In this episode, we look at the role of art in activism and social change. Our guest, Aaron Huey, has created visuals for many of the most important movements of our time, from climate change to indigenous rights to economic justice.
We talk about Huey's background as a National Geographic photojournalist, his 2010 TED Talk about indigenous rights, the role of visual art and activism, why street art is particularly impactful, space hacking, and how design thinking integrates into his work.
This episode covers:
"Aaron Huey (AH): I had the day dream. What if we could bypass magazines and deliver this directly to the public in the streets? What if Shepard Fairey would take these photographs, and turn them into art, and we could take the words of the people what they wanted and attach them to that, and then publish ourselves, publish in every street in the country and make it so anybody can take that and move it anywhere they wanted to?"
[00:00:28] Jenny Stefanott (JS): That's Aaron Huey, founder of Amplifier Art. Thanks to Aaron's efforts, world renowned street artist Shepard Fairey's images were ubiquitous at protests around the world after Donald Trump's election. This is the Becoming Denizen podcast. I'm your host and curator, Jenny Stefanotti.
In this episode, we look at the role of art in activism and social change. Our guest, Aaron Huey has given visual language to many of the most important movements of our time, from climate change to indigenous rights to economic justice. He's also an acclaimed National Geographic photographer, whose work has been featured in multiple cover stories. That work led to a powerful 2010 TEDx Talk on the injustices against native Americans in the US. That talk, in turn led him to become in his words, an accidental activist. When he realized that traditional media was insufficient to impact the issues, he came to deeply understand through his work in photography.
In this episode, we talk about the role of visual art and activism, why street art is particularly impactful, something Aaron calls space hacking, which among other things allowed him to co-opt tens of millions of dollars of advertising with only $800. The unique value of analog forms and media, and how digital formats can complement them; how Aaron integrates the mindsets of design thinking in his work, he was also a fellow at the Stanford d.school and some of the experiments he's doing today with augmented reality.
As always, we publish robust show notes on our website, www.becomingdenizen.com. There, you can sign up for our newsletter, where we bring our latest content to your inbox each week. We partner with many organizations at the forefront of the topics we discuss and we bring news from them to our subscribers as well. I hope you enjoy this wide ranging and insightful conversation with Aaron as much as I did.
[00:02:12] JS: Aaron, I'm really honored to have you today, so I just want to thank you for being here. I just want to start a little bit more about your story, your background, and how you wound up getting into photography and landing in National Geographic, because that's where your story begins, as far as I know. But I just love to hear even just a little bit before that.
[00:02:30] AH: Sure. I didn't study photography growing up at all. I actually was studying painting and printmaking. I was studying stone sculpture in Slovakia, right after the breakup of Czechoslovakia. And I went through a lot of mediums in my life. Sometime late in college, I was traveling the world and it was the most portable medium, I think. So I picked up photography because it was what I could create with in my travels and it was a great way to meet people. Then I found myself going into worlds where there was very little documentation, or there were no guidebooks or anything like that. I found myself making stories and falling in love with families and living in community. And that started to create bodies of work. I realized I wanted to do more of that. It was like – it started because I was falling in love with places and communities.
[00:03:25] JS: I think it's interesting just how that medium allowed you to connect with people and their stories, and just how that work provides a bridge for other people to, at a deep and visceral level, empathize with and understand what's happening around the world. Tell me a little bit about, where did the TED Talk come in?
[00:03:45] AH: Where did the TED Talk come in? I was doing a lot of news photography, kind of bushwhacking my way around the world trying to figure out how to make a living with photography, and I was in conflict zones, and I was photographing everything from floods, to fires, to war. I was living in Afghanistan photographing the Opium War there, just covering things like Bhutto's assassination for The New Yorker. When I came back to the US after many years of travels, I wanted to find stories closer to home. My agency wanted me to come up with some ideas for a story that they would partially fund and I decided that I wanted to try to do a survey of poverty in America to look at why different places were poor, and to travel and live in those communities. One of the first ones I stopped at was Pine Ridge, literally just because it was a statistic. When I had stopped in other places like the meatpacking plants in the Midwest, and all kinds of places like that looking at different reasons that places were experiencing poverty.
But the Pine Ridge story sucked me in really deep because I had grown up really just next door in a small town in Wyoming. The history that was being told to me by people there, I had never been taught that history and I grew up right there. It was like it wasn't written into the American history books; it was erased. That started to draw me deeper and deeper into those communities.
