Does artistic activism change anything? Strategic and transformative effects of arts in anti-coal struggles in Oakland, CA

Teresa Sanz*, Beatriz Rodriguez-Labajos

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Mushrooming opposition to coal mining and transportation in the United States (US) connects with both environmental justice and climate justice movements. Artistic expressions are part of the strategic toolkit of these movements. Art's capacity to foster cultural, cognitive and psychological changes is amply recognized by academics as well as by public in general. Nevertheless, the theoretical question of how art is linked to activist strategies and to socio-spatial transformations in environmental conflicts remains unexplored. This paper contributes to filling this gap by examining the emblematic struggle to stop the construction of a coal-export terminal in Oakland, CA. Our data includes 32 in-depth interviews of activists, artists and legal experts linked to the conflict surrounding this coal-export terminal. Non-participant observation and secondary data collection helped to contextualize the interviews. The results offer a timeline of the movement, a map of artistic expressions, and network analyses around the effects of environmental artistic activism. We demonstrate that creative activism has critical relevance for facilitating engagement, education and outreach of the anti- coal movement. Arts and its spatial impact benefited the movement by expanding its scale and making it more inclusive regarding demographics, including particularly women and youth of color. The use of the arts raised environmental and political awareness and enhanced public participation in decision making. The paper connects the literatures of environmental justice, environmental humanities and human geography. We contribute to the yet underdeveloped dialogue discussing the capacity of art to influence socio-ecological structures and socio-spatial dynamics in cases of environmental justice conflict.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-54
Number of pages14
JournalGeoforum (Print)
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2021


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