Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob

A little over a year ago I reviewed a book on this site called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Since then, the book — edited by Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell — has grown into an expanding, interactive website filled with resources for the creative activist. Recently I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter to the site and it has just been released. I am excited to share with you all my piece, looking at the cultural work of the Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty. The text of the case study is below, but for the full BT experience, head over to read the piece on the Beautiful Trouble website. Enjoy!

In October of 2012, the Canadian government introduced Omnibus Budget Bill C-45, which significantly eroded Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections. Indigenous communities immediately voiced concerns. In Saskatchewan, four women — three Indigenous and one non-native — launched a teach-in and website in order to raise awareness about the issue. They dubbed their effort Idle No More.

By December, the “Idle No More” movement was in full swing. Rallies were being held across Canada and internationally; the hash tag #idlenomore was trending on Twitter; and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was on hunger strike seeking a meeting with the Canadian government. The movement had quickly broadened to encompass a collective demand for governments worldwide to “honor Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water,” as the group’s website declared.

It was in this context that a group of organizers put out a call to action on Facebook asking “Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people, Metís, youth, and anyone willing to dance/sing/drum with us” to meet at the Cornwall Centre shopping mall in Regina, Saskatchewan. At 7:00pm on December 17, Aboriginal activists gathered at the mall and began beating out a steady rhythm on hand drums and singing. Others soon emerged from the holiday shopping crowd to join hands around the mall’s massive Christmas tree, circling clockwise in a traditional Indigenous round dance. By the end, an intergenerational and interracial group of over 500 people had gathered on two floors to take part in the action. Mall security and city police arrived, but the flash mob remained entirely peaceful before melting away.

While the flash mob itself lasted less than 15 minutes, videos and articles about it circulated widely on the Internet. Another round dance took place the following day in the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta. These actions captured the imagination of others in the movement, and dozens of round dance flash mobs began popping up in malls and public spaces across Canada and the United States. On December 29, over 1,000 people gathered for a round dance protest at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Round dances, often used as a form of celebration and as an expression of friendship and unity, are practiced in different forms by many Indigenous nations in North America. Along with many other aspects of Indigenous culture, the round dance was suppressed in the process of colonization, but it has recently reemerged as a celebratory practice, and recorded round dance music has become increasingly popular. The round dance flash mobs, then, represented both a powerful expression of resistance and a practice of cultural regeneration.

Round dance flash mobs became a strong enough presence in the Idle No More movement for some to begin referring to it as the “round dance revolution.” Organizers had hit upon a way to combine social media and flash mobs — both highly popular forms of activism among young people — with traditional music and dance in a way that bridged generations and cultures, creating space for building a sense of community. The round dances symbolized the movement’s core tenets of peace and unity, while sending the simple message: “We are here, our culture is strong, and we will not be silent in the face of destruction.”

Why it worked

The round dance flash mobs addressed multiple movement goals at the same time. To opponents, they demonstrated the grassroots power and the continuing strength of Indigenous nations. For Indigenous participants and viewers, they promoted cultural pride and connection. For newcomers, they offered a welcoming and easy opportunity for involvement. And for the movement as a whole, they served as a powerful visual symbol. The flash mobs carried the resonance of tradition and ceremony, while also being fun, loud, entertaining, and contagious.

Key Tactic at work

Flash mob

Flash mobs are unrehearsed public actions that can be easily replicated while maintaining a sense of coordination. In this case, Idle No More organizers found synergy between the flash mob and the round dance, itself an improvisational performance that invites observers to join in. Quickly planned and carried out, these events helped drive the rapid spread of the movement in a way that more rehearsed and controlled performances would not have been able to do.

Key Principle at work

Use the power of ritual

The Idle No More round dances served as collective rituals with deep symbolic resonance. They made it easy for people from many backgrounds to “fall into the rhythm” of the action; they offered participants a direct experience of unity and solidarity; and they spoke viscerally to the strength and vitality of Indigenous cultures.

Use your cultural assets

Opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, mass media in particular. To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths — their stories, symbols, arts, rituals, shared knowledge, and ways of being together. Using these cultural assets can strengthen participants while pushing opponents outside their comfort zones. The Idle No More flash mobs drew effectively on the cultural wealth of Indigenous communities such as traditional music and dance, as well as the social media practices of younger generations.

The Role of Art in Social Justice: A Speech at the UN Headquarters

Our Strong Hands Make Music

 
Today I want to share the audio of a speech by author and teaching artist Renée Watson, on the topic of social justice arts education. Recently, Watson (whose work teaching about Hurricane Katrina has been featured on this site) was asked to give the keynote speech at the International Symposium of Cultural Diplomacy at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

In her speech, which at times reads like an extended poem, Watson challenges listeners to understand the difficulty and complexity of social justice arts education. Social justice education, she explains, is about more than just addressing controversial topics.