[00:05:14] JS: At what point did your work kind of – it seems like you just have this intense kind of insatiable drive for adventure. Anyone that's going to do a cross country walk, solo, clearly has that and a deep ability to connect with people. Where did that bridge from, that curiosity, and connection and thirst for adventure towards telling those stories and reaching people? Now, you're really doing it very strategically in terms of impact in the world. When did that bridge happen? From capturing it, and drawing those stories personally, towards impact on the distribution side?
[00:05:52] AH: When did it go from just capturing into impact? I mean, it had to have been – it was definitely the TED Talk. The TED Talk was only part way into my journey on Pine Ridge, but it was many, many years of work already at that point. The stories that were being told to me, I couldn't really – the magazines were not the place to do that.
[00:06:12] JS: Why not?
[00:06:13] AH: Well, it wasn't the magazine’s job to do advocacy, or to fight for some kind of outcome. We were, as journalists, supposed to just document, but people wanted a very specific thing to happen. I was being taught something that I had to keep going deeper. It's hard to figure out how to run through this without skipping ahead to Amplifier, but –
[00:06:36] JS: You can if you need to.
[00:06:38] AH: That TED Talk, it was kind of born straight out of my heart. I didn't really plan that TED Talk. It kind of –
[00:06:45] JS: You said something really amazing. Sorry to cut you off. But I wanted to say this, because I think it is really great what you said in your email to me. Because you talked about this, it was accidental activism, that was really heart led with no knowledge of those kinds of spaces.
[00:06:59] AH: Right. Yeah, because when you do a talk like that talk that I did, or you try to educate people about some of these topics. People that are doing that, they've spent many years doing it as organizers and doing that work on the ground, and having been schooled in organizing. I didn't come from that world. I was a journalist and I didn't understand the framework of organizing or that grassroots movement space, an allyship. That wasn't the world that I came to it from. I came to it as a stumbling, bumbling photojournalist that then just became part of a lot of families and was being taught through them. I didn't really know where any of that was going to go until that TED Talk.
The punchline of the TED Talk is what then birthed this, as you said, it's an accidental activism, because the TED Talk had a punch line, it had an outcome that was desired. It was, get back the Black Hills, honor the treaties. It's not your business what they do with that land or what they do with them.
[00:07:59] JS: Yeah. I mean, how can you tell that story without being compelled to act? How did you get invited to do the TED Talk?
[00:08:06] AH: I think I had just gotten invited to show some general National Geographic stuff. I don't think anybody thought that this was going to be something like this. I think I was given three or four minutes, and I showed up with a 14-minute talk about genocide. I guess, they just decided not to try to stop me.
[00:08:26] JS: Amazing. Well, it truly is your delivery. I mean, I know you're holding the paper and reading off of it.
[00:08:36] AH: This is the second talk I ever gave in my life.
[00:08:38] JS: You told me that.
[00:08:39] AH: It was literally the second talk I gave in my life.
[00:08:41] JS: But there was something beautiful about the relentlessness of that delivery. I know you were just packing it in, because I guess you're trying to fit into 15 minutes. But it's such a hard hitting, sober delivery. For me, there's something about the way that it was delivered that really added to the potency of it.
[00:09:01] AH: I knew that with the punch line of that talk, that I was not going to be able to do what I needed to do in a magazine. But immediately, pretty close after that TED Talk, I got my first really big National Geographic story and it was a cover story. I knew that even with a 42-page cover story on the topic, that I wouldn't be able to do justice to it. If you watch that TED Talk, it's only the half-formed body of work. It's all darkness, because it's really just all genocide. Then, it went into the light with that National Geographic story, and with big, deep community storytelling projects, where the community told all of their own story through hundreds of stories that were in the Lakota language, their jokes, their written stories, like everything, anything they wanted to. So we did manage to squeeze that into the National Geographic piece.
But I knew that it wasn't National Geographic's job to go out and fight on behalf of treaty rights or the ideas behind giving that land back. So I had the day dream. What if we could bypass magazines and deliver this directly to the public in the streets? What if Shepard Fairey would take these photographs, and turn them into art, and we could take the words of the people what they wanted and attach them to that, and then publish ourselves, publish in every street in the country and make it so anybody can take that and move it anywhere they wanted to. Then make all of that point towards a way that people could learn more about treaty rights, so they could learn more about different movements and find ways to get involved or leverage their influence against their legislators to try to create change in that way. That ultimately then became the model.
