Paul Kuttner

“In Order to Survive, We Create”: A Selective History of Sonny Assu

“Trickster” is the word that Janet Rogers uses to describe artist Sonny Assu in her forward to his recently published collection, Sonny Assu: A Selective History. The term seems very fitting. Like Raven or Coyote, Assu’s art is mischievously clever. He is both a thief and a creator, taking hungrily from the world around him and transforming what he has stolen into something enticingly new. And like those classic trickster figures, Assu has given us the gift of fire — a light that reveals realities too long pushed into the darkness.

Assu is an artist of Liǥwildax̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage, living in unceded Liǥwildaʼx̱w territory (what the Canadian government calls British Columbia). He has already won or been nominated for a number of awards, and his art has been shown around the world. This book was my first introduction to Assu, and it blew me away.

Sonny Assu: A Selective History Book Cover

Sonny Assu: A Selective History

University of Washington Press, 2018

Assu’s works vary widely in form and medium — from digital prints and painted panels to wood sculptures and large installations. However, they share a certain boldness of message and vividness of line and color that owe an equal debt to graffiti, poster art, pop-art, and 4-color comics. The pieces feels young, brash, modern, and playful, often speaking directly to current First Nations and Canadian politics.

At the same time, Assu’s art is deeply rooted in the histories, totems, materials, and traditions of indigenous life on the Northwest Coast. His designs are often inspired by the area’s iconic formline art. Many feature copper, a highly-valued and symbolic material central to the Northwest Coast potlatch ceremonies. Such ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government for 67 years, and the violence of that ban reverberates throughout the book. Music is also a repeated theme. Painted drums and copper records recall the ways that indigenous voices and music were kept alive despite the ban and other efforts to silence them.

Billy and the Chiefs Complete Collection
Billy and the Chiefs: The Complete Banned Collection
2012-2013, acrylic on elk-hide drums, 10 and 12 inches in diameter. Installation of 67. Rachel Topham, Vancouver Art Gallery

While Assu’s oeuvre is hard to pin down with any one label, some of my favorite pieces in the book are in the spirit of indigenous futurism. While maintaining a connection to an indigenous past, they also reclaim the present and the future as spaces of indigenous life and power. For example, in Assu’s series Interventions in the Imaginary, the artist takes classic Canadian paintings that portray indigenous peoples as romanticized or absent and “digitally intervenes” with UFO-like 3-D formline shapes that come to dominate the prints. In one, the shape seems to be “beaming up” an indigenous family. It carries the Star Trek-inspired title “Yeah…shit’s about to go sideways. I’ll take you to Amerind. You’ll like it, looks like home.”

Yeah…shit’s about to go sideways. I’ll take you to Amerind. You’ll like it, looks like home.

2016, Digital intervention on an Emily Carr Painting (Cape Mudge: An Indian Family with Totem Pole, 1912). Archival Pigment Print, Sonny Assu

The essays in the book — written by fellow artists, writers, and curators — touch on various facets of Assu’s work. Taken together, they uncover the historical, personal, narrative, and theoretical backdrop upon which Assu’s art takes on its full meaning. An essay by Assu himself offers further insights into the artist’s process and goals. Through these essays, the reader is guided through Assu’s trajectory as an artist, a journey that simultaneously a personal exploration of his history and ancestors, an effort to make visible the ongoing horrors of colonization and racism, and a reassertion of indigenous ways of knowing and being.

Images from Sonny Assu: A Selective History, used with permission

From Hashtags to Hip-Hop, the Hows and Whys of Cultural Campaigning

This story has been re-posted from

Making change by making art. Campaigners have long recognized the power of culture in their efforts to effect social change, whether it’s weaving a well-timed pop culture reference into campaign messaging or organising an entire movement around a cultural idea, custom, value or tradition.

Cultural campaigning can transform narratives, mobilise communities, and shift public perceptions of issues in important ways. But what’s the best way to go about it? And how has the age of hashtags and internet memes influenced this tactic?

On 30 August, 2018, MobLab Live brought together special guests Masih Alinejad (journalist, author, and founder of My Stealthy Freedom, a movement against against compulsory hijab in Iran), Dr. Paul Kuttner (associate director at University Neighborhood Partners, University of Utah, and author at, and Dr. Toby Jenkins (author and associate professor of curriculum studies at the University of South Carolina) to discuss these questions and more.

Below, watch a recording of the session, catch up on all of the discussion’s takeaways, and explore a list of resources related to cultural campaigning.

Lessons and takeaways

Culture is the fabric that holds us all together — so your campaign is cultural, whether you realise it or not.

Discourse around economic, political and social issues doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s rooted in culture. It follows that your organising around those issues will similarly be rooted in culture, even if you’re not doing so with culture actively in mind.

Cultural campaigning offers people an important “shelter from the storm”.

Fighting for social change, or even bearing the burden of the status quo, is taxing. Cultural campaigning can be a reprieve: it’s grounded in creativity, and gives us the space to create the world we want.

Dr. Toby Jenkins spoke about open mic nights for spoken word poetry and other speech that she organizes on university campuses in the U.S. These spaces are one of the few venues for students to speak out on issues that affect them, she said.

It doesn’t end with the students, however. The experience is meaningful for the audience too, she said, and inspires energy and motivation in them to dream of a better world.

But cultural means much more than simply artistic or creative.

A campaign that doesn’t take culture into account will struggle to connect with people, however creative or artistic it may be. It must be true to the real lived experiences of people.

Cultural isn’t always synonymous with good, either.

Culture gives us a wealth of sources of inspiration and innovation to transform society for the better. However, culture can also contain norms that undermine human rights.

Masih Alinejad pointed out how many people are hesitant to criticise the compulsory veil law in Iran because they conflate one cultural norm with the whole of Iranian culture.

Think locally.

Not every cultural campaign can or should be a viral national phenomenon — and that’s OK. There is tremendous power to effect change at the local level; besides, different communities have different cultures, so cultural campaigning designed for one community might not connect as well with another.

But think globally too.

The internet, and social media in particular, is a tool that can take a cultural campaign beyond its “target” audience, as long as you frame it in a way that makes it accessible to someone of another culture. In My Stealthy Freedom’s case, that meant engaging not only with feminists on the other side of the globe, but also men within Iran.

Effective cultural campaigning comes from the bottom up.

Cultural organising can’t come from the top down, Dr. Paul Kuttner said — otherwise it won’t connect with people.

Kuttner referenced his work with Project Hip Hop, which trains young artists in Boston as cultural organisers who can address social justice issues in their communities. The project’s campaigners didn’t impose a love or understanding of hip hop culture on participants. Instead, they created space to discuss hip hop and its role in social change — for good and for ill. These sorts of conversations have to happen first within a culture, he said, before any sort of public campaigning can be undertaken.

