Indonesian activist encourages more action for social change

Indonesian activist encourages more action for social change

Author and activist Innosanto Nagara reflects on his formative years with activism and urges young Indonesian Americans to take part in social justice movements.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)

Earlier Years

Innosanto Nagara, author of the bestselling children’s book A is for Activist and founder of Design Action Collective, was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. As the second speaker in the "Exploring Indonesian American Voices" series hosted by the Association of Indonesian Americans in collaboration with the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Nagara recounts his entry into activism and how that has shaped his life and work today.

Growing up part Indonesian, Nagara remembers feeling like he needed to prove himself and challenge western values. He began to rock climb and eventually found himself among anti-authoritarian circles of outdoor activists and enthusiasts.

When he moved to the United States for college, Nagara expected to return to Indonesia after graduation, so he did not specifically seek out the local Indonesian community. However, after a visit home in 1991 during the escalation of the Gulf War, he experienced a mental shift and wanted to get involved with anti-war efforts in the United States.

I found a community here in the U.S. that was not necessarily built around being Indonesian but around collaborating with people of color and activists," says Nagara. "My comfort zone was among people who had not grown up in the U.S." 

Speaking Up, Speaking Out

As the Reformasi movement gained traction in the late 1990s, Nagara saw his generation begin to speak out. "This was groundbreaking," he remembers. "Seeing young people on trial for speaking their mind in a way that I have never seen growing up because they would have just disappeared then for any form of dissent." President Suharto’s authoritarian regime created a culture of silence. "There is a history of trauma and many Indonesian families left for a reason based on very real experiences. For myself, it took a lot of unlearning to be able to speak out."

He met Indonesians in the U.S. who wanted to organize around international solidarity, even though Indonesian politics were largely off the radar for the American public. Nagara’s early work brought him to Indonesia with a documentary crew to cover the Reformasi movement and connected him to many Papuan and Timorese activists who were part of succession movements. "The Indonesian experience is a useful framework for understanding how change can happen and what to expect when you enact social change on the level of regime change," he adds. "There are a lot of lessons to be learned from what happened in Indonesia, both positive and negative. How race and class are used in Indonesia is not very different from how they are used in America."

Nagara launched Design Action Collective, a worker-owned cooperative design studio advancing art for social justice efforts, in 2002. He used his skills as a graphic designer to build a community of design and communications activists to serve grassroots campaign, contribute to social justice movements, and support organizations engaged in social and political reform.

In 2010, Nagara became a father, which drastically changed how he thought about connecting with his heritage. "I had to figure out how I was going to engage with the Indonesian community and my Indonesian experience for my son, not for myself," he shares. "Now my relationship to being Indonesian American has a lot to do with wanting my kid to have some immersion and experience with the community here."

Activism in Many Forms

Soon after, A is for Activist was born. Nagara wrote and illustrated this alphabet book out of a desire to make political education more accessible to younger children. He continues to write and illustrate children’s books with social justice themes. Many of his later books are set in Indonesia such as My Night in the Planetarium about his childhood in Indonesia, but the stories are universal.

While this form of activism looks different than his earlier years organizing for anti-war efforts, he sees activism as something everyone should be engaged in. Nagara has been inspired by an emerging generation of young Indonesian American activists.

"There’s a real temptation around activism and how activist narratives are told where you have to be a hero and stand up for justice. That’s not true. The key is to work together with people and organizations," he says in response to a question about getting involved with organizing. "Your first instinct to speak out is a good instinct. But in order for your voice to be most useful and effective, your work and engagement must be driven by the agendas of the people who are most affected. A lot of it starts with just showing up."