This week I want to share with you an excellent piece of interactive online education. This comes from Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA in Chicago. The timeline below charts out major public incidents of police violence, along with the hip-hop songs that have been created to counter it. In a very small space, it offers a snapshot of an ongoing struggle, and how hip-hop music continues to be a site of everyday resistance.
The US Department of Arts & Culture is the newest national arts organization in the country. But despite its provocative name, it doesn’t take a penny from the government. In fact, it’s less of an organization and more of an idea. Founder Adam Horowitz calls it “an act of collective imagination.” Advocates like Americans for the Arts and Quincy Jones have been fighting for years for a cabinet-level arts and culture position in the government. Horowitz decided to start from the people instead.
The USDAC was launched during a press conference in October 2013 at the Imagining America Conference. It is based on a core set of beliefs: that culture is a human right, that cultural diversity is a social good, and that artists have important roles to play in community development. Low on funds and big on ambitions, the USDAC is looking to spark a locally-rooted, national movement to “provide universal access to empowering creative experiences that build empathy and social imagination.” Part arts initiative and part public performance, USDAC brings a healthy dose of playfulness to its work, as can be seen in their welcome video:
The USDAC has put out a call for twelve “founding cultural agents.” Those whose applications are accepted will receive six weeks of training, and be charged with hosting local “imaginings” in their communities, at which artists, organizers, and other community members can envision a future for the country in which “art’s transformative power has been fully integrated into all aspects of public life.” If you’re not interested in being a cultural agent, but still want to get involved, you can enlist as a citizen artist.
With its rights-based framework and talk of community development, the USDAC is a new player in the field of community cultural development. In fact, Horowitz has brought community cultural development guru Arlene Goldbard on board as “Chief Policy Wonk.” The effort also received some unexpected press when it was attacked by Glen Beck, complete with comparisons to Nazi Germany!
The USDAC offers an overarching framework that could help to link and support diverse, often isolated cultural efforts around the country. But it will only work if we all get involved. Check out the website. Does it resonate with you? Might this blend well with the work you are already doing? Does it spark any new ideas? Where should the USDAC go next?
Some great new publications on cultural organizing have come out recently, and they’ve helped me beef up my collection of cultural organizing definitions. If you look closely you can see some significant differences in how it is being conceptualized. Please share others if you know of them!
Definitions of Cultural Organizing
“Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational, and community context of its practitioners. Cultural organizing is about integrating arts and culture into organizing strategies. It is also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, community of place, or worldview.”
“Cultural organizing means putting culture, including its concentrated expression of art at the center of a social and political organizing strategy.”
“Cultural organizing is the strategic use of art and culture to shift policies and practices most impacting marginalized people…Practiced in communities since the beginning of time, cultural organizing honors the traditions, knowledge, practices, beliefs, ways of healing, cooking, worshiping that formed and maintained communities during times of abundance and prosperity as well as trauma and despair.”
“The strategic use of art and culture to promote progressive policies with marginalized communities.”
“Various forms of artistic communication that provide a cultural dimension to community organizing in order to expand and humanize a social movement.”
“When activists made an explicit attempt to use cultural forms or expressions as an integral, perhaps even dominant, part of the political struggle and when, during this process, attention was drawn to the intrinsic political meaning of the cultural activity.”
“A community-building process in which people share cultural traditions and artistic expression with one another to build stronger, more active communities.”
“A practice that fuses arts, culture, and political organizing. Cultural organizing seeks to organize politically engaged artists together into networks of collaboration, and form intentional, cohesive partnerships between artists and like-minded advocacy organizations, funders, and political campaigns. Cultural organizing builds the power and capacity of artists as a community, both as skilled workers whose labor has value and as essential partners in the progressive movement.”
Fresh off the presses in 2014, we’ve got a new guide for organizers and activists interested in developing cultural strategies for social change. This one comes to us from The Culture Group, a collaborative of artists and social change experts committed to the idea that “there is no change without cultural change.” It’s a highly visual and readable look at the power of art and culture, and how to begin building partnerships between artists and organizers.