My Stealthy Freedom’s success is in part because of its decentralised leadership, Masih Alinejad said. Had her opponents shamed her into disowning it — which they have tried, but failed to do — the movement would have continued without her because she is not its sole leader.

In fact, in her view, anyone who has used the movement’s hashtags to contribute their resistance to compulsory veil in Iran has become a leader.

Resources and further reading

What We Talk About When We Talk About Schools

This post is based on the article: Education Coverage in Television News: A Typology and Analysis of 35 Years of Topics. Check out the full article for free at AERA Open.

When US residents are asked about the priorities they want policymakers to address, education is always near the top. That’s not surprising. Most of us have a child, a neighbor, a niece, a nephew, a grandchild, or someone we care about who is making their way through the school system. We’re rightly concerned about what happens after youth are dropped off at the school door — particularly after decades of being told how badly our public schools are failing.

What is surprising is how little attention mainstream media outlets give to education. A Brookings Institute study of national print, television, web, and radio news sources in 2009 found that just 1.4% of news coverage addressed topics related to education. Of this coverage, most was focused on topics like finances, politics, and the H1N1 flu outbreak, rather than on issues of teaching and learning. The authors concluded that national education coverage is “virtually invisible.”

The question of how the news media covers education is important. It’s important because democracy only works when the public is informed, and we rely on the media to inform us about pressing issues like school reform. It is important because of the “agenda setting” role that the media plays; by selecting some topics over others, the media affects which issues we see as significant and worth our time. And it is important because the media shapes how we think about educational issues, depending on how they are framed: what is left in and what is left out, what is forefront and what is left in the background, who speaks and who is silent.

A few years ago, my colleague at the University of Utah, Dr. Kevin Coe, and I launched a research project looking into mainstream news coverage of education. Dr. Coe is a scholar of rhetoric and political communication. My research is in education and culture. Together, we pulled together a large body of data: every story about Pre-K-12 education (preschool through high school) in the U.S. that aired on broadcast evening news (ABC, NBC, CBS) over the course of 35 years.

Our research immediately confirmed what others have found about education coverage: There is very little. Pre-K-12 education news made up less than 1% of all evening news coverage. In an average year, the three networks presented just 194 minutes of education news.

This low percentage makes the topics that are covered that much more important. We wanted to know: What topics within education are being covered? What’s being left out? And how has this changed over time? So we categorized all the stories by their most prominent topic. This involved developing a typology of 30 different education topics sorted into four broad categories. Our data set is publicly available for other researchers to use.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what this data can tell us about how the network news media might be shaping educational policy and practice. In this post, we present a couple of data visualizations based on this research. These interactive visualizations chart the level of coverage for each topic, year by year. If you want some of our interpretations, check out the full article. But we encourage you to use these visualizations to explore for yourself, and begin to think about why these trends might look the way they do. The typology and definitions of each topic can be found here.

In the first figure, you can see the 35-year trends for the four broad categories (Teaching and Learning; Structures of Schooling; Equity and Diversity; Climate, Health, and Safety), as well as changes in total education coverage. You can expand the graph to full screen, and click on each topic on the right to highlight that trend.

This second figure takes a more fine-grained look, following 30 specific topics. Many of these topics are related to prominent school reform movements like school choice and standards, hot button issues like religion in schools, and long-running struggles to address (in)equity in education. Again, you can use the graph below to explore each separate topic and how focus on it has waxed and waned over time.

Dr. Coe and I have now begun to dig deeper into specific topics and how they are framed by network news media. We’re studying what is sometimes called the “discourse of derision” — a discourse that attacks the U.S. education system and places blame squarely on the shoulders of educators. We’re interested in the discourses used to discuss race and equity, and how they have evolved over the years through multiple equity-focused reform efforts.

As with any research, there are limits to what we can learn from this data. These days, network news media is only one part of a vast media landscape that includes social media, online blogs and news sites, podcasts, and much more. Still, this data gives us the rare ability to track dominant education discourses over the course of decades, and to analyze how the way we talk about schools has evolved (or not) over time.

Featured Image: Montage of news anchors, created for from sources all over the web through fair use. 

Four Ways to Shift Culture Toward Justice

The struggle for the soul of U.S. culture is heating up. White supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise, along with attacks on truth and accountability. Meanwhile, social movements are helping us to reckon with how society (de)values Black lives and the stories of cis and trans women facing sexual abuse. Groups across the country, and around the world, are taking seriously the work of shifting culture as an indispensable part of organizing for social justice.

But how do you go about intentionally shifting culture? The answer depends a lot on your understanding of what culture is and how it evolves. Without a clear theory of culture, it’s difficult to create effective strategies for change. And there are almost as many theories of culture as there are people trying to change it.

For example, in the 18th century, European Enlightenment thinkers proposed a theory of cultural change that is now called “unilineal evolution.” This theory proposes that all cultures evolve in a predictable linear pattern — from primitivism to barbarism to civilization. Western European culture, of course, was placed at the height of civilization. Unilineal evolution has been widely discredited. However, for many years it undergirded Europe’s imperialist project, and its assumptions can still be found lurking in modern discourse, as in efforts to promote development in “underdeveloped” countries.

In this post, I share some prominent theories of cultural change that have informed justice-oriented cultural organizing efforts. Each suggests a different approach to cultural organizing, though they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the best efforts combine approaches. We’re all working from some sort of theory of culture, even if it is just implicit. Being more explicit about how we conceptualize cultural change should help us to be more intentional in making it happen.

1. Cultural Change as Evolution

One way to think about cultural change is that it is analogous to biological change. From this perspective, “cultural traits” (norms, ideas, beliefs, habits, skills, etc.) are passed on to younger generations much as biological traits are. Cultural traits can change over time in response to new needs in the environment. New traits can be introduced and spread through a population via innovation or interaction with other cultures. In this way, culture literally evolves over time, in the Darwinian sense. The analogy is not perfect; for example, cultural evolution moves much faster than biological evolution, and cultural traits can be passed on by non-relatives. Still, decades of research have documented the workings of cultural evolution and how it is similar to, and interacts with, biological evolution.

Richard Dawkins famously coined the word “meme” to describe the cultural analogue to the biological “gene.” According to Dawkins, a meme is a single unit of culture –- for example, the knowledge of how to make a certain tool, or the norm of having fewer children, or the concept of a “meme” itself. Like a gene, a meme is a replicator. It spreads from brain to brain, host to host, like a virus. Memes compete with one another for our attention, our billboard space, and our twitter feeds, and successful memes become self-replicating. Memes may proliferate because they help their hosts (us) survive. But memes can also take on a life of their own, spreading for reasons that have nothing to do with biological survival.

