Yosi Sergant: Manifest Equality


By Dustin Fitzharris

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, I'm 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 don't necessarily know how to take that language and that artwork and extend it out to reach as many people as possible. That's what Jennifer, Apple, and I can do. That's our craft. I wouldn't say it's our art.

You once said, 'I think civil rights should be the first thing on anybody's agenda. When civil rights are challenged, they should be the top of anybody's 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?
I'm a firm believer that health care is absolutely necessary as soon as possible. It's 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. I'm a strong supporter of this administration. I want to be clear about that.

You're still as strong of a supporter?
Oh, yeah. I also believe in the ability of a government and a president to multitask. There isn't putting 'don't ask, don't tell' on the side because we're working on health care reform. It doesn't need to be that way, nor should it be that way. It's 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 it's interesting because you are an advocate for this administration and you're now doing this show to raise visibility for equality.
When I heard the president in the last State of the Union talk about 'don't ask, don't 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] can't 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 Obama's 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 wasn't about state-funded or federally tax-funded propaganda. Personally, if I was doing what they were claiming I was doing, I would be pissed. That's not something I support. That's 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. I'm 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. I've been building cultural programming my entire life. I've 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. It's 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.
I did.