Main content

The Dynamic Duo

The Dynamic Duo
Steve Duncombe & Steve Lambert Fight the Machine One Campaign at a Time

For more than ten years, the Center for Artistic Activism has led workshops worldwide to bring about social change by helping creative people increase their impact using activist techniques and by helping activists inject more creativity into their approach. Both cofounders are part of the Purchase family.

Stephen Duncombe ’88 (sociology) and Steven Lambert, associate professor of new media, joined forces in 2009 to create the Center for Artistic Activism (C4AA) when they discovered their complementary interests—Duncombe an activist and Lambert an artist. Their unique merging of art and activism has helped train and organize community members to deploy campaigns that get attention and make a difference. They’ve mentored over 1500 artists and activists on a number of issues, including mothers of incarcerated youth in Houston, sex work advocates helping to fight AIDS in South Africa, and a group working to expand access to healthcare for marginalized communities in East Africa and across Eastern Europe, and so much more. They also conduct innovative research and share it broadly.

And for the past year the organization has aimed its sights on the COVID-19 vaccine to ensure people around the world have easy access to eradicate the global pandemic, which will only end when it ends everywhere. As a poster on their site reads, “A vaccine won’t save us, but a free one will.”

The Activist

Duncombe found his activist footing while a student at Purchase. “My first activism was around the budget cuts that were happening to SUNY, and going up to Albany and protesting.” A quick database search of The Load—the student newspaper of the time—also confirms his participation in a protest against a local congressman’s vote on providing aid to the Nicaraguan contras; his call for “rehumanizing” education by eliminating grades, GPAs, and quite presciently, SAT scores; and his successful work radically restructuring the student senate.

Stephen Duncombe '88 He worked comfortably with artists then, since they were his friends. “What I really loved about Purchase was the fluidity between things like sociology and political science and the arts. Most of my friends were painters or filmmakers, and so on,” he says. “When I became very interested in activism, the crossover to thinking about arts and activism was a pretty natural one because it was embedded in my Purchase experience.”

Duncombe spent several years as a community organizer working on the Lower East Side—again, a community home to artists and creative types. “When the people who you’re organizing and who are joining you in activism tend to be artists, then they bring that sensibility into that work.” After earning his PhD in sociology from the CUNY Graduate Center, he began teaching at SUNY Old Westbury and then at NYU. Currently, he’s Professor of Media and Culture at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study and the Department of Media, Culture and Communications at the Steinhardt School of New York University. He has authored or co-authored three books, including Notes From Underground: Zines and the Politics of Underground Culture, and edited or co-edited three more.

The Artist

Steven Lambert’s art has been seen around the world, both inside and out of traditional gallery settings, and is included in museum and private collections. He’s participated in meetings and at the United Nations. His research on the impacts of advertising on cultural rights is included in a report published by the UN in 2014.

Associate Professor of New Media Steve Lambert A typical example of Lambert’s work, Capitalism Works for Me! True/False, is a widely viewed piece in which he engages directly in an exchange of ideas with his audience. It asks viewers to decide whether capitalism is working in their lives and then have a conversation with Lambert about their choice. It was on view in New York City’s Times Square in Fall 2013 and has been seen as far away as Australia. “Art is a bridge that connects uncommon, idealistic, or even radical ideas with everyday life,” reads his artist statement. “I have the unabashedly optimistic belief that art changes the way people look at the world. That belief fuels a pragmatic approach to bring about those changes.”

Lambert earned his MFA in studio art at University of California, Davis and began teaching at Purchase in 2012. He teaches courses in the new media department, including computer programming, photography, and a class called Tactical Practical, where he’s guiding the next generation to “plan effective social interventions.” His students benefit from his activities. “All of these experiences teaching around the world, working for the Center for Artistic Activism, have made for lessons and insights I bring back to my students at Purchase.”