The word meme has become synonymous with a certain kind of viral online image, but it means much more than that.

This view of cultural change implies that a cultural organizer is something akin to a dog or plant breeder — introducing and replicating certain cultural traits over others. Of course, we have nothing like the kind of control that a breeder does, working instead in what Dawkins calls the “primordial soup” of culture. But we can take part in the struggle for the survival of the fittest memes. For example, we can identify memes, or cultural traits, from the past and reintroduce them into new contexts. We can build bridges across cultures so that we have a larger pool of cultural traits to choose from. Or we can craft new memes — symbols, rituals, concepts, etc. — and support their spread throughout our communities.

This style of cultural organizing has exploded in recent years with the proliferation of internet hash tags and other symbols that carry memes across the world in an instant. We are learning what kind of memes catch on — or are “sticky” — on these new platforms, and how to actively use them to start new conversations and movements. This theory of cultural change, however, does have its limitations. It suggests a relatively fair playing field upon which the “best” memes will win, obscuring more structural barriers and privileges that affect which ideas come out on top in the cultural arena.

2. Cultural Change as Meaning Making

A second way to think about cultural change is as a process of revising how we collectively make sense of the world. This perspective is rooted in sociological theories such as symbolic interactionism and social constructionism. According to these theories, the important thing about humans is that we are meaning makers. We use our past experiences and interactions to invest the world around us with meaning. The meaning that we make of the world, in turn, shapes how we interact with it.

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”

Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures

This bottom-up understanding of culture leaves a lot of room for human agency. Socially constructed meanings are not permanent. In fact, they require ongoing reinforcement and repair. Every time one of us tells a young boy they shouldn’t wear pink, for example, we reinforce a shared understanding of the male/female dichotomy. On the flip side, every time we challenge the shared way of making meaning — dressing our boy in pink, or not telling anyone their gender at all — we put a tiny dent in the cultural consensus. It is through lots of these tiny communicative encounters that we can see a cultural shift start to take hold. 

We don’t make meaning of the world by ourselves, though. We do it through interactions with other people. We communicate through language and other symbol systems, and this impacts how we make sense of our experiences. Over time, through repeated interactions, groups of people develop shared meanings — for example, what it means to be a “man” or “woman” in a particular society. A group’s full web of shared meanings and associated practices is called a culture. To say it another way, culture is an emergent phenomenon, based on billions of small everyday interactions.

This understanding of cultural change encourages us to think not only about large-scale cultural campaigns, but also the importance of small everyday interactions. It resonates with the “personal is political” perspective that came out of the US Feminist movement, and the Environmental Movement’s call to “think globally, act locally.” Our goals may be large in scale, but first we need to attend to ourselves and the ways we interact with our families, our friends, and our fellow organizers. However, as with the evolutionary perspective, these theories may lead us to underestimate the power of social and economic hierarchies to stymie cultural change efforts. For a more structural analysis, we turn to our next theory of culture.

3. Cultural Change as Ideological Struggle

A third way of thinking about cultural change is as a power struggle. This perspective comes to us from critical and Marxist traditions, and is rooted in conflict theory, which argues that societies are made up of social groups competing for resources and power. In this framework, the dominant culture in any society reflects the values, ideologies, and worldviews of the dominant social group. Through its control of institutions like education and mass media, the dominant group is able to project its particular values and ideologies across society in a way that makes them seem normal, neutral, or simply “common sense.”

This is why we can talk, for example, about the culture in U.S. schools or institutions being “white” even if not all of the people in charge are. The underlying assumptions, values, and rules that govern these institutions are aligned with the culture of the dominant (white) group in the country. To the extent that the people in those institutions are a part of that culture and buy into its values, they will find it easier to navigate the institution and earn its rewards. Those who differ too much — who don’t have the right kind of cultural capital — will be marginalized and labeled as deviant.

The dominant group uses its cultural influence to maintain control. By making the status-quo seem fair and just — or at least inevitable — the dominant group earns the allegiance of the majority of the people. After all, if this is the natural order of things, what reason is there to revolt? Gramsci termed this form of domination cultural hegemony. Importantly, cultural hegemony is never complete. There is diversity among elites, and there is always some level of dissent from the population. But cultural hegemony sets the parameters for what forms of dissent are deemed legitimate, and even what kinds of alternatives are imaginable.

In this framework, the job of the cultural organizer is to find and promote counter-hegemonies. Sub-cultures, often thriving at the margins of mainstream society, develop values and worldviews that challenge the status quo. These counter-hegemonic cultures are all around us, at least in partial form — in hip-hop culture, in Black Twitter, in Indigenous communities, in anarchist collectives, etc. By supporting, promoting, and taking part in the evolution of these sub-cultures, we help amass the cultural resources we need to challenge the powers that be.

According to these theories, cultural resources by themselves are not enough. Cultural struggle needs to be linked to the struggle for economic and political resources as well. Cultural organizers are called on to launch grassroots media outlets that carry countercultural messages; to build new institutions founded on counter-hegemonic values and norms; and to organize with oppressed communities to build power and take control of the economic, social, and political systems.

4. Cultural Change as Counterstorytelling

A fourth way to think about cultural change is as a process of storytelling. This perspective is rooted in the interdisciplinary field of narrative theory. Humans are, as Jonathan Gottschall puts it, “the storytelling animal.” Story is one of the main ways that we make sense of the world and pass along the values, norms, assumptions, and worldviews that make up culture.

For narrative scholars, a “story” is a particular kind of discourse that makes sense of our messy world by “emplotting” it. Story structures differ across cultures, but in western societies they generally include sequences of events with causal links between them (one thing leads to the next), central conflicts that drive the plot forward, and characters who have agency to make choices. Importantly, stories do not exist on their own; they are told. They are social acts. A story involves both a teller and an audience, and it is together that they produce the story’s meaning.

Storytelling serves many purposes. We tell folktales and fables in order to teach children how to behave: don’t shirk your responsibilities, don’t go into the woods at night. We tell friends the stories of our day in order to elicit emotional support and influence how they perceive us. We pass on myths to explain why the world is the way it is and how we should care for it. We narrate our histories in order to solidify a collective or national identity. Even our individual personalities can be understood as stories we tell ourselves in order to find coherence in the complexity of our lives.

Over time, societies develop shared narrative repertoires. These are the stories that “everyone knows” and that communicate what that society deems meaningful, moral, and valuable. This includes specific stories such as folk tales, religious narratives, legends, and popular versions of history. It also includes what the Storytelling Project’s Lee Ann Bell calls “stock stories” or what are often referred to as “dominant narratives.” These are not so much specific stories as genres. These genres show up repeatedly in novels, films, TV shows, and history books. They also serve as blueprints for telling our own personal stories.

