I Power Change To Heal The World

Bridgit Antoinette Evans inherited her desire to change the world from her mother, who worked as a youth activist in the civil rights movement. As she listened to her mother share stories of her experiences, Evans knew from an early age that her future endeavors would benefit humanity. Her spirit of volunteerism began in the early 90’s at the Black Coalition of AIDS in San Francisco, a life-changing experience that forever remain. The actor, human rights advocate and public speaker has performed in readings, workshops or productions around the world. As an actor she was trained by Kristen Linklater at Columbia University where she earned a Masters in Fine Arts. In 2008 Evans founded Fuel | We Power Change, a creative studio that produces collaborations between artist and human rights organizations. She’s held lectures on art and social change at various institutions including Columbia University, Stanford University, and FUNDA College/Soweto. Her performances and productions have appeared on countless media outlets such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Access Hollywood, CNN, ABC, and in Essence, and The New York Times. Her efforts have raise over $10 million for various causes around the world.

Evans was born in Germany but raised in the US, Italy and Japan. Her parents’ roots are in Georgia and the Gullah Islands, SC. She took a moment to share her story with PrideIndex.

PRIDEINDEX: Why did you become an activist and humanitarian?

BRIDGIT ANTOINETTE EVANS: I’ve been an actor most of my life, my undergraduate and graduate training is in theater. I was an extremely shy child, so my parents put me in lots of after school art classes – ballet, drawing, piano, church choir. I remember doing a school musical in 5th grade and really loving the way it felt to express myself through other characters. I remember being obsessed with two actors’ performances as a child: Cicely Tyson in Autobiography of Jane Pittman and Meryl Streep in Silkwood. In retrospect, I now understand that one of the things that moved me about these performances is that they were examples of actresses using their talent to speak to social justice issues. I didn’t really know what ‘social justice issues’ were as a child, I just had a very strong intuition of what justice looked. As I grew older, I started learning more about social issues, and that’s when these two passions – art and human rights – began to meld into a singular purpose.

PI: Did you know as a child that you were going to be an activist and humanitarian?

BAE: I knew at a very young age that whatever I did, I needed to improve the world while doing it. My mother was a youth activist in the civil rights movement, and her stories of being a part of making the world a better place always stuck with me. As a result of our parents, both my sister and I have a similar inclination to always find the social good in whatever we’re doing. For me, it’s at the intersection of art and human rights, for my sister (Nikoa Evans-Hendricks) it’s at the intersection of emerging business markets and women’s economic development. In college, I had a personal experience that led me to want to address the growing number of African Americans dying of AIDS-related illnesses, so I started volunteering at the Black Coalition on AIDS in San Francisco. That’s where my humanitarian spirit began to blossom. It was an amazing, gut-wrenching experience, truly on the frontlines in the early 90s, when very little was known about why so many people were dying. I was assisting a nurse who had decided, of her own volition, to track the disease’s impact on the African American community, and, to hold focus groups to begin to create real data to try to understand what was going on. This work felt real, important, unlike my acting work at the time, which was a bit trapped inside the pervasive ‘art for art’s sake’ mold of theater making. After college, I left theater behind and committed full-time to being an activist. That lasted 3 years! One day, I just knew I had to return to the theater, so I packed my bags, headed East and went to drama school. Since then, I’ve committed to living the life of an artist-human rights advocate, one who uses creativity and creative resources to promote positive social change around the world.

PI: What is the significance of the name, “FUEL l We Power Change? “

BAE: Fuel | We Power Change is the name of the creative social enterprise that I founded in 2008, through which I produce creative collaborations between high-profile and emerging artists and human rights organizations, and support artists as they develop as human rights advocates. The name was in my head for many years before I actually started Fuel, which operates as both a consulting firm for non-profit organizations, and a non-profit creative studio. It refers to my belief that artists have been the fuel powering every major social movement in history. We often amplify the heartbeat of movements, with our visual art (think Shepard Fairey in 2008), our music (what would the Civil Rights movement have been without ‘We Shall Overcome’ or the anti-apartheid struggle without ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’?), our films and plays, and so on. And beyond our creative products, artists have also proven themselves to be brilliant thinkers, strategists, communicators and motivators. We are often natural born leaders. “FUEL” is my way of creating the space for artists to develop themselves as human rights leaders. And I’ve placed myself on this same development continuum; I’m learning how to use my voice just like all the other artists who’ve worked with “FUEL” over the years.

PI: Who inspires you?

BAE: My family inspires me. My parents are incredibly smart and kind people, and my sister has been my personal hero since I was very small. She’s a very cool woman! I value kindness in people more than any other quality, so people who exhibit this trait always give me hope. I have pretty extraordinary friends and colleagues too, other artists and human rights advocates that amaze me every day. My friend Alex Beech, a playwright, completely blows me away with her talent at least once a week. Another writer, Keith Josef Adkins, is one of my favorite dramatists and a fellow artist-humanitarian, he inspires me a lot. Paulo Troche, a genius poet-scholar I met when many years ago, knocks me off my feet constantly.

PI: What do you like most about what you do?

