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Transforming LGBTQ Narratives through Art: Past, Present, Future

Last week’s historic Supreme Court decision on marriage equality has sparked celebrations of love around the country, as well as calls for a refocusing on more intractable issues like LGBTQ discrimination, homelessness, and hate crimes. This is a time to honor the hard work that has been done, while situating this win in the context of a much longer struggle. Here at CO, this seems like a great moment to look back at some of the artists and cultural workers who have supported the movement in the US by challenging mainstream narratives of gender and sexuality, and by offering transformative visions of LGBTQ life and identity. It’s also a good time to check in on some of the newer artists who will carry this work into the future. There’s far too many to name in one post, but I’ll share a few of my favorites — please feel free to add more in the comments!

Gran Fury & ACT-UP

Poster by Gran Fury

Poster by Gran Fury

I just have to start with Gran Fury, the small artist collective that grew out of the ACT-UP organization during the 1980s and has became a touchstone for cultural organizers ever since. Gran Fury’s guerilla-style visual art campaigns captured the urgency of the struggle against AIDS at a time when so many were dying, and demanded public space for gay voices and images. In the midst of a narrative that focused blame and fear on gay men and ignored other victims of the plague, Gran Fury and ACT-UP rewrote the narrative through bold visuals and brief catch phrases. In Gran Fury’s art, people living with AIDS received the empathy they deserved (“All People with AIDS are Innocent”) and the public figures who ignored the crisis were recast as villains (“Silence=Death”). As activist-artists working in movement organizations as well as the art world, Gran Fury and ACT-UP had a lasting impact on AIDS, the LGBTQ movement, and the arts. As former member Loring McAlpin put it, “I think what we accomplished was to drive a wedge into public discourse and open a space where AIDS could be talked about in all its dimensions.”

The Lesbian Avengers

The 1990s direct action group the Lesbian Avengers shared much of the same spirit (and many members) with ACT-UP. The Lesbian Avengers challenged homphobia in all its forms through creative actions, or what they called “zaps.” In the Lesbian Avengers handbook, they state “Avoid old stale tactics at all costs. Chanting and picketing no longer make an impression. Standing passively still and listening to speakers is boring and disempowering.” They, in turn, could be found running a marching band through a school singing, “Oh When the Dykes come Marching in,” or eating fire in response to the burning murders of two LGBTQ individuals (“The fire will not consume us. We take it and make it our own.”). According to former member Kelly Cogswell, “Every time the Avengers pulled off an action, we weren’t just making lesbians visible or trying to change society. We were changing lesbians. Creating a new kind of dyke who saw public space as hers, who could step out into the street and make noise, be herself, feel at home in the world.”

Dyke Action Machine

The women behind the Dyke Action Machine

The women behind DAM

In 1991, not long before the Lesbian Avengers got started, artist Carrie Moyer and photographer Sue Schaffner launched the Dyke Action Machine (DAM). Inspired by the Situationists, this culture jamming duo began running poster campaigns inserting lesbian images into commercial advertisements (e.g Gap, Kalvin Klein), challenging the lack of queer representation in popular culture. Over time they have used websites, mailers, t-shirts, and other products to critique mainstream media’s increasing attempts to cater to the gay and lesbian “demographic,” while at the same time challenging mainstream gay rights efforts (including the fight for gay marriage). They remain a sort of radical, queer, humerous conscience for the movement.

Alison Bechdel & Howard Cruise

Among the growing number of comics to address LGBTQ issues, two authors stand out. Alison Bechdel — best known now for her award-winning comic memoir Fun Home — became a cultural trailblazer with her strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008. The strip is philosophically deep, politically astute, and hilarious. Dwight Garner, in the New York Times, suggested that DTWOF, “has been as important to new generations of lesbians as landmark novels like Rita Mae Brown’s “Rubyfruit Jungle” (1973) and Lisa Alther’s “Kinflicks” (1976) were to an earlier one.” Meanwhile Howard Cruise’s 1995 book Stuck Rubber Baby is simply one of the best graphic novels to date on any topic. It’s story of a young gay southern white man getting involved in civil rights organizing in the 1960s is moving, terrifying, and beautiful. Prior to that, Cruise was an openly-gay underground comics artists (who introduced a gay character in his comic in 1976) and who wrote an ongoing piece for The Advocate.

