Community Organizing with Liz Yerby
Liz is a non-fiction cartoonist & arts organizer based in Portland, OR. In this interview, Liz shares some insights on organizing
MP: You organize like a thousand things. What are some of the things you organize? How did you get started?
L: I've always been good at throwing parties? And despite being an introvert, I love getting all my other introvert friends together and making the kind of space which is comfortable for us. Or, I thought I was more of an introvert, but it turns out I enjoy hanging out with people if they are other weird artists.
I think the first thing I helped organize was a weekly drawing group? The Sound Grounds Wreckin' Crew started meeting weekly in 2014(I think) and was started by BB Andersson and Gabby Holden, but it was a team effort to get a group of artists to show up at a cafe each week, and for a few years I was the one posting where and when we would meet on our Facebook group, and/or texting everyone. Then lots of comics buds helped organize the local zinefest (Portland Zine Symposium!) and then I started making anthologies with friends, starting with people from the drawing group. At this point, the Sound Grounds Wreckin' Crew has done 12 anthologies, The latest being comics biographies of Dolly Parton and Klaus Nomi, and it's some of the comics projects I'm most proud of.
While organizing PZS, I helped organize comics readings and other small satellite events, and in June last year, I decided to start a monthly event series in Portland called Comics Club, which is mostly readings, where I have 4 artists read their comics and focus on queer and experimental comics. I also have organized two artists retreats at the Oregon Coast, the last being for cartoonists in 2023. So yeah my list of current and past organizing projects: weekly drawing group, readings (Comics Club currently), art shows in the past, the Portland Zine Symposium, art retreats (feb 2020 and feb 2023), comics anthologies, a collaborative riso calendar (only in 2020, it was so much work)
MP: What are some rewards and challenges of organizing community events and/or collaborative comics?
L: I think we don't realize how much community building events are needed, until they happen. Art community is life-changing and life-saving. The truth is community is crucial for artists. For me, arts organizing is the activism work that I feel is the most sustainable for me, and I think a lot about how I can do this work and make it the most accessible and approachable, particularly to marginalized people in the community.
I love doing collaborative comics anthologies is because it's as if everyone involved gets a book release that year! Practically, all cartoonists aren't devoting their entire lives to their craft. They have day jobs, they have families, and comics are incredibly time consuming. Sometimes, the 2 pages a friend sends me for an anthology is the only pages they make for years, and that anthology feels very special to them. It's often pushing my buds to make comics on themes they wouldn't usually draw about. I get so proud of everyone's pages!!
As far as challenges-- I think there is always a point at which a community organizer gets accused of just working with or prioritizing their friends, or that they somehow become less approachable, and that makes me nervous!! It's a lot of work, and you're organizing very sensitive people. Cartoonists are rarely too cool or too confident or too rich to talk to you! Like, I once talked to Chris Ware at a reading and he was incredibly kind, and happy to be given a zine by me because people see him as unapproachable. Most zinefest organizers would love you to volunteer your energy at a fest, and I would love for you to approach me about reading at Comics Club, if you're a nice indie cartoonist coming through Portland.
A rough thing for me, is that when I put out a general comics call, it gets a lotta responses from white dudes who make comics. This is the bit where I don't want to sound like the mean person who just supports their friends, but like, a lot of the spaces my friends don't feel comfortable in the comics scenes are spaces full of white men. I try to stay open-minded, but I very slowly let white men into spaces I create, and I have learned to thoughtfully discuss their work with them, and get a gauge if they are safe people to let into diverse, queer spaces.
It's also hard being an organizer and hold the knowledge of who are the creepy dudes in the scene, and what terrible things have happened within the community. My big thing is when someone approaches an organizer about a predator or violent incident, that you do so with consent! Send it via email with a content warning. I once had someone corner me and talk at me about predators in-person during a zinefest, and it was very emotionally upsetting. Organizers are often volunteers, and you should try to never do psychological harm to a volunteer arts organizer.
