Creativity and a March for Our Lives: An Interview with Matt Deitsch, Chief Strategist and Co-Founder

In April, I had the pleasure to sit down with Matt Deitsch, Chief Strategist and Co-founder of A March for Our Lives shortly after he spoke to over 3,000 attendees at the BOOST Conference in Palm Springs, CA. Matt is known for his art activations of the March, and we discussed his thoughts on arts as activism, creativity in schools, social change, and the responsibility of young people to take leadership in community change.

JMP: The whole world has heard what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day of last year, and now you are a full-time activist: what was that journey like for you?

MD: I didn't realize that I was doing activism before the shooting, until after it happened. I had wanted to be a filmmaker in California and my whole dream - if you look at any of my college applications - was to create content that evoked thought and emotion and challenged perspective. Now, I do that in my work every single day. These are now and always were my driving values. 

So, when I was in college, I was working out of my friend’s garage for his T-shirt company to design social action t-shirts to fund micro loans in impoverished nations. I didn't realize that this was a form of activism, because, to me, it was just our business model and we wanted to do something that was dope and help people.

When the shooting happened, my whole life had been working on these t-shirts, so I channeled that into my new work. After seeing my friend, Joaquin's open casket, we all went directly to my other friend's living room and used my t-shirt skills to brainstorm a million ideas - which resulted in the idea of the March. Then it went so fast - planning the march, hosting the march, what happened after the march.

JMP: Tell me about that moment - what happened to jumpstart you into action?

MD: Wednesday night, after the shooting, I jumped on the phone with people all around the country, trying to figure out "what the fuck was going on?" I ended up emailing my professors to ask for an extension on my assignments but got no flexibility. So, I was trying to balance everything we had to do for the March, the CNN Townhall, and going to Washington, while also fixing my grades.

I ended up being the person on the phone calls with many of the producers of the events, to ensure that all of us young people were represented correctly. It was a full-time job with all of this stuff.  My professors just weren't with it, and I began struggling to keep my grades up. It was I had an exam at the same time when we were supposed to have a meeting with Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, and I thought to myself, "Am I really going to take this calculus exam, or am I going to do this really important work?" So, I dropped out of school right then.

I had met with our congressman, Ted Deutsch, and asked him to give us his rolodex, and he gave it to us to meet with as many people as possible to get our message across. We had over 200 meetings, that were each 20 minutes - we had hoped to get a good view of what members of Congress were going to do about gun violence.  All of the meetings were so disappointing that we actually developed our own policy plan after that. Had the meetings gone well, we would have moved on, but since they didn't know what they were doing, we realized that we needed to know what we were doing.

It had now become a thing, where I wondered, "Am I in this to see this through, or am I just going to continue to do what I am supposed to be doing?"

JMP: So, in a matter of days - really amidst a huge community tragedy - you went from being a t-shirt designer to meeting with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, then went on to found a movement of all of your peers across the nation. I am curious about your journey as an artist and how the skills you developed as an artist helped you?

MD: It all comes back to where gun violence prevention has faltered... which is they have never won the messaging battle. That's where art hits - it's messaging and communication. So, my immediate role in the group became doing messaging and outreach. 'What is our stance on this response?' It is about controlling the content. I understand, that as a filmmaker, if I wanted my audience to feel a certain way or to navigate the story a certain way, I needed to control the content so they would see something or feel something. What we were communicating was truth with a capital T. As an artist, it became easier to elevate that truth.

I was taking something that happened in my community, but was being felt around the country, and turning it into a message that could be heard by everyone. Not only for my community, but in communities around America that have dealt with similar issues. And, so, we use art to bridge the gap between education and empathy. We don't learn effectively in this country and we don't communicate effective in this country, so we don't empathize effectively in this country. My artists background allowed me to not only learn effectively, but also to communicate and I bring art on this bring the empathy.

The first thing I had done after the shooting was to see how the media talked about things after Columbine. And I realized that it was the exact same - it was like a mad lib of tragedy. "Thoughts and prayers," or "lone wolf," or troubled kid," or "it’s too soon to talk about it." I realized that I wanted to make the message different, so we used photos and videos and stories. 

The first thing I did after reading the messaging, was talk about what we actually lost in the shootings. At Columbine, we [as a society,] didn't talk about the students who were going to college, never getting to do that. Or those who were going to serve their communities, won't get to give the gifts they accumulate back to the world. We do it with presidents: "Now that JFK was killed, what could he have done for our generation?" or "Lincoln was killed, what could he have done for our country?" So, I wondered, "Trayvon Martin was killed, what could he have done for our country?" So, I decided that was what we were going to be about: we were going to talk about the loss.

So, I edited a quick little 30-second video where it listed the ages and names of all the victims and didn't have anything about the shooter. It just said, "On February 14, these people went to school, and they didn't come home. What are you going to do about it?" That was the story. That's the creativity of what our message was. I am not going to have an argument about the constitution or about guns, or about political beliefs - I am going to talk about how we can save more lives and always bring it back to that core message.