Artist Meets Activist

When Duncombe and Lambert met for the first time, they quickly recognized how each other’s work is perfectly complementary. With a shared interest in teaching, they co-founded the Center for Artistic Activism in 2009, primarily as a training tool. “When we first started thinking about the Center for Artistic Activism, it was more of a training model, and was for the first eight or nine years,” Duncombe explains. “We were doing these workshops, first in the United States, then increasingly around the world, working with activists to help them create more like artists, and working with artists to help them think more like activists.” They would work with anyone who was excited and had a cause. “At this point, I’ve become agnostic on the details of the issues. There’s just so much that needs to get done, we’ll go wherever there is opportunity to do some good,” says Lambert.

But recently, their connection has grown more direct as they began “getting involved in the nuts and bolts of running a campaign,” says Duncombe.

Then the pandemic hit.

Free the Vaccine Logo

Free the Vaccine

Early in the Spring 2020 semester, Lambert had invited his colleague Merith Basey, executive director for Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, North America (UAEM) to participate in his Tactical Practical class. The UAEM’s mission is to make worldwide access to medicines free and fair and to advocate for revamping the patent system. Pharmaceutical companies often build vaccines with tax payer-funded research conducted at universities and government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In turn, they license that research to pharmaceutical companies which take medications like vaccines to market, often without transparency on pricing, so the public is essentially paying twice; for all the risk in the research and development, and again at the pharmacy counter.

Lambert got some advance, and stark, warnings from Basey on the impact of the pandemic. Foreseeing the inequity issues that a global pandemic and a not-yet realized vaccine might produce, the Center for Artistic Activism joined forces with Universities Allied for Essential Medicines to create the group Free the Vaccine for COVID-19.

They organized volunteers into Salk Squads of four to six people to create strategies that advance Free the Vaccine’s overarching goals. The squads are named after Jonas Salk, who, remarkably, never patented his polio vaccine research, preferring instead for wide distribution to benefit as many as possible. Carnival March for a People's Vaccine, London Carnival March for a People's Vaccine, London

Their third “season” or 12-week campaign began in February with three main missions. The first is to convince the NIH and other federal funders to secure better research contracts with universities that assure access. The second is to convince universities and agencies to share their research instead of locking it away with big pharmaceutical corporations in monopoly agreements. This can be accomplished by signing the Open COVID Pledge and by endorsing C-TAP, the World Health Organization’s COVID Technology Access Pool, so knowledge can be shared with the world.

And their third goal is to change the public conversation around the pharmaceutical R&D process. According to the Health and Human Services website, taxpayers have contributed nearly $10 billion to COVID-19 vaccine development. “We’re trying to educate the public and policy makers, so it’s more widely understood that we paid for all the underlying research in advance. Almost every drug that’s been approved by the FDA for decades has begun with public funding. Patents prolong the pandemic. This can work a different way,” says Lambert.

Measuring success comes in small doses—the mark of a good activist. Some of their more specific achievements include seeing their language and terms in three op-eds published in major newspapers. The fact that they had nothing to do with these op-eds is “a sign to us that these ideas are kind of permeating into the rest of the world,” Lambert says.

They’re also conducting a survey of the language appearing in certain newspapers or newscasts about things like pharmaceutical corporations or research licensing. By tracking it now, they can measure change over time.

They leverage their success each step of the way. Recently, Basey helped craft a question posed in a webinar to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, in response to her question, enthusiastically endorsed US involvement in C-TAP. The clip will be used used to leverage support for the Free the Vaccine effort. It’s a single step on a long path, but in the right direction.

Respiratory Therapists for a Free Vaccine, Seattle Respiratory Therapists for a Free Vaccine, Seattle

Chipping Away at Goliath

Changing the world is a massive effort; success is often achieved slowly and over time. Duncombe warns young people about wanting to see results overnight. “I just have a workaday attitude about it. I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s just what you do. You get up, you put on your boots, and you go try to fight the machine for a while,” he says. “And at the end of the day, you go hang out with your friends and drink beer, take off your boots, watch romcoms, and then go to sleep.” He always keeps in mind the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Unless you can adapt that as your mantra, you’re not going to last in this business for very long.”

He laughs and says he usually gets the quote backwards. “The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but it’s really long…” Spoken like a true activist.

Learn more at and