Inside Rosa Rebellion, Where Women of Color Practice ‘Creative Activism’ To Strike Change

Photo: W+G Editorial
Once a week before heading into work, friends Virginia Cumberbatch and Meagan Harding would meet up at Figure 8 Coffee Purveyors in Austin, TX at 7 a.m. to catch up, vent, and dream. At the time, in 2018, Harding was working as a civil rights attorney, while Cumberbatch worked on social justice issues as the director of the Center for Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. In pursuit of striking positive change for historically marginalized communities, Harding and Cumberbatch also opened themselves to experiencing structural inequality, isolation, and, ultimately, burnout.

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As Black women employed to fight for racial and societal equity within the confines of historically white-dominated spaces (law and the university system), they felt something was missing: a supportive community designed to nurture and care for women of color outside of the confines of the spaces in which they work. It was a framework they'd eventually call "creative activism."

“Here we were, as two Black women being asked to dismantle these century-long systems, but in doing so, we were also having to endure the harms of those systems,” Cumberbatch says. “We were so caught up in just surviving those spaces that we didn't actually get the space to imagine." Thus, Cumberbatch and Harding spent those coffees dates envisioning "what it would look like to create a space for us.”

In early 2019, Cumberbatch and Harding launched Rosa Rebellion as co-founders; it's “a production company for creative activism by and for women of color,” according to its website. Its first program, launched in March 2019, focused on providing creators of color space to rest and recharge as an act of resistance. Since then, the company has evolved to offer a slate of programming that includes retreats serving women of color, community education for allies, an original podcast, and a grant-making nonprofit for creative activists.

The company was born at those morning meetings, when the friends determined that empowering women of color to practice "creative activism"—authoring their own stories while getting the communal, emotional, and financial support they needed to do so—was a missing puzzle piece in the fight for social justice.

What is creative activism?

The thrust of the idea behind Rosa Rebellion centers around the concept of “creative activism,” which Harding describes as “using whatever platform you have or whatever sphere of influence you have to integrate your activism into the work that you do on the daily.” In that way, the phrase can have a double meaning: The activism itself can be a creative pursuit, like writing, dance, storytelling, or even plant therapy, done with the activist edge of “disrupting normative systems,” Harding says.

“[Creative activism is] using whatever platform you have or whatever sphere of influence you have to integrate your activism into the work that you do on the daily.” —Meagan Harding, Rosa Rebellion co-founder

Creative activism also refers to expanding the idea of what "activism" means—of thinking creatively about what it means to be an agent of change. Since each individual will bring a different "lived experience" to their creative activism, says Cumberbatch, what activism actually looks like can and should vary from person to person, meaning that "disruption will take different forms.” Rosa Rebellion honors the inherent individuality in a pursuit of creative activism.

"We wanted to design a space that allows folks to show up unapologetically, to disrupt in a way that feels authentic to them, and that is intrinsically creative," Cumberbatch says. "Whether it's through the arts or storytelling, it's creative because it hasn't been done before. And it's disruptive because it's unprecedented.”

How Rosa Rebellion nurtures creative activism

Modes of to practice creative activism have evolved and expanded over the years at Rosa Rebellion to include retreats serving women of color, community education for allies, an original podcast, and a grant-making nonprofit for creative activists.

The first program the group launched in 2019, Rebel+Rest, is a workshop retreat fully dedicated to healing and rest for Black social activists. In its first iteration, Rosa Rebellion held a day of free panels and workshops during South by Southwest that was open to the public. Today, Rosa Rebellion facilitates both in-person and virtual events sponsored by brands or companies from between two hours to two days for up to 65 people. For one example, in 2020, Rosa Rebellion partnered with Lululemon to put on two weekend-long virtual retreats featuring yoga, meditation, joy sessions, and more. The idea is to help position rest as an “integrated practice,” not a one-and-done treat to yourself or something performative.

“We want people to be able to be equipped with the tools necessary to recognize their own traumas and their own triggers.” —Harding

“We want people to be able to be equipped with the tools necessary to recognize their own traumas and their own triggers,” Harding says. “I think we often hear ‘rest is resistance,’ and it is tied to you taking care of yourself so you have the ability to keep fighting. And, yes, that's important to some degree, but you need to take care of yourself; we are human beings who have our own limitations, who deserve to exist in this world, whole and healthy, and that is our priority first.”

In 2022, the company launched Compose, a year-long program anchored by a three-day retreat. Engaging with creative activism requires having rest and nourishment—Compose creates room for both by integrating the concepts of rest as resistance with a writer's retreat. “At its core, it's about storytelling, and it's about using storytelling as this tool for disruption,” Cumberbatch says. For its first iteration, Compose accepted 10 cohort members, who were then paired with a mentor in the entertainment media space for the year, received access to a free Soho House membership, and periodically came together for virtual writers' workshops. Compose is currently in its second edition for 2023.

Rosa Rebellion also takes on issues of education as an arm of its activism. In the wake of the national reckoning around racism after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Rosa Rebellion created another type of space—this time, for allies who wanted to do more to promote a just society; they call it The /whiteboard/. Launched in 2021 with a cohort of around white-identifying women, and put on again with another group in 2022, the /whiteboard/ answered calls from white women aiming to be better allies in the fight for racial justice.

"[It] was really born out of necessity," Harding says. "People were really asking 'what can we do?' As racial-justice practitioners, we naturally got a lot of requests, and it just got to the point where we were like, 'You know, we could keep answering these one-offs,' right? But the truth is that we need to bring certain people into the work. We need to call them in instead of calling them out…We walk them through, all the way from a historic lens to a contemporary lens to disruption to how they can create spaces of belonging and where they fit in this movement—and how to bring their communities into this movement."

The /whiteboard/ participants pay $2,500, plus pledge an additional $2,500 to $10,000 to support Rosa Rebellion’s non-profit venture incubator, the Rebel Fund, which launched in 2022. The Rebel Fund makes $10,000 grants to three creative activism projects at a time, and also connects creators to producers, networks, and other people in positions of power.

"[The idea for the Rebel Fund came from us wondering,] What would it look like if we had the ability to just unapologetically write checks to women and say 'We believe in the work you're doing—go forth'?" Cumberbatch says.

Rosa Rebellion itself has a podcast called gen/activist, now in its second season, which shares stories of creative activism with the public. The aim is to create public understanding of what the term means and what is required to make change.

“[We’re] giving folks the permission to be the authors of their own resistance,” Cumberbatch says. “Part of that is removing all of these barriers that [are in] some ways arbitrary, but also keep certain voices in power. Our hope is that each of these things are small disruptions that ultimately can support a new way of being.”

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