Evolution of a Cultural Worker:

the search for meaningful cultural work as a contribution to the progressive movement

Evolution of a Cultural Worker: the search for meaningful cultural work as a contribution to the progressive movement

By Mary Ann Heimann. Posted July 4, 2022.

The thing I really miss about belonging to an organization like the League is the feeling that I didn’t have to respond to every instance of injustice or oppression because we were taking on the system itself and, it followed, taking down the system would address all the problems it caused.  Since the League’s dissolution, I’ve had to pick and choose and generally feel inadequate in the face of the daily barrage of injustices.  And with the upsurge in Internet communication and social media, it’s impossible to remain oblivious.  

I used to think if I paid my dues by working hard during my youth and middle age (politically speaking) I could retire from the movement and leave it to the younger people to finish the struggle us OGs had started.  Unfortunately, now that I have retired,I haven’t been able to convince myself that being inactive is okay.  Moreover, I have as examples people like Bert and Lillian Nakano, who never stopped their activism.  I remember vividly a conversation with Lillian about buying her last car when she was in her seventies.  It freaked me out, but she was fine with it, simply planning for having less income after Bert retired but still being able to carry out her political work.  Lillian was inspirational in another way as well:  she was a cultural worker, playing the Shamisen—a long-necked, three-string lute that is the main instrument of Japanese kabuki theater and other classical narrative ballad forms of music.  She was a bonified master, in fact, training from age 8 until she was forced to interrupt her training because she and her family were sent to one of the concentration camps housing Japanese Americans in 1943. She resumed her studies in 1945.  With her nephew jazz pianist Glenn Horiuchi she composed pieces like Oxnard Beat about Japanese and Mexican laborers working side by side in the 1900’s.

Lillian Nakano with shamisen. Photo from Rafu.com.

As I find myself not wanting to drive at night (or at all if only that were possible!) I have turned to writing postcards, making contributions to the Working Families Party and Black Lives Matter and attending the occasional nearby demonstration.  Unfortunately, given the rightwing backlash plaguing the nation, it hardly seems enough.  To supplement this passive form of activism, I’ve been following the Lilian Nakano playbook and re-started my cultural work.  To say that I’m contributing to the movement seems over-stated.  Perhaps the best that can be said is that I may put into words and thereby reinforce what someone else is thinking regarding some or another issue or topic.

Musical Back Story

I have long been a musician (member of an “all-girl” band, the Thurjers, at sixteen in Kansas City) and during the IWK/League years I participated in several musical groups.  Moving Our Feet was the first.  I was living in San Francisco at the time, working directly in the struggle to keep elderly Chinese and Pilipino tenants from being evicted from the International Hotel and indirectly in other struggles supported by IWK.  I started by writing parodies, along with Peter Shapiro and Bob Cass, for Moving Our Feet to sing at rallies. The great thing about being in Moving Our Feet was that it let me meet IWK members and fellow travelers that were outside of my area of work.  And it was exciting to collaborate on songs.  The first one I remember was set to the tune of 16 Tons and was about a strike by Blue Diamond Coal workers.  I then started writing original material:  the I Hotel song about the struggle to save the I-Hotel (written with Peter) and one about gentrification in San Francisco called the Speculation Shuffle.  They would be sandwiched between The East is Red and the Internationale at IWK programs. The songs became a way for me to clarify and concretize the line being followed.  For that reason they sometimes sounded like a collection of slogans.  But they were a handy way to propagate our point of view and also to record the history for later recall.

Mary Ann Heimann, top left, and the Thurjers.

The I-Hotel Song

By Mary Ann Heimann and Peter Shapiro

Ten years ago this struggle came about

When the folks in the I-Hotel refused to be moved out

Milton Meyer said, this building must come down

The tenants said, we’ll stand our ground



For the I-Hotel, we must fight

And the decent low cost housing that’s our right

Stop the destruction of third world communities.

