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Moving past ‘raising awareness’ and performativity, Wide Awakes is the initiative drawing on music, art, tech and fashion to imagine an optimistic future for the US

Taken from the autumn 2020 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

Wide Awakes were formed, or at least reformed, at the beginning of 2020, when the year’s biggest cultural marker seemed like it might be the US presidential election. The group became a fixture of American creative protest in 1860, as a youth-led movement fighting systems of slavery and oppression. Drawing on music, art, tech and fashion, the newest iteration includes installation artist Hank Willis Thomas – whose banner “All Lies Matter” was draped blocks away from the White House in June – art activist and cultural curator Wildcat Ebony Brown, painter and sculptor José Parlá, and artist Eric Gottesman. Here, the Wide Awakes hub comes together to ride the year’s shifting tectonic plates.


To be young and wide awake goes past awareness.

To be young and wide awake today is not only being aware, but thinking about how you can use your awareness and your passion, drive, creativity and skill-set to impact the community. To touch the community.

I’m wide awake. The Wide Awakes have their historical definition, but I see it as a group of aware individuals: individuals who are not only aware of their surroundings and what’s going on, but are putting their best foot forward and trying to change their surroundings for the overall better. For the betterment of their community, their state, their country, their environment. Hank, and the Wide Awakes, and For Freedoms, and everyone in my circle – in my reality – are individuals who believe in the future. Individuals who believe in this optimistic, righteous and compassionate future that we’re not only creating for ourselves, but for those to come after us. It’s a future personified in individuals like late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, a man who believed in the idea of paying it forward. A true hero is someonewho is able to do the work so people can reap the benefits long after they’re gone.

The Wide Awakes collective is a group of individuals on this same frequency. And they’re using art. They’re using community. Tools to change the world. And while I think a lot of people are wide awake, or have been wide awake for a while – there is now a platform and a central consciousness to let that work live and exist.


Take a screenshot, print them out, find a magazine and rip them out! The Wide Awakes family would rather ask YOU the questions so fill in the blanks and alter your assumptions (and show us your answers!) 


Claudia Peña (executive director of For Freedoms, civic platform co-founded by Thomas, Gottesman and Michelle Woo in 2016): Let’s connect the Wide Awakes in the 1860s to the current Wide Awakes. What’s the link? We’re supposed to remember history so we don’t repeat it, but we’re also supposed to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Eric Gottesman: The Wide Awakes was a youth-led movement at a pivotal moment in American history, where young people – first in Hartford, Connecticut, and later in towns and cities across the country – started promoting abolitionist candidates.

Hank Willis Thomas: The Republican party was founded in 1854 out of the ashes of the Whig party, which dissolved based around the debates that more slave states should be entering the union. By 1860 it was one of the more radical parties around the abolitionists’ movement, inspired by people like John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and a man from Kentucky named Cassius Marcellus Clay. A group of young Republicans were inspired to protect abolitionist candidates and abolitionists in general and out of practicality they carried torches, so they could be seen at night-time – then they started wearing capes to protect themselves from (the flames). It became a political statement about putting yourself out there, but also having vision and insight. They appropriated the logo of the all-seeing eye as a metaphor for being wide awake to all the forms of corporate, governmental and social distraction and disruption – and to the things that unite us towards a greater future. They imagined a greater future where abolition, immigration and women’s suffrage were things that could work in harmony. They piled these beliefs on to Abraham Lincoln, as a conduit for them, which led to the emancipation proclamation and, more than 50 years later, the passing of the 19th amendment for women’s suffrage.

These (struggles towards) abolition, women’s suffrage, immigration and even slavery – under mass incarceration – are still really relevant today. And that is what brought each of us here in different ways, because we are all abolitionists in one way, shape or form, finding new ways to work together and collaborate towards building a better future where vision is centred.

Eric Gottesman: We need to find pathways to change ourselves and to unlock in ourselves the ancestral knowledge that has been stripped from us by the systems that govern. And so I think that Wide Awakes is, for me, about reawakening ourselves, a metaphor for how we can really bring radical self-knowledge to the reconstruction and deconstruction of these systems.

Claudia Peña: Tell me about Wide Awakes’ reignition for 2020 and what organising its core aims has looked like.

