First there was Manifest Hope, an art exhibition during the 2008 presidential campaign. Now get ready for Manifest Equality. Coming to Hollywood this week, the show features artist from all over the country that have produced more than 175 pieces of art to represent the themes of justice, respect, unity, civil rights, and love.
Yosi Sergant, 33, who describes himself as a community organizer, is one of the individuals responsible for the exhibition. Sergant is often credited for inspiring artist Shepard Fairey to design the Hope and Progress posters that became the iconic images of Barack Obamas presidential campaign. Last May he was appointed as the director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent agency of the United States federal government that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence. But less than a year ago he came under fire for comments he made during a conference call that led many to believe he was recruiting artists to create works that promoted Obamas policies. The media frenzy and outcry ultimately led him to resign.
Out spoke with Sergant about Manifest Equality, his thoughts on how the Obama administration is handing LGBT rights, and the truth behind why he really resigned from the NEA.
Out: What do you hope Manifest Equality accomplishes?
Yosi Sergant: To raise visibility for such an important issue. Its an issue that is part of a conversation that is a long time coming. I think its finally matured to a place where its finally reached a bit of a tipping point. Our goal is to just help amplify that conversation.
The show will be in Los Angeles March 3-7. Once its over, do you plan on moving it to other cities?
We plan on rolling this as far and as wide as we can. Im hoping for sure [we'll visit] New York and San Francisco. Id like to go to Austin and Miami too.
Manifest Equality grew out of a feeling that you hadnt done enough to prevent Proposition 8. What do you think you couldve done differently?
My partners are Jennifer Gross and Apple Via. Apple and I were thinking about if we could make a change in one area, what would it be? This was clearly something we were all very passionate about. One of the reasons was because of Prop 8. At the point when that struggle was happening here in California, we were in the throes of a long-run presidential battle. I was so dedicated at that point to helping Barack Obama get elected, that I had made the assumption, like a lot of Angelenos and Californians did, that there was no way a law like Prop 8 could pass in California.
Why did you think that?
We assumed that people of like minds would vote in like ways. We had assumed that this was a conversation that was already happening in homes and had already been public enough that something like Prop 8 wasnt a real threat. We were wrong.
How did you feel when it did pass?
I think a lot of us felt sucker punched. Theres a lot of guilt and shame associated with a lot of people that I know -- and most of my friends voted against it.
How did the passing of Prop 8 inspire Manifest Equality?
Im a straight male from Los Angeles, and I just thought, Where are places where someone like me can engage in that conversation?
Why should the straight community be concerned with marriage equality?
First of all I think gay rights are equal rights and equal rights are civil rights. Civil rights are everybodys issue. The second we start limiting anyones civil rights, everyones civil rights are affected and diminished. Apple and I sat and talked about this for a long time. She said she is doing this [show] for her two-year-old son. She has no idea whether he is going to grow up to be gay or straight. And the thought that her son might grow up to have a limited access to rights is something thats on her mind.
This show is happening during the week of the Academy Awards. Is that something that was planned?
We specifically timed it.
Were a bunch of community organizers who dont have the strength or the capabilities of dominating the front pages of press. We leave that to health care executives and people with long-standing careers of whipping up noise. But what we can do is take advantage of these opportunities that come up in front of us where all of the media is in one place. This is a week where there is a lot of energy in Los Angeles, but only some people get invited to the big show. There are a whole lot of Angelenos who get excluded from this week. So, just like what we did in Denver [for the DNC Convention] and like what we did at the inauguration, we provide an opportunity thats open to the public that is all about the grassroots, the activists, and the artists who are often excluded from these celebrity conversations.
You studied art at UCLA and have been involved in a lot of artistic projects over the years, but do you consider yourself an artist?
No, Im a community organizer. The artists have so much to say, and I get the privilege of building a platform for them to speak up. Sometimes artists are amazing at taking these super-complex emotions and super-complex issues and putting them into powerful and succinct visual language, but they dont necessarily know how to take that language and that artwork and extend it out to reach as many people as possible. Thats what Jennifer, Apple, and I can do. Thats our craft. I wouldnt say its our art.
You once said, I think civil rights should be the first thing on anybodys agenda. When civil rights are challenged, they should be the top of anybodys agenda. You worked tirelessly to get Barack Obama elected. Right now, however, health care appears to be on the top of his agenda. Are you disappointed?
Im a firm believer that health care is absolutely necessary as soon as possible. Its an absolute travesty that we live in a nation where so many Americans have to choose between life-saving medicines and food. I do believe that this administration is doing the work that I worked so hard to get them into office to do. Im a strong supporter of this administration. I want to be clear about that.
Youre still as strong of a supporter?
