Joan Baez hasn’t stopped protesting. For more than 60 years, she has used her trilling soprano voice as a jeremiad pointing us to the many injustices of the world. When she was young, before she ever took to the stage, she said she was an ardent student of non-violent activism. But when she first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1956, she was so moved, she cried during the entire speech. “He made a shift in my life to wanting to be more closely involved with the actual struggle when I could be.”
In recent years Baez has made another shift. She’s replaced her guitar with a brush; she paints portraits as a way to honor those making social change through non-violence. She describes her art as coming from the same place as her music. “It’s a place I’ve had since I was 16,” said Baez, “which was a concern for the sadness of the world and doing what I could to alleviate that.”
Now at the age of 79, she’s painted dozens of portraits and broken them down into different series, including one on “Mischief Makers” and another on “Friends and Icons.” It was earlier this year, after singer-songwriter John Prine succumbed to the coronavirus in April, that she decided to paint one of him.
“He was a lovely, lovely guy,” said Baez. “It was all extraordinarily horrible. I’m happy to be able to do something in a situation where you are almost useless. I was glad to be able to do something for his wife and his memory.”
To further honor Prine, Baez connected with longtime friend Irwin Redlener, who has been an outspoken advocate on COVID-19 issues and public health generally for more than 50 years. Her idea was to sell prints of her portrait of Prine and donate proceeds to the newly formed Pandemic Resource & Response Initiative (PRRI) at Columbia’s Earth Institute.
“Joan and I met 48 years ago when I was working as a medical director in Arkansas,” said Redlener. “Her DNA is about social change and justice. She’s helped to support clinics, child abuse programs and many other projects, I’ve been involved with. Her $50K gift to the PRRI will help kickstart a much needed program in a time of crisis.”
During every stage of the spread of COVID-19, misinformation has followed. From local municipalities to global regions, it’s been nearly impossible to distinguish rumor from fact, and politicking from policymaking.
Redlener said the PRRI initiative was designed to provide a credible source of science-based information to governments, media, corporations, NGOs and the general public about the ever-changing pandemic. By engaging experts in public health, disease modeling, economics, law and communications, he said PRRI would be in the best position to provide the latest effective policy response to the pandemic.
One example Redlener said is to ensure we address the disproportionate affect the pandemic is having on people of color and direct resources to those communities. “For weeks prior to the murder of George Floyd, it was clear that Blacks and Hispanics were becoming infected with and dying from SARS-CoV-2 significantly more frequently than Whites,” said Redlener. “The disparities were obvious and unsettling. The resulting outrage that spilled into the streets protesting social injustices overlapped with the raging outbreak and lifted the impact of the BLM movement. It’s fascinating that a pandemic has helped boost the fight for ending systemic racism and the struggle for equity and social justice.”
Baez, too, sees the pandemic as a social justice issue. She said she sees consistency with the Black Lives Matter movement and what she experienced during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement. “It’s a strange thing that all of these things can be happening and that ‘aha moment,’ whatever you want to call it, is so elusive,” said Baez. “You know, Black Lives Matter has all the qualifications. So I don’t know what the missing link is to connect that with.”
Whatever that next level might be when the glue hardens and movements stick, Baez said she remains a realist and is deeply troubled by the direction the country is headed. This, however, does not mean the 60s was for naught. “Along with the incredible things that happened, you can’t take away the Civil Rights Movement and the ground that was gained during that time,” she said. “They changed the face of the United States. They changed the face of the world. So then what happens now? It’s a fresh new battle.”
What advice does Baez give to young activists? “Listen to Greta,” she said, “she knows the truth, she has the truth. One of the things that we need to know or remember is that social change won’t happen without people taking risk.”
Through her music, art and activism, Baez is asking people to get out of their comfort zones and march for the truth. “All the people out there on the streets are taking a risk.” And when history is being made, she said, we’ll know it when we see it.