MP: How do you balance being someone who creates opportunities for other artists while maintaining your creative practice?
L: This is probably the biggest challenge! Sometimes I have to recognize that organizing things takes energy, and is an unavoidable part of my comics practice. I wouldn't be an artist without my comics community, and it makes sense that part of my work goes towards community building.
MP: How do you sustain being an organizer? Is it totally volunteerism or do you find ways to pay yourself and the participants? or some combination thereof?
L: First off, part of organizing so much is just the financial privilege I have! I don't make a lot of money, but I can manage during periods of underemployment and that's when I get a lot done! While I was on unemployment last year for 5 months, I started organizing the 2023 Comics Retreat, the Klaus Nomi anthology and started on Comics Club.
Part of what makes the comics retreat doable is that I have good credit and money management skills. The concept of paying thousands of dollars on a rental for a retreat isn't too overwhelming. I mean I still need to lay down after booking the rental, but my life won't be ruined if something went wrong and I owed hundreds of dollars in surprise fees. I think there are lots of people in a similar boat with this kind of loose financial privilege, who with proper money management skills can make big things like a comics retreat work.
I have small ways of paying myself for my work, and I am very upfront about it when I do community projects. For the retreat, I maybe made $100? (the leftovers from our emergency fund) and didn't pay for the week at the coast for me and my dog. I also benefitted from the food fundraising I did. All the low-income folks who requested financial assistance (including me) got $50, and benefitted from the communal food we bought for the group, which was catered to the folks in need.
With the anthologies, I make a profit share system and I pay myself for design work, editting work and shipping, by allotting myself a certain number of shares. I think this is crucial in me having energy to do anthologies! Sometimes I end up spending 16 hours prepping packages for shipping and, even if I'm underpaying myself, it feels more reasonable than not paying myself at all, and means I can feel ok doing this work. I also am upfront that I profit from reprints of anthologies! But comics profit is a very slow trickling stream, and it really doesn't feel like big profits, and it still is stressful spending hundreds of dollars on printing at a time, and shipping out zines for sales, stores and distress.
It's been hard to let myself pay myself, but I've learned that paying myself, means I can do more organizing. It's really hard to be an artist and manage money. With Comics Club, there's been times there's a door fee, and I split that door feee between myself and the readers (I think it's 15% to me, and the rest split between 3-4 readers). I also sell my own comics at the events.I never make a lot of money off comics! But I keep it sustainable, and I could go at length about all my money management tips!
The biggest thing is that I have a separate art bank account, which I recommend even small scale artists do. It's just a credit union personal checking/savings, not a business account, and one with no fees. If the gov't is reading this um, I don't make money and I've never sold art or done business exchanges via Venmo. When I do a big expensive project like the art retreat, or an anthology, all the money goes through that account. It does not mix with the account I pay rent with, so I never accidentally spend too much on printing and don't have rent money. Etsy and convention sales go straight to that account, and then I see if I can pay myself anything, or if that money needs to stay for reprinting.
Typically half of my sales should go back into reprinting. The separate bank account really really helps me as a low-income person. I can buy sketchbook/art supplies with it and know it's not affecting my rent money. On rare occasions, when I'm selling a lot, I pay myself with my art account. Meaning I let it buy me a treat, or I just transfer some money to my rent account. It's been nice when I am very stressed about money and I'm like "comics is going to buy me a burrito", but generally I try and pretend that money isn't there, cause I need to have enough to cover my website and PO Box and reprinting.
It takes a weird amount of cognitive dissonance to make under $30k a year and still spend money on your art practice, and I'm a Capricorn moon who's built a lot of weird systems to make it work.
MP: What advice would you give someone who wants to start organizing a cartoonist retreat?
L: Do it! It'll be so good! If you're feeling intimidated start small. Pick three friends and a small cabin! It's intimidating, but also it's so much cheaper to do it with friends, then going to a cabin for a solo retreat. It shouldn't be a bougie thing to go to the woods for a few days! We all deserve it!