Carly Fischer (impact strategist, collaborative cultural facilitator): Wide Awakes was a liberation movement, among other things. And part of what we’re so interested in is not just (talking about) electoral politics, but looking at the paradigm of the United States – slavery as the basis of the economic system. (The original Wide Awakes) imagined that, through collective action and the dissemination of really beautiful visuals, they could get people on board with their cause and change the world. And so much of that is what drives this group of people, which goes far beyond the people in this Zoom room. We talk about the clothes that the Wide Awakes wore, those capes and the torches they held, as protecting space for radical ideas and the liberation of mind, body and spirit. In terms of the reality of bringing it into 2020, it’s been a few things. Part of it is getting clear on what it means to build a narrative around 1860, to look at this history and see both the things that were so inspiring about it and its flaws. It was a diverse movement, but it was (comprised of) primarily young white men, as (the only demographic) able to vote in 1860. This is not a white saviour narrative, this is about bringing together all of the folks who inspire us and giving them space to present their radical ideas. Beyond understanding the narrative, it’s also been about making space for conversations like this. It’s been about building a call-and-response network, presenting ideas and elaborating on them, and understanding that, if you put a lot of brilliant people in the room, the conversa- tion will take turns that you wouldn’t expect. So it’s been about how overlapping circles lead to a new set of actions.

Claudia Peña: How has the recent Black Lives Matter upsurge shifted or refined what we’re doing as Wide Awakes?

Tony Patrick (worldbuilder, writer and founder of the Tenfold Gaming Initiative): For Freedoms had a congress in LA at the end of February which was a convergence point of years of work, political engagement and transformational political discussion. This was also the moment the 2020 Wide Awakes were announced. So there was a procession and we started to talk about who and what we were. Well, two weeks later Covid-19 hit, so there was a pause, rightfully so, as everyone tried to acclimatise. Months later, centred around the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and countless others, we found ourselves (focused on) the original pandemic, which we could call supremacy. So as we found ourselves battling these twin pandemics, it became an opportunity to get on the ground and start our work, and that started with the Juneteenth (Emancipation Day) celebration. We see ourselves as a kind of excavation continuum, which means we have to look at decolonising a lot of the terminology, holidays and practices in our society, so that we stop ourselves from being stuck in what seems like a finite game and start to play an infinite game of liberation for all.

Claudia Peña: Why is it important that the Wide Awakes membership is spread widely, geographically?

Mecca Brooks (cultural producer and arts strategist): Well, I think the first thing to consider is that people are different – we’re all the same at the core, but you’ve got to consider how where you live (influences your political identity). I thought about my years living in Chicago, which I think of as a tribe, just like Wide Awakes... There’s a tribal connection of like minds, spirits and thought patterns. If Wide Awakes is inclusive to everyone, anywhere, why not bring people from different places into the conversation and see what they want to do with it? Miami, Minnesota, Minneapolis, Berlin, Amsterdam – I can confidently say that, in each of these places, Wide Awakes will look different because circumstances are different. But as a common thread, I always like to remind people that we’re spiritual beings having a physical experience. (Just think) what each place could reimagine for Wide Awakes and for (their city).

“Wide Awakes was a liberation movement, among other things. Part of what we’re so interested in is not just (talking about) electoral politics, but looking at the paradigm of the United States – slavery as the basis of the economic system” – Carly Fischer

Claudia Peña: What are the cornerstone aims of Wide Awakes?

Wildcat Ebony Brown: In general people want to express themselves, to feel like they have a voice and to feel connected and understood. With Wide Awakes, we have an opportunity to create space for people to do that. The events we’ve been curating have been heavily focused on music because we believe in collective joy as a form of (community building). We’ve been operating by this quote, ‘joy as an act of resistance’. When you can express joy in the midst of uncertainty or any sort of negative experience, that unto itself is a form of resistance; it’s a form of protest. Music has always been an opportunity for people to speak and make their views heard. And art and fashion are the same. There’s always a style that goes with a movement – like the Black Panthers, they had a look. So it’s about connecting all of those elements to empower and inspire people to speak up and be self-liberated. I think it is really effective, and people also need to feel uplifted. There needs to be a balance to all the negativity that we’re being bombarded with constantly. The feedback from most of the people attending the events is gratitude. They can participate, they can bring their families. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is free to express themselves through clothing, song and dance.

Carly Fischer: So much of what Ebony is saying reminds me of part of the conversation around Black Lives Matter right now. Black lives can’t only matter in the wake of folks being murdered. We can’t just talk about black life as protecting people from dying. It’s about protecting life and making space for life. And so joy in the wake of trauma and joy as an act of organising and bringing people together is a sort of affirmation of real life and creativity, real contribution. It can’t only be about protesting the egregious deaths of people.

Claudia Peña: 2020 has been a year for radical self-examination, on both an individual and organisational level. We are putting systems of language and labour under a microscope. How has protest changed this year?

