Q&A: A justice warrior aiming for laughs

Name: Josh Healey

Age: 32

City: Oakland

Position: Educator, performer, community organizer

Josh Healey

J: You have a hard-to-pin-down career. How would you describe it?

Josh Healey: That’s what my mom hates. She says, “I don’t know how to describe what you do.” I’m a performer, educator, storyteller and cultural organizer, meaning everything I do is about the intersection of art and activism, and how to use stories to tell the larger story of this crazy country we call America.

You also have a day job, right?

Yes, it’s with an organization in Oakland called Movement Generation where I run our culture shift program. It’s a climate justice organization, working on the front lines of communities fighting climate change and environmental injustice, like Richmond with the Chevron refinery. My job is to do the fun stuff to get people into the serious stuff. I use performance, video, storytelling, art and culture to introduce people to issues in ways that are more fun, engaging and multiracial.

And then you have a separate career as a solo performer.

Yes. It includes appearing on the NPR show “Snap Judgment” and speaking and performing at colleges and high schools. A few weeks ago I taught a spoken word workshop at a high school in Oakland in the morning, then led a storytelling show at a Marin library that night. To me it’s always the same message of storytelling as a radically democratic act of sharing who we are, where we come from, what we want to see different in our communities.

And you’ve also found time for a new project?

I’m working with Movement Generation on a new web series I wrote and will be producing called “The North Pole.” It’s a political comedy about gentrification, global warming and gluten-free doughnuts.

You often use humor to approach very serious subjects. How does that work?

You use humor as a way to bring people in, then you talk about serious issues, whether police brutality, segregated schools or climate change. My storytelling tradition is shaped from my old Jewish uncles and grandfathers at my seder who sat around the table talking. The other side is the rappers and comedians and modern-day artists who influenced me. When I was growing up in D.C. in the 1990s, it was a supersegregated, majority-black city. Being a white boy or a Jewish kid who loves hip-hop, you can participate but you have to know how to really listen and learn before you get on the mic. It’s a powerful lesson for Jewish people. Storytelling doesn’t mean you always speak first.

In what other ways did your Jewish background impact your direction in life?

I grew up doing Shabbat every Friday night. I had a bar mitzvah, but we didn’t belong to a synagogue because I had been kicked out of too many Hebrew schools. At the University of Wisconsin, I found these progressive radical Jews for whom Shabbat was a beautiful artistic party every Friday night. Since then I’ve been involved with different shuls, such as Beyt Tikkun in Berkeley. I’ve done stuff with Bend the Arc and Jewish Voice for Peace. There are a lot of people who don’t like that group, but when it comes to Israel/Palestine, who likes anyone?

Because it supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, some consider JVP anti-Israel or outside the tent of mainstream Jewish community thinking.

In the Jewish community, I’ve tried to help us share and rethink the narratives and stories around Israel and Palestine, to listen to different perspectives and see how we can look for more just and peaceful alternatives. I like working with college students and youth groups, being able to tap into the Jewish tradition of justice — not just love the other, but show respect and mercy, because we have been the “other” for millennia. The way I choose to be Jewish is through not just practice of Shabbat, or when I send my son to Hebrew school (though he’ll probably get kicked out like I did), but also through the stories we tell, the marches and picket lines of justice. That’s what being Jewish means to me. It’s like the Beastie Boys meets Emma Goldman.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.