Looking Forward

What issues are LGBTQ young arts-activists addressing now, and where are they headed? While gay and lesbian individuals still face discrimination and, often, physical danger because of their sexuality, the context of the movement has changed. With the increasing presence of gay and lesbian images in popular culture, it is no longer so radical to write a lesbian character into a comic, or to put up advertisements featuring two men kissing. In response, artists are pushing into more complex and intractable aspects of heteronormativity. They are addressing LGBTQ narratives that don’t fit into clear binaries, that don’t align with mainstream visions of loving relationships, and that were  marginalized in earlier movement efforts.

Two trends stand out. The first is definitely an increased focus on transphobia, and on the lives and voices of transgender/gender-diverse people. Just check out this list from the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art covering some of the great work done in 2014. A second, and related, trend is giving more attention to intersectionality — the ways that LGBTQ experiences intersect with other axes of oppression. Artist-activists like Julio Salgado and Favianna Rodriguez are exploring the intersection of queerness and immigration. Nia King has been cataloging conversations with queer and trans artists of color on her podcast (which is now a book — review to come soon!). And theater group Sins Invalid adds in a focus on (dis)ability alongside race and gender/sexuality. There are many more I could name, and surely many, many more I don’t yet know about. If these are the cultural leaders who are going to lead us into a new future, there is much reason for hope.

 

Remembering Cultural Organizer Guy Carawan

This past month we lost one of the great cultural organizers of our time. Guy Carawan passed away on May 2 at the age of 87, closing out a life dedicated to music, justice, and the celebration of folk culture. As music director at the Highlander Folk School, he was a gentle hand guiding the spread of the freedom songs. With his wife Candie, and later his two children, he supported social justice struggles in the US and around the world, while documenting the rich diversity of folk and indigenous music.

Carawan began his career as a musician in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a transitional time for US folk music. The first wave of the folk music revival was dying down, battered by McCarthyism and the Red Scare, while the seeds of the second wave were being sown. As a student at Occidental College and UCLA, where he studied sociology, Carawan became involved with the progressive folk music community in LA. He later moved to New York City to join the Greenwich Village folk scene. In the summer of 1953 he famously toured the south with singers Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Frank Hamilton, listening to folk and country musicians throughout Appalachia — a trip memorialized in Ramblin’ Jack’s song 912 Greens.

It was while on this trip that Carawan first visited the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center). Since its founding in 1932, Highlander has been a focal point of cultural organizing,  due in large part to the efforts of Zilphia Horton, the Center’s first music director. Horton believed strongly in the importance of music, particularly group singing, which she saw as a way to forge group solidarity, foster cultural pride, keep indigenous leaders connected to the masses, transmit stories and ideological messages, and inspire activism. She worked to integrate singing into all aspects of the Highlander curriculum. Horton died in a tragic accident in 1956.

In 1959, Carawan took over as the Highlander music director and continued Horton’s work. While the Center’s early efforts had largely been in support of radical union organizing, by 1959 Highlander had become a key training ground for civil rights organizers, including many well-know figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Highlander served as a launching pad for the Citizen Schools, as well as the freedom songs that would become the sound track for the movement.

Like Horton, Carawan believed that music could bridge racial and cultural divides. By combining aspects of Black spirituals and white folk music, Carawan hoped to help integrate the civil rights movement. He is most famously noted for his role in adapting and spreading the anthem “We Shall Overcome” throughout the movement. A snapshot of his work is captured in this quote by Reverend C. T. Vivian, a close colleague of MLK:

I don’t think we had ever thought of spirituals as movement material. When the movement came up, we couldn’t apply them. The concept has to be there. It wasn’t just to have the music but to take the music out of our past and apply it to the new situation, to change it so it really fit.…. The first time I remember any change in our songs was when Guy came down from Highlander. Here he was with this guitar and tall thin frame, leaning forward and patting that foot. I remember James Bevel and I looked across at each other and smiled. Guy had taken this song, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” — I didn’t know the song, but he gave some background on it and boom — that began to make sense. And, little by little, spiritual after spiritual began to appear with new words and changes: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On” or “I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table.” Once we had seen it done, we could begin to do it. (qufoted in Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs, 1990.)

