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Superheroes, Flashy Videos, and Progressive Activism

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Gan Golan dressed as “The Master of Degrees,” a character from his recession-inspired graphic novel The Adventures of Unemployed Man.

CREDIT: Campus Progress / Shauna Plesmid

Gan Golan took the stage wearing a superhero mask and cape as “The Master of Degrees,” an unemployed graduate student superhero who carries a ball and chain labeled “Student Loan Debt.”

“A dry speech is a missed opportunity,” the New York Times best-selling author and activist quipped during a panel at the Take Back the American Dream conference this week.

The session, “Cultural Organizing: How Hip Hop, Superheroes and Digital Shorts Can Hyper-Charge the American Dream Movement,” categorized art and culture in activism as more than just nice extras—they’re essential tools of engagement. Cultural and new media items cause emotional responses that make people, especially young Americans, want to listen to the message.

Golan’s “The Master of Degrees” is one of many colorful characters in his recession-inspired graphic novel The Adventures of Unemployed Man, which also features working mom “Wonder Mother,” undocumented immigrant “Fantasma,” and “White Rage,” a character who becomes a Hulk-like figure while watching Glenn Beck.

“Undocumented immigrants, working mothers—their struggles are heroic,” Golan said. “We just wanted to show the realities of what is happening and give them the superhero treatment they deserve.”

The book has garnered widespread media attention since it was published in October 2010. Golan said CNN anchors were caught off guard when what they thought was a light-hearted interview with guys dressed in costumes turned into a devastating economic critique.

Michelle Miller, the director of creative strategy at Strategic Productions, noted the success of  a viral video her company created for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that drew attention to the privatization of public libraries.

The whimsical video about the library-gobbling “Privatization Beast,” with a voiceover by comedian Sarah Haskins, garnered thousands of signatures in support of letting citizens have a say in whether their libraries would be privatized.

Robert “Biko” Baker, the executive director of the League of Young Voters who also spoke at a voter suppression panel during the conference, shared a video called “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” which reaches out to young blacks about how the Wisconsin labor rights protests affect them. The video uses hip-hop music and slick production effects to engage and educate viewers on what was at stake.

Baker said culture reaches both people's hearts and minds, and artists need to be given a platform to connect with people through technology and organization.

Audience members responded passionately to the panel; some discussed how hip-hop had changed their lives and questioned whether anybody knew what “real” hip-hop was anymore. Others talked about the importance of paying artists fairly and giving them space to create.

Shamoko Noble, a co-founder of the Hip Hop Congress, spoke from the audience about the problem of labor unions using non-unionized artists in their demonstrations.

“People often think of arts and culture last,” Golan said. “But that cultural piece could be the center of your whole movement.”

Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.

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