Liberate Self-Help Graphics

To oppose a board of directors is clearly not the same as to oppose the institution the board presides over

By Mark Vallen
Published on LatinoLA: July 11, 2005

Liberate Self-Help Graphics

On June 7th, 2005, Self-Help Graphics in East Los Angeles was shut down without explanation by its Board of Directors. In response, I wrote an article entitled, Self-Help Graphics Finished? and posted it to my web log on June 17th, 2005. My blog post broke the story of L.A.?s most important Chicano arts institution going under, and while Self-Help?s board remained inexplicably silent on the matter for nearly a full month, tens of thousands of people were reading my blog posts on the matter.

On June 20th, 2005, the LatinoLA website republished my original article, changing its headline to Artistic Heart Beats No More. On July 7th, 2005, LatinoLA published a defamatory and vilifying retort to my original article from someone hiding behind the pseudonym of "La Mexica Mujer". What my cowardly adversary had done in her editorial was to falsely attribute a quote to me in order to make me appear selfish and egotistical. It was not only a slander directed against me personally? it was an attempt to defame those critical of Self-Help?s board. In this paragraph excerpted from her LatinoLA rebuke , my challenger intentionally attributed the following statement to me:

>> The word "they" is used in a recent article by Mark Vallen in Speaking about the Board, he cites: "It is their problem, it is up to them to keep the organization going, it is me who is deprived of a venue." <<

I wrote no such thing. My actual words are not only posted on the LatinoLA website for all to see, they are also posted on my web log , and I reprint them here:

"I have exhibited my artworks at SHG, and I have prints and other artworks in its Tienda Colores gift shop. But it's not being deprived of a venue at which to exhibit that I find so upsetting, more importantly - the Chicano community in particular and Los Angeles in general, has lost one of its premiere arts institutions."

At first I was infuriated that an anonymous opponent would attempt to damage my good name with obvious falsehoods and lies, and I fully intended to demand of LatinoLA that the libelous article be removed? but then I thought better of that notion. Realizing the unsigned malicious assault was the perfect example of a smear campaign - I thought it would be far healthier to expose the brazen fabrication than to merely wish it away.

I have no idea who lurks behind the moniker of "La Mexica Mujer", whether she is a board member or just one of its dwindling defenders? but she has good reason to conceal herself behind a veil of secrecy. If she is but a sycophant for the board, you can imagine them longing for a more articulate quisling? one smart enough to stick to the facts. But therein lies the rub - the fact of the matter is that Self-Help Graphics has now been locked-up for a full month by a board that drove it into the ground, and there?s no end in sight for this "temporary" closing.

Whether my mysterious antagonist is an insignificant water carrier for the inept board, or an actual board member herself, does not change the fact that a smear campaign has been resorted to in a desperate attempt to rally support for the indefensible acts of Self-Help?s Board of Directors. After her ham-fisted attempt at tarnishing my credibility, "La Mexica Mujer" then had the audacity to issue a phony call to unity, clumsily writing "Work together, the time for blame is over, accusations and downgrading are best left in the past." In other words - smear the critics and ignore the culpability and willful ignorance of those who brought Self-Help to ruin, moreover, join with them to repeat the debacle in the future. There is collective blame to be apportioned here, and the board clearly must be held responsible for the lion?s share of it.

The events taking place at Self-Help remind me of another fiasco from L.A.?s recent history, the struggle at the politically progressive and listener-sponsored Pacifica Radio Network and its L.A. affiliate, KPFK 90.7 FM . In the mid-to-late 90?s, Pacifica?s national Board of Directors were attempting to mainstream the network, and they fired or banned a number of popular programmers. A "gag rule" was then implemented that prohibited programmers from discussing with the public the multiple firings and bannings. Free speech was dead at "Free Speech Radio". KPFA in Berkeley was even shut-down and its staff kept on the street when the station management changed the locks on the doors (sound familiar?).

In L.A., KPFK?s general manager, Mark Schubb, fired or banned some 300 programmers, staff, and station volunteers - in effect just about removing every single person of color from the station. In point of fact, Schubb had also eliminated nearly every programmer that held a view considered left of center. Radio host, Marc Cooper, was KPFK?s apologist for the massive purges, and from his daily prime time slot he attacked and insulted those who wanted to reform the station. Even Amy Goodman?s flagship program, Democracy Now! , was banned from KPFK?s airwaves, and Cooper smugly justified the censorship - labeling Goodman "unprofessional."

While Pacifica?s national Board of Directors and their sock puppet station managers drove the network into financial ruin, all the while displaying an undemocratic and totalitarian management approach - there were those in the community who counseled accommodation and collaboration with the band of marauders known as the Board of Directors. Here in L.A. those voices assailed critics of the board as "dividers", "lunatics", and people "out to destroy Pacifica". Yes? it all has a familiar ring to it. Eventually KPFK?s listenership organized itself to confront the corrupt station management as well as the national board. Free Pacifica activists held weekly pickets in front of KPFK studios calling for democratization; they elected new leadership in a grass roots election that circumvented the power of the station?s management; and they called for a boycott of the station?s annual fund drive in an effort to drive out the old guard. Predictably, the reactionaries entrenched at KPFK lashed out at those who would unseat them? but ultimately the dissidents won the battle to democratize the station and the corrupt national Board of Directors was sent packing.

There are many lessons in the Pacifica story for people following the chaos at Self-Help Graphics, perhaps the first being learning how to identify who is a true ally and who is an obstructionist in the way of progress. In the 90?s when I joined the picket lines in front of KPFK calling for the resignation of its station manager as well as that of Pacifica?s national board? I did so not out of a wreckless personal desire to "destroy Pacifica", but because I sought, along with many others, the reconstruction of KPFK/Pacifica and its return to its original mission - that of being a grass roots, listener sponsored radio station.

As institutions, KPFK and Self-Help Graphics have a shared history, one born of social struggle and grassroots activism? and both have been saddled with an out of touch board whose ineptitude can only be referred to as colossal. But to oppose a board of directors is clearly not the same as to oppose the institution the board presides over. In the case of KPFK/Pacifica, its demise was prevented by an activised community that was willing to wage a protracted struggle in order to implement necessary sweeping changes.

It is uncertain whether or not that process will unfold regarding the board at Self-Help Graphics - what is a certitude however is the board?s absolute worthiness of being targeted in such a manner. The board?s distance from the artists and community they purport to serve, combined with their scandalous lack of planning regarding the safeguarding of Self-Help, have made their failure as a group inevitable. Since they locked-up Self-Help on June 7th, their ranks have been thinned by two resignations, including the withdrawal of one "Honorary Board Member". For the sake of the preservation of Self-Help Graphics? the remaining board members should follow that lead.

[The permanent link for the above article, is: ]


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