Making Waves uses the metaphor of an ocean wave to describe cultural change. Culture, they explain, is like the ocean: vast and ever-changing. It is all around us. Cultural strategy is about making waves in that ocean through the use of cultural practices and activities like art, media, sports, etc. — what they refer to as the “big tent of arts and culture.” Given how many definitions of culture are floating out there, this is a useful metaphor for re-imagining social change efforts, and one of the most accessible explanations of culture and social change that I have seen.
For the most part, this report is targeting organizers who may be skeptical of the importance of art and culture in social change, or who don’t know how to go about addressing culture. The #1 strategy they offer: Partner with artists. In a section titled “Why Artists?” the authors offer a compelling, if somewhat romanticized, view of the particular strengths of artistic voice. This includes artists’ ability to connect with people emotionally, to be bold and visionary, and to address fundamental social issues.
It is clear, however, that the authors have seen organizer-artist partnerships go poorly, as evidenced by my favorite section: 13 Key Principles for Working with Artists. Organizers are called upon to “involve artists from the beginning,” and “let the artist lead in the creative.” Implied in these principles is a history of artists being brought in at the last minute and told what to do, rather than being seen as an integral part of the social change effort. (There is also a page of tips for artists, but it’s mostly about helping those organizers remember those 13 principles!)
The report addresses many of the key terms in the area of art and social change in a useful glossary. They define cultural organizing, for instance, as
“Practice that fuses arts, culture, and political organizing. Cultural organizing seeks to organize politically engaged artists together into networks of collaboration, and form intentional, cohesive partnerships between artists and like-minded advocacy organizations, funders, and political campaigns. Cultural organizing builds the power and capacity of artists as a community, both as skilled workers whose labor has value and as essential partners in the progressive movement.”
This definition is intriguing to me because of its heavy emphasis on organized artists, which calls to mind historical organizations such as the American Artists’ Congress. This report also introduced me to the idea of a “cultural producer”: a cultural strategist who can speak the “languages” of both art and organizing, and can help develop partnerships between the two worlds.
Overall, Making Waves is stronger on making a case for cultural strategy than for guiding how it can be done. There are some great case studies, but I personally didn’t need 20 out of 50 pages dedicated to proving that cultural events have often outshone and even preceded political events. And the sections on strategy and tactics are useful, but aren’t particularly tailored to cultural strategy. Tips about setting goals, defining an audience, and outlining how decisions will be made are relevant to any sort of organizing campaign.
I believe the reason that the “how-to” section seems very general is that the authors don’t want the organizers to have their hands in the art too much — organizers are told to make room for the artists to lead. This is a very important lesson for organizers who in general have under-utilized cultural approaches, seeing artists as adding “decoration” rather than substance to campaigns. But it seems to assume the artists more or less know what they are doing in terms of using art to support social change. For most artists, this is likely not the case. Perhaps a good companion to this report would be the book Re:Imagining Change, by the Center for Story-Based Strategy whose theories on narrative could be very useful to both artists and organizers.
I love how this document seeks to re-imagine the role of artists in organizing. At the same time, I’m not sure how I feel about the advice that organizers “don’t try this at home…creating an effective, powerful work of art is not easy…be willing to invest in real talent.” It is true that well-meaning but untrained activists have made some pretty bad art. But, to me, this argument makes too strong a distinction between “artists” and “non-artists,” and focuses a bit heavily on the arts that involve individual training, as opposed to more grassroots arts practices which have been so important to social movements in the past — African American spirituals, Native drumming practices, etc.
I would recommend this as a good starting point for any organizer looking to move beyond short-term policy wins to long-term change. If you are an artist working with social justice organizations, you may want to pass this along. And while you’re at it, check out the other great resources from the Culture Group.
I recently had the chance to speak to Karen Young and Payal Sharma at The Genki Spark, a Boston-based group doing cultural organizing with Asian women. I learned how Japanese drumming can be a source of personal empowerment and political action.
The Genki Spark works to develop Asian women as artists and community leaders who can give voice to the challenges facing Asian-American communities, while celebrating the communities’ deep cultural strengths. The organization was founded by artist and organizer Karen Young in 2010. Intergenerational and Pan-Asian in its membership, The Genki Spark is made up of a core performance ensemble that puts on an impressive array of performances, workshops, and talks around the country.