We use art to turn things from political issues to human issues and moral issues.

JMP: Telling that story has really been key to your strategy, and as the Chief Strategist, that is your job, right?

MD: I called myself 'Head of Messaging,' but David called me 'Chief Strategist' on CNN, and I kinda liked it. 

JMP: You've previously talked about your extracurricular and creative experiences at school, so how do you think that has led to your work with March for Our Lives?

MD: I gained a passion for storytelling when I saw its ability to change politics and save lives. For the first few weeks after the shooting, I saw this happen everywhere we went. 

We had done at rally with a small group of Jewish community leaders about 10 days after the shooting. David was being flown out to New York, but he had never been to New York, so we went with him since he had been attacked and being called a 'crisis actor' by the National Rifle Association. It was crazy and things were going beyond what we expected. 

What was supposed to be 50 people having a conversation, turned out to be over 500 people with Sen. Bob Menendez in attendance - then it turned out to be a 3,000-person rally. We had not written anything; all I had with me was the 17 names. I looked into the crowd and saw someone holding a picture of my friend Joaquin, 50 rows deep into the crowd. The image of him in the open casket was so fresh in my mind, I just used every second I had on stage to talk about the reality of what was going on to make it real for people: These are our brothers and sisters, they aren't just 'victims.'

This plays into what I did this last month - I spearheaded an art activation in Washington, D.C. We put up 10-foot-tall letters: "YOUR COMPLACENCY KILLS US" on the capital lawn. We put 735 religious markers (Stars of David, Crosses, symbols of Islam) and instead of putting a name, we put the titles of "brother," "sister," "uncle," "coach." If you only see names, you don't know who they don't see the story. But everyone can relate to these titles we learned. 

We watched a group of kids, who were all wearing MAGA hats and shirts, walk through the activation. They were all visually shaken. They now equated their emotion to gun violence. Previously they had only thought of guns as romanticized or sensationalized, but now it was real for them. Now, we could all have a conversation about it.

JMP: What do you think about impacting young people - like your peers, even those who might be politically on opposing sides - to use their creative capacities to drive the change that we need in our communities?

MDArt and being creative is how you reach people. We are obviously standing on the shoulders of giants when we have a March on Washington. We are holding a very historical and real torch in a long line of people responding to trauma. There are traumas that are passed down generationally that are never evoked and never articulated that have the same power. What we hope to inspire in young people around the country and around the world is to use whatever resources they have to create the tactics to change the game because the game isn't working for them.

I don't want to live in a system where I constantly have to fight. I want to live in a system that is fighting for me.

We, as the next generation, are using art and innovative ideas to change our game in the US. We just launched a PSA which my bother wrote and directed, which has over 2 million views. It's called 'Generation Lockdown' about how kids nowadays go through lockdown drills more than fire drills. We designed these QR flag shirts, which allowed us to register more people than any other campaign had in the last cycle. Others are spending $30-40 million registering people to vote - and we only made t-shirts and stickers and out-registered them. 

We communicate these success stories to inspire others to be creative. All we want is for people to attempt to be creative, because we feed off of each other. I can't come up with the same ideas as a kid from the west side of Chicago who are coming up with stories and creating art to articulate their truth...but I can amplify him. We now have this huge platform and the power as individuals to uplift these stories and these truths.

We met this girl who created a piece of art depicting what a slave's back would have looked like after a washing, except instead of straight lines, it spelled out "Make America Great Again." We saw it and used the platform to share it with others. It went viral and it immediately had 100,000 views on it and now she considers herself an artist and activist.

Society doesn't teach young people that their artistic skills are transferable. Every success story I have from March for Our Lives builds on the skills I learned as a filmmaker, a designer, and as an artist. We need to teach young people that creativity isn't just a hobby, but it can also be profitable and is a skill that you can use in so many different avenues to change the world. 

When we were at a meeting with a bunch of students, one asked if any of us were in debate. Unfortunately, David wasn't present, so none of us could answer "yes", but I turned around and asked, "How many of you did AP Art or a higher-level art class in high school?" and all the hands went up! The artists are the activist, sometimes even more than debaters.

We just can't silo these conversations; we have to show these skills are transferable. Because if a young person says, "I'm in debate and I am ready for this," and they see a bunch of TV Production students on stage; they shouldn't feel like they can't fit in, but they should realize we are all stronger together.

JMP: I wonder a bit about your adult allies. How has that worked and what do you see in that allieship from your adult counterparts in this work?

MD: I am going to namedrop. I have a really dope mentor - and I call him my mentor, and people don't think are friends - but, Professor Marshall Gans from Harvard is not only one of my heroes when I was learning about Cesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy, but he is someone who sat next to me at a dinner we had and we just instantly connected. He is someone I can call on for anything. He has been organizing since the Civil Rights Movement. And, to be as transparent as I can be, we are both white organizers who radically care about poverty and want to do more to help the most vulnerable people in this country. He has taught me a lot, especially since a lot of the time we spend in certain communities is not welcome. 