And with the masses build unity


The resistance of the tenants had Milton Meyer scared

He thought he’d make an easy profit but the tenants were prepared

So he set a fire in the I-Hotel and three of the tenants died

From shedding peoples’ blood for money

The capitalists won’t shy


When fire & eviction didn’t drive the tenants out

The capitalists looked to 4 seas to start another bout

They used the courts and sheriffs to push their greedy plans

And If he is needed the mayor lends a hand


The City says that 4 Seas price we must pay

More than a million dollars or they’ll take the hotel away

They say for their own oppression Third World people are to blame

Moscone’s buyback plan is eviction’s other name


The Tac squad and the sheriffs came in the middle of the night

With hammers clubs and horses but the masses stayed to fight

We linked our arms and chanted, determined and strong

The hotel’s standing empty but the struggle still goes on


You may have picked up on the line “stop the destruction of Third World communities.”  That was what distinguished the IWK point of view from that of the Pilipino group KDP and Line of March.  They saw it as a struggle for low-cost housing rather than the specific attack on a Third World community. 

I moved to Los Angeles in 1977, soon after the shameful eviction of the tenants from the I-Hotel.  I had been in the Hotel on the night of the eviction.  Some members of the I-Hotel support committee were doing a live broadcast from one of the upper rooms that was miked for the demonstrators.  I sang the I-Hotel song as I watched the people below linked together arm in arm several layers deep.  The whole thing was surreal.  Later, from inside the room of one of the tenants, Etta Moon, we heard the banging get closer and closer as the sheriff’s smashed down the doors to the tenant’s rooms.

Police on horseback charge the human barricade on Aug. 4, 1977 at the International Hotel. Photo by SF Chronicle.

In Los Angeles several League members and supporters and I formed a group called Unity Warms the Soul, and I continued writing songs, this time about LA struggles.  Angelo Figueroa, who since has done many things, including being the editor of the Spanish language edition of People Magazine, was in the group and wrote many of the best songs. In the early 80’s when I was assigned to work in CISPES (Coalition in Support of the People of El Salvador), I met a guy named Ted Steward who wrote original political music.  He recruited me to play bass for the rock band he was forming called Resistance.  He wrote all the music, but I learned a lot during that period and in my own writing I tried to take a more modern approach – making lyrics more conversational and set to rock melodies as opposed to folk songs.  The band itself was more professional than some of the other groups I’d been in- rehearsing 3 nights a week until we were very tight.  We played local clubs such as Madam Wong’s and the Anti Club.  When Resistance eventually fell apart after one too many Wednesday night midnight gigs, I joined a group called Nuclear Family that I met at an anti-nuke rally, and we did topical songs mainly for rallies and benefits, for example in support of the Hopi-Navajo peoples struggle to save Big Mountain from the Peabody Coal Co. 

Musical group, Resistance, with Mary Ann Heimann, bottom right.

U.S. Out of El Salvador by Resistance

After the League broke up, I was at loose ends for a while, especially since Nuclear Family also broke up.  Music became my comfort and purpose.  For a short time I teamed up with one of the Nuclear Family players for a duo.  He (Lary Moore) was Buck Tradission and I was Luz Nup.  It was fun while it lasted.  Lary had deep ties in Long Beach and scrounged up a variety of gigs from the Long Beach Democratic Club to the System M Night Club and Food Finders to standing in front of the progressive bookstore trying to be heard above the passing Blue Line cars.  But Lary followed his son to New Mexico, and I was left without a musical partner or partners.  By that time, I had moved to Long Beach, so I reached out to an eccentric clarinet player I had met through Lary.   He was forming a group called A.D.D.  Maybe not such a great name, but he and three of the other members had A.D.D. And the gimmick was to play songs randomly from a variety of genres.  Since jazz was one of the mainstays, I started learning jazz.  All of the music was standards or covers, nothing political.  Original music is not encouraged in these kinds of groups.  The reason given is that people only want to hear songs they already know.  Of course somebody had to listen to the standards when they first came out, but apparently they are no longer willing to do so.