For example, take the stock story of the “American Dream.” American Dream stories tell of individuals migrating to the U.S., working hard, and finding a better life for themselves and their children. Barack Obama used this genre at his famous DNC convention speech. The DREAMers movement leveraged this narrative to advance immigration reform. The danger of using dominant narratives is that they tend to reinforce the status quo — in this case upholding ideas about meritocracy and U.S. exceptionalism. Plus, it can be hard to tell alternative stories. Immigrants whose stories don’t match the single story of the American Dream — for example, those who have experienced racism or intergenerational poverty — are silenced, marginalized, and treated as abnormal. If your story doesn’t fit the dominant narrative, there must be something wrong with you.

As this example suggests, stories are deeply connected to questions of power. Which stories can be told, who is able to tell them, and who listens are all arenas of struggle. The Center for Story-Based Strategy refers to this as the “battle of the story.” We see this battle everyday in the media, among policymakers, and in organizing campaigns: groups attempting to advance their version of a story and the way it frames a particular issue or concern. Embedded in these competing stories are different assumptions about what exactly the problem is, how it came about, and how it should be solved.

Stories can shatter complacency and challenge the status quo…They can open new windows into reality, showing us that there are possibilities for life other than the ones we live…They can show us the way out of the trap of unjustified exclusion. They can help us understand when it is time to reallocate power.

Richard Delgado, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others

Through this lens, the job of the cultural organizer is to be a counterstoryteller. Counterstories, or counter-narratives challenge, subvert, complicate, or counteract the dominant stories that uphold unequal power relationships. A counterstory might be a personal narrative that doesn’t fit into the dominant mold and thus undermines its claim to truth. Or it might be a historical account that has been left out of our history books and that presents a different perspective on the past. Or it might be a visionary narrative laying out more just possibilities for the future. Counterstories are all around us, despite concerted efforts to silence them.

There are many different ways that cultural organizers can support counterstorytelling. For example, the Storytelling Project advocates for a more micro approach, cultivating “counterstorytelling communities” in which multiracial groups can share, critique, and reimagine stories about race. The Center for Story-Based Strategy takes a more macro approach, working with organizing and advocacy groups to develop “narrative strategies” that complement more traditional campaigns. These and other approaches shift culture by uncovering stories that have been silenced, validating the stories of people whose experiences have been marginalized, and inserting new narratives into public discourse.


In the previous sections, I outlined four perspectives on cultural change and what they imply about how organizers can intentionally shift culture. This is far from a complete list. (For example, we’ve barely touched the surface of the complex world of discourse analysis, or the impact of the environment on culture.) However, these are some of the theories that I have found to be most useful in conceptualizing cultural organizing, and have seen expressed by others doing this kind of work. I hope this essay can help further the conversation about our shared understanding of cultural change, and how to enhance our collective struggles for justice. 

Featured image from top of article: “Adelante.” Artist: Ruby Chacón, 2016. Cover art for Transforming Educational Pathways for Chicana/o Students by Dolores Delgado Bernal and Enrique Aleman.

Art in a Time of Emergency

Photo: Mirror Shileds at Standing Rock, Designed by Cannupa Hanska Luger

These days, it seems like we are in a constant state of emergency. Last week’s terror attack against anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville is only one in a string of local, national, and international crises. Whether its a police shooting, an illegal pipeline project, a ban on Muslims entering the US, or the threat of nuclear war, we are bouncing from one disaster to the next with head-spinning rapidity. And this is to say nothing of long-simmering, chronic emergencies like poverty, climate change, and colonialism. In this context, we can be forgiven if we’re a bit unsure about where to start.

Art Became The Oxygen Cover ImageA new report out from the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) offers an intriguing path forward. In Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guidethe USDAC argues that “crises need creativity.” Art and cultural work, they propose, are essential for responding to disasters — whether they be natural, technological, human-made, or all of the above. The USDAC first shared this idea last winter in it’s policy and action platform, Standing for Cultural Democracy. Now, over the course of 74 pages, the USDAC lays out the why and how. It is well worth a read from start to finish.

What is Artistic Response?

As Hurricane Sandy made its way toward the east coast in October of 2012, an array of local, state, and national emergency management systems went into effect. Even before landfall, the Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA) and its New York counterpart began setting up distribution points for meals, blankets, and water. In the hours after the storm hit, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations mobilized thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars to feed and clothe survivors, get the power back online, and clean up the physical impact of the disaster. FEMA and its partners were publicly lauded for their efforts.

Less well recognized, and far less well funded, was the work of volunteers like those at the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn. The Armory had been turned into an evacuation shelter for 300 elderly and special needs evacuees. Seeing that these individuals had needs beyond shelter, food, and water, a local city councilman asked Caron Atlas of Arts & Democracy to organize cultural and wellness activities onsite. Soon, the Armory was filled with volunteer- and evacuee-led activities: music, dance, films, knitting, massage, religious services, therapy dogs, and more. Artists came from all around to run workshops and share their talents. Atlas reflects on the value of this experience:

“I’ve always known that arts and culture had the power to heal, but this direct experience proved to me how extraordinary they could be in a disaster. Above all, our work helped return peoples’ dignity and respect. They went from being an evacuee in a row of cots to being the incredible human beings that they truly are — a woman who got her PhD years before it was common for women to do so, a Jazz drummer, a torah scholar, a painter, amazing knitters.”

This is just one example of what Amelia Brown calls “emergency arts,” a combination of artistic practice, emergency management, and community development. Drawing on her own experience in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, Amelia Brown works to build collaborations among artists, community members, and emergency management agencies to support resiliency, healing, and recovery in the midst of disaster. Even as she addresses the deep trauma and tragedy of disaster, Brown recognizes opportunities as well.

“Serving in New Orleans helped me develop a deeper understanding that emergencies can lead to opportunities. One of the most precious opportunities is to rebuild community with people gathered around an emergency who were once strangers and become family. These relationships are one of our greatest community assets.”

What does Artistic Response Look Like?

As Brown lays out in the Guide, emergencies come in many forms. They can be “acute shocks” like an instance of violence or a flood. They can also can be “chronic stresses” like unemployment or water deficiencies. Emergencies can be natural, technological, or human created. In fact, every crisis, she explains, is actually multiple crises. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina can be exacerbated by human error and discrimination. Acute shocks can uncover deep, festering divisions in our society. For example, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville was not only a startling act of violence. It was also symptom of our country’s inability to come to terms with its long history of white supremacy.

