May 25, 2010

Litt and Ledesma Mad Love.

Grassroots movers-and-shakers Mike Litt and Chris Ledesma create wild events with a social-justice spirit.

iLoveMikeLitt founders Michael Litt and Chris Ledesma, up to their usual antics.

“I appreciate that we have matching scruffy beards.” –Mike Litt

Texan-born and based, Austin residents Mike Litt and Chris Ledesma are transforming the Lone Star State with their progressive panache and sucker-free soirees. By day, Litt works as the City of Austin Regional Field Director for Organizing for America, which implements President Obama’s mandate for social reform. A visual artist and touring musician with Iranian-meets-indie-rock band Tehranosaurus, Ledesma freelances as a web and graphic designer.

In their precious-few remaining hours, the progressive co-conspirators plan and direct participatory community events with a focus on environmental, economic, and social justice. These events fall under the organization name iLoveMikeLitt. Litt chalks up the quirky, self-referential moniker to his upbringing: “I’m an only child and grew up in a Montessori school…everybody was always telling me I was special.”

From annual events like its veggie hot-dog eating contest to its upcycled found-and-thrift fashion show, these two late-twenty-somethings are creating a niche in Austin’s cultural scene. “iLoveMikeLitt’s guiding themes are artistic, political, and social engagement, combined with a taste for humor and entertainment value,” Litt says, explaining that “many event ideas are born out of a friend’s offhand comment and carried out to its fullest, and sometimes absurd, conclusion.”

Treasure City Fashion Show luminescence, bright lights, and long legs.

Since its inception four years ago, iLove has hosted over 20 events with combined attendance exceeding 4,000 people. Over 450 people have directly participated in the development of the events, contributing as volunteers, contestants, artists, fashion designers and more. The organization has brought together over 45 bands, 25 community groups, 45 national and local businesses. Ledesma says that they are “committed to promoting progressive causes and bringing together local groups in order to reach a wider audience in the community.”

The duo “naturally falls into what each of us does best,” says Ledesma. “For Mike, that’s his knowledge and experience as an entertainer, promoter, political and community organizer. For me, it’s my attention to detail, passion for event production, and love for visual design and creativity.”

Sexy-sailor girl Michelle Green mists hot, hot Austinites on the Fourth of July.

The genesis of the iLove event series was its first-ever Veggie Hot Dog Eating Contest, one of its best-attended and most beloved events. Annually, it features Austin’s world-famous vegetarian firefighting squad, Tofurkey sausages, and free vegan ice cream from local frozen confectioner, NadaMoo!. The contest promotes the benefits of a plant-based diet, including produce-basket prizes from the farmers’ market and booths tabled by animal-rights groups.

iLove encourages attendees and contestants to wear costumes, and prizes are awarded to the best dressed. Hosted on the fourth of July, last year’s best-dressed included Ledesma’s “Hunkle Sam” costume, comprised of crimson skivvies and a fake, gray beard, and also “Misty,” who wore a sailor-girl outfit and sprayed mist on people. (It was the hottest recorded Fourth of July in Austin history.)

A close ally of the Austin-based human-rights organization the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, iLove has for three years participated in the PSC social justice open mic, Cafe Intifada. They also helped promote Hipster Intifada—an event that challenged people to learn about the symbolism and politics behind the keffiyeh scarf (a Palestinian headdress that symbolizes affinity with the resistance movement), which has recently become a fashionable Western accessory worn by urban hipsters.

Ledesma's always-innovative graphic design.

Another iLove hallmark includes annual Acknowledge Me (Ackme), a DIY Fest with crafts, zines, vegan food, and bands, which dually serves as a forum to increase awareness about homelessness in Austin. One year, they raised over $2,000 for Habitat on Wheels, a non-profit that helps homeless individuals own RVs. Other events include a Student/Farm Workers Alliance benefit called Punk & Circumstance, a seven-course meal for Veggie Speed Dating, vegan vs. omnivore Arm Wrestling Contests, and more.

On June 19, folks will have the opportunity to check out the annual Treasure City Fashion Show. Treasure City is a volunteer-run and collectively-organized thrift store that serves diverse communities by offering truly affordable prices. The free fashion show features recycled fashion—garments constructed from materials sourced from Treasure City, the beneficiary of the fundraiser. The event promotes the creative re-use of existing materials to minimize excess and discover value in so-called waste.

This year, iLoveMikeLitt is reformatting the show. Indie designers will partner with members of progressive-activist groups, representatives of which will be fashion models. “Our idea is to highlight these groups onstage,” says Litt, “while encouraging a variety of looks, ethnicities, ages, and body types of models.

With wit, artistic flar, and political passion, Litt and Ledesma are reaching thousands of Texans—not only to cultivate social-justice awareness, but also to motivate their community to participate directly in social change. “For us,” says Ledesma, “the means and the medium are part of the message.”

Litt and Ledesma (as Hunkle Sam) pose with Austin's famous Veggie Hot Dog King.

*Photo credits include Public School and Ann Harkness.

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