Oh, yeah. I also believe in the ability of a government and a president to multitask. There isnt putting dont ask, dont tell on the side because were working on health care reform. It doesnt need to be that way, nor should it be that way. Its our responsibility as Americans to raise the visibility to make it more important and hold this administration accountable to getting the work done that those who put them in power want them to do.
How do you think the administration is fairing on LGBT rights thus far?
This is a very sensitive political subject.
Yes, but its interesting because you are an advocate for this administration and youre now doing this show to raise visibility for equality.
When I heard the president in the last State of the Union talk about dont ask, dont tell and thought it was important enough to bring up, I thought that was a great step forward. Then I heard it would take a year to review, and I shook my fists at the TV. Then I heard the generals come out and say that this is something that is important to them, so I then unclenched my fists for a moment. Then the next day there was all the grumble that it was still going to perhaps take a year, and I clenched my fists again.
Where do you stand now?
There are very, very loud voices on all sides of all issues. The work that I want to do is turn the volume up on the conversation of equality, so that they [people who are fighting against it] cant ignore it.
You were once the communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Last August you were the center of controversy for some comments you made to artists about creating works for to help raise awareness for Obamas initiatives. What happened?
A member of the public who was invited to a private telephone conversation took it upon himself to illegally tape a conference call. [That individual then sent the tape to conservative Fox News host Glenn Beck, who shared the tape with the public.] The conference call was about volunteerism. Not one person on that call had received money from the government, nor were they eligible for receiving money from the government. So it wasnt about state-funded or federally tax-funded propaganda. Personally, if I was doing what they were claiming I was doing, I would be pissed. Thats not something I support. Thats not something I would set out and try to engage in. But I understand politics is a very sticky game. This had nothing to do with the NEA or the arts. This was a direct attack on the administration, and I was a vehicle to do it.
Why did you decide to take the position with the NEA?
I came to it to do my best to introduce a new era to the agency. Im a 30-something-year-old art person. I was kicked out of high school for my craft of art. I went to UCLA as an arts major. Ive been building cultural programming my entire life. Ive only had very few touch points over the course of my life where I can say the government or even government-funded arts programs have touched me. Its a shame, and I thought perhaps I could bring a different perspective to an agency that I thought was in dire need of it. But it was more important for people to move a political football then it was to actually affect any positive change.
And you resigned.
So leaving the position was more important than staying to bring about that positive change?
It became clear to me that through the attacks and the pressure that was being put on me from the conservatives inside and outside of government that I would be more effective doing what I do here.
What did you learn about our society through that experience?
It just reinforced what I knew: Fear and ignorance exist. There are people who are attracted to it and use it to feed on that fear to isolate, alienate, and segregate. And then there are people who do their best to alleviate that fear. [My experience with the NEA] made me proud of the upbringing that I had that taught me there is a place for everybody and every conversation.
Was there anything you discovered about the kind of work you do?
I learned that what I was doing was impactful enough to be put on the radar. I believe it was a clear signal that people understand the power of cultural expression and people understand the ability that art can move mountains. It made me all the more confident that the work I do is necessary, and that we can affect real change within our neighborhoods.
Who are some of your inspirations?
Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister of Israel. He was a military leader known for being very harsh and angry. He was not liked. In fact, he did things that made his own people not proud. Then when he got older and as he had perspective of time, he learned that there was only one way to proceed and that was through engagement and peace.
You even worked with him in 1996 as the student coordinator in Jerusalem for OFEK, the student arm of the Labor Party. Did you admire him after he gained perspective or before?
Oh, way, way, after. I share the same opinion of Yitzhak Rabin as many do. It was that shift. It wasnt an admiration of him that I looked to. It was the change in perspective. It was the ability for someone to come to understand that even at the end of a life, we are all able to change.
Once Manifest Equality concludes, what's next for you?
I think Im in this fight for a little while. I think this is a very winnable issue. I think we can change dont ask, dont tell. I think we can pass the Non-Discrimination Act. I think we can bring marriage equality across the country.
After all that you have done, what are you the most proud of?
Thats a hard one. Im proud that Im able to get up each day and not talk about doing the work, but actually do the work. Thats a shift that happened in my life a few years ago. I went from talking about doing it to actually doing something.
What brought about that shift?
It was about understanding that we have a limited amount of time and a lot to do. My father had a moment where his mortality became apparent. Then all of our mortality became apparent to me.
Is he OK today?
Yes. Hes been helping me with Manifest Equality, just like my entire family has. And again, this is the first time my family has been engaged in a conversation for equality. Its not something that has been a priority in their lives, but I do the work and they come along with me. I also do the work because you never know when you put down a flyer, or do a show if the next Harvey Milk is going to pick it up or attend.
Manifest Equality runs March 3-7 at 1341 Vine St., Los Angeles. To learn more, visit ManifestEquality.com.