Chicago’s Most Vulnerable Citizens Have A Voice Thanks To One Artist’s Embrace Of Art As Activism

“I hope people recognize that art shouldn't ever be an afterthought in campaigns and efforts.”

Gang violence. Increased danger. Murder.

These are just a few of the dark words that are currently so closely associated with Chicago. To say it's not true is a lie. If you're not living it, you're hearing stories or seeing it on the news — there's no way to block it out. Stories of innocent children killed in the line of gang fire, intended murder, and fatality numbers going up each weekend. This is the harsh reality.

This, partnered with the racism and inequality that seems to be increasing across America, is reflecting hard on the diversity of Chicagoans. With a new administration creating — or seizing upon — a divide in our country, it's up to the bold and fearless to use their voices and talents to help unite us, resist the negativity, and prove that all normality hasn't been lost.

What many people don't see or hear about is the strength of people in the city who aren't giving up, who are taking the initiative to help educate and save Chicago. Henri Matisse once said, "Creativity takes courage." This four-part series will highlight just that — unique individuals and organizations who are bravely using art to inspire and to resist.

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Marginalized Americans are nothing new, but with the current times, the reputation of people categorized because of their background or sexual orientation is potentially getting worse. Monica Trinidad  "a queer, Latinx artist and organizer born and raised on the southeast side of Chicago" — who is the co-founder of For the People Artists Collective, uses her art to create a fearless community of individuals who resist being marginalized. The For the People Artists Collective, "a radical squad of Black artists and artists of color," is among her initiatives blurring the line between art and activism.



Monica Trinidad (c.) seen at a direct action demonstration in the fall during the #StopITOA campaign co-organized by For the People Artists Collective, who also created artwork, such as the banner in the background. Photo Credit: Sarah-Ji.
Monica Trinidad (c.) seen at a direct action demonstration in the fall during the #StopITOA campaign co-organized by For the People Artists Collective, who also created artwork, such as the banner in the background. Photo Credit: Sarah-Ji.

Her efforts don't stop there, in fact, that's just the beginning of the remarkable work Trinidad is doing. Her art, from watercolor to mixed media and more in between, focuses heavily on telling a story of struggle and resistance. Police violence, anti-Blackness, gentrification, transphobia, bans, and walls are just a few of the causes she is working to conquer. 

"Art is a visual language. Art has the ability to transcend infinite barriers and it's an essential part of our path to liberation if we're actually concerned about liberation for those who exist at the margins of the margins (poor, Black, queer, trans, disabled, indigenous, undocumented, and more)," Trinidad says. "Documenting our struggles is also a critical part of our work as a collective. We've seen how queer, trans, women, and femmes who have historically built and led mass movements have been erased from our history books and replaced by cis, straight men. We want to make sure these stories of struggle and resistance don't get erased."

Her work, which includes co-founding the local, grassroots efforts Brown & Proud Press, the People's Response Team, and the co-founding of For the People Artists Collective, has one thing in common: fighting for a change. Her art and words truly speak of passion, strength, and commitment to bettering our city and our world. 

Monica Trinidad's artwork created for the Chicago Freedom School, a radical youth political education space.
Monica Trinidad's artwork created for the Chicago Freedom School, a radical youth political education space.

What really sticks out when interviewing Monica is her unselfish personality. She credits, shares, and thanks mentors and other artists alike who inspire her to keep pushing forward. Her work with For the People Artists Collective was led by her yearning to create a network of artists of color to share their talent and firsthand experiences in the form of art. Her commitment to the talented individuals of FTP is extraordinary, and you can sense the pride she has in each artist.

"As the founder of For the People Artists Collective, I was inspired [to create the collective] by the words of Emory Douglas, the former minister of culture of the Black Panther Party," she says. "Douglas would say he creates 'art for the people's sake.' I believe that art that is created by people who are directly impacted by police-state violence, or people that are in frontline communities, is critical to our vision of true liberation. As both artists and organizers, we recognize and amplify art as integral to organizing."

The very real, sometimes hard-to-swallow truth of racism still existing is often hard to vocalize with words. Monica's outlook on art and resistance has given a voice and platform to people who may not always have the best chance of being seen or heard.

"A lot of the artists in our collective double as organizers, and that's what makes us so unique as an artists collective," she says. "Many of the artists are involved in challenging police-state violence, gentrification, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, transphobia, bans, walls, and borders on local, national, and global levels."

The "Color Me Rising" coloring book from 2015, which sold more than 500 copies. Artwork by Monica Trinidad.
The "Color Me Rising" coloring book from 2015, which sold more than 500 copies. Artwork by Monica Trinidad.

Delving deeper into her work with For the People Artists Collective, Monica explains some of the organization's biggest triumphs, including the release of two coloring books.

"Color Me Rising was our first radical coloring book. It was inspired by a coloring book called Color Me Rad, created by the Chicago Childcare Collective in 2013, which included a variety of radical coloring pages for young people on a variety of topics," she says. "I think they're out of print now. So my partner, Debbie Southorn [who was involved in the ChiChiCo] and I thought it would be beautiful to create a collection of pages that highlighted grassroots actions and efforts in Chicago in the year 2015, which was a huge year for us."

She adds, "We've sold hundreds upon hundreds of copies of the 2015 issue. We ... made our second issue for 2016, called Color Me Resisting."

And, in doing so, dealt another blow to the powers that be who would remove marginalized groups from history books.

"Resist Surveillance" artwork by For the People artist Leila Abdelrazaq.
"Resist Surveillance" artwork by For the People artist Leila Abdelrazaq.

Monica's efforts were also felt through work done to secure reparations for victims of Jon Burge, a Chicago police detective who ran a torture ring that targeted Black males who lived in the city's South Side, and were subjected to acts such as electrocution, cattle prodding, and suffocation throughout the 1970s to the early 1990s.

"Thanks to the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, We Charge Genocide took a delegation of young people of color to present a report on Chicago police violence to the United Nations, and much more," she says. "We had to document it, and we wanted a way to reach young people about these heavy yet important topics and modes of resistance." 



Hoda Katebi holds a whiteboard in the #ByeAnita photo project, which FTP took part in. Photo Credit: Sarah-Ji.
Hoda Katebi holds a whiteboard in the #ByeAnita photo project, which FTP took part in. Photo Credit: Sarah-Ji.

Keep up with Monica's efforts to improve the lives of marginalized Chicagoans.

Stay up to date on Monica's work here, and on Twitter and Instagram.

Find out more about For the People Artists Collective here, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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This is part 2 of a four-part series — check out other articles in the links below:

Part 1: Spoken word artist Goddess Warrior

Part 3: Visual artist and fashion designer Mashaun Ali

Part 4: Functional ceramics artist Susan Messer-McBride

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