The organization’s work is based in the Japanese art of Taiko drumming. Taiko, an art form with a long history in Japan, was brought to the US during the 1960′s — specifically to San Francisco. So American Taiko grew up in the context of burgeoning Asian American activism, in a hotbed of radical youth organizing. Taiko became a medium for political and cultural activism — a way for Japanese-Americans to build a powerful cultural identity, and give voice to relevant community issues such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. While drawing inspirations from other strands of Taiko history, The Genki Spark is directly rooted in this tradition. In fact, Genki founder Karen Young’s relatives, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, were trailblazers in Taiko-based activism in San Jose. (For more on American Taiko, check out this article by Hideyo Konagaya).
Karen sees Taiko as a valuable way to foster individual empowerment, particularly for Asian women who face dual gender- and ethnicity-based expectations of subservience and gentleness. In addition to its history as a form of activism, and its cultural resonance, Taiko performance is imbued with physical strength. As Konagaya writes of taiko players, called sansei, they “physically acted out their resistance against inequality and injustice in American society and against their own passivity and weakness through actions such as whirling sticks over their heads, shouting, jumping, turning, and pounding on taiko.” As Karen tells me, the very act of hitting a Taiko drum with a huge stick can be an empowering experience for women, and seeing such performances can challenge audience members’ stereotypes of Asian women.
Like many cultural organizing groups, The Genki Spark has multiple goals. Perhaps foremost among its goals is the personal transformation of its members. It supports women developing not only as artists, but as leaders, with the skills, confidence, and sense of cultural efficacy to take action in the community. These leaders, in turn, advocate for the value of all cultures while modeling cultural pride — as Karen puts it, “we hope to model what it looks like to proudly claim your whole self in a society that wants us to assimilate and be the same.”
The Genki Spark is part of a broader movement to challenge stereotypes of Asian women, and to address issues affecting Asian-American communities. The group supports many grassroots social justice efforts, and is often invited to perform at rallies and other political events. In addition, The Genki Spark is part of the national Taiko community and has goals for the art form. At a time when Taiko is being appropriated by US pop culture (including Katy Perry, Alicia Keys, and Mitsubishi), The Genki Spark keeps alive the tradition of Taiko as a medium for political and cultural expression.
I cannot do justice to their performance in words, so please take a few minutes to watch the video below.
Here is an excellent infographic from the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign on the vicious cycle of school closure. School closure is being touted as a solution to failing schools, but functions as an attack on public education and low-income communities of color, maintaining a cycle of school failure. Communities are organizing across the country to stop it — calling for improvement rather than closure.
I’m excited to announce an open, national conference call on education for liberation through art and culture, which I am working on with the Arts & Democracy Project. We will have some excellent speakers from across the country. Info is below. Join us if you can on Thursday, February 6 at 3PM EST, 12PM PST. CLICK HERE TO RSVP AND GET CALL-IN INFO.
Education for Liberation through Art and Culture.
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Amid the clamor of standardized tests, school privatization, and punitive accountability, we can lose sight of one of the most enduring purposes of education: freedom. Education for liberation is about understanding and addressing oppression in all its forms. It is a creative process, rooted in an appreciation of the rich cultural wealth of marginalized communities. It involves collaboratively reimagining our relationship with the world through dialogue and action.
Some of the most innovative forms of liberatory education are embedded in visual arts, literature, history, music, theater, and other artistic and cultural traditions. But as the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona makes clear, the right to liberatory education is something that must continually be fought for.
This conference call brings together representatives of three groups committed to supporting liberatory educational practices through engagement with culture and the arts. They will explore the possibilities and challenges of practicing – and fighting for – culturally relevant, creative, liberating educational opportunities for young people.
Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) is a community-based organization whose mission is to build a progressive and sustainable Long Beach community that works for gender, racial and economic justice led by Southeast Asian young women.
Save Ethnic Studies / Xican@ Institute for Teaching & Organizing in Arizona is an organized effort of social justice educators to challenge racist laws banning Mexican American and Ethnic studies programs in Tucson Unified School District, and across the state.
Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past, History, Organizing, and Power) is a Boston-based organization that trains young artists as cultural organizers who can address pressing social justice issues in their communities.
I am excited to share with you an article I wrote, which just came out in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. It is a biographical portrait of Mariama White-Hammond, the Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP. The piece traces her development as an artist and activist, and looks at the way these two trajectories intersect in moments of synergy and tension. In addition to the writing, the piece includes a few of my comics to help bring Mariama to life. Click on the link below for a PDF of the article.
