By Thaddeus Tukes
[A version of this story, A profile in power: Activist Tasha Viets-VanLear fights for black freedom in Chicago was co-published in The Grio and on SJNN (Social Justice News Nexus)]
An aura of serenity and peace permeates the room when Tasha Viets-VanLear enters. Clad in all black with a gray scarf, she sips green tea with her legs crossed in a black swivel chair as we speak. Her hair is cut to wave length, and a silver ring shines from under her nose when the sunlight touches it. With a smile on her face, she says:
“My name is Tasha Viets-VanLear. I use ‘she’, ‘her’, and ‘hers’ pronouns. And, I’m from Chicago, Illinois.”
She is also one of the most preeminent artivists (a person who actively engages in community organizing and protesting, who also creates art that often reflects their activism work) in the Chicago area.
Tasha grew up on Chicago’s North Side with her mother and two brothers, who still reside in the city. She attended Northside College Preparatory High School, where she joined a slam poetry team that was a finalist in the Louder Than A Bomb Slam Poetry Competition for all three years that she participated. After graduating high school, she attended St. Olaf College, a private liberal arts school in Northfield, Minnesota. Like a true Chicagoan, she says her college-town experience caused her to fall more in love with her home city.
“I love Chicago. I think everyone who’s from Chicago says that, but I went to college in Minnesota, and those four years that I was away made me appreciate this city even more. I’m happy to be back here, for the year or so that I’ve been back, and I think I’ll probably stick around for a while.”
Listen to Tasha remind us, “You never realize how small you are until you take a look at the sky.”
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Tasha entered St. Olaf, hoping to draw on her love for theater and dance that she had since early childhood. By her junior year, however, she felt uncomfortable with the space she was in as a student.
“I don’t think I realized when I first got there what kind of impact it would have on me because there are things that you learn as you get older and as you become more aware. And so me, being more politicized and having a greater understanding of what my blackness meant to me, that didn’t start to shift my perspective on the school and being in that environment, that was so cripplingly not diverse…It wasn’t until junior year, maybe, and senior year, that I was like ‘Oh, this is not the place for me.’”
So, Tasha did the unthinkable — she approached the school about creating her own major. The end result was a new interdisciplinary study, Black Expression and Artistic Performance, which was approved by St. Olaf’s Center of Integrated Studies. Not only was the move viewed as revolutionary by some of her classmates, she pursued the curriculum partially to protest the “overwhelming whiteness” of the college.
“I was very nervous because I wanted to make sure I said everything I needed to say, and I was really afraid of leaving something out. Because after four years, I had so much to say to that college, and I really really wanted people to know how much of a disservice that school has done to its black students and its students of color. I really wanted to stick it to them, but also show people that I was shining and that I could do it.”
Her final project was an original work that blended dance, poetry, and theater into a one-woman show. The showcase was well received by students and professors, and served as a launching point for her professional artistic career. Centered on the theme of revolution, the design of the performance came in two parts: revolution as radical self-love and strength, and revolution as militant opposition to an oppressive political system.
This act of protest, however, was only a small step in what was to come. Tasha says her whole framework of revolution changed after she joined her brother, Ethos, at an action in Chicago led by the Black Youth Project 100, an activist organization dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people, according to their website.
“When I was at school and becoming more politicized, I started to see my brother, Ethos, who is an activist, organizer, artist, and musician. He was doing work with BYP 100 here in Chicago. I would see him in the streets and I was like, ‘Wow, wait. That’s what I want to be doing.’ So he’s kind of the one that I have to thank for giving me that spark, and realizing that my voice could be used for many more things.”
Since then, Tasha has been one of the most visible members of Chicago’s activist community. She can be found at protests, demonstrations, and actions in the city, with a megaphone in hand and a seemingly never-ending reservoir of chants. Most recently, she was photographed at Homan Square with a bike lock chaining her to a ladder, in protest of police brutality against black and brown bodies.
“That was my introduction, and I realized then, that young people, and young black people, actually have SO much power. And it was beautiful and really inspiring. And so, after being in that and seeing that face to face, then that was my turn into seeing how my own work that I could do, on the ground and in the streets, should and could be tied to the creative work that I do.”
Tasha released her debut musical project, Divine Love EP, on March 21. In true activist style, many of the songs include direct chants from protests that Tasha helped organize.
“I love the ‘I believe that we will win,’ which I borrowed from BYP 100. You’ll even hear it in Jamila Woods’ “Blk Girl Soldier.” She uses another chant from BYP 100 and other organizing spaces. And so, I think that it’s almost inherent, when you’re in that kind of space, to sing, to clap, and to dance, that comes out of it naturally. And so it’s just mad inspiring, because it’s almost like you don’t have to search for the inspiration, you don’t have to imagine it. It’s right there. So I feel very thankful for that.”
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While Tasha doesn’t know what the future holds, she says that she will always be an artivist. A prolific member of Chicago’s current renaissance, she says she is grateful to have come up in Chicago during this time period. And for those who wish to follow in her footsteps: