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Washtenaw United: Seeking equity and community through art

Yen Azzaro
Yen Azzaro
Yen Azzaro


Yen is a graduate of University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design; she lives and work in Ypsilanti; she collaborates with corporate and nonprofit clients around the world to bring convenings to visual life through illustration and text; she consults with organizations like United Way to ideate and offer challenging creative opportunity


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair with another edition of Washtenaw United. Each week, we explore issues of equity and opportunity. And this time around, it's a look at the role that art can play in helping us process what is happening in our world and how that impacts how our community lives. Our guest this morning is among those working at the center of the arts community in Washtenaw County. Yen Azzaro is an illustrator and graphic recorder. She collaborates with nonprofits and corporations around the world to, as she says, bring convenings to visual life through illustration and text. Yen, welcome back to WEMU.

Yen Azzaro: Thank you so much, David.

David Fair: Is art the capture of a moment, a depiction of who we are in a given time, or is it a call to action as an agent of change?

Yen Azzaro: I want to think that it's both of those things. I think in this very difficult moment that we've been living through over the last few years and so many social, health, and mental avenues that we need to assess how we as individuals can not only take in art, process it, but also think about how we might be able to make a small individual action in creative ways.

David Fair: Art can be defined in so many different ways, and you've made a living coupling artistic aesthetic with words, text, and information. What about that combination inspires you?

Yen Azzaro: Graphic recording, for me, which is the act of writing and illustrating what people see in real time, has been such a great learning opportunity, and it informs my personal work. I truly believe that when we have all the information, we are the most powerful. And this is particularly true for youth. When you think about how inequitable information distribution is, even in our immediate community, we can look at the instances where youth can't make decisions because they don't have everything laid out in front of them. So, I find that having information, whether it be text or illustration, is so important for all of us to take in news.

David Fair: You continue to be active in addressing the challenges in around the BIPOC community. How do you see the role of art in educating and creating more awareness about inequity and inequality and starting those conversations through the artistic process?

Yen Azzaro: Even though many of us may not feel like it, we all have a creative thread in our body. And when I say creative, I don't just mean drawing or painting or expression through performance. It can be writing. It can just be getting an idea out there. It could be making a mark with a rock on the sidewalk. I think that art and expression is such an important way for people to feel like they're part of something, even if that act starts very small, very young, as an individual, or in a group. I think that it's vital for people to continue looking at art because it makes us stop. It challenges us. It stretches our minds. And sometimes, it is a communication vehicle for someone that has not thought about social justice or doing something that is socially driven per se. And I think that it's a great gateway for people to feel like something is low stakes or small stakes and maybe just start to get involved.

David Fair: Washtenaw United continues on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking art and community impact with Yen Azzaro. Over the past few years, Yen, we've seen a significant increase in violence against Asian Americans. Incidents of anti-Semitic violence and rhetoric is growing. Systemic and overt racism continues to impact African Americans. Voter repression efforts actually out in the open these days. Gun violence in any number of cities, including Ypsilanti, continues to cause harm and ultimately profound grief. How are these issues in this moment of time being reflected in your art?

Yen Azzaro: Oh, goodness. When you put it that way, it feels like we need to be doing a lot more. For my part, personally, I have been able to express it through a recent artist in residency that I had. My piece "Alter Alter" looked at really the systemic pandemic of violence against Asians in our country. And I wanted to layer the research that I've done on anti-Asian hate crimes over the last nearly three COVID years, with a form of happening and expression and illustration for people to understand that this isn't going away. So, I think it's really important that, through art, that we not only look at it and process it, but we continue to talk about it out in the open, so that we can see these things continue to happen. And they're happening to so many members of our BIPOC community. It's threatening how we vote, how we think, how we care for one another. But the more that we talk about it and get it out in the open, the more possibility we have to combat the things that are harmful and hurtful.

David Fair: You've put forward special projects to address homelessness and affordable housing issues in our area. You embarked on a collaborative mural project aimed at creating greater unity and understanding between the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities. And you've done a lot of work with students from Ypsilanti Community High School, as you mentioned. We've got to look to the younger and next generations to build on and advance social justice issues. So, when those students walk away from the projects that they work on with you, are they remaining connected to the idea that they have to work for the necessary change?