Different emergencies require different responses. In Art Became the Oxygen, artistic responses are sorted into three broad categories:

1. Care, Comfort, and Connection

Traditional emergency management systems are focused first and foremost on personal safety, ensuring that people survive an acute disaster intact. Artistic response can help with the next steps: creating spaces of safety, reasserting strength and dignity, and connecting with one’s community in preparation for the long, collaborative process of recovery. This is what took place at the Park Slope Armory after Hurricane Sandy. The tools of community-based arts — like the facilitation collaborative art making rooted in people’s experiences and cultures — are well suited to this work.

2. Protest

Not all emergencies receive the kind of outpouring of support that we saw with Hurricane Sandy. Often political pressure is needed to demand an effective response. In this context, the arts can be used to highlight emergency situations, uncover root causes, generate empathy for those impacted, and share counterstories to those in mainstream media. In addition, disasters often clarify the need for more systemic political and social change — whether that’s more investment in infrastructure or police reform. Artists can draw on a long history of protest art to support movements for systemic change.

3. Reframing and Resilience

Once initial disaster relief efforts wind down, the hard work of recovery begins. Building back up the physical, emotional, spiritual, or social fabric of community is slow, patient work, and requires high levels of collaboration. Community artists can support this process in numerous ways, such as making space for storytelling, creating opportunities to heal from trauma, bringing community members together to strengthen social ties, and helping to imagine a strong, resilient future.

Artists and cultural workers of all stripes are called to action in times of emergency: muralists, graphic designers, digital media artists, photographers, dancers, musicians, theater artists, storytellers, artisans, etc. Most of the work featured in the Guide is of a community-engaged, collaborative nature. However, artists who work on their own can also play valuable roles, particularly in the category of protest. The Guide is full of examples to inspire and inform new efforts. For examples, check out the work of Transforma in New Orleans, Dancing for JusticeProject Jukebox, and We Are The Storm, to name just a few.

What Does Effective Artistic Response Take?

Artistic response is necessarily diverse and flexible, taking into account the particularities of each emergency, so there is no one list of best practices. However, the Guide offers a lot of valuable advice for those considering getting involved. Any community engaged artistic project requires careful attention to local history, culture, and policy, and demands well developed skills in group facilitation, collaboration, and self understanding. Working with people living through trauma and stress heightens the importance of these skills. This is not an area of work to enter lightly.

Working in collaboration with other organizations or agencies brings in a whole other raft of concerns. In fact, almost a quarter of the Guide is dedicated to building bridges between artists and emergency management agencies. This is an area of exciting possibility, as well as huge barriers. Artists and agencies work from different paradigms, use different language, and measure their success in different ways. While goals may overlap, priorities may not be aligned. The USDAC suggests that artists interested in such partnerships study the basics of emergency management, approach agencies with respect, build trust and foster honest conversation about risks, and work as intermediaries that can translate between communities and agencies, among other advice.

Artistic responders, the USDAC stresses, are not saviors. They are supporters, partners, learners, and catalysts. They recognize that while emergencies inevitably affect some more than others, we all have a shared stake in building our collective strength and resilience. Amelia Brown offers this vision of a future where artistic response is the norm:

“Effective development of this field includes building relationships, policies, procedures and structures that support artists at every level of emergency management. Collaborations in this field will change the future of emergency management. I envision a time where there will be no emergency management plans that do not have dedicated arts policies and procedures. There will be no emergency management agencies that do not have artists as part of their leadership team. There will be no community organizations that do not recognize and support the value of artists in addressing emergencies in their communities. There will be Emergency Arts.”


Want to learn more? Read the report, and then join the conversation on August 28th for the Art Became the Oxygen online “salon,” featuring Carole Bebelle of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Michael O’Bryan, of the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia; and Amber Hansen, South Dakota-based visual artist and Co-director of Called to Walls.

Futurism, Futurity, and the Importance of the Existential Imagination

In arts and social change work, we talk about the importance of being able to imagine a future that is better — more just — than the world we live in today. But often the struggle is a more existential one: imagining a future where one’s community or culture exists at all.

Last year I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by artist and interactive designer Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde (Ayo). “Blackness,” he told the gathered crowd at the URBAN conference in New York City, “is being removed from the future.” This removal, he explained, is partly physical: black bodies are being violently removed from the future through police killings, mass incarceration, and other systems of racial oppression.

This removal is also representational. Black people are either misrepresented or completely unrepresented in popular visions of the future. Mainstream science fiction, on the page and on the screen, is dominated by white authors and their white characters. This lack of representation of People of Color is not only a question of equity. What happens when people spend their lives being fed visions of the future that don’t include them? What does that do to their self-perceptions? To their their ability to plan for the future? What does it do to our collective capacity to imagine — and enact — something different?

In response, Ayo has transformed himself into an Afronaut. He walks the streets of New York as Dr. Tanimowo, a time traveler from a future where African diasporic peoples and cultures are well represented. His outfit — part space suit, part Yoruba masquerade — blends space-age materials with West African-patterned fabrics. As he journeys through our present time, Dr. Tanimowo interacts with passers-by. For a moment, they are presented with an alternative and potentially liberating vision of the future. As Ayo explains, these travels are “a ritualistic rite, or a ritual that’s actually creating the future itself.”1

The Afronaut on expedition

The Afronaut on expedition. Image copyright Ayodamola Okunseinde


Ayo is also encouraging others to imagine Black futures. With fellow artist Salome Osega, Ayo runs workshops where community members can become futuristic archeologists. Participants “uncover” artifacts from the future through design, and many of those designs are then built, here in the present. Ayo and Osega co-founded the Iyapo Repository to hold and display these artifacts: pills that teach African American history, a wetsuit that helps alleviate the cultural trauma of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a necklace that senses “bad vibes” by warning the user when they are in a location where there has been a police shooting.

Ayo’s interactive design work is rooted in, among other things, Afrofuturism. Coined in the early 90’s, the term Afrofuturism was an attempt to delineate a particular tradition of African American futuristic and technological imagination — a tradition embodied in the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, the music of Sun Ra and P-Funk, and the visual art of Basquiat and Rammellzee, among others.2 The concept was further developed by a group of writers and critics on Alondra Nelson’s Afrofuturism listserv, and came to encompass a much larger arena of cultural production. In the words of Nelson, Afrofuturism is

“a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories. AfroFuturism looks across popular culture…to find models of expression that transform spaces of alienation into novel forms of creative potential. In the process it reclaims theorizing about the future.” 3

Afrofuturist aesthetics seem to have made a resurgence in recent years through the work of popular artists like Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe. Meanwhile, Afrofuturism has helped to inspire other art and scholarship, like the Indigenous Futurism of Wendy Redstar and the Chican@futurism of Marion C. Martinez. These and other artists are directly challenging popular discourses that associate progress, technology, innovation, and the future itself with whiteness.