I want to thank the excellent editors of this special issue of JCT, Erica Meiners and Therese Quinn, and of course Mariama. Here’s a little taste.
I recently had the chance to talk to Dr. Toby Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. I had come across her work on cultural leadership and was very curious to learn more about the concept, as well as her work. She spoke passionately on the topic, raising issues of family, pride, service, community, and love. She definitely pushed my own thinking about the kind of leadership that our communities need.
Why don’t we start with the course you teach called Cultural Leadership; how did that come about?
It’s something that I’d been developing for a number of years. I worked at the cultural center at the University of Maryland and developed a leadership program focused on leadership in underrepresented communities. We were trying to figure out what we could learn from studying social movements and leaders of color. Probably at that point is when I started looking at combining the concepts of leadership and culture. Then, when I got to Penn State, I developed it into a formal course experience. It was a hodgepodge of different things. We were looking at the history of leadership in communities of color, so we looked at Che Guevara, the Black Panther Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez. We were looking at the ethics, the values, and the commitment to cultural community that were espoused in a lot of those movements. We were also looking at arts and music and poetry — things like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance — as forms of leadership and social education. We were looking at the advent of hip-hop and spoken word, and the different ways that leadership may not look like a boardroom, but it definitely does move communities and create action.
So the course became a full and robust examination of culture and leadership. One of the most transformative parts of the course for students has been the piece on family. We ask: how does what we’ve learned from our families — the values, the histories, the stories that are told in living rooms and on porches and stoops — influence the type of leaders we become? My father was a janitor. But as much education as I’ve had, as many organizations I’ve worked with and incredible people I’ve worked for, I know that the type of leader I am ties back to what I learned from my father. Because he taught me through his life that he was never too good to do anything. He was willing to humble himself, to pick up other people’s trash, to take care of his family. And I remember how he would say, “I know you’re going to grow up and get one of these big jobs, but always remember to speak to the janitors.” So I have the students write a cultural self-portrait, kind of a cultural story of your life, and those stories are absolutely incredible. The exercise of writing them allows students to develop a whole new appreciation for their family or their community experience. Whether they’re coming out of very difficult life experiences or privileged life experiences, they see value in all of it — that it’s teaching them lessons and it’s teaching them how to navigate life.
I also think place-based, experiential, community-based learning is really important. So in the class we spend time working with community organizations. We did an international exchange, taking them to Trinidad to look at how they incorporate culture into their community’s leadership; we’ve done weekends in Newark New Jersey to look at the idea of transformation at the city level, and needing to incorporate cultural sustainability. Those experiences definitely have been transformative for the students.
I’m curious about the concept itself. What does it mean to practice “cultural leadership”?
That’s what I’ve been trying to tease out. Cultural leadership is grounded in servitude and community. It ties back to Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership: the idea that you use your talents and resources and abilities and access to help other people. It’s not just about you making decisions, it’s about you figuring out what the community needs. Another critical piece of cultural leadership is creative leadership, and this can take a variety of different forms. It can be as simple as the stories mentors tell their mentees. Basic storytelling. Here in Hawaii they call it “talk story”: sharing histories and perspectives and experiences. Some cultural leaders may use visual art, some might use music, some might use dance. Some might use food: in past programs we looked at domestic leaders, most often mothers, and the value of domestic work, the creativity and ingenuity it takes to transform food that’s really disgusting and turn it into soul food, the value and importance of nourishing.
Cultural leaders have a strong sense of cultural efficacy. They see their culture as valuable. There’s a sense of pride, and a sense of real community love and rootedness. It’s about reaching back, the idea of Sankofa, and valuing the lessons of the past. Calling them forth, remembering them, bearing witness to them, and sharing them so they won’t be forgotten. A couple years ago I started looking at what a “love ethic” means in leadership. Are you committed to helping people to live love-filled lives, lives of peace, lives of joy, lives of abundance? Even when you challenge people, do you lovingly challenge people? You have to bring a spirit of love if you’re truly a cultural leader.
