A scene from the Beehive Collective's Mesoamerica Resiste poster.

Community assembly: In this selection from the Beehive’s Mesoamérica Resiste poster, representatives of communities affected by Project Mesoamerica gather in a circle at the center of the poster to discuss their common struggles and plans for collective action. Unlike the top-down decision making that governs the “official” plans for the region, many voices are valued in this process of participatory, horizontal communication. 

The Art of Organizing

Lessons on effective, long-term organizing from the Beehive Design Collective.

In the latest issue, I profile the Beehive Design Collective, a group of volunteer activist-artists based in Maine, and their latest project, the epic three-by-six-foot double-sided poster, Mesoamérica Resiste. The poster depicts both the projects in a major Mesoamerican development plan and the many resistance movements springing up against it.

In the latest issue, I profile the Beehive Design Collective, a group of volunteer activist-artists based in Maine, and their latest project, the epic three-by-six-foot double-sided poster, Mesoamérica Resiste. The poster depicts both the projects in a major Mesoamerican development plan and the many resistance movements springing up against it. You can read about it in the Resource Wars issue, and take an interactive tour of one of its scenes online.

An activist myself, I was excited to talk with one of the “bees” about not only this incredible work of art and their 10-year journey making it, but the way the collective itself functions. As a group that has spent over a dozen years documenting and working with a wide variety of resistance movements, it’s no surprise that how they operate really reflects the content of their work and some of the best practices of those larger resistance movements.

As I say in “Pollinating Resilience,” by forgoing individual credit and copyright, by centering and strengthening the voices of marginalized people instead of speaking for them, and by building relationships and consensually sharing rather than co-opting the stories of those impacted, the Beehive’s own process beautifully reflects the anti-capitalist, anti-colonial world they want to see.

Here’s what Beehive member Mandy Skinner shared with me about how the collective works.

This interview has been edited for length and readability.

A\J: Individual artists and bees are essentially never named or recognized in relation to the posters. What’s the significance of the anonymous nature of the Beehive’s work?

MS: We credit all of our work to the collective and that’s really because all of our graphics are very collaborative and there’s no way that only one person could make it happen.

We really want to focus on the issues that are in the graphics and on amplifying the voices of communities affected by those issues and who are organizing around [them]. So it’s less about the art ego of each individual illustrator, but about the bigger piece that gets made by all of those people contributing.

We also have a wide range of people involved in each project and not everyone is an illustrator. In a lot of ways, the illustrators are just that – they’re illustrating concepts and ideas that have come out of months or years of conversations and research, and it’s the last step. And in a way, [the illustration is] the most tedious part and it’s not actually very glamorous to sit there and make lots of little dots and lines for weeks on end.

There are many different roles that go into making a graphic: research, storyboard, design, etc., so we think it’s really important to credit it to the collective as a way to honour everyone who was involved in the process, to keep the focus on the work itself and not on any individual artist.

A\J: How does the collective make use of consensus decision making?

MS: We don’t really have one model of how the Beehive works. We try different things and we’re constantly evolving. We’re an all-volunteer collective, which means that we actually have a lot of turnover and a lot of people who come in and out of the collective.

We’re very seasonal. [Many bees] just spend summers in Maine, and we travel a lot. So the way that we make decisions and the way that we work together is also seasonal, and we adopted consensus formally as our model, but we’re always exploring the different modified consensus models and asking ourselves questions about our decision-making values.

We do lots of work in project groups. Some people are more focused on our local work in Maine, where we own two buildings and are involved in taking care of two other buildings in town. We go by the model of who’s most affected is who’s most involved in the decision-making process. And then we try to keep each other updated.

We usually have collective meetings [at least] once a year, in the winter when we’re the most spread out. We come together for a week and reconnect and plan for the next year.

We are pretty decentralized, so there’s a lot of trust involved: being involved in the part of the Beehive that you’re most connected to and then trusting that other people are making the decisions that are best for other parts.

A\J: Are there any other key factors in your success so far?

MS: We’ve been able to continue because we have a physical base in Maine, a long-term space for artist residencies and for movement-building.

The decentralized network of people who are involved really brings a lot of life and energy into what we do, and spreads our work to different places, but we’ve also needed to be grounded somewhere and to have those local relationships and to invest in a building that can outlast whatever configuration of people are around.

Figuring out where the resources are going has been a hard conversation at times, but we’ve needed both to stay alive and dynamic.

A\J: You’ll be touring with the poster in many of the Latin American communities who contributed stories to the project and who are affected by development. What comes out of those tours?

MS: A big goal of this graphics campaign and all of ours is to give away lots of materials. Fundraising focused tours [in the US, Canada and Europe] allow us to give away lots of posters for free to use, to teachers and community organizers who are directly impacted by everything that’s in the graphics. So it’s about returning the graphics to people who we talk to on the original research trip and also people we’ve made relationships with along the way, offering these as tools for their work that they shared with us. 

All of our work is widely available and anti-copyright, and we encourage people to share it and become storytellers.

A\J: Constantly focusing on globalization, colonialism and capitalism is pretty draining, I imagine. What keeps you going?

MS: I love touring with Beehive graphics. And even though touring is really exhausting, I think it also keeps me going because it’s a chance to connect with so many great people in so many places who are doing really good work.

And I love to see people’s faces when they see Beehive graphics for the first time. Because I’m so immersed in [it] I kind of forget how impressive it is sometimes, and then it gives me a chance to stand back and see it with fresh eyes.

And I think our approach is inherently holistic – the way we make graphics and the content of them is so much about making connections between lots of different issues and being able to see the bigger picture. Hanging a Beehive banner creates a space where people can talk and reflect on how what they’re working on connects to all these bigger issues, or connects to struggles in other places.

We often don’t see the impacts of our graphics, but we hear stories of cool things people are doing with them, or that we’ve created that space for a few hours, for people to reflect.

Laura is a past A\J managing editor. She has an MA in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, is an organizing aficionado, lackadaisical gardener, and former musical theatre producer. @inhabitings