BREW & FORGE is an ongoing experiment gathering writers, artists, organizers, and movement builders. Their mission is to amplify the collective power of writers to alchemize dreaming and build capacity in movements for liberation, justice, and survival. Taking to heart Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga’s assertion that change requires both “the witch and the warrior, the myth-smasher and the myth-maker,” Brew & Forge is a book fair, a lecture series, a retreat, and more.
Franny Choi is a queer Korean American writer, former organizer, author, and Founder of Brew & Forge. She developed her practice in the community with artists and activists in Providence, RI, where she worked on campaigns for police accountability, youth power, and migrant justice. Her poems have been published in the New York Times, the Nation, and the Atlantic; taught in abolitionist training by Mariame Kaba; translated into five languages; and broadcast on NPR’s Code Switch and All Things Considered. She is a Poetry Editor for the Massachusetts Review and Faculty in Literature at Bennington College.
Fari Sow: Can you introduce yourself and the work that you do?
Franny Choi: My name is Franny Choi. I am a poet and a writer, a former organizer, and one of the coordinators for Brew & Forge.
Fari Sow: What’s the story behind Brew & Forge?
Franny Choi: The project was started a few years ago, back in 2016, after the presidential election happened and Donald Trump was elected in the U.S. It was a moment when a lot of people around me were asking, what can we do in this moment to get ready for the wave of attacks that are going to come upon various communities: people of color, Muslim, queer and trans communities, immigrants, etc.? It was also a moment for me when I had just left a political organizing practice and had moved away to pursue my writing career fully. In that moment, in the past, I would have put all my energy into organizing, but it was the beginning of stepping into a new role as an artist adjacent to organizing rather than into the thick of it. So, the question was, what do we, as authors, writers and artists have? What role can we play in what’s to come? What are the capacities and resources that are unique to us to help fortify the people who are going to be working on the ground doing grassroots work?
The answer that came up was: we have our books, we have readers, and we have each other. I emailed everyone I knew that had published a book and asked if they would be willing to donate a single copy, one signed copy of their own book. We put these up on an online store and asked the authors to choose one of five community organizations that are doing important work and need support in the years to come. This ended up being around 65 authors, and we raised around $1,000 for the Chicago-based organization Assata’s Daughters. That’s the model, which turned out to be both a way to have a tangible, concrete impact and a moment of connection needed to redirect the energy from the grief and rage we were feeling at the. In the following years, a team of volunteers started doing this project once a year, sometimes twice if we were ambitious. Our most recent Book Fair raised around $4,000 for the Black Queer and Intersectional Collective in Columbus, Ohio.
We’ve had over 200 authors participating and raised about $25,000 at this time for grassroots organizations that are building power in their communities. We’ve sent thousands of great books all around the country in the process.
That’s the origin story of Brew & Forge as a way of bringing together writers and acting as a meeting point between the work of writers and the work of grassroots organizers. We don’t only believe in “inspiring” people with our art but also in the potential of our work to, in a really concrete way, bolster the movement. And the most exciting development in the last year has been that we’ve started the Witches and Warriors Retreat, which brings together six poets, and six organizers to share a space in a really beautiful place in the countryside in upstate New York at a retreat center with two amazing faculty who work at the intersection of arts and organizing. And so, these 14 people, plus the various volunteers and interns, get to hang out, learn from each other, share skills, talk about what it means to blend an artistic practice and an activist practice together and dream together about the future of arts and organizing. The first one happened this past summer, and it was a beautiful experience. And we’re now in the process of building toward the next one and beyond.
Fari Sow: Can I ask about the name, ‘Brew & Forge’? Where did that come from?
Franny Choi: It comes from a quote from the introduction to This Bridge Called My Back, which is an anthology of writing from feminists of color, from editors Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga. The whole quote is “Change requires a lot of heat. It requires both the alchemist and the welder, the magician and the laborer, the witch and the warrior, the myth smasher and the mythmaker. Hand in hand, we brew and forge a revolution.” To me, the brewing, the witches’ work is the work of artists in creating dreams and healing and inspiration. The forging represents the groundwork, the reality of building that new world.
Fari Sow: Thank you. Who would you say is your primary target? Who are you trying to reach or help or work with?