I’ve been studying cultural organizing, which is a related concept. Often, cultural organizers have very cultural goals: they are focused on helping their communities to see themselves in a different way, or they are challenging deficit narratives, or trying to change the way we think. Does cultural leadership focus on affecting how we see ourselves and shaping how our culture functions?
I honestly think cultural leadership can be for anything. Some people may choose as their life work to specifically create organizations like the ones that you are talking about, rooted in community, working with a particular population of people, and advancing cultural sustainability and transformation. But I also think we need cultural leaders in non-community spaces: in boardrooms, in classrooms, in hospitals, in all these spaces where people are significantly marginalized. If you had people with a more cultural ethic to their leadership, more of a sense of responsibility to their communities, then communities would be better served.
What are you working on these days?
Right now I’m working with an organization called PLACES, and they’re working with local schools to create place-based education, and to incorporate Hawaiian culture and ways of learning into the educational experience. They are bringing Hawaiian elders into the educational experience, not just as a speaker but to help build the curriculum. They are working with farmers to transform science curriculum. You’d be amazed at how much the island itself is used as a form of education. Art forms are being used to raise awareness and consciousness and build cultural efficacy among youth — spoken word is pretty big here, and music, a fusion of reggae and traditional Hawaiian music.
I still have former students in their thirties that get in touch with me, saying how much the course really shaped and motivated them to be conscious of what they did with their careers and the kind of impact they’re having, changing that dynamic of individual success. Because that was an ultimate goal for me: to re-imagine what success looks like, so that your success is bound to the success of the world, of your neighborhood, your community. You have to figure out what your contribution is going to be.
Here’s a thought-provoking piece on cultural leadership by Jessica Solomon at Art in Praxis. This piece was inspired by Partners for Livable Communities’ Culture Builds Community Initiative.
“Cultural leadership is a leadership proxy rooted in community, family & cultural identity. Cultural leadership is creative leadership. It utilizes the arts and other assessable forms of creative public scholarship & open community spaces to educate and raise awareness.”
– Dr. Toby S. Jenkins
I crave open conversations about cultural leadership in Washington, DC with cultural leaders in Washington, DC. Oftentimes we are busy developing resources, facilitating leadership in others, making connections between collaborators and issues at hand, and listening reeeeally well…so conversations might look like this:
Ping: “Hey Pong, how are you? What are you working on these days?”
Pong: “I’m well, Ping! Busy. Collaborating with XX organization to pilot a YY program this summer!”
Ping: “That’s great! Let me know how I can support. Have you connected to ZZ?”
Pong: “Wow, thanks. I haven’t; that’s a great idea. Will you be at the Creative Ecosystem meeting next week?”
Ping: “Yes! I’ll be there for AA collaborative. Let’s grab coffee after, we should talk.”
We bring a wealth of knowledge and experiences with us everywhere we go…even in passing. most cultural leaders are walking arts/social justice/community development Wikipedias.
My burning question for the Pings and Pongs of the world…
Is there value in creating a shared vision for cultural leadership in the nation’s capital?
Imagine…a vision that guides our practice/praxis, informs our outreach, validates our resource development, pumps up our collaborations and dazzles our communications? I answer my own question with YES! If you are interested in moving this forward too, let’s talk.
The conversation between Ping and Pong leads me to explore types of cultural leaders. Yes, there are types. According to Culture Builds Communities, there are three major types of leadership that typify the field of cultural community work:
Visionary individual leader(ship). Projects produced are the result of an individual with a singular vision, a personality strong enough to pull people together, and the dedication to pull through hard times.
Communal leader(ship). The vision of a group has led to cultural community work. Sometimes the work grows organically as an organization evolves, and sometimes it is the result of a multi-organization partnership.
Instigators. People and organizations that help build partnerships. By providing a framework, instigators help ease interested parties through the complicated process of linking culture, community, and often diverse interests.
Note: Cross-Sector Partnerships are the backbone of Cultural Leadership
Even when cultural leaders are working from a background of both community issues and culture, they tend to seek out partners and co-workers who can complement their own efforts and strengths. As cultural leaders bring in other people to amplify their own work, particularly if they create an organization, they often move away from direct involvement to facilitating the leadership and the work of others. What I like to call, Creative Midwifery. Shout out to UnSectored for bringing this point home for me at their last talk about Cross-Sector Leadership and Collaboration.