[00:10:42] JS: This was the breakthrough moment, right? I just love the way, "I had a dream and then I made it real." Talk a little bit more about, again, because I'm just curious in and interrogating this question about cultural change, and the different mediums, and work across mediums. what was it that made you say, "Photography is limited, and this visual imagery from Shepard Fairey is going to have more potency"? What was it?
[00:11:08] AH: What was it that made me say that? Well, I mean, even the very best editorials in the world flatten worlds, they flatten stories, because just the nature of editorial means you can really only tell two or three characters and that leaves out all the community voices. Again, like I said, editorial magazines, it's not their job to try to get people to join movements.
[00:11:26] JS: I get that. For sure, for sure. Now, I guess because they were a couple of different key constraints from the National Geographic editorial medium, right? Just getting out where you could actually translate into the actions is a fundamental limitation of journalism. But I'm also curious about the moving from the photograph, to the artistic representation, just that actual visual representation, why one versus the other.
[00:11:52] AH: Well, I think we're flooded with images. I mean, even more so. I mean, that was pre-Instagram. Now we're flooded with even more images just exponentially. I think that we just get numb to imagery. I mean, the greatest imagery of the world still punches through. But I think there's always been something about that style of art and about art in the streets that can stop you in a different way. It also confronts you in a space where you weren't necessarily ready to have that question or conversation with yourself.
[00:12:20] JS: This is interesting.
[00:12:21] AH: I don't want people to choose to subscribe or not subscribe when people do have to be following a particular channel to see the message or subscribing to that magazine. If you put the work in the streets, it confronts people where they are on their way to work.
[00:12:37] JS: Ah, this is so good. I love this so much. It confronts people. Whereas, there has to be some selection to happen to be reading National Geographic. So you're fundamentally limiting who you can reach through those mediums, not to mention the constraints around the monetization model. So street art is unique in its ability to reach everyone and confront everyone with something. But there's also something really important about just the cost of the distribution channel. Right? I want to hear so much more about how you're thinking about space hacking, because this is how do I reach eyeballs in a low-cost way in terms of distribution? Can you say more about your thoughts on space hacking?
[00:13:20] AH: Yeah. Because it's not just about seeing that thing on your way to work once. It's about, how can you saturate space, so that you cannot escape that imagery, or idea or set of words? I wish that I had discovered stickering earlier. I'm still a true believer in the sticker on the back of the stop sign.
[00:13:37] JS: I know this. We just talked about this. Wait. Aaron was with me in San Francisco last week, and we went for a walk, and he literally pulled a sticker out of his pocket and stuck it on the sign that he happened to walk by. If you ever see Aaron out, he surely has a stack of stickers in his bag. I would implore you to make sure that you get at least one from him.
[00:13:58] AH: one of my favorite Amplifier hacks is – it's the ultimate space hack. We made $800 worth of black and white stickers and took over $2 or $3 million worth of advertising because every one of the stickers was a bubble and it was for a criminal justice reform project with Cut50 and it said, "The truth is prisons are…" and then you had to fill in the bubble. It was simultaneously a storytelling experiment where people could fill these out. Sometimes, we would have hundreds of them. People would fill out at an event and then they take them out into the streets and put them on any advertisement where there was a human face. So you could put it on the city bike stand, lady at the city bike stand. You could put it on any poster selling perfume or clothing and steal that space back. A lot of it was about stealing the space back. Eight-hundred bucks worth of stickers and you get a couple million dollars' worth of ad space.
[00:14:52] JS: This, ladies and gentlemen, is the utter genius of Aaron Huey. It's so brilliant.
[00:14:59] AH: Well, there are a lot of people doing it. It's not just – there are a lot of people who have been – I follow a lineage on this, and that we try and resolution up. I mean, I think the one thing we do at Amplifier is that, I think, we do move more physical work into the streets, and classrooms and windows than anybody on the face of the earth. But we follow in a lineage for sure.
[00:15:22] JS: I appreciate that. I think this is something that we have touched on a lot of conversations, just the fact that we inherit a cultural history. When we really interrogate how much value did I add, there is a tendency to give ourselves too much credit and discount, all of that. I appreciate that you just deflected my compliment and reminded me of how much of a lineage there was behind it. But I do think there's a lot of genius in what you do, and I stand by that statement, but I appreciate that caveat.