Unlike other “futurist” movements, Afrofuturism and its cousins are neither a break with the past nor a fetishization of the new. They are deeply rooted in history. They offer what Nelson calls “past-future visions.” Like Ayo’s high tech space suit, with its traditional West African elements, these visions “insist that who we’ve been and where we’ve traveled is always an integral component of who we can become.”4 They forefront continuity rather than rupture, overlaying past, present, and future. As the Afrofuturist Affair writes, this kind of time-bending is not new to Communities of Color.

“Whether you call it mythology, ghost stories, cosmology, parable, folktale, sci-fi, religious tale, or fantasy, people of color have always contemplated their origins in the same breath that they anticipated the fate of humankind.”5

Organizers and activists also seem to be taking an increased interest in the future. In 2015, the Movement for Black Lives and Huffington Post launched an annual celebration of Black Futures Month, a remixing of Black History Month that calls on people to “seize the opportunity to change the course of history by shaping our future.” That same year, AK press put out Octavia’s Brood, an engrossing collection of SF short stories written by activists and organizers. Of course, social justice organizing is often driven by a vision of a future better than the one we live in. But something deeper is going on here: a recognition that the future, despite its intangibility, is directly impacting us today.

Take US politics. The election campaign that lifted 45 to the presidency was premised largely on fear of the future. In his speeches and tweets, 45 conjured an imagined future in which the US is overrun by “terrorists,” “rapists,” and “criminals” from across our borders. In this racist, dystopian future, white people sacrifice power and safety amid hostile aliens. This future is not real in any concrete sense. And yet, it affects the present in multiple ways — increasing support for racist policies, emboldening white supremacist organizations, and igniting hate crimes, just to name a few. In this sense, the future is what Andrew Baldwin calls a “permanent virtuality,” unreal and yet ever-present.6

Scholars have taken to using the term futurity to explore these interactions between past, present, and future. From my reading, futurity refers to three main dynamics:

  • The ways that the future is defined (or “rendered knowable”) through practices such as prediction, projection, imagination, prefiguration, and prophecy;7
  • The ways that the future impacts the present, for example through fear, hope, preparation, and preemption;8and
  • The ways that our thoughts and actions in reference to the future make some futures more likely, and others less likely, to come about.9

In his book Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz proposes that queerness is a kind of futurity. “Queerness,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “is not yet here…Put another way, we are not yet queer.”10 Instead, he explains, queerness is an ideal. It is a utopian vision that can help us to see beyond our everyday restrictions toward new possibilities. We cannot touch queerness with our hands, or claim to fully know what it is. We can, however, get glimpses of it, particularly in the realm of cultural production. Through poems, plays, visual art, dance, and other types of performance, artists can step away from what Munoz calls “straight time” — that sense that the present is natural and enduring — to suggest alternative futurities.

The concept of futurity seems to have been most fully developed by Indigenous scholars and activists. As Native scholars have shown, settler colonialism (the kind of colonialism we have in the US, where the colonizer comes to stay) involves an ongoing project of erasure and replacement.11 After all, settler claims to the land in the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere only make sense if the original inhabitants are gone. And, despite centuries of genocide, they are not.

Part of the modern settler project, then, is to erase Indigenous peoples — if not physically (through policies that deny land, health care, etc.) or culturally (through blood quantum tests or the forced removal of children), then at least from popular consciousness. Movies, television shows, school curricula, political speeches, news reports, and other media relegate “the Indian” to our past — a sad chapter in history, perhaps, but nothing to concern ourselves with as we dream of the future. By erasing Indigenous people from the present and the future, these discourses advance the cause of what scholars like Eve Tuck call settler futurity. In other words, these discourses are premised on, and help to bring about, a future of endless settler dominance over the land and all that is on/of it.12

Indigenous communities, though, are (re)claiming the future — opening up space for indigenous futurities to flourish.13 To advance indigenous futurity is to assert, and takes steps to make possible, futures outside of settler colonialism. We can get glimpses of indigenous futurities in the social movement organizing of Idle No More, among the water protectors at Standing Rock, in the Indigenous media production of Indian and Cowboy, and in everyday assertions of Native culture and sovereignty. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua writes that, although they are often framed as relics of the past, Indigenous communities are actually at the front lines of the struggle to protect the future. Writing about Native Hawaiian efforts to defend cultural and natural resources, she notes that “When colonial discourses frame blockades at Newcastle or on Mauna a Wākea as obstructions on a march to “the future,” they miss the ways this kind of activism is actually protecting the possibilities of multiple futures.”14

This work is rooted deeply in Indigenous cultural practices and epistemologies, which, according to Hawaiian activist and blogger Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, have always attended to both the past and the future.

“The future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years. You cannot do otherwise when you rely on the land and sea to survive. All of our gathering practices and agricultural techniques, the patterned mat of loʻi kalo, the breath passing in and out of the loko iʻa, the Kū and Hina of picking plants are predicated on looking ahead. This ensures that the land is productive into the future, that the sea will still be abundant into the future, and that our people will still thrive into the future.”15

A Final Note

When I was coming up in the world of social justice arts and organizing, much of the focus was on history. We studied how injustices like racism and colonialism were historically constructed. We learned how histories of activism and rebellion had been hidden, rewritten, and co-opted to reinforce the right of those in power to rule. We supported youth as they came to see themselves as part of long social movement traditions. This focus on the past was, and is, terribly important.

At the same time, I am energized by what I see as a growing emphasis on the future as an arena of active struggle. Because that’s certainly how those in power see it. Wall street traders are gambling on our futures. Tech companies are redesigning our futures. Hollywood is whitewashing our futures. And all the while, unfettered capitalism is foreclosing so many healthy futures for this planet. Imagining alternative futures is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

The struggle for futurity is on, and as artists and cultural workers we are right in the middle of it, whether we know it or not. It’s time to accept the invitation of Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada: “We live in the future,” he writes. “Come join us.”16




1. The Mothers Nature, Ayo the Afronaut meets World 

2. Mark Dery, Black to the Future, in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture

3. Alondra Nelson, AfroFuturism: Past-Future Visions, ColorLines Magazine

4. ibid

5. Afrofuturist Affair, About – Afrofuturist Affair,

6. Andrew Baldwin, Whiteness and futurity: Towards a research agenda, Progress in Human Geography

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. Eve Tuck, Marcia McKenzie & Kate McCoy, Land education: Indigenous, post-colonial, and decolonizing perspectives on place and environmental education research, Environmental Education Research.