Yen Azzaro: I really, really hope so. My partner Nick and I recently had the chance to see some of our former Ypsilanti High School students from our project Ypsi Fidelity, or what we call Y-Fi. And to know that they have continued doing creative work and striving to get better at their craft right here in our local community gives me so much hope to know that they are, you know, hard-working. Some of them are going to school. They're continuing to record in the studio or get the equipment and just continuing to put creative work out there--that positive energy--is so, so heartening. I'm also working with Voices of Youth through Concentrate Media, and I want to know that those students pick up some skills and crafts that they can take into the future as well.

David Fair: I think adults sometimes think they need to pass on wisdom to the younger generation without considering that we can learn from them. What have you taken away from working with the students?

Yen Azzaro: That they are brilliant. Our Ypsilanti students have so much talent. The charisma that they show when I throw them in front of the camera, it just blows me away every single time. Our students and youth in this community are so impressive, and I'm just so happy to be grounded right here in Ypsilanti.

David Fair: We're talking with artist, educator, and advocate Yen Azzaro on 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Now, beginning January 9th, the United Way of Washtenaw County is launching a newly revamped 21-day Equity Challenge for 2023. You are a collaborator this time around. How will your work bring art into the education and self-awareness campaign?

Yen Azzaro: I am so privileged to be working with United Way on the next equity challenge to bring some sort of seeing, acting, and sharing in the creative sense. We want to challenge people to look at art and expression right here in our local community that ties to some maybe national works of art and themes and make them see that art is not only a way for us to work through difficulty that we have in our own hearts and minds, but a way for us to come together collectively in the community.

David Fair: Have you personally participated in any of the earlier equity challenges?

Yen Azzaro: I did. I participated in the first Equity Challenge, and I got so much from the articles, the videos, the sharing. There were some...this is pre-COVID. There were some some local convenings. So, it was really an opportunity for us to talk about and examine some very difficult topics.

David Fair: And how did that manifest conversation that might otherwise be uncomfortable absent the realm of being within an equity challenge?

Yen Azzaro: I think that when we are looking and talking about things that we're uncomfortable with, it stretches our individual way of thinking. So, I may not see it the same way next time. I may not think it the same way. I may check myself when I feel stereotypes or discriminatory thoughts creeping into my head, and I want that kind of challenge, so that I can be better at addressing people, caring for people, and caring for my community.

David Fair: It is a 21-day challenge that asks of each person that participates to take 10 to 15 minutes a day to launch into a self-awareness campaign and to learn about how racism and issues of social injustice impact our communities and what our role in it is. The lessons you learned in the challenge that you participated in, do you carry those lessons with you a few years later?

Yen Azzaro: I do. I do carry some of them. But I want to say that that kind of work is something that we have to continue doing daily, weekly, monthly. It never ends. So, I myself need to do the equity challenge again, and the framework in which I'm using art for people to think about what an artwork means, what it means if they take a small piece of that artwork and express it in their own way. There's so many opportunities to think about how we can look at what's happening around us and turn it into a small act of kindness or sharing. But I would say that it's beneficial for everybody to do the Equity Challenge, and especially for myself, who has not followed it all the way through the last time I did it for the full 21 days.

David Fair: Well, thank you for sharing your experience, and thank you for sharing your work. I do appreciate it. And I'll look forward to another conversation in the future.

Yen Azzaro: Thank you so much, David.

David Fair: That is Yen Azzaro, talking art, equity, and opportunity on Washtenaw United, as we approach the launch of the 2023 Washtenaw United Equity Challenge. It's a 21-day challenge that gets underway January 9th, and if you pay a visit to our website at WEMU dot org, you can learn more about Yen, her work, the equity challenge, and we'll have all the links you need to learn even more. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.


Yen Azzaro


Art engagement for self. Our collaboration for the upcoming Equity Challenge grew out of a conversation that Pam and I had back in the summer about how art can play an integral role in processing what’s happening in our world and how it affects our community. Art and expression and all the ways it can be impactful, however big or small.

WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw Countyto explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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