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.
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.”
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.
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.
Ask any community organizer what their job is really about, and they will tell you that more important than protesting, or changing government policies, or even improving local conditions is the work of leadership development. Organizers work closely with local community members to develop public speaking and advocacy skills, increase confidence, and build relationships, among other capacities. A more “leader-full” community is a stronger community.
In some progressive circles, the word “leadership” is almost a curse. Reacting against the well-known dangers of hierarchy, groups like Occupy Wall Street seek to be “leaderless.” But the vision of leadership offered by community organizing is not of the “great man” variety. Instead, it is a kind of leadership that long-time organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz refers to as a “snowflake” — a web of interdependent leaders who support others in becoming leaders. For Ganz, the difference between this kind of leadership, and the more oppressive kind, is the difference between leadership as a position, and leadership as a practice:
Community organizing develops leaders who can mobilize people to confront and build political power. But we also need cultural leaders who can accept the responsibility for enabling others to think differently, to dream bigger, to develop new identities. Cultural leaders who can move us towards new aesthetics and new stories about ourselves. Developing such leaders should be the job of cultural organizing.
The term “cultural leader” is often used to refer to artists and other creative individuals whose work has had wide influence. This kind of leadership, based in individual expression, can be very powerful. Bob Dylan was this kind of cultural leader, and his work inspired many in the social movements of the 1960′s and 70′s. But in many ways this model reflects the “great man” model of leadership that has been so thoroughly critiqued in the world of social movements.
The kind of cultural leader I am talking about here is of a different sort, and might better be described as a community cultural leader. This kind of leader is rooted in community relationships, and their task is not only to produce work with meaning, but to enable others to take part and develop their own creative voices. Their task is to challenge others to work collaboratively towards new ideas, identities, and aesthetics. Dr. Toby Jenkins, who teaches a course on cultural leadership, defines it this way:
Cultural leadership is creative leadership. It utilizes the arts and various other assessable forms of creative public scholarship and open community spaces to educate and raise awareness. Cultural leaders are rooted in the community and committed to social justice. They are raw leaders with thick skin, unflinching determination, and a love for people that allows them to take the blows that may come even from the communities that they seek to help. They are social change agents and social servants. They understand that a leader is first a servant.
This vision of cultural leadership can move us away from a celebration of celebrity, and towards a more grassroots strategy for cultural change.
It’s a beautiful thing when organized students, parents, and teachers come together to shift the dialogue on school reform. In the midst of the wholesale closing and privatization of schools across the country, with little regard for community voice, this intergenerational collaborative says no. This video, by Boston-based youth media organization Press Pass TV, features groups including the Boston-Area Youth Organizing Project, Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization in Chicago, the Chicago Teachers’ Union, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and more. If you don’t know, now you know.
Last week I was in San Francisco for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference. Among other things, I was presenting a paper on Comics-Based Research, the use of comic-book style art and storytelling in educational research. When I got there, I found an entire panel presentation on the topic! For the past five years I have been exploring how to use comic-book style art in my research on cultural organizing, but until last week I had never met someone else doing the same — and I came away both awed and excited by what I saw.
One member of the panel was Nick Sousanis, a doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College. He is currently doing his dissertation entirely in comics form. His complex black-and-white layouts are stunning, and he uses the comic form to concretize big, abstract ideas about visual/verbal knowledge and how comics work. You can see pages from his dissertation on his website: http://spinweaveandcut.blogspot.com/
Another panel member was famous activist, educator, and author Bill Ayers. He was there to speak about the process of turning his book To Teach into a graphic novel with the help of artist Ryan Alexander Tanner. He spoke eloquently about how his thinking shifted through the process — from thinking they were merely going to illustrate his writing, to understanding that they had to write an entirely new book using this unique form. You can read my review of the resulting collaboration here: To Teach: The Journey in Comics
The third panelist was James Woglom, a comic artist who has been working with researcher Stephanie Jones to translate her research on feminist pedagogy into comic form. The two have developed an intriguing collaborative system of analysis and writing, and have published in Teachers College Record and the Harvard Educational Review.
And chairing the panel was Marcus Weaver-Hightower, a professor at the University of North Dakota whose research, in comic form, explores the incredibly difficult topic of losing a child at birth, with a focus on the experience of fathers. His work has recently been featured in the new book Qualitative Research: The Essential Guide to Research and Practice.
What struck me, as I listened to these writer/artists was the wide variety of approaches they brought to the table. Some wrote and drew alone, some struggled through the difficulties of collaboration. Some spoke of their work in terms of narrative, others in terms of the arts. They came with different levels of knowledge about comics. But it meshed better than many panels I have seen because of the obvious passion for the form, and the wide possibilities in using comics in research and writing in the field of education.
As soon as I got home I was inspired to get back to drawing!