‘The world’s lungs were here, too’: In conversation with Detroit-based environmental activist, Antonio Rafael

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 10:58am

Environmental activist Antonio Rafael

Environmental activist Antonio Rafael Buy this photo
Nick Hagan

It is difficult to describe an archetypal day in the life of Antonio Rafael. In his teens, he was commuting from Detroit, his hometown, to a private high school in the suburbs. He attended college at Eastern Michigan University, where he studied economics. After Detroit filed for bankruptcy and was subjected to state intervention, Rafael became increasingly vocal as an activist and artist in his community. Most recently, he has devoted the bulk of his time and energy to environmental anti-racism and activism and has taken on a variety of roles in the process, including outdoor educator, urban farmer and beekeeper.

Needless to say, Rafael has worn an overwhelming number of hats, but it seems that this process of constant evolution is part and parcel of the life of an activist. How else can we expect our leaders to keep leading, amid ever-mounting burdens of historical oppression and ever-increasing awareness of all the insidious ways that structures of oppression likewise evolve and adapt? 

On the subject of his personal evolution into environmental activism, Rafael described a parallel development he’s seen in his approach as an activist. 

“Changing people’s consciousness is beautiful and rewarding. I love to see the analysis and thought of people around me grow and evolve and change, but like, I also want to do something tangible, you know?” said Rafael in an interview with The Daily. He then went on to describe “Southwest Grows,” the community farm he has started behind his house in Detroit, with hopes of someday turning it into a market garden.

Rafael is not alone in these efforts to push for the adaptation of agricultural practices outside of rural environments. His native Detroit is becoming a hub for the nationwide urban farming movement. Farms like Rafael’s are part of grassroots campaigns for “food sovereignty” in marginalized communities, which seek to reclaim control of the local food system. To that end, Rafael has other projects lined up as well. This semester, he is partnering with the National Wildlife Federation on a program with an ambitious goal: to “create the next generation of environmental and conservation leaders from communities that are most impacted by environmental racism.” This program will take the form of after-school workshops in three Detroit high schools and will feature both indoor and outdoor curriculums in order to promote historical, community-based and pragmatic knowledge of the environment.

Rafael’s work seems inextricable from the city of Detroit and the metro area. Many of his environmental projects of his are literally rooted in the city’s soil, and his street art from years prior is often anchored to said streets, appearing as murals and graffiti on the facades of buildings and even, infamously, on a water tower overlooking Highland Park. Despite this rootedness, throughout our conversation Rafael also vigilantly drew parallels between Detroit’s situation and those of other communities, historically and transnationally. In fact, Rafael described this global consciousness as one of the positive markers of modern-day activism. 

“We need to be specializing and working on specific issues within various issue communities, but we also need to be looking at the interconnection of issues, and I think that’s another thing that’s really unique about our generation and something we’re growing and learning through,” Rafael said.

Every so often, his responses to questions would reverberate in ways that confirmed this conviction. This was particularly resonant when Rafael was discussing the colonial critique often at the center of his artwork, both in the United States and Latin America. 

“Everyone’s talking about the Amazon forests burning, and they’re like, ‘That’s the world’s lungs!’ — but the world’s lungs were here, too,” Rafael observed, in a statement that lived at the intersection between his community and something larger, something interconnected and infinite.

In that way, he reminded me of other activists who fought for change in Detroit throughout their lives, like the late Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs, and the still-active Tawana Petty. In fact, Rafael had attended the latter’s birthday party a few weeks prior to our interview. And while Rafael spoke with admiration for the work of the Boggs and their legacy, he spoke at length and with the greatest enthusiasm about his contemporaries in the local activist community. It was perhaps his fellow graffiti artists for whom he expressed the most admiration, recommending the work of street artists like Sintex and Chaos and calling the city of Detroit a “graffiti mecca.”

Images of Rafael’s graffiti and other works of art are surprisingly hard to come by online. More often than not, such photos can only be found in articles reporting on his public, unsanctioned projects — the ones that upset the police. The aforementioned Highland Park water tower, onto which Rafael and another artist William Lucka spray painted the words “Free the Water” and a raised fist, made a number of headlines, especially when the two were facing potential felony charges for it. But that might not be a bad thing. I’m starting to reevaluate the importance of context to a piece of art, and to question whether or not works of art, especially community-centric artwork like Rafael’s, should be excavated from the environs in which they were created and, in a way, also had a hand in creating them. 

Rafael was definitely the one who set in motion my reconceptualization of art and how it translates across space and time. At one point, I described to him a dilemma brought to my attention through my coursework in the University of Michigan’s Community Action and Social Change program: That it is easy to name what a movement or work is against, but it is much more difficult to name what it is for. I asked Rafael for his take on this question, and I did not see his answer coming. 

“When my house and farm are done,” he said, “that will be an articulation of what I’m for. It’s an ongoing art project that I’m working on, my house and farm.” I’d never thought of environmental work that way, as a form of speech, as a work of art. But how narrow-minded is that? Perhaps if we saw the environment as a work of art, as another being communicating with us, I imagine the conversation around climate change would shift dramatically, and for the better. I also wonder what Rafael’s garden might say, were I ever to see it in person. I imagine something like, This is where it begins, but who knows — perhaps I’ll find out for myself someday.