Franny Choi: Our audience goes out in concentric circles. The smallest circle is our most immediate community: the folks who have been directly involved with our programs, including the Witches & Warriors Fellows. Outside of that would be any artists who are interested or passionate about social justice work and any movement workers who understand that the arts have an important place in making a more nourishing, vibrant, and sustainable movement. There are also the folks who are dual practitioners in those spaces, activists by day, poets by night, etc.
Beyond that are readers, lovers of literature, and concerned community members — anyone who is interested in our mission to grow the space where art and activism meet. We consider ourselves to be especially accountable to communities of color, queer/trans folks, and others directly affected by white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy systems.
Fari Sow: What would you say is unique about your programs and initiatives in your context?
Franny Choi: There are a few other organizations that do amazing, powerful work, which brings artists into movement spaces and vice versa. Our retreat is, as far as I know, the only space in the U.S. that is poetry focused. It’s sometimes a little easier to understand how a visual artist or a musician might contribute to a social movement, but the contributions of poetry aren’t always so visible. So, we are building on the tradition and history of poets who have been involved in social movements. Another thing that’s unique about us is our scale. For the book fair, we actually aim to keep it small-scale so that it does not become such a beast that needs a huge infrastructure and organizing to run. We only ask authors to donate up to three copies of the books, even when they sometimes want to give more. We ask, instead, that those authors save those books for the years to come, so that this work can be more sustainable. We do it a little bit at a time so we can carry on and let it grow.
Fari Sow: You’re one of the recipients of the 2022 Creative Tools for Social Change program, how do you plan on implementing those tools to your existing initiatives or to use them to create a new one?
Franny Choi: We are still figuring it out, but it will definitely be used for the retreat. This year, we heavily relied on donations for materials for the participants, so having this stock of notebooks we can use for workshops and retreats to welcome and resource our participants is very important. We’re poets: all the work that we do happens in notebooks! So we are very excited to have this resource. We are also playing around with the idea of screen printing the Brew & Forge logo on the cover and using it as a perk to encourage people to purchase more from the online bookstore. But we really don’t know yet! It’s amazing to receive 500 notebooks and have the opportunity to actively dream of where they could fit now and in the future rather than working from a scarcity mindset.
Fari Sow: How would you say you and Brew & Forge are using creativity for social change in your community?
Franny Choi: The book fair, even if it does not have a super explicit connection to a particular issue or campaign, still shows that there is a place to support the social change makers who are doing that work. The retreat has also allowed us to take advantage of our position as artists and poets, to dream big and beyond. The thing about poetry is that, to dream, it does not require much more than a piece of paper and a pen. That’s why I think poets have some of the wildest imaginations. We can harness that power to grow the imagination and spirit of our social movements. We can create something really vibrant and ground-shifting, even if it’s just in a local context.
Fari Sow: How are you approaching writing as a form of activism, and what movements and causes are you dedicating yourself to?
Franny Choi: I first want to say that writing is and is not a form of activism, you know? This is a conversation that we had during the retreat, and there are two contrasting ideas that we need to hold at the same time. One is that poets can make great change and that art can be truly transformative. The other is that it’s not enough, that in isolation, it is not enough. Reading a poem about how you wish something was different is not the same as actually building the power that creates popular movements and brings about justice.
I’ve always felt inspired by a line from a Pablo Neruda poem, which translates to “You can cut all the flowers, but you can’t stop Spring.” This line has galvanized social movements over decades, from Latin American resistance and anti-colonial movements to the Arab Spring and massive feminist movements. This line can give force to those movements, and at the same time, without the people who organize and lead them, that line can only go so far.
To your other point, we are prioritizing smaller, locally-focused grassroots organizations, especially those that are employing a direct action framework in their change-making strategy. We have also been shifting into understanding how mutual aid work fits into the landscape of movement building. We focus on groups that are led by people of color, women, queer and trans people, poor and working-class communities, and others who are most directly affected by the oppressive systems we are fighting.
Fari Sow: In your opinion, how is creativity changing the world? Because we know it is so.
Franny Choi: It goes back to the fact that art and culture are essential but not enough. As the years go on, I see how creating possibilities and shifts in the cultural landscape is necessary for large-scale shifts of power. Art and culture can have profound impacts when intentionally aligned with a more significant social movement. It’s a hard question to answer, but if you want to see how creativity changes the world, just look around.
Brew & Forge is one of the 2022 recipients of the Creative Tools for Social Change program, an initiative by the Moleskine Foundation in partnership with Moleskine to bring tools and resources to creative organizations around the world, fostering tangible change in their communities through creativity.