This last statement, “once we had seen it done, we could begin to do it,” speaks beautifully to Carawan’s style of cultural organizing, which was humble, behind-the-scenes, and focused on empowering others as leaders. Over time, Carawan came to the decision that others were more capable of carrying the torch of the freedom songs. He turned his attention to teaching young African American singers, and to documenting the music and story of the civil rights movement.

As Highlander shifted its focus in the 1970s to Appalachia, Guy and his wife Candie, who he met at Highlander, helped to support social and environmental justice issues in the area, including the black lung movement. Along with their two children, they have worked to document and celebrate the music and culture of Appalachia, the Sea Islands, and other groups, inspiring artists and cultural workers along the way. Their books include, Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? The People of Johns Island, South Carolina — their faces, their words and their songs, and Freedom is a Constant Struggle Songs of The Freedom Movement, with Documentary Photographs.

In their online tribute to Caraway, the Highlander Center wrote the following about their long-time colleague and friend.

Groups that visit Highlander know that here on the hill we still sing. We stand in that circle of rocking chairs, cross our arms, link our hands, and sing the songs that so many have sung before us – and at the same time we learn and teach new songs from new communities struggling for justice – sharing old and new alike in an ongoing chain of support and inspiration. This is Guy’s legacy. We will continue singing, and we will think of him when we do.

 

VIDEO: Guy Carawan singing We Shall Overcome

 

Further reading that informed this post:

Guy and Candie Carawan: A Personal Story through Sight and Sound

The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement, by Joe Street

Guy Carawan, by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone, at Cultural Equity

 

Featured photograph by Heather Carawan, taken from CC Wikipedia

A Reboot for Cultural Organizing

It’s spring, school is out, and I figured it was time to give CulturalOrganizing.org a bit of a makeover. So today the site officially relaunches. The site’s features include:

There will also be a more regular posting schedule. Keep an eye on the site in the coming weeks for articles on hip-hop education, the loss of long-time cultural organizer Guy Carawan, and the art of #BlackLivesMatter.

Thank you to all my readers. Check back often, or subscribe using the tools in the right-hand column.

Educating for Cultural Citizenship

I’m excited to share with you all a new article of mine that has come out in the most recent issue of Curriculum Inquiry, titled Educating for Cultural Citizenship: Reframing the Goals of Arts Education. This post summarizes some of the main ideas in the article which you can find here. If you don’t have access, I’m told the first fifty people to visit this link can download it for free.

What does it mean to be part of a society? What are the responsibilities, roles, and rights of community members? How does one become a “good” citizen? These questions are central to the field of civic education, which prepares individuals with the skills and knowledge they need to be active and responsible participants in civic life. Those of us in the field of arts education, I believe, should be asking similar questions.

Citizenship, after all, is about more than political rights and responsibilities. It is also a matter of culture. You may be formally recognized as a citizen of a country, but still have your cultural perspectives and practices marginalized, leading to second-class citizenship. You may have access to the ballot box but not the right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to “freely participate in the cultural life of the community.” Moreover, artistic and cultural practices — from hip-hop to documentary film to traditional ceremony — have a vital political dimension, and can serve as their own form of civic engagement.

Arts education is about more than transmitting the skills and knowledge needed to create artistic works. It is also a process of developing young people’s orientations towards the arts — teaching them about their roles and responsibilities as artists and/or audience members. Arts education offers an entryway for young people into an important aspect of cultural life. One useful way to think about arts education, then, is as a process of developing cultural citizenship, the the right and capacity of people to develop and pass on diverse cultural traditions and identities while participating effectively in a shared cultural and political arena. Arts educators are helping youth to acquire skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible members of their cultural communities. In other words, arts education is a form of civic education.

As scholars like Westheimer and Kahne have demonstrated, not all civic education efforts share the same vision of what it means to be a good citizen. The same is true for arts education — different types of arts education promote different types of cultural citizenship.

Some arts programs are designed to develop what we might call informed cultural citizens. The informed cultural citizen has the capacity to understand, appreciate, and critique works of art, and is confident in her right to attend museums, plays, concerts, and other artistic fora without feeling alienated or excluded. She is not a passive consumer of whatever media comes her way; she is engaged in choosing, critiquing, and discussing art, thus involving her in the evolution of artistic tastes. Programs promoting informed cultural citizenship can be found in the realms of aesthetic education, arts appreciation, and discipline based arts education, among other places.