“Along with a comprehensive arts curriculum, teaching for social justice requires a willingness to ask difficult questions; an openness to want to learn about someone else’s perspective; it is widening the canon of arts and including a diverse roster of artists; it is bringing what is going on outside of the classroom inside; it is about paying attention to the world and creating art that responds to what is happening.”

It is a beautiful and inspiring 22 minute speech, which I can’t recommend highly enough. For more from Watson, you can visit her blog, Art is for Action.

 

 

Remembering Maxine Greene

Today I want to take a moment to toast arts educator, activist, and philosopher Maxine Greene, who passed away last week at the age of 96. For decades, Maxine has been tireless in helping us to understand the transformative potential of arts experiences, whether as a professor at Columbia University; as Philosopher-in-Residence at the Lincoln Center Institute; or as founder of the Maxine Greene Center for Social Imagination, the Arts, and Education. She has left behind numerous books and essays showcasing her inspiring vision of humanization and justice.

Maxine Greene Comic

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello, http://www.jarodrosello.com

Maxine argued that in order to create a more just, humane world we first must develop our poetic and social imaginations. The poetic imagination, according to Greene, is the capacity to see the world through the eyes of another. When we use our poetic imagination we are able not only to appreciate another’s worldview, but also to “enter into that world, to discover how it looks and feels from the vantage point of the person whose world it is.” This empathic practice does not necessarily entail agreeing with another’s perspective. However, it does enable us to “grasp it as a human possibility.”

The social imagination allows us to envision a life different from the one we live, to “look at the world as if it could be otherwise.” It is the human capacity, both creative and moral, to “invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools.” While not inherently geared toward justice, the social imagination makes positive social change possible because a vision of what might be gives us a perspective from which to critique things as they are. As Greene states, “We acknowledge the harshness of situations only when we have in mind another state of affairs in which things would be better…and it may be only then that we are moved to choose to repair or renew.”

This, I think, is the central job of cultural organizing: to enhance our collective poetic and social imaginations. As Jeff Chang tells us, any successful social change effort requires a “collective leap of imagination.” Our charge is to facilitate this leap. And Maxine — through her writing and teaching, through her Foundation and her example — has blazed quite the trail for us. Thank you.

For a great tribute to Maxine, check out this comic by Nick Sousanis

Quotes from:
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

 

 

USDAC Announces its Founding Cultural Agents

Recently, the US Department of Arts and Culture — everybody’s favorite people-powered non-government department — announced its first set of founding cultural agents. As I wrote in a recent post, the USDAC is a grassroots effort to support “universal access to empowering creative experiences that build empathy and social imagination” across the country. Launched at the 2013 Imagining America conference, the USDAC seeks to build a network of artists and cultural workers dedicated to community development and the right of all people to take part in the cultural life of their communities.

static.squarespace.comOn April 26th, the USDAC set up a temporary office at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City to announce its first initiative. After a two month application process, seventeen artists and cultural workers have been named as founding “cultural agents,” including CulturalOrganizing.org guest blogger Jess Solomon from Art in Praxis! These agents will receive  training and opportunities to network, and then each will develop a local “imagining” — a “vibrant, arts-infused gathering in which a community envisions its ideal future and identifies creative tactics to get there.”

Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett made the announcement, and offered some inspiring words:

The USDAC is meant to live in the world not just as a button or an idea but as a community of practice taking action together to create a more vibrant and equitable society. Today, we are marking a truly historical moment for the fledgling department. A moment of landing, and of take off. A moment in which this act of collective imagination extends from language and ideas to real on-the-ground action.

See the full list of cultural agents, and link to a video of the event, by clicking HERE. This is just the start. If you’d like to get involved, you can sign up as a “citizen artist” and maybe get connected to an imagining in your area.

Police Violence and Rap Music — Interactive Timeline

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 Many Faces of Cultural Organizing

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

Arts & Democracy Project

“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.”

Dudley Cocke, Roadside Theater

“Cultural organizing means putting culture, including its concentrated expression of art at the center of a social and political organizing strategy.”

Ebony Golden, Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative

“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.”

Highlander Research and Education Center, Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project

“The strategic use of art and culture to promote progressive policies with marginalized communities.”

Jan Cohen-Cruz, author of Engaging Performance, Theatre as Call and Response

“Various forms of artistic communication that provide a cultural dimension to community organizing in order to expand and humanize a social movement.”

Joe Street, author of The Culture War in the Civil Rights 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.”

Tamejave Cultural Organizing Fellowship

“A community-building process in which people share cultural traditions and artistic expression with one another to build stronger, more active communities.”

The Culture Group

“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.”

School Closure Infographic

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.

School Closure

Education for Liberation through Art and Culture

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.

Portrait of a Cultural Organizer

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.

The Beauty of Transformation: Becoming a Cultural Organizer (PDF)

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.

FIGURE2_FINAL

 

Cultural Leaders(hip) In Washington DC

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.