Additionally, I have been able to fill out my perspective from Phil Agnew and Aja Monet. Phil started the Dream Defenders in South Florida. Aja is an incredible poet. They are two people that have really expanded my perspective and have been allies in this work for me. Phil called me back in February right before the New Jersey rally, and he invited me down to Liberty City. This city has similar gun violence to Chicago per capita. I sat in a town hall that he organized. I didn't know if I was going to speak or not; I was just there to listen. He had me say a few things and I got a lot of applause, which I was really surprised by. 

He asked a question: "Who here has lost someone from gun violence?" every hand went up. Even my hand was up. I was looking around and I see all of these little kids with their hands up. I realized that our situation in Parkland was common, even right down the road from where I lived. If I didn't have Phil in my corner, I would have never had my perspective of what was really going on in my state, even in my community beyond Parkland.

When we talk about what it means to be in 'our' community - we need to realize there are a lot of different communities, the Black community, the Jewish community. When we talk about 'loving thy neighbor', we need to realize that a lot of people claim to be religious, but their 'neighborhood' stops and ends with their households. So, it's really important to get new perspectives.

My adult allies were always receptive to questions and to courageous conversations that allowed me to be wrong. If I didn't have incredible Congressman, like Ted Deutsch, who I could ask questions of or other community organizers who have been doing this work for decades more than I have, I wouldn't be able to do this.

JMP: You you've talked about mentorship, and organizing, and your own upbringing in your community and your school, I wonder what you think might need to change within our system to allow more young people to take actions about all of the issues facing communities, like gun violence, or poverty, or the other issues you've mentioned?

MD: We need to create space for these conversations. American society does an awful job of creating space for positive civic engagement. You are more like to face divisiveness when working in local politics than you are to face pragmatism. If that's the system we are walking into, then the system is broken. The system was made for very few people anyways. 

We had the highest youth turnout in over a hundred years in the last election. If you try to find similar numbers, you might realize it only included the white land-owning class - when we really didn't have democracy. We still don't really have democracy. From the top, we need to expand democracy, expand voting rights, and expand civic education. What we need to do at a community level is to create that space and have those conversations.

We train so many organizers on how to have a town hall. I did my first town hall with Congressman Ro Khanna and Coach Kerr out in California. Rep. Khanna had sent me what a town hall was supposed to look like. And I was like, "This sounds's only going to be him and me on a stage and a bunch of people who can donate to him and we are going to talk this through." I liked the model of us asking questions and taking questions, but what if we did it at a school? What if, instead of a political setting, we were in a gym? What if instead of just you and me, we got someone local that the kids looked up to?

From my experience training young people to have town halls, we have had incredible confrontations. People pointed out Cameron [Kasky] and Marco Rubio, and they see a young person standing up to a Congressman who is taking bribes and not doing his job. Then we go to Iowa and we are training kids to have a town hall and they have their Senator, Joni Ernst...and she lied to them! Like blatantly lied to them. They challenged her, and the clip went viral. And that's what happens when we force these people to talk to us.

We have created this system when the definition of politician is not a positive definition. We need politicians who are positive, morally just people. So, what we need to be doing is, first, have a higher standard for what morality is, in general. We must challenge ourselves to pursue morally just leadership and to practice it ourselves in our community. The first thing we can do is to create that space.

If you are creating a program, and the people who are benefited by the program, aren't sitting at the table discussing the program; then the program will fail. It's the same reason why outside governments can't rule in other countries, because they can't lead people who aren't leading themselves in some way. It's so true for young people now. We have school boards around the country who are run by people who haven't been in school for 20-30 years. We have students growing up now in 2019 who are having a radically different experience than those who even went to school in 2015. I can't even imagine having to follow a set of guidelines and principles from people who haven't been in school since the 1970's or 1980's... who can't relate to the public school system today. What we have to do is to create that space to not only empower people who aren't empowered right now and challenge those who think they have the power to tell us what to do.

JMP: So, what is next for you as an artist, as an educator, as an activist?

MD: I don't know. I mean, I am figuring it out. This last art activation last month was a heavy lift for me. It was about 3 months of working with the Capitol Police permitting: them telling me "you can't have stairs," or "things can't be this tall," or "you can't be so provocative!" I did what I could within the parameters. I did what I could and I am going to continue to bridge that gap and teach people that you can use art.....not only can use art, but that you need to use art to bridge the gaps of understanding.

One of the most powerful places I have been recently is the Underground museum in Los Angeles. Making art accessible to people is something I am really passionate about; and I am going to dedicate my life to it.

I don't know exactly what my next steps is. I mean I am 21 years old and haven't been in school in a year and a half. I should probably finish my degree in some capacity. But I also recommend not going to school if its not for you. I wish people had told me that without making it so demeaning of a process. I mean, my dad took ten years to do college. If I take anything less, then it's a win. So my goal is to beat my dad's record with everything I am doing!

JMP: Well, thanks so much.

MD: Thank you.