BAE: Honestly, I love that I’ve found a way to make a living doing what I love. Too many artists are not able to operate with the degree of freedom that I’ve cultivated over the years. Because I am an artist and a creative social entrepreneur, my professional life is self-sustaining and utterly flexible. The thing that surprises some people is how much I love both sorts of work that I do. I just recently closed a show Off Broadway, “Seed” by Radha Blank, playing a particularly challenging lead role. Seven shows a week, and I remember one week I was in creative meetings all day with a human rights organization I love to work with, and then racing to the theater to do the show. That’s the ‘day in a life’ I always hoped for.

PI: Talk to us about The Love/Youth Project and what you hope to accomplish from it.

BAE: The Love/Youth Project is a mass collaboration that I initiated almost a year ago. It seemed like a simple challenge: what will happen if we rally dozens of performing artists to make a piece of theater to help young people explore the roots of LGBT bullying? I’ll tell you what happens: dozens of artists will leap into the fray to help! Over 60 artists volunteered their talent and time to help me and my co-producers – Winter Miller, Chandra Thomas, Hope Salas and Akin Salawu – explore over 40 texts written by playwrights, book authors, songwriters, and poets including Sinead O’Connor, Kia Korthon, Matisyahu, Tarell Alvin Mccarney, and Antony and the Johnsons. This year, we had our first lab day, with nearly 40 artists coming together in 5 studios in midtown for a devised theater lab. From there, we developed a first draft of a play, and will be conducting additional workshops and labs in 2012 to finalize the script for an all-star benefit reading followed by readings at high schools across the country. Our hope is to empower adults to use their creative expertise to help young people transform their schools into safe spaces for all students.

PI: What advice would you give to LGBT youth with regards to bullying?

BAE: I think there are a lot of great organizations speaking to young people right now, and I’m happy to let them take the lead with advice and support for this community. For instance, the spread of GSA (Gay Straight Alliance) chapters in high schools across the country is very encouraging – students of diverse experiences uniting to create safer schools. I would encourage youth of all sexual orientations to become advocates for dignity and justice in their schools, to work together. Websites like www.glsen.org have great resources for students, as does www.thetrevorproject.org and MTVu’s www.athinline.org. But truthfully, if I had the opportunity to offer advice to anyone, it would be to my fellow adults, to encourage as many of us as possible to make daily choices that create a safer world for our children to come of age in. It really does no good for us to fight against youth bullying, if the policies governing all sorts of other human rights issues are rooted in a lack of respect for people’s lives, bodies, homes and ethnic heritage. If you truly care about youth, then support marriage equality laws so all children can grow up within and raise healthy families, support fair employment laws so our young adults can have job security and humane immigration laws so families aren’t split up due to deportations and detention. Say no to war. Say no to abuse in our homes. We have to think much more holistically about the choices we make.

PI: It’s 5AM and you’re awakened to a telephone call from Oslo, Norway by the Nobel Committee alerting you that you’ve just won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Give us a brief acceptance speech in three sentences or less.

BAE: I’m really proud of all that I’ve accomplished thus far, but I’m very much a work in progress and I love it. It’s taken me a decade to find truly effective ways to galvanize artists are social change agents, and I’m hoping to spend the next decade developing the infrastructure, resources and culture change needed to transform how we view and value artists in society. Ask me this question in 20 years.

PI: I’ve read somewhere that you were Involved with The New Black Fest in New York. What was that like?

BAE: The New Black Fest is a fantastic producing organization created by Keith Josef Adkins and J. Holtham to uplift the diversity of voices in the Black Diaspora. During its inaugural season in 2010, I moderated a discussion called ‘Art + Activism’ featuring Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, OBIE winner Kia Corthon, artist-activist Kenyon Farrow and artist-activist Monica Williams. This year, I moderated an absolutely fascinating panel called ‘The Struggle for Gay Rights in Africa’ inspired by a play by Ugandan writer Judith Adong, about the pending anti-homosexuality legislation in that country. What I loved most about this talk was the diversity within the audience – artists, activists, and people from MTV and other media outlets, doctors, lawyers, you name it. It’s to NBF’s credit that they have cultivated such a great audience for their programs.

PI: What projects are you currently working on?

BAE: I just finished performing in a really fun devised theater workshop Off Broadway at the Women’s Project called ‘We Play for the Gods.’ It’s a play being written collaboratively by numerous women playwrights in their Lab in partnership with multiple directors. What these artists are up to is nothing sort of magic. Their completed play will debut Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane in Spring 2012. Through “FUEL,” I’m working with Breakthrough.tv on their media/arts/culture slate, and also with the National Domestic Workers Alliance producing a series of events and social media projects inspired by the film “The Help” that focus on the rights of real-world domestic workers.

PI: What can the average person do to become involved in social causes and bring awareness to various issues?

BAE: I teach a workshop for student leaders in which I usually begin with a free write exercise called, “What Really Makes Me Mad Is…” Typically, the issues in life that make you passionate enough to vent and rant are the ones that hold the key to your social action purpose. Once you know what matters to you, head online and research organizations that are finding solutions to the problems that get you heated. Then, call or email them and ask if you can volunteer or help in some other way. That’s how I found my way. For more information visit www.bridgitonline.com.