Other arts programs are designed to develop participatory cultural citizens. The participatory cultural citizen is involved in producing, remixing, and sharing original artistic works, even if she does not see herself as an artist. She has a strong connection to her own cultural heritage, along with the freedom to explore new forms of expression and to share in cross-cultural exchange. She sees sees the arts as a way to connect with and understand the broader communities of which she is a part. She does not see firm divides between “artist” and “audience,” and is resistant to hierarchies among art forms. The development of participatory cultural citizens has long been a goal, for example, of many educators and artists in the community-based arts movements that have swept the US over the past century.

Still other arts education programs are designed to develop justice-oriented cultural citizens. The justice-oriented cultural citizen can critically analyze the ways that the arts are implicated in processes of oppression and resistance. She actively values and promotes cultural perspectives and narratives that are kept out of mainstream discourse, while maintaining a strong sense of cultural pride and identity. The justice-oriented cultural citizen feels a responsibility to use her art to improve her community and directly confront injustice, while understanding that social change must be a collective effort utilizing multiple forms of cultural and social action. Programs promoting justice-oriented cultural citizenship can be found in the fields of social justice arts education, community-based arts, youth participatory action research, youth media, youth organizing, critical media literacy, hip-hop education, community cultural development, and cultural organizing, among others.

This line of thinking suggests that we as arts educators should begin asking ourselves questions like those with which I began this post. What kinds of cultural citizens are we educating? What are we teaching about who can be an artist, and what the arts are for? How might education in the arts support young people as they seek to be recognized as full citizens? Such questions can help us to be more conscious of our influence on young people as members of overlapping local, national, and international communities, and of the role of arts education in an aspiring democracy.

The State of our Collective Story

What if the annual State of the Union was not a speech spoken by one, but a poem created by many?

A couple of weeks ago, I facilitated a story circle for the USDAC People’s State of the Union with the students in my Communication and Social Justice course. Rather than a monologue from a single elected leader, the People’s State of the Union is a national dialogue. All around the country, community members met in living rooms, churches, community centers, classrooms, parks, and other public and private spaces to share personal stories about the current state and future potential of this nation.

During our story circle my mind turned, as it often does, to the question of how we know what we know. Where do we turn when we seek truth? What counts as accurate knowledge? How do we come to understand the true state of our conflicted and striving union?

Too often, it seems to me, we limit ourselves to a chosen few sources of knowledge, while ignoring the rest. We privilege the measurable over the elusive, numbers over stories, average trends over quirkiness and diversity. We idolize logic and dispassion, while discounting the wisdom of embodiment and emotion. In our striving for the “right” answer, we lose sight of the value of ambiguity, contradiction, and the possibility of multiple truths.

As my students shared their stories, I was struck by how much we had to learn from one another. Embedded in our 14 diverse yet interconnected narratives was a wealth of knowledge about family and community, identity and ability, discrimination and acceptance, and what it means to truly belong. What if we, as a nation, opened ourselves up to the many sources of knowledge available to us? What if we looked to artists as often as we do to scientists? What if we listened to young people alongside adults, community members as well as so-called “experts”? What wonders might we learn, and how much more effective might we be in building something better?

 

The stories from the People’s State of the Union have been collected at the USDAC Story Portal. Visit, search, and share your own.

What does an act of collective imagination look like?

This past summer, the people-powered non-governmental US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) launched an array of creative “imaginings” across the country. Run by the USDAC’s newly-minted cultural agents, these events brought together artists, organizers, and community members to build shared, creative visions for the future of their neighborhoods. Below is a new video sharing some of the fun!

Beautiful Solutions — From the People who Made Beautiful Trouble

Gathering the most promising and contagious strategies for building a just, democratic, and resilient world.

I am excited to announce the launch of Beautiful Solutions, an online resource of strategies for building a more just world. The site was created in partnership with Naomi Klein’s powerful new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, which lays out how the struggle to address climate change could be turned into an opportunity to promote justice-oriented reforms across a range of key social issues.

Like its predecessor, Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, it’s a modular site, with short pieces focused on specific strategies, case studies, theories, and underlying values. Each is written in a way that is useful and useable by activists, and includes links for further research. Check out the story of Initiative 136, the fight for environmentally responsible water management in Greece. Learn about the concept of usufruct, the right to use natural resources as long as those resources are preserved for others. Or read about how communities can take control of their own sustainable development through community wealth building.