10. José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

11. Eve Tuck & Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing; Patrick Wolfe, Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native, Journal of Genocide Research; Adam Barker, Already Occupied: Indigenous Peoples, Settler Colonialism and the Occupy Movements in North America, Social Movement Studies

12. Eve Tuck & Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Curriculum, Replacement, and Settler Futurity, Journal of Curriculum Theorizing; Eve Tuck & K. Wayne Yang, Decolonization is Not a MetaphorDecolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society.

13. ibid

14. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, Protectors of the Future, Not Protestors of the Past: Indigenous Pacific Activism and Mauna a Wākea,  South Atlantic Quarterly

15. Kamaoli Kuwada, We Live in the Future. Come Join Us

16. ibid

Art is a Basic Human Need: An Interview with Felicia Young

Featured image of the Hudson River Pageant, Photo by William Bourassa Jr.

On the day that 45 was inaugurated into office, I had a very hopeful conversation. I spoke on the phone with long-time cultural organizer Felicia Young, founder of the nonprofit Earth Celebrations, who was getting ready to hit Washington DC for the big protest. She graciously took some time out to talk to me, sharing a bit about her personal journey from the mainstream arts world to running massive pageants as a way to organize communities in New York City and India.

Part 1: Early Explorations & an Epiphany

It would be helpful if you could start by talking a bit about how you got into this work — what has your journey been like?

I grew up in New York City, and by the time I was a senior in high school I already knew I wanted to go into the arts. That year I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was 16, training 11-year-olds to give tours in the in the African Wing of the Met. That’s when I started thinking about these objects, and contrasting them with other art in the museum. They weren’t just meant to hang on the wall. They were meant to be seen in the context of ceremonies and functional rituals.

I went to college in the height of the ‘80s. I majored in art history and ended up interning at Christie’s after my freshman year. That was a whole experience of, “Oh my, if this is what art is about, you could be selling cars. This has nothing to do with what I’m interested in.” That was a very important negative experience for me, because by the time I was 18 I’d already figured out that the commercial art world was not for me.

I spent my junior year abroad in Italy and France and I did all this research on Jacques-Louis David. I came across the fact that not only was he a painter; he was staging these large-scale political pageants for the revolution with 200,000 people staged throughout Paris. I became really intrigued by the idea of art in the streets. Then I came back to NY, and during senior year I had my epiphany in an African art history class.

I’ll never forget that moment, sitting at my desk watching a slide show of this art called Mbari that they do in Igboland, Nigeria. In response to, say, infant mortality or drought, the whole community will decide to hold a communal art making process. And when they say they’re going to do Mbari it’s a commitment. It could be 10 years or more. So, part of the community goes into seclusion, and the rest of the community will provide food for them so they don’t have to work in the fields. They do the art with the shaman in a private, secluded area, and what they create is an elaborate mud hut with mud sculptures representing daily life and the gods. Then they open it up to the community and have a huge celebration, and people come from surrounding areas and admire it. Then, afterwards, they walk away and leave it to decay. It is organic and ephemeral.

That really blew me away. It is not focused only on the object. it is all about the process, it is community engagement, and it’s aiming to achieve a particular result. I didn’t know if I really believed in the magic of it — that this process would make drought go away — but I saw the solidarity that gets built, and how that can strengthen the bonds within communities so that they are better able to deal with whatever problems they have. It’s a method of social organizing and social bonding.

Part 2: Organizing Pageants in New York City

I got my first job at the Alternative Museum in 1987, when it was the only sociopolitical art museum in New York. They were doing incredible political art shows about homelessness, AIDS, the Middle East — but then who was coming to the shows? Other artists and their friends. It was still that insular art community. I used to run across the street to AT&T when the workers got out and say, “Hey, there’s a great show over here maybe you should come.” Sometimes I would get them to come, and they would say, “Oh, that was interesting,” but because it was in a gallery space I recognized that no matter what we were talking about we were talking amongst ourselves.

Once, they were doing a Day of the Dead show for homelessness and AIDS, and I proposed a Día de los Muertos procession. I connected to the women’s shelter and a treatment program, and I worked with them over months making visuals and poetry for a pageant that went from the museum down to city hall. After that I said to myself, “Oh, great, I’ve done my first pageant. I guess I can do this.”

I don’t know if you know Phyllis Yampolsky. She was one of the “happenings” artists from the ‘60s. She’s a cultural organizer, one of the political artists from the Judson Church in New York City. She was looking for an assistant because she had been trying to save McCaren pool out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It had been shut down, and that had racial implications because some white people were aiming to keep the North Brooklyn Black community from swimming in the pool. I ended up getting a job part time working with her, which was an incredible training ground. My job was to go out through the entire North Brooklyn among the Russians, the Italians, the Polish, the Latino community on the south side, and the Black community. We did a series of festivals and a pageant that brought all these communities together creating visual art pieces. It included a 10 block long “Blue Ribbon for Racial Harmony,” which was carried by 100 participants moving from the south side of Williamsburgh through the various neighborhoods and into McCarren Park, creating the outline of the periphery of the pool.

I saw that by doing these pageants and festivals — and by getting the schools, community centers, YMCAs, churches, senior and neighborhood associations involved — people with all these different languages and different cultures who normally did not communicate, could come together. And it was breaking down a lot of the prejudices that people had. Eventually that pool was saved, and 25 years later it’s open.

This art, this ceremony, was as important as food. For these people, art was not luxury. It was essential and integrated into the core of their existence. A basic human need.

Much of my inspiration for the theatrical pageant art form comes from India. I had travelled to India in 1989. My mother is from Calcutta and I wanted to go to discover my roots and also explore the festivals and mythic drama pageants that are integral parts of their culture. I travelled there for four months to visit family and document festivals, including Kumbh Mela, which is the largest gathering on the planet, and the Chithirai festival, the wedding of Meenakshi. This elaborate drama takes place over the course of three weeks across an entire city and neighboring villages, with processions, ritual ceremonies, and a drama enacted through symbolic actions in various locations: streets, temples and along the riverbank.

It impressed me, again on so many levels. Everything that I’d been questioning was getting reaffirmed. It was a time of drought, and the government was coming in with water trucks and people were lining up, but instead of using this precious water for drinking and cooking they were using it to spray on statues as part of the festival.  That’s when I started to think that this art, this ceremony, was as important as food.  For these people, art was not luxury. It was essential and integrated into the core of their existence. A basic human need. I had seen these women in the desert going miles and miles and miles just to get pigment to create elaborate “rangoli” painting on their homes, when their precious time could be spent on collecting water or growing millet in the dessert sand.