José Parlá: When you have all this time to spend on your own, without all of the social activity that we were used to, all this self-examination allows you to see very clearly how we have normalised so much wrong in our society. From the health systems to the way we have internalised police brutality, it’s part of the culture. I personally had the chance to work through a lot of my own traumas caused by police because of how I was treated in the past as an artist, making art in a form that was illegal to a system. And in working that out, the first massive hit that caused me to react was the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. In the United States it’s normal to have, across the board for black and brown people, bad education and lower standards of healthcare. All of the things that affect how people see themselves and their communities in general. All the self-reflection that took place in the first months of the pandemic, before Breonna Taylor, before George Floyd, allowed our minds to prepare for action. We were all ready and aware of how much we needed each other, how much we wanted it to be an international push and a movement. And almost instinctively, after the killing of George Floyd, everybody started to come together again. We were just automatically in touch and felt in our hearts that we had to figure out how to get organised.

One of the conversations that we’ve been having as Wide Awakes is how to (expand membership) – inviting anyone to join, from a grocer to a mechanic, or anybody who doesn’t necessarily consider themselves to be creative. I think that abstraction, photography, painting, dance and music are all really necessary, because they’re attractive. We are hoping to adapt and translate a lot of our own creative languages into a broader language that can be used by anybody to become a member of Wide Awakes. Art allows for windows to expand in our minds and to see things a little bit differently, (in a way) we’re not able to see on a regular political platform. We are a tribe and there is so much respect and openness to allow people to agree, disagree, expand and correct each other; to edit. And this deep (sense of) collaboration has formed a beautiful community.

Tony Patrick: José brought up a great point about the conversation going on in the continuum, way past the election. So it’s about an infinite conversation. It is about a structure where we are able to continue to explore and express in infinite ways.

Claudia Peña: Does it feel like art institutions and galleries are prepared to confront the work of dismantling the systemic racism within their walls?

Hank Willis Thomas: Yes, I think so. The question is will they? And, if they fail on the first, second and third attempts, will they keep trying? Another question is how the communities will respond when they try and fail as they navigate uncharted waters. No one will get a free ride. The burden is in and on all of us.

Claudia Peña: Historian Jon Grinspan described the original Wide Awakes as a strange movement which electrified the Lincoln presidential election. Do you think that it’s important for Wide Awakes to stay flexible and cover a wide range of issues and disciplines?

Tracey Ryans (activist, entrepreneur and public speaker): I think it’s really important for us to wake up as many people as possible. I think there’s a conscious sea change happening right now and there’s not a binary whack-a-mole issue that people are trying to deal with. What we’ve been doing, and what we’ll continue to do, is inspire the sincere way. My idea is Black Beuys, inspired by Joseph Beuys and Hank Willis Thomas’s idea that everyone is an artist. Black Beuys’ message is that everyone’s an activist.

You can spend the day doing whatever you do for work and an hour a day helping the revolution. We’ve gotten a lot of momentum since the beginning of the year; people are knocking on our doors asking how they can help.

Claudia Peña: How does everything we have gathered from decades of wisdom and experience help us to move forward?

Mecca Brooks : I’ve been talking to Hank about remembering our two selves, the higher self and lower self. One of the things I’ve learned and try to bring into my daily practice is my higher self, remembering that I’m a scientist. And so as a scientist, if I’m looking objectively, there is no emotion attached to (systemic change). It’s not to say that I don’t have (emotion), but I’m doing the work to remove lower-level thinking to make higher-level decisions. What we may not all recognise is that we’re scientists, we’re changing up the game and how we can analyse and be about systemic change from a place that is informed, (rather than) emotional.

“No one will get a free ride. The burden is in and on all of us” – Hank Willis Thomas

Carly Fischer: One of the pieces of wisdom we kept coming back to was Audre Lorde’s ‘A Litany for Survival’. The poem ends with, ‘It is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive.’ The way (Claudia) mentioned these decades of inspiration and knowledge, we looked at all of these disparate sources of infinite wisdom and (asked), ‘What does it mean for us to speak collectively and individually and make space for one another?’

Tony Patrick: There’s an opportunity for a paradigm shift when it comes to collaboration, as well. Initially and presently, the desire for Wide Awakes has been to form a decentralised network that people can inject themselves into and leave at their leisure. And so if we talk about a network that can embrace complexity and multiplicity – inspired by some kind of ancestral intelligence that creates and builds art structures that are regenerative and iterative – you’ve got a completely different definition of collaboration.

Eric Gottesman: I’ve been thinking about Wide Awakes and the difference between seeing and looking, and that art and culture is a way to look around at the world and see what it really is. It’s a way of creating joy. It’s also a means of connecting with what is ancestral in us and what is pre-societal and pre-lingual. And I think a lot of us have been working our whole lives on creating ways for art and culture to unlock that stuff. But, you know, I think it works best when you get a sense that systems are constructed, and that they can be deconstructed and reconstructed. In the past few years the urgency of that has only become stronger – for us to reimagine what healthcare, education, policing and power (can) look like. There’s a lot of knowledge we all contain which can be unlocked through art and culture. And that can become a way to decolonise ourselves and remake the world in our own image.