Why Tovah Cook Believes Daily Micro-Actions Are the Best Path to Activism *and* Creativity
The idea of daily actions can feel like a lot. Daily exercises in creativity designed to help you blossom can feel stressful, like another to-do. Taking time every day to take action, support your community, dismantle archaic systems, and help others thrive can feel even more daunting — the work of an activist, a fighter, someone with that elusive resource, time. But as you might have guessed, we've got an inspiring story that will have you taking action every day, in ways you might not expect. Meet Tovah Cook, designer, dancer, ceramicist, and author of Black Binder, a notebook of curated prompts to steer anti-racist questions and topics into actions and solutions. A calming presence with a thoughtful demeanor, Tovah is a creator who pours intention, soul, and heart into everything she creates. Her own exploration of anti-racism and Black history is what inspired her to create Black Binder in the midst of *so* much coming to the surface in the summer of 2020. Tovah found herself navigating topics and questions she still had much to learn about, and realized others were on a similar journey.
Anjelika Temple here, co-founder of Brit + Co. In collaboration with Represent Collaborative, I had the honor of virtually sitting down to chat with Tovah Cook about her creative process, what inspired her book, and what activism looks like for her on a daily basis. The thing that struck me the most about our conversation was how it ended — I asked if there was anything else she wanted to cover. She replied, "I do have one question. How can I support you?" And that is Tovah in a nutshell — supportive, looking for ways to learn and grow, and always community-first. Read the full interview below.
Anj: Ground us in your roots. Where did you grow up? Where has your creative journey taken you?
Tovah: I'm originally from Texas, a little east of Dallas, called Garland, Texas. I grew up there and lived there all my life until 10 years ago. I went to the University of Houston and studied architecture and environmental design. When I finished school, I started thinking about what my next chapter might look like. Is architecture still something I want to do? I was questioning the idea of form equals function. Then I started taking my master's classes at Academy of Art in graphic design, and that was when I transitioned to the Bay Area. I was only going to be here for a semester or two and I'm still here.
Anj: Oh yes, often how it goes here in Northern California. Your creative practice covers dance, design, ceramics, writing, and more. What do you love about making and designing things?
Tovah: I like not the finished product. I feel a lot of people like the finished product, but I like experimenting in the practice of things. With ceramics, I really like experimenting on different glazes and the outcomes. It's literally a science project because you don't know what those glazes might be or how the clay might react. It just all looks a bit different. And I think that's the same with dance and stuff. I just love learning new moves but not necessarily performing.
Anj: So the learning process and experimental process and figuring it out is where it sounds like you feel your spark. Tell me a little bit more about what the state of creative flow feels like for you, when you're in that moment. Is it a frenzy of activity? Is it a sense of calm that washes over you?
Tovah: It's a little bit of both. I would say last year or for 2020, it was a bit different than other years because one, I got laid off and so I had a bit of extra time. I got laid off the same day that I was moving out of my place, a week prior was when a lot of companies started having all the layoffs. I had decided not to sign a lease because I was a bit nervous that I was going to get laid off. And so I booked an Airbnb for a month thinking that the pandemic was only going to be a month. And that was in Oregon in a small middle-of-nowhere town called Yachats. It was a very unique opportunity for me because it's not my normal experience of how I get creative. I was surrounded by nature. I would go on walks. I would do sunset walks each day to the beach. And there's no one else there on this beach. It was just me. You can really just get surrounded by your thoughts and literally think about something for hours and not feel the pressure of needing to do something. And then I started writing. And I don't think I'm necessarily a good writer. I actually was told multiple times by professors that I was a bad writer. But I started writing anyway. I like writing micro things. So looking at a plant and looking at the fuzziness of it and writing those details. Or I would write the details of how the cabin I was in was built, the light shadows that danced on the walls, the way the wood overlapped. That started getting my creative juices going.
Anj: A natural writer, you brought me to the perfect segue into your writing and Black Binder! What inspired you to create it? Tell us about the moment when you realized you needed to bring this thing into existence.
Tovah: For a couple of years now, I've wanted to create a journal. And so during this time, I was like, "Okay, now's my chance to create this journal." But then seeing everything happening last summer, I felt maybe this could be an opportunity for me to create something meaningful and useful. So it's not just blank pages, but people could get some use out of it. Some friends and people reached out during that time period when everything was happening last year with George Floyd and stuff and asking questions. I would say most of the time I wasn't able to answer at that moment because of sheer exhaustion. And then I think just throughout life, I've been on this journey as a Black person finding my own identity and being a Black person and especially growing up in a mostly white community of learning about the history of who I am and my ancestors. I had to Google questions the same way a white person's Googling these questions last year. And so it's me rethinking those questions and putting it all down and just creating more of an exploration of the stuff that I had to do myself, in a way that people can use themselves.
Anj: I'm curious, since it came from exercises and questions you were asking yourself, who do you think is the ideal audience for the book?
Tovah: When I first created it, I think I wanted it to be more of a workplace book where there's a diversity inclusion team, and people could actually come together and have conversations, almost like a book club. But then I think it expanded on all these different scenarios. I think the audience group is most likely someone who has had privilege and doesn't quite know where to start, or has started a little bit but… I think there are always improvements that we can make. And so the ideal reader is just trying to learn better ways of how they can get more engaged within their community.
Anj: I love that. Talk to me a little more about once someone's engaging, what do you hope they get out of it?