When I retired from The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles in 2015, I had time on my hands.  and no more excuses for not writing [I have been working on my novel, the aptly titled Late Bloomer, for thirty years).  Still avoiding the novel, I returned to writing songs.  You can at least finish a song.  I joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) that has chapters in most cities.  Basically, people come together once a month to critique each other’s original songs.  I started writing country because that’s the genre (aside from folk) where telling a story is the most important aspect of the song and because I had grown up on it, my Dad being from a farm in Missouri.  At first it was like a game.  Judging from what I heard on the radio, how hard could it be to write a top 40 country song?  Each month NSAI members met and tried to analyze each song to figure out what needed to be changed to hit the winning formula.  The chapter was mostly over fifty, white, and male.  I have learned that each of us is imprinted with the music that was popular when we were in high school.  And generally that is what we are inclined to write.  Most of the music we were producing was what is now referred to as Old School, classic country or Americana (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly, even 90s music is now considered old) but what was on the radio had been influenced by rock and, believe it or not, rap music.  We were visited by many “experts”—formerly successful songwriters who hadn’t had a hit in twenty years and now made their livings by writing books and teaching how to write “hit” songs.  They were supportive and dutifully told each person whether their song was destined for radio (the highest possible target) or could be used for Sync (on TV or movies as background). As if?!  A few hundred dollars in, I realized if those people couldn’t get a hit, there was no chance in Hell any of us would! 

Mary Ann (wearing hat, playing bass) with her current musical group, Chilibillys.

That’s the bad news, the good news is that if you aren’t trying to write to sell your stuff you can write anything you want.  And, you can create your own outlet.  Anybody who has Gmail can create their own YouTube channel for free.  Videos are a good way to bring a song into the world.  Anybody who has an apple computer has iMovie, which is a pretty easy way to create a video.  There are also stock photo images that you can get for free or a small sum.  For my first video I used all stock footage, and I wasn’t satisfied.  Not to mention that I didn’t know how to use the Ken Burns effect in iMovie (the way the images get bigger or smaller until they merge into the next image), so each frame just rolled into the next one without any fanfare.

I decided to use my friend Jon Erickson (previously referred to as the eccentric clarinet player) who is a very good artist to actually draw images for the videos so I could better control the message.  We both had iPads and downloaded the App Procreate, which allows drawing with a stylus.  It has all kinds of effects and colors.  Jon’s images were great, but he was so detailed that he could only turn out about one a week.  When he spent two days on Dr. Fauci’s suit jacket, I realized something had to change. I started helping.  He would outline the images and I would fill in the colors.  Kind of like a coloring book when you’re a kid. Shall we say I colored with a broader brush.  But the problem wasn’t solved. Jon was drawing whole scenes, but when they were imported into iMovie, the corners weren’t visible.  I decided to just do the drawings myself and include only the necessary details, even if that meant showing half a person.  I could get an image from google, paste it into Procreate and trace it and then fill in the details and colors myself just like I had done with Jon.  Now I can turn out a video in a couple of weeks.  That is, once I have the song to build it around.   To get high-quality recordings, I have turned to demo studios, one in Nashville and one in Los Angeles.  They are a lifesaver for songwriters who are not singers.  You just record the melody and send them the lyrics and a chart, and they do all the rest.  It’s hard to believe but I’ve so far made 12 videos.  The early ones are hard to look out because I had no clue about what I was doing.  But take that as encouragement if you’re thinking about making a video:  you don’t have to have any experience or special knowledge to use iMovie.  Since it doesn’t come with a manual, you’ll need to google how to do anything you can’t figure out from just looking at the icons. Here are some of my videos:


A Dollar and a Purple Heart – the video was done in collaboration with filmmaker Alan Kondo and photographer Frank Jackson.  The song was actually written about the Iraq War, but the treatment of homeless vets is still accurate. We visited veterans who had taken over the street just outside the Veterans Administration land in Westwood (a subdivision of Los Angeles).  Then we filmed a segment on a bus using my friend Steve Enzweiler to stand in for the veteran in the song.  It was wonderful being part of a team, and we are trying to come up with more projects.


Two Jobs – recorded at the A Writers Paradise in Nashville.



You Just Can’t Count on Spring Anymore – recorded by Bryan Dobbs in L.A.  This song started as a contemplation about how many Great American Songbook songs are tied to seasons or other things likely to be affected by climate change.  Spring is often tied to new love or the re-blossoming of old love.

 In addition to purely topical songs, I like to write observational songs about things we all face.


How Did We Do? is about the deluge of reviews we are asked to write for even the most mundane items and what may be behind the requests.  I wrote the lyrics and gave them to my Oakland friend Stefan Dasho who not only came up with the melody but also performed and recorded the song.