I know me, M.S. Harkness, and Kelly Froh all organize different cartoonist retreats and are all nice people who would take respectful emails and answer questions about how to run them!
My big thing with any organizing, is organizers need to be on the side of ~overcommunicating~. Like these days, people are terrible at responding to emails, and you have to send several emails to politely nudge them to get people to respond. Organizing is just sending too many emails.
For retreats, people are very nervous about spending a week with strangers in a new place, and it's just comforting to send them lots of info early on. When you send an email, be clear of what you are asking for, and when you will email them back. Like "hey, here's some info, please complete this form by this Friday and I'll send room and meal plans by x date"
To organize a retreat-- pick a far off future date! and then build a schedule backwards of like, when you'd need to get money by, and when you'd need to pick people by, etc etc. Decide what kind of support you feel comfortable offering before you announce the retreat. Support you can offer: finding the venue to stay at (obligatory) room assignments (almost obligatory), coordinating rides to lodging, coordinating meals, supplying food (I get people to grocery shop when we are there), any extra services for the retreat (maybe massages, matching t-shirts, excursions). Maybe you need other folks to help you plan these details!
Know how comfortable are you at bringing new people in. It's cool to do a retreat just for buds, but if you're an active organizer, you might feel comfortable bringing in artist you don't know well. How do you want to vet them? For anything where you ask people to apply, it's fair and kind to be very clear about how you're curating who goes. I was upfront that this last retreat was mostly friends, and also other cartoonists who I thought would get along with us. I asked people who applied who we knew in common, how they feel about respecting people's pronouns, and made them agree to the safer spaces policies up front. I've organized enough, that I felt comfortable with like 8 cartoonists I knew well and 5 I didn't, but saw were kind people and had friends in common. But make a retreat for where you are at.
MP: What are some ways for people to get started organizing in their community? Especially if there isn't much of a noticeable scene in their area.
L: This is so tricky! I feel so lucky that I've found my people in Portland and other corners of the US comics scene. But cool weirdo cartoonists are out there. Drawing groups have been very helpful. There's often folks that don't quite fit in the group, but they tend to weed themselves out and stop coming. Or maybe the drawing group grows into something that's not your vibe, then you can try again and assert a vibe that is more your scene. Maybe try again as a specifically queer drawing group or indie comics drawing group.
I honestly think I didn't know what kind of artist (or even, what kind of person) I was until in my mid-twenties and interacting with different comics communities. It's very sweet that the Sound Grounds Wreckin' Crew was like 80% people who transitioned during the years of drawing group and like messy, goofy artists who make weird shit. I feel very lucky we found each other, and got to grow together. But yeah, having buds helps organizing a zine fest or other events feel more approachable! Zine fests take a little crew, and there are great Facebook groups to ask about how to run a zine fest. And readings and retreats are doable. If you're in a remote zone, but active in the community and making friends, you can convince a panel of cartoonists (the collective noun for cartoonist we made up at the latest retreat) to show up close to you and do a retreat for a week.
MP: What’s one important lesson you’ve learned from organizing?
L: I think building friendships in your 20's is tough, and a lot of my organizing work just helped me be a better community member and friend. Like, how you work within your community through challenging moments really defines who you are as a person.
MP: Any other closing thoughts or things you wanna say?
L: I love my friends! BB Andersson, Eileen Chavez, and Sabine Rear and lots of other buds who do community organizing keep me going and also are sweet friends I appreciate so so much.
I want to emphasize again having community is life-changing and life-saving, especially at this point of isolation we've reached. You can organize events with accessibility in mind! There are outdoor venues, and online events should still happen. Budget to give everyone K-N95s at your zine fest. Be kind to organizers in your spaces, and rather than be frustrated that there isn't a scene-- reach out and do some community building!