Tovah: I feel a lot of people have assumptions and misconceptions of the Black community. When we look at the statistics and within my book, I have all these spaces where you would have to understand why maybe there's more Black children within the foster care system, or why there are more Black men within the prison system. And so I ask people to write these numbers down. So first, it is the learning, learning why these numbers are here. I want people to have more conversations, more than, "Okay, I read this piece of work." Or, "I've read an anti-racist book and now I'm anti-racist." I want them to see the numbers, see why, and put it into action by getting involved in their community. When you get the book, you'll see that there aren't actually any resources. I don't provide lists of books that you could use to reference because I want people to do their own research themselves. And I want it to be based within the community that they live in, because you could read a book about how to be anti-racist, but it might not be applicable to that area which you live in.
Anj: I know one thing that's a focus point is daily prompts and daily actions. As an activist yourself, what do daily actions look like for you?
Tovah: For my daily action items, I think small in that I think a lot of times people assume that it has to be big. Even right now it's like, "Okay, Biden's going to do all this stuff." We expect it from the top down. And I actually think it happens within our own community and individually. And so I think really small. For MLK Day, I was thinking what can I do within my community? I didn't know what I was going to do that day. But then I went to the grocery store, and I saw a homeless person sitting there on the street and I was like, "Okay, maybe it's just me having a conversation with him." And so I went in and got groceries for him and then withdrew some money to give to him. Because just thinking about Martin Luther King's message — how are we trying to help people? I try to think of it small each day, what am I going to do? It might not be something like donating or giving; it could be me just learning something or me just supporting a friend. It doesn't actually have to be focused on social justice but just creating something and trying to improve your community each day.
Anj: Has activism always been core to your purpose, your personal mission?
Tovah: No. Growing up in Texas, you know the dynamic of people who live there is very different from here in the Bay Area. When I was living there, I was young at the time and I didn't want to talk about politics at all. I didn't know much about it. But then when I do look back, I see how my mom set up ways for us to be activists. Not necessarily like at the scale of Angela Davis. But when we look at it, maybe my mom was an activist in that she was trying to instill this justice within me. I remember in high school, I reached out to our principal because at one point, our principal made the decision that Black children had to cut their hair because it was a distraction in class. So me and my sister contacted the principal, and we got other people to do it. And now that I think of it, I guess that was activism work. But at the time, I just felt I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to be involved about it because I just felt everyone was just going to bash me or talk down to me. It's just a lot of weight when everyone disagrees with you. Like, "Am I supposed to have a voice for this? Can I just be on my way? Do I have to have an opinion?"
Anj: My gosh, totally. What areas of advocacy are you focused on at the moment?
Tovah: I feel I put my hands in a whole bunch of different pots. I'm still trying to learn where I want to be because I do think that it's like creating a relationship with an organization or a specific mission. I would say at the moment, there's a few organizations that stand out to me. I've been donating to this organization called Creative Growth. It's a nonprofit that supports individuals with disabilities and helps them create artwork. And this one's in Oakland. I love that mission and what they're doing. And I've been thinking about maybe where I want to be involved and help and provide more support is in that area. Right now, I'm reading a book called Disability Visibility, a compilation of a whole bunch of essays by people with disabilities. Each essay is really powerful and has me thinking about how we can amplify people who have disabilities, their voices more. I feel in 2020, everything was released and it's like, "We're just going to release everything and talk about everything." But I do feel we still could do a lot of work on amplifying people's voices who have disabilities.
Anj: When you're not finding small ways to act and create each day, how do you recharge? So what does self-care look for you on a day-to-day basis?
Tovah: Something that I started putting into my routine, I started putting an ice cube on my face. And it's shocking at first, but it's really soothing in a way. It's supposed to be really good for your skin. And you know when you wash your clothes and they come fresh out of the dryer, and they're really warm? That moment of taking your warm blanket out of the dryer and wrapping yourself with it, that's my favorite feeling in the world. And naps. I like naps.
Anj: What advice do you have for creatives who have an idea or who have a story to tell but have no idea how to put it out in the world or get started?
Tovah: I like to create small wins for myself. A lot of times people make really big goals and having that big goal is good, but along the way, just to keep you inspired, it's good to have small wins. When I created the book, my ultimate goal was to get it published by a big publishing company. I had no way of even creating the book. And like I said earlier, I thought of myself as a really poor writer. But you take it one step at a time. Along the way, you have to get a copyright license and filling out that form feels daunting even though it's not. It's only 20 minutes. If you're doing something for the first time ever, everything just feels so daunting. And so I just create small wins. It's not necessarily like, "I have to do these things at this time." It's just when they happen, it's like, "Okay, let's celebrate and use that as a means to move forward."
So I would just say yes, things will feel daunting but to not let that be a reason to just stop and give up. Most of the time you won't know what you're doing, and that's okay. Just keep on going and be okay with not knowing what you're doing.
Anj: Finally, we want to encourage the REP CO readers to take action. What organizations should our readers know about? What stories should we read or learn about?
Tovah: I read this book last year called The Book of Rosy, A Mother's Story of Separation at the Border. It's a beautiful story shared from a mother's point of view. Stories that are often silenced and suppressed. And you can support an organization called Immigrant Families Together, which provides more information about people at the border and how you can help or be a part of the organization. I thought that was really good for people who want to learn about undocumented citizens or get involved in that way. There's also an organization called Impact Justice. That's something I want to learn more about myself, thinking about people who are incarcerated and how we can help them out.
I also subscribed to emails from an organization called Upturn.org. It provides really hefty reading on different policies and government policies that are happening. There's this one report called Mass Extraction: The Widespread Power of U.S. Law Enforcement to Search Mobile Phones. So if you're really into heavy reading, and you want to understand or just get really passionate about why are the police surveilling us, this is a good organization to look into.
Anj: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. This was so nice chatting. Is there anything else that you want to talk about or make sure we mention?
Tovah: I really do appreciate this conversation. I feel grateful. I do have one more question. Just wondering how I can support you.
Anj: My goodness.
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