Operator Error is about the unfortunate fact that many times we are responsible for the things that go wrong. 

One other project I started with Alan Kondo and Frank Jackson was a video on the need for reparations. I did some research on the history of African Americans and came up with 35 stanzas.  When trying to pull out pieces to make a shorter “rap” it seemed important that people see how continuous and relentless the efforts to keep African Americans from accessing the rights and benefits that should be available to all Americans, which meant that nothing could be left out.  Frank has suggested a comic book.  




There’s a plague upon this nation from “shore to shining shore”

The enslavement of black people is what brought it to the fore

And now that Racism’s made it to our very code and core

We either deal with it… or fight another civil war


If you think “why now, it happened long ago”

That’s exactly what we’re here to show

The oppression of black people continues to unfold

Every advance made through struggle, racists try to overthrow



Enslaved people built this country; that’s no exaggeration

By 1860 80% of the GNP was tied to the plantation

The banks used slaves as collateral for financial speculation

And to fund the most most prestigious institutions in the nation : Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale


As every chance for redress was denied and thwarted

The chance for fair and equal treatment was left unborn or aborted

When you take the time to look in depth

You find that behind all that oppression is straight up theft


The Freedman’s Bureau came up with a plan

to help the newly freed people acquire their own land

But Andrew Johnson made a deal to let the South rise up again

And 40 acres and a mule was canceled by his countermand


Without land or resources they were subject to chicanery

When the Black Codes were enacted they were subject to grand larceny

And forced to sign labor contracts that consigned them into poverty

If this is freedom said one black man, what then is slavery?


And with confederate leaders pardoned and reinstated

violence against black people was quasi legislated

A reign of terror and anti-black violence instigated

Leaving thousands of black people killed or mutilated


And they had no legal recourse cause they were left out of the law

as far as legal standing, they had less than none at all

Johnson said black people had to earn their citizenship

They had just passed from slavery and had to prove they were fit


The 14th & 15th amendments bestowed citizenship and the right to vote

But the Supreme Court undermined it all and gave the states the power to revoke

(Do you see the pattern on display?

First give something, then take it away)

The states now given charge of Black people’s fate

were the same states that fought to keep them enslaved


The states then put Jim Crow laws in place

To keep black people in a separate and unequal space

In 1896 Plessy v Ferguson the Supreme Court took a stand

And made this unequal treatment the law of the land


In their arguments the justices revealed

They didn’t even pretend to want a level playing field

“If one race be inferior to the other socially,” they explained

“The Constitution cannot put them on the same plane.”


Never paid what their work was worth

Black people sought higher paying jobs up North

But when they started leaving in search of new terrain

White Southerners tried to stop them by waylaying trains


The promise of the North became another thwarted dream

To keep black people confined white northerners resorted to using schemes

Redlining, restrictive covenants and impossible requirements

If they ventured out of their allotted space they were met with violence


Black people kept pushing against these boundaries

Kept going back to court led by the NAACP

And the Supreme Court ruled in 1954

Segregation was illegal in Brown v. the Board

To Southern leaders this was a declaration of war


They resisted desegregation in every possible way

They used outright violence and bogus legislation to keep Brown at bay.