[00:15:50] AH: I think we're just always thinking about what's the next space we can get to, like after – We the People after the inauguration, the next –
[00:15:57] JS: Let's talk about We the People since you mentioned it, because this was, again, this was like a breakout campaign for you. We talked a little about that. Okay, you had this idea, and then what if this thing with Shepard Fairey and then he's like, "Yeah, I'm down to do it. But let's say a little bit more about it, because I know it was also the genius of printing the posters in the major newspapers so that you could just grab a newspaper and walk into the protests, and you just had your ready-made poster. Just tell us a little bit more about that campaign and how that played out in the space that –
[00:16:31] AH: Well, it came from a constraint. It was that nobody was allowed to carry posters or protest signs on the inaugural route. It was the most restrictive conditions of an inauguration ever. The idea was that you might not be able to carry protests, but nobody can say you can't carry a newspaper. We took out hundreds of thousands of dollars of ads, with the art in the newspapers, and it was multiple artists. It was Jessica Sabogal from the Bay Area, it was Ernesto Yerena and it was Shepard. We wanted people that carry those into the streets, and they ended up – a lot of people think that that work was for the Women's March, and we had actually designed it for the inauguration that came out that day. It was like the back page of the Washington Post. It was in the New York Times. It was in USA Today because we wanted to be able to reach more rural communities.
As people know that we're in DC, people weren't really in the streets in the way that they showed up the next day. We were like, I don't know if – we didn't really know if this thing worked. But then we woke up on the morning of the Women's March, and we started seeing it, we started seeing it being carried around from the newspapers. But we also started to see printed versions that people had printed out themselves on massive placards, or they had made dresses out of it, or they use it in different ways. We started to get texts from around the world. When I knew it was really working was when we got a text from Germany of the art surrounding the Brandenburg Gate. We had not sent any art to Berlin, and then we started to get texts like that from Nepal, and Bogota, Colombia, and Kenya, in every place where there was a gathering. That's when we knew it worked.
It worked as the newspapers people did carry them into the inaugural route. But maybe more than anything, it worked because people downloaded the art that was high res online and printed it themselves or had a local print shop donate the printing and they carried it into the streets themselves. That's where it really took off. That's where – if we had 1.5, 2, maybe 2.5 million of the print ads, we probably at least had that many more from people printing out things on home printers and local print shops.
[00:18:45] JS: Amazing. Amazing. That's really remarkable, the work that you've done. Let's talk about We the Future. Because I know We the Future followed from We the People. That's something where you really looked at the role of education, and the next generation in social campaigns. This is a campaign that was really showcasing young leaders from diverse movements, who were already doing it. But it was also looking at supporting teaching tools for the young leaders, for the next generation, the kids who are the future. Then this gets us into a conversation about the incredible distribution channels that you built into schools. We the Future broke crowdfunding records, two million downloads in 48 hours, two million pieces from the series printed up in analog form. I know this is related to We the People, but I want to talk a little bit more about We the Future and how that evolved from We the People.
[00:19:40] AH: We the Future, it happened because right after the Women's March, a lot of teachers started writing to us saying either, "We have this work and we want to know how to talk about it" or "We want this work so we can talk about it." We were getting so many of those messages. We just realized that was the next place that if we couldn't reach a lot of the grownups in these families, that we could still reach the kids that had not been polarized yet. It was also a continuation of this art being a compass. We talk about our art in a lot of different ways, as different kinds of tools, right? It can be like a weapon, it can be a shield, it can be a bridge to unite movements. There are all these ways we think about it. But for us, the one we'd like the best is to think of this work as a compass, that points to the world that we want to live in.
Instead of saying, we don't really make work that says, no. We make work that says, yes and that's where we're headed as an invitation, as like a direction that you could look at any one of those images and movements and just keep following it in that direction.
[00:20:50] JS: This is something that we were talking about, the abundance of narratives that are about fear, and Doomsday, and the dearth of narratives that really show what's possible, give people hope, inspire people to be a part of it. So I appreciate that view as a compass, and we haven't really teased it out yet. But as a fellow d.school person, I can just see how much that mindset is showing up in your work. I do want to talk a little bit more about it, because I'm seeing it in the responsiveness. Okay. Education is presenting itself to you, and you can see it more clearly, you can kind of capitalize it in your own work. But it is so abundantly clear to me how critical it is to just understand the needs of the people that you're trying to reach, or the people that might be propagating those messages, in order to come up with those ideas to see where you might have an impact. I just love to hear a little bit more about your time at the Stanford d.school and how that's influenced your thinking and your work?