The site is a growing, collaborative site. I am honored to have had the chance to contribute a number of pieces, and there are many more to come as the site grows. You can join the project by visiting the Solutions Lab, where you can share your own stories, strategies, and theories. What do you see as the most promising solutions to economic, environmental, and social injustice?

Use Your Cultural Assets — A Principle of Creative Activism

Today I’m excited to share with you the second piece I have written for Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, a book-turned-website with tons of great resources for creative activists. This was an excellent exercise for me, because it forced me to take the ideas about culture that I’ve been exploring here and in my other work, and boil it down to some key pieces of advice. The full text is below, but for the full, interactive experience read it on the Beautiful Trouble website

“Never go outside the experience of your people. . . . Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.”

— Saul Alinsky

Principle In Sum: By drawing on the cultural assets of the community, organizers can deepen the involvement of participants, disorient opponents, and shift the cultural terrain in their favor.

Radical social change groups can rarely compete with their opponents in terms of financial resources or institutional power. Instead, they must draw on what they do have: passionate, committed people willing to take action. The same is true in the cultural arena: opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, from dominant paradigms and frames to control of mass media (see THEORY: Cultural hegemony). To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths.

 All communities develop shared cultures — stories, symbols, art forms, knowledge, norms, and practices that hold the community together and shape its identity. These cultures offer rich resources for action, whether it’s youth organizers performing hip-hop street theater; Japanese-American activists repurposing traditional Taiko drumming; or Harry Potter fans drawing on the narratives of Rowling’s books to address an array of social justice issues (see CASE: Harry Potter Alliance).

If social change efforts are to be led by those most affected by injustice (see PRINCIPLE: Take leadership from the most impacted), then this principle calls for a particular focus on the cultural strengths of marginalized communities, or what researcher Tara Yosso calls “community cultural wealth.” In the face of ongoing oppression, communities develop many ways of strengthening themselves and resisting domination. They hone storytelling and communication skills, share counter-stories that challenge dominant narratives, create new art forms, and develop practices of mutual support. Many of the most powerful social change efforts, from the African-American civil rights movement in the US to the environmental justice movements throughout the world, have relied heavily on the cultural wealth of participating communities.

When communities draw on their own cultural assets to carry out actions, they strengthen their own membership while simultaneously disorienting and discomfiting opponents. They are playing by their own rules rather than accepting the existing terms of engagement. By inserting their own stories, perspectives, and practices into the broader dialogue, they are not just operating within, but actively shifting the cultural terrain (see PRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain).

Culturally specific practices can serve as a statement of cultural pride, and can strengthen collective identity. When the Idle No More protests spread across Canada and the United States beginning in 2012, organizers utilized Indigenous music, dance, and language as a way to assert the power and continued relevance of Indigenous culture (see CASE: Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob). Utilizing shared cultural assets can also help to draw in others who are not yet onside politically, but who relate culturally. For example, given hip hop’s worldwide cache with young people, many see it as an effective tool for organizing across racial, ethnic, and national lines.

Potential Pitfalls

Exclusion: When drawing on culturally specific practices, there is always a risk of alienating not just opponents, but also people you would like to welcome into your effort. Then again, this is true of any cultural practice: protest marches, press conferences, sit-ins, and other organizing staples all energize some folks while making others feel excluded (see THEORY: Political identity paradox and PRINCIPLE: Make new folks welcome). If exclusion is an issue, it can be moderated by adapting or combining practices from different cultural communities; educating allies on the meaning of the practices; or carefully selecting practices that are welcoming. For example, the freedom songs of the African-American civil rights movement combined Black spirituals and white folk music as a way to assist in organizing across racial lines.

Appropriation: Organizers must also be aware of the dangers of simplification and appropriation. Cultures are complex and dynamic, with blurry boundaries and lots of internal diversity. They cannot be reduced to a small set of symbols or art forms. Those who are not directly involved in a cultural community may have a particularly difficult time understanding this complexity. Beware of appropriating aspects of a culture you do not fully appreciate or understand, no matter how pure your intentions.

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.

Photo Credit: Drummers for a Round Dance flash mob held at the Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, December 30, 2012. Photo by Kevin Konnyu.

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.