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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.

 

 

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.