[00:21:49] AH: Well, it brought a lot more process. I think that – I can't say that we follow exactly the d.school strategy for workshopping all problems. But it really, I think, helped hone how we think about workshopping language and working with the community to really get everything on the board to understand what it even is that we're collectively trying to do together. By the we, I mean us as the amplifiers of the message, and then the communities that know what's supposed to happen. Because we are not experts on any of these topics, ever. We are only the amplifiers. Like I said, we are not in the trenches, in the grassroots movements doing the actual work on criminal justice reform or doing the actual work on immigration. But when we partner with someone, we really have to be able to pull from their knowledge and work together in a room to understand what is supposed to be said, where do we need to say this and really like get it all out on the board in the same way that we would have done it at the d.school. And start clustering ideas and understanding how to take really big ideas and chisel them down to their absolute most basic.
That's what a lot of the work is, is that interpretation and translation from really complex ideas down to something really simple. Because I think people that are really in the moment and in the movement often rely on using lots and lots of paragraphs to talk about stuff, because they're so smart, and they know all of the intricacies of the issue. Sometimes, we just have to be brutalist and break it all the way down.
[00:23:22] JS: Well, that's not going to translate to someone that's just going to stumble across the image that you've dropped on, when you have taken over advertising.
[00:23:28] AH: We want that complexity, but we have to – the hook has to be not complex. We have to hook them in the street, selling something not complex, and then deliver them to the place to understand the subtlety and really what's at stake or how to become involved. But now, I really liked this idea too about when our role is to make things more complex and less, because it brings in this thing between the Nat Geo and Amplifier worlds. When I work on some of the Nat Geo stories, my job is to make the stories more complex, actually. Because, especially in a moment like these ones that we've been in, like the time of the culture wars, where everything is like a black and white civil war of ideas.
When I work on stories in that environment, I actually have to make the stories more complex, not black and white. I have to pull everything into the gray and humanize in the stories where everybody wants to hear about the enemy. I have to go and live with the people that people consider to be the enemy. I live in their homes and I eat meals with them. I have to show that part of it and make that narrative a little bit more confusing.
[00:24:35] JS: I appreciate that when you need to dial up versus down the complexity to achieve those objectives and just have –
[00:24:40] AH: At the end of that story. I may still believe that, okay, I'm going to still take that side and I'm still going to drive forward with what I believe is supposed to be the outcome of this, but then at least have the empathy of understanding how those other groups have made their decisions.
[00:24:54] JS: 100%. I mean, the world clearly needs more of that. And whereas, storytellers have the incentive to go for narrative-based journalism and get the eyeballs, right? We need more people that will push stories out that send us in the opposite direction. I do appreciate what you mentioned, is that the disco experience gave some process into something that you were already doing, or just giving a little bit more robustness and understanding of what you were doing. I really appreciate that you do have this orientation of, we're just the amplifier, we're not the experts.
But I have found in my work, and I'd be surprised if you have not found it in yours. That when you're working with an organization, let's say you're working with a non-profit that's at the forefront of a movement that you're trying to help them amplify. I have found that because the world does not work with design processes, i.e., they're not really understanding who their target constituents are and how they're trying to meet those needs. I have found in my work that when you start getting out there, and talking to those constituents, I know you're not the experts. But given that they tend to not have those processes that really lead them to understand the user needs, and instead just assume that they are, I have found in very short order in my work, that I can draw insights about those constituents that those orgs don't have pretty quickly. Haven't you seen that in your work? I'd be surprised if you haven't.
[00:26:12] AH: I mean, this is a tricky one. I do a lot of my work behind the curtain. My expertise is the design and the media experiment elements of this. So there are a lot of these where I'm actually not – I'm not out meeting with the constituents. I do the research that makes me an expert in the distribution strategy and things like that. But I can't really say that I know enough on most of these issues. I can't if it's something that I've done, like the journalism myself. For doing something on public lands, I can be an expert on that. I've spent a year and a half doing a National Geographic cover story, and I lived with all the parties involved, but I hold myself to a really high standard. I would definitely not say that I know anything about a lot of the topics we work on, unless I put that level of effort in.
[00:26:59] JS: Well, yeah. On the systemic stuff, I just meant even on the distribution side, right? I mean, to the extent that they're not experts on who they're trying to reach and how they might tell those stories. I just – I'll be able to uncover that pretty quickly. That's what I was referring to.
[00:27:10] AH: That's true.
[00:27:10] JS: Now you've got this very robust distribution channel into schools. Tell us a little bit more about that.
