Beautiful Solutions — From the People who Made Beautiful Trouble

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

The Food Project on Dudley Street

The Food Project on Dudley Street, a neighborhood of Boston that has taken control of its own development.

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.

American folk singer Pete Seeger and civil rights activists in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, sing “We Shall Overcome”, a traditional African-American hymn that later became emblematic of the civil rights movement in the United States. Photo by Adger Cowans/Getty Images.

American folk singer Pete Seeger and civil rights activists in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1963, sing “We Shall Overcome”, a traditional African-American hymn that later became emblematic of the civil rights movement in the United States. Photo by Adger Cowans/Getty Images.

“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.

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.