Advocacy, Activism & Art: Matthew Pillischer Creates His Own Niche
What are you working on now? My new project is called The Thread: A Podcast Against Mass Incarceration. This work is like a thread, connecting people and ideas and activities from around the country to try to bring everyone together in ways that can strengthen the movement.
Is this a follow-up to Broken on All Sides, your documentary film about racism and the criminal justice system? Yes. I’m finding podcasting to be a very flexible form in terms of time and resources. I also really like conducting interviews over the phone or Skype—it’s easier to forget an audio recorder than a camera in your face, so it makes for more genuine conversations.
Tell us about your involvement with the Fight for 15 campaign. I just ended a job with Fight for 15, helping fast-food workers organize for a $15 minimum wage and a union. It was like old-school union organizing, finding ways to sneak in and talk to workers under the bosses’ noses about fighting store by store, city by city, and on the state and federal levels too.
This must have been a very different view from working in employment law. It’s about trying different ways to fight for decent-paying jobs. The employment law I did right after law school was advocating for workers with criminal records. It’s often legal for employers to discriminate against applicants who’ve been convicted of a crime. But racial disparity in the criminal justice system is so bad that this practice, if the crime is unrelated to the job, amounts to racial discrimination. Organizing is a better tool than law—you can organize anyone, anywhere!
How does your art inform your activism? I’ve been an artist all my life. I became an activist after 9/11. I started using art as activism, making posters and political paintings and stencil work. I wrote political songs and performed them with my band, High Hearts. Activism led me to law school, and in my last year there I began using film to advocate around legal and policy issues.
With this diverse skill set, is it hard to find your niche and make a living? It can be challenging—sometimes people see me as overqualified; other times they see me as not specialized enough. I think it’s important to look at the whole picture of how an issue fits into society and use multiple tools to chip away at problems. That often means I’m building a project from the ground up, which means it’s difficult to assign me a specific title: one week I’m performing at a concert fundraiser, and the next week I’m presenting to the Justice Department!
Has becoming a parent affected your activism? Sometimes people turn inward and focus only on their families, but parenthood has made me look at the world and ask what it’ll be like for my child. Having an African-American son makes the fight against racism very personal. What will my child be up against as he grows up? In some ways I feel like things are getting worse, but I also see more and more people coming together and waking up, and that gives me hope for a more promising future.