[00:27:16] AH: Well, we started trying to solve for how we would get work into schools that would really stick. For us, still, the analog is really, really important. There are lots of ways to just send out PDFs and email mailers, and still think there's ways those can be effective. But we wanted literally to put the work on the walls, so that it would sit there for a year, two years, three years, five years. In some of these classrooms, they still have the work that we sent them four and a half years ago, because it's constantly broadcasting. A lot of these ideas came from Ernesto Yerena, who's one of my favorite artists that we've worked with. He and I were having a conversation. He talked about growing up remembering these images on the wall that was a campaign called Think Different. I think it was an Apple campaign, but he remembers the language and imagery of those, like they are branded into his brain. The idea was, how can we get enough analog objects out there onto these walls, that these messages that really matter that you're not just selling a computer can stick. It's so different from the swipeable image.
We started trying to solve for that, because sending tubes of posters to 20,000 classrooms, which was our first list of classrooms, was going to cost a lot. Twenty thousand times all the printing and the $13 tubes. We ultimately landed on mass mailers that were really high-quality folded newspapers that could get sent out. I think we ended up getting those down to like a buck 30 a piece for the postage, and it allowed us to send physical works and lesson plans to 20,000 classrooms. Now, we're still trying to figure out how to get to more, and more, and more through official relationships with school districts of different cities, with things like Flipgrid, Discovery Education.
But while we've been working on the official stuff the whole time, we went straight out the gates into the gray area of just one-to-one teachers, because teachers can take on a certain amount for their classroom that doesn't come from the system. A lot of people we work with are surprised by the numbers, and it's because we didn't take the official route. We didn't have to wait for all the approvals. We hacked our way into that space where teachers have freedom, and now we'll start building the more official routes alongside that.
[00:29:38] JS: I love this. As I mentioned, just two weeks ago, I walked into my kids' school and I saw your posters all over the wall.
[00:29:46] AH: So now they're all these campaigns we raised the money ourselves through Kickstarters, because there is no partner org giving a bunch of money. They're all pro bono. So if there's 12 different movement leaders and lesson plans, we're building that pro bono for every one of those leaders. It's a pretty heavy lift. But we just finished another one, the reframe, and we're sending that to 20,000 schools. This time, all of the art on the walls is AR activated. So when you look at it through the Amplifier app, the posters will literally speak to you. So we get that beautiful combination of the really, really simple message in one or two or three words. But then we're able to reveal what's always been under that work. It's all of those more subtle layers. And each one of the leaders speaks straight to the student, talking about the world that they envision.
This is one of those campaigns that I think we talked about making the conversation more complex. This is the work of reweaving the social fabric. This is all that bridge building work to talk about what we have in common. Every one of these movements is one that we should be able to get people to identify with, no matter where we distribute it. And we will be distributing it in schools and newspapers all across rural America this time, instead of just the echo chambers of the cities.
[00:31:04] JS: Amazing. Both of these examples that we just talked about, I think really get into this question of analog versus digital. Where analog proves to be preferable or valuable, right? The fact that you can just infiltrate and hit people in the streets in places where they're least expecting it. You can't really do that with digital. You can do it with analog. But then the richness that digital affords as you mentioned, this AR analog combination with a reframe I think is really exciting. And yeah, there are thoughts or insights on this analog versus digital question.
[00:31:39] AH: I don't think it's versus, I think it's and.
[00:31:41] JS: And analog, yeah.
[00:31:43] AH I mean, there are a lot of people we work with that are trying to figure out how to make everything more efficient to just make it all digital. But I'm still just a really hardcore believer in the whenever possible, even if it takes much, much more effort in all of our own fundraising, of having that physical component. But now, we're even thinking a third level deeper. How do we go from analog to augmented into the blockchain as we start to look at taking some of the messages that we're moving and putting them into, for example, we're putting together a clothing line for the metaverse, for Amplifier. Because we've always had our imagery on, over the last couple years on clothing, because then that's just another, in a lot of ways, a walking billboard. We're always looking for that next space to go to where those messages are not being seen or heard.
So some of the clothing that we've been doing has subtle images of mental health and wellbeing, which we all need, it's like a kind of the super umbrella that we need over everything right now. We're going to put that on clothing and move it into different worlds of the metaverse, so that we go into gaming spaces, and people start to see this imagery and messaging in those places.
[00:31:39] JS: I love this. It's so fascinating. I know a lot of the work that you're doing in Amplifier, your role there is really looking at these more experimental spaces and how to integrate that in your client work. Are there any other experimental pieces that you're excited about in particular right now? I mean, obviously, the metaverse and moving into gaming is really exciting to think about. Is there anything else that we've missed in what we're talking about?
[00:33:20] AH: That one will take up a lot of my bandwidth. I'm just also really in love with animated films. Because a lot of the animation I'm finding, we can take into augmented experiences. We can use that animation as short films. So I think I'll be working a lot this year on animated films and a lot of this future metaverse work.
