Kathleen Hanna On Using Art As A Form Of Activism

Photo: Courtesy of Jason Frank Rothenberg.
As a riot grrrl, musician, and lead singer of Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna was used to seeing fans come to shows wearing homemade t-shirts with drawings of her face on it. "A lot of them are really great, and some of them are really funny," she tells Refinery29. But as a lifelong activist, seeing fan art gave Hanna an idea for a DIY project: Why not sell t-shirts printed with faces of her friends, and donate the money to a nonprofit?
Soon after the idea for a t-shirt line struck her, Hanna met a former teacher named Tina Kampor at a local event in Pasadena, CA, and learned about Kampor's nonprofit organization called Peace Sisters, which helps fund local girls' school tuition costs in Dapaong, Togo, West Africa.
For the cost of a $40 t-shirt, Hanna realized she could send a girl to school for a year. And working with Kampor on it was a "no-brainer situation," she says. "I just feel really fortunate that I get to do something creative that supports what she’s already been doing for 15 years," she says about Kampor. "I get to use my limited notoriety to help her amazing project." And so, Tees 4 Togo was born.
Courtesy of Tees4Togo.
Tees 4 Togo t-shirt designs featuring portraits of Kathleen Hanna's friends.
To date, the organization has sent 300 girls to school, and they're about to help send a young woman to college. "Without education, these girls and young women's voices aren’t going to be heard in the world — they're not gonna write the books they want to write, they're not gonna change things around them if they're not educated," Hanna says. "Tina said to me over and over, 'A lot of girls end up just at the mercy of whatever man that they end up being married to.' And this is a way to give them more options."
Ahead, Hanna spoke to Refinery29 about why art is a form of activism and self-care.
Conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Do you think your drive to help these women was at all influenced by what's going on with our current administration?
"Absolutely. We had the launch party a week after the Kavanaugh hearings. So, it was a lot of work, and Kavanaugh hearings happened, and I was like: There's a part of me that just wants to lay on the floor, cry, and curl up in a ball. But I had a reason not to. I have this thing that I'm doing that makes me feel really good.
"This is something that feels so positive, and so life-giving and exciting, that it’s benefited me in such a huge way. To be living in this political climate that’s awful, and then to see the hopefulness of this situation... A lot of times you feel like, Oh it’s a drop in the bucket. But that $40 sends a girl to school for an entire year. And you get a cool shirt."
I think a lot of people have that "drop in a bucket" mentality. And obviously you've always used your art for social justice. But what advice would you have for people who are not sure how to actually enact change?
"I had this to work on when I was really falling into a really bad political depression. I was like, No. I'm not gonna give into this [feeling]. Because that's part of the strategy: They're calling the builders 'destroyers,' and they're trying to tear us down, and make us feel so depressed and inept that we can’t do anything. We can! Even if this is just the thing I can do because it makes me really happy and I love doing it, I'm gonna do it. I'm getting more than I'm giving, and it’s because of the political climate."
Peace Sisters came into your life so serendipitously, and I'm wondering if you have suggestions for how other people can find causes that they're passionate about as well?
"I definitely think if you’re a white person, start reading books about race and by people of color. If you're a wealthy person, make sure you're reading books by people of different class backgrounds. Books are there for a reason: so we can learn without forcing people who are different than us to educate us in-person.
"Start to just be curious about the world, learn about other people’s perspectives — that's been a huge thing for me, getting in touch with my white privilege and how I will fit into society. That's one thing to be doing, especially in this time, so that from whatever position you’re at you can be a more empathetic participant in society. Read books by people that validate you, if you’re somebody whose told you’re a piece of crap by the current administration, and find ways to take care of yourself."

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