When these tactics alone were not enough to stall

They closed their public schools to the detriment of all


Until tax dollars were siphoned to private academies

To ensure that white children didn’t suffer educationally

Leaving black children to be taught in churches, basements and abandoned shacks

By anyone who was willing to teach no matter what credentials they lacked


The segregationists thought they’d won the fight

By 1963 less than 1% of black children attended school with whites

But in 1964 the Supreme Court ruled again

And forced the schools to be re-opened in the public domain


But once again there is lax enforcement of the rules

Today seven out of ten black children attend segregated schools

While public schools were closed black children were denied an education

Setting back an entire generation


To make matters worse: demand for low-skill labor tanked

While jobs requiring education moved up in rank                            

As long as high-paying factory jobs were on the run

Those without an education stayed on the bottom rung


African Americans and their allies kept shining the light

On inequalities in employment, housing and voting rights

Protests were non-violent but only on one side

Clubs and dogs were unleashed on them but the protestors did abide


The protest pushed Lyndon Johnson in 1964

To pass the Civil Rights Act and open some doors

The Voting Rights Act followed in ‘65

outlawing practices that cast black voters aside


As anti-discrimination laws were enforced

African Americans finally got some recourse

Incomes went up and kids got better schooling

Meanwhile white racists did some re-tooling


If by law they couldn’t discriminate

They’d find another way to bake the cake

Keep black people on the bottom rung

By taking away things they rely on


Ronald Reagan slashed job programs by 70%

And tore a big hole in the safety net

He shut down libraries and school lunches for kids

And made student loans much harder to get


And through his Iran-Contra scheme

The CIA supported cocaine trafficking

It hit black communities in the form of crack

And gave Reagan a new line of attack


1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act criminalized blacks

The penalty was 100 times higher for crack

Than for selling cocaine

Which is just crack by another name


Felony convictions gave racism a whole new track

45% per cent of those incarcerated are black

Having a record makes it hard to get housing or a job

And keeps those who get out stuck on the bottom


The struggle for equality and civil rights did not abate

And Barack Obama was elected president in 2008

But as we have seen progress never sits tight 

His election created a backlash from those on the right


2013 is the year the Voting Rights Act was gutted

Southern States could now pass all the voting restrictions they wanted

But it’s also the year Black Lives Matter was founded

In response to the acquittal of the man who killed Trayvon Martin


With growing diversity and more African Americans in the spotlight

Trump tapped into the resentment of some right-wing whites

MAGA would freeze racial inequality for the next generation

And secure white political, economic and cultural domination


During his term of office Trump tried to turn back the clock

Criminalizing immigrants and feeding white racists’ squawk

Though he was defeated by Biden thanks to Black people

His allies in Congress and state legislatures continue to keep things unequal




Starting from behind and with obstacles to manage

African Americans can’t make up the unfair advantage

That’s why reparations are needed ASAP

If you don’t believe me, just look at these stats


White Americans to Black median net worth: ten to one in assets they’ve acquired

and their Median income is 40 times higher.

Almost twice as many whites own homes: 73 to 41%

More than half of Black people are forced to pay rent


Now for the conclusion of this submission

Reparations is a two-fold proposition

Payment for harm, lost opportunities, and betrayal

Repayment of debt for 400 plus years of unpaid labor


Does My Cultural Work Have any Impact?

At the end of the day am I a serious cultural worker or just someone using the “value of cultural work” to indulge myself in doing things that are fun, like playing music and painting pictures?  What is the value of cultural work in the first place?  I would say accomplishing any or all of the following (1) changing someone’s mind about an issue; (2) clarifying an issue and providing suggestions; (3) supporting people in their struggle (4) winning support for something, e.g. reparations.  The reason I can’t say for sure if I’ve accomplished any of these things is that my work is carried out in solitude—writing the song and making the video are mostly done while I’m alone.  I post the video to the Internet while sitting on a chair in my home.  Other than a few comments in Facebook and on the video page, I have no idea what or if it has made an impact.  I miss the comraderie of the League and working with others on a campaign.

Harry Wong, holding up Chinese sign, at Chinese Progressive Association picnic. Photo courtesy of Unity Archive.

I think we all hope that our time on earth will have had some meaning.  Beyond surviving and propagating our species, did we make any kind of difference? I will never forget a memorial I attended at the Chinese Progressive Association in San Francisco.  It was for Harry Wong, who distributed political literature on the streets of Chinatown.  It was not an easy job because the businessmen who ran Chinatown were anti-communist.  I can’t remember who gave the eulogy but I will never forget his use of a quote from Chairman Mao about how the death of a person who only lives for himself and does nothing in the service of others has the impact of a feather.  But the death of one who lives their life in service of the people is as weighty as Mt. Tai. 


Author’s Bio: Mary Ann Heimann lives and makes music in Long Beach, California.  She was a member of the League from its founding and wrote occasionally for Unity Newspaper.  After the League dissolved, she did as many other former LRS members and went to work at a law office, actually the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.  It seemed at the time that folks either went into the law or urban planning.  She did not, however, become an attorney.  She has been retired for about five years.


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