[00:33:40] JS: Oh, super cool. But I'll never give up on the $800 pile of stickers to take over the ads. I'm still going to be working on sticker campaigns.
[00:33:49] JS: I love it. I love it so much. Let's talk about the RESET Capitalism campaign. Not surprisingly, I perked up when you mentioned this when we first met working with Imperative 21. For those of you who aren't familiar with Imperative 21. It's a coalition of some of the major players in the reforming capitalism space, including B Labs. Tell me a little bit more about that campaign and that work.
[00:34:14] AH: That came about just over a long-term conversation that I had with Jay Coen Gilbert from Imperative 21 that started really with –
[00:34:23] JS: Jay is one of the founders of B Labs.
[00:34:26] AH: Yeah. It all started with us trying to figure out how to do a campaign that never came into fruition, but that I still really want to do badly. That was when I first heard this idea that every dollar is a vote, it totally blew my mind. I was like, that's all I want to work on right now. We all think these election cycles are like 2020, and 2022 and 2024. But every single day, every single time we pull out a credit card or a stack of bills, we're voting, and voting, and voting, and voting, and voting and I wanted to work on that. It didn't happen, but over time, it evolved into this opportunity with funding from school to work on RESET Capitalism. Again, this was a topic that I really did not have expertise in, but it was a campaign that was launched 50 years after Milton Friedman's famous –
[00:35:16] JS: Friedman Doctrine. Yeah.
[00:35:18] AH: Yeah. That said that all power to the shareholder has led to all the damage that we are living today. But there's so much potential, it's like this network, which is a business-led network with 70,000 plus businesses, worth like $15 trillion in assets. With the right kind of conversation and story, maybe a group like that or evolutions of this could begin to actually do something as audacious as reset capitalism, to reset it for the workers, reset it for children, reset it for justice, reset it for climate, reset it for inclusion. Just everything. It was an incredible opportunity. We did a lot of hacks. We took out full page ads in the New York Times and did massive projections around the world, and did a NASDAQ takeover and made free art downloads available to be used, like we do for every campaign. We never said that, but everything we've ever done, all the art is free. You can get posters, or you can print them yourself. It's all high-res free downloads on amplifier.org.
[00:36:27] JS: Obviously, I got very excited about this. You know that the whole ”every Dollar is a vote” is central to our theory of change in Denizen and how we believe that systemic transformation will happen. I mean, this does get into I think an important – it's worth just touching on it for a sec. You know where I'm going?
[00:36:45] AH: I think so. Let's see.
[00:36:47] JS: You are doing such important work in the world. It is having unequivocally so much impact and you are trying to figure out how to pay the bills, which –
[00:37:02] AH: Oh, no. I did not think that's where you were going to go.
[00:37:04] JS: Where did you think I was going to go?
[00:37:06] AH: No. I thought you were going to dissect the Imperative 21 initiative, actually, because you have some different beliefs. You wrote an essay about it.
[00:37:15] JS: Yeah, I do, but that's a conversation for me to have after we have this conversation over drinks. But I want to use the time to just talk about your story because it's so important. I just think it is remarkable to me that this just speaks to where capital flows in the world and what we value. The fact that in order to have as much impact as you can have, you just mentioned, all the art is always available for free. I just want to make this comment. Maybe we don't even need to get into it. But the fact that all the art is available for free, Amplifier is a 501(c)(3) and your clients are non-profits who are scrappy. I just want to punctuate and underscore how messed up I think it is that we live in a world where you can be as brilliant as you are, and do such impactful work and make ends meet. It just feels like the capital should be flowing to you because of the value that you're creating.
[00:38:09] AH: There's still plenty of abundance. I mean, any of my own perceived lack of abundance is often just because I don't prioritize wealth, like I prioritize creative ideas. I sometimes have that gap, where I'm thinking about the making and not thinking about the money. But it's ebbs and flows. For Amplifier, actually, we are in a moment where there is almost too much demand, it's just a little bit – it's not in a price point, often, where we feel like we can really stretch our legs and do the big work, which is why to do that we have to do all our own fundraising. We never have a partner come with enough money to really be able to crack it open. We have to then go do those Kickstarters and stuff, but we're really good at it. We've raised millions of dollars doing that.
[00:38:56] JS: Fair enough.
[00:38:57] AH: So be it if we want to make it that way, sometimes we have got to figure out how to make the money ourselves.
