. “Don't forget. And don't forget my name,” he said. Unsure about what to do to make change in this country? Look to our true leaders, people; Berk's not.

P.S. Definitely not trying to forget the night's other honoree, Martha Ryan. Ryan, a nurse who had never headed up her own program, started the Homeless Prenatal Program for at risk women and their families. Half of her staff is comprised of women that were once in the program.

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