[00:39:04] JS: Yeah, one more question. I want to talk about this cross-country walk of yours.
[00:39:08] AH: All right. Let's do it.
[00:39:11] JS: Tell me how this came about.
[00:39:14] AH: Well, I think for anybody that didn't hear it, I walked across America from Encinitas, California to New York City, 3349 miles in 154 days, which is a lot of miles a day. It was like – it was basically 30-mile days. But I just wanted a great adventure, and I wanted to not be able to see the end of it. But I thought it might be one of the only ways I could shed myself and my always looking to the past or future. If you start a journey that big, at a certain point, you stop looking too far ahead and everything gets real clean. I think that that's what I was looking for, and that's what I found. It didn't stay that way forever, but it was a very special experience to be broken away from the world in that way.
[00:40:01] JS: What were the big insights, or ahas, or what are the transformations that came out of that?
[00:40:07] AH: Well, there were like three cycles to it. The first third was really a lot of suffering and attachment. These are maybe really natural cycles, I guess, with retrospect, but I was still attached to lots of ideas and people. I had to experience the incredible physical pain of doing something like that. I got triple blisters and – have you ever heard of a blister, inside of a blister, instead of a blister? That was pretty incredible. At the end of chapter one, I walked into Santa Fe, and my girlfriend at the time broke up with me, and it was a blessing because I walked out of that town, then really unattached, carrying a lot of stories with me about things. When I walked a ton, I kind of was like, "Wow, I don't have any stories to carry now. I'm on my own." The middle part of that walk opened up something really magical, where I didn't feel pain anymore, and I didn't feel fear anymore. I couldn't see the end, because I wasn't looking that far forward and I wasn't looking backwards anymore.
It started to just blow every door open. It was like magic every day. I really learned to talk to people on that journey. I lived with strangers, and I slept on the side of the road, and people would find me and take me home, or they'd pull over and invite me to their home in the town 50 miles ahead, and nobody would let me spend any money. I just fell in love with everybody I met. I believed everything was possible. The last chapter of it, the lesson of the closing of that walk, was that, when I got to Bloomington, Indiana, and I sat down. At that point, I knew about how much I could walk every day, and I looked at a map for the first time and tried to calculate how many days were left. As I looked at it, one, two, three, and I was calculating all the miles.
Then all of a sudden, I saw the end, because I literally charted that there were like 35 more days. I was like, "Oh, no. I still have to do it." It was like it ended in my mind. I was like, if I already know – I don't want to do that now. I already know I can. What's the point in even doing the exercise? But for a lot of people watching, and my family and everybody from my small town in Wyoming, all these people in sight, I kept going. But for me, it was over in Bloomington, Indiana. But I kept going and I had to reinvent really what it was because it was no longer about being disconnected and not being able to see all those attachments. I had to just do the work.
In doing the work, I think I really redesigned that whole last part of the walk that last 1000 miles to redesigning how I communicated with people or diving into how that work, the mechanics of walking into a new town and really examining my interactions with every human being. I think it birthed me as a journalist. It taught me how to know people, and how to be vulnerable, and be there to hear other people's stories. That's what I learned on the walk.
[00:43:04] JS: Amazing. Okay, one last quick question. What are you most excited about right now?
[00:43:11] AH: What am I most excited about? I'm always excited about any medium that I don't really know how to do. So I am always jumping in way over my head and I just start making. So I'm excited about everything. I just wish I could multiply myself into many more parts, because I'm excited about meeting people like you and have all the potential. I just think about every one of the whole worlds we could birth and the changes we could make. It is a time of incredible overabundance and that is a great problem to have. That all these super connectors and super powers that we all have, that we actually can put them together and do this work. It's really exciting.
[00:43:55] JS: Awesome. Aaron, I just want to thank you. There were just so many really important things that came out of this. I think really big insights for me and looking at how you're thinking about the saturation of visual imagery, and photographs, and why some of these things are more interesting and the ability to space hack. And for $800, move into a multimillion dollars' worth of advertising space, the way that you're distributing into education and responding to the needs that were found there. I mean, just the accidental activism of following your heart from your work at National Geographic and in photography, stumbling onto a TED stage and landing into Amplifier. I just think the world of you. I just think you're such a fascinating and wonderful human being. I just want to thank you for taking the time to be with us today and for just sharing your story. It's just such an important part of our inquiry. I just think you're great.
[00:44:47] AH: I appreciate you, Jenny. Thank you. So much work to do, so much good work. I'm excited for it.
[00:44:52] JS: Good. I am so excited for it too.
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