Part 3: Garden Protectors

Then I came back to New York, and I ended up living right where I’m living right now, right down the street from what was the Garden of Eden that Adam Purple had created and that was destroyed in 1986 by the city. In 1991 there were nearly 60 gardens on the Lower East Side. These gardens had been created by local residents clearing out rubble strewn vacant lots that that had been neglected by the city since the 60s and 70s. Residents had cultivated over 500 city-owned lots throughout the city, planting trees, flowers and vegetable gardens. They had become outdoor community and cultural centers, environmental science classrooms and theaters for festivals and community programming, cultivating a positive and life affirming culture along with vital open green space.

I realized that the fate of the Garden of Eden could potentially happen to all these magnificent gardens. I reached out to my neighborhood: local gardeners, artists, youth, schools, churches, and community centers. These were the days before the Internet and cell phones, when you had to show up physically to connect with people, at garden meetings, church gatherings, community events. You couldn’t even find out about a meeting unless you walked up every block and looked at every fence for a flyer. So I showed up and told people, “I have this idea, we could do a procession.” It would be ten hours long it would go to 45-50 gardens. We’d do ceremonies and performances at each, telling the history of that garden and its struggles, and proposing their preservation.

So we collaborated for many months on a public art project and pageant. We created visual art, paper mache puppets, costumes, performances, dance, music, poetry and ceremonies. All the community centers got involved, teachers were creating visuals and costumes in their classrooms, and gardens hosted arts workshops. Artists were coming forward and volunteering — long-time Latino and African American community members, international artists who at that time were still hanging on in the east village. 1500 people participated in the first year.

After that first year, people immediately started planning for the next year. By the next year, Theater for the New City offered us free space. I incorporated as a nonprofit, and secured a permanent space at the 6th Street Community Center in 1994. By the time we got to 1995 and the threat to the gardens by development plans had increased. And because of the procession, I had contacts at every garden and could pick up the phone and notify them, “Your garden’s coming up at a community board meeting. You’d better get there!”

I think the fusion of those methods was really powerful, and had we not had the artistic component the organizing may have fizzled out.

In ‘94 I called a public meeting at the St. Brigid’s Church to explore different garden preservation options. Out of that, we formed the Lower East Side Garden Preservation Coalition to work toward solutions. We started meeting monthly, and we formed committees. It was really grassroots. So I had this year-long annual creative project that involved all these sectors creating the visual art pieces for the procession. Then you had some of the more traditional organizing methods: letter writing, going to community board meetings, showing up at these land-use and city planning hearings in city hall. I think the fusion of those methods was really powerful, and had we not had the artistic component the organizing may have fizzled out. The pageant brought people in who didn’t consider themselves activists. It was fun and positive. It functioned sort of like Mbari, reinforcing that solidarity with the people and strengthening the resolve of the community. The pageant itself was an organizing tool, and it got a lot of press.

Save Our Gardens Procession

Save Our Gardens Procession: Flower bulb and marking of the garden on map ceremony, performed at 47 gardens. Photo credit, Christopher Butt.


And the pageant told the story of what was happening with the gardens, which was critical for reaching out beyond our neighborhood. I wove in a mythic drama that told the story of Gaia, who represented the gardens, getting kidnapped by developers. A giant butterfly would fly off the top of a six-story building into the gardens bringing a message of hope that the community could save the gardens. In another scene a battle would ensue where Gaia would be rescued by children in butterfly costumes, and at the end of the day 50 live butterflies would be released by the butterfly children celebrating the saving of the gardens. I believe that the Save Our Gardens pageant helped participants connect to the importance of the gardens on a visceral and emotional level. It built empathy and deep connection to the gardens as the heart and soul of the neighborhood.

Our grassroots coalition became citywide when, in 1996, Giuliani aimed to sell off and develop over 800 gardens throughout NYC. We reached out to gardeners in Harlem, Upper West Side, Bronx, and Brooklyn and said, “We’ve been organizing, we’ve formed a coalition, we should meet.” I had over 200 people show up at our offices on 6th street, and we formed the New York City Coalition for the Preservation of Gardens, which is now called the New York City Community Garden Coalition. I managed that coalition for the next few years. More elected officials came on board, along with Bette Midler and her New York Restoration Project which, along with Trust for Public Land and other philanthropists gave, 4.2 million dollars. Our efforts finally led to preservation of hundreds of community gardens throughout New York City. In 2002, newly-elected Mayor Bloomberg transferred nearly 200 to the Parks Department where they remain temporarily protected.

I did the pageant for another 3 years, until 2005. That was 15 years of a community organizing art project that built a local garden preservation effort and then city-wide coalition that was affecting policy. Today the gardens are being seen in a new role, as part of a plan for ecological sustainability. After Hurricane Sandy the Lower East Side was devastated by flooding. The gardens we preserved can help reduce impacts of flooding, storm surges, pollution-run off – things occurring with increasing frequency due to climate change. A 2 million federal grant was awarded for the Gardens Rising project to design and implement green infrastructure within the 47 gardens.

It’s a plan for climate resiliency and urban sustainability based in 50 years of work by local residents cultivating and preserving these gardens — an act of urban improvisation. And it can be replicated and cultivated in many urban neighborhoods.

Part 4: River Restoration

Finally, in 2005, I said, “Okay, I put in 15 years of my life, the gardens are safe.” I felt like the pageant had lost its edge. I had my daughter in 2004, so I kind of pulled back a little bit. And when she was young I kept taking her to the Hudson River Park. I grew up in New York City, and the Hudson River was brown, polluted, and largely inaccessible. But after 9/11 it was renovated. So I looked out at the river and I just had this vision or a dance of boats, and I said, “That’s it! I would love to bring attention to what’s going on here on the river. It’s coming back to life.”

So I started talking to the different river groups, including the Hudson River Park Trust and the River Project, and I was discovering that they were doing oyster planting programs to organically cleanse the river, that seahorses were breeding right off of Christopher Street, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is incredible.” I proposed a pageant down the whole Lower Manhattan section. I ended up amassing 50 community partners.

I did not want to just create an entertaining celebration, but rather a meaningful and functional ceremonial action. The procession had 13 stops along the riverfront where we held ceremonies to honor “stewards of the river” — representatives from the river organizations who wore stewards of the river robes made by children in workshops. The culminating performance ceremony featured a dance of boats. I enlisted various educational boating groups, paddle board and kayak clubs along with volunteers from the Harbor School and Stuyvesant High School to participate. The collaborative process built a sense of community and linked groups together around a common effort. The river was already in a restoration mode, not the crisis mode that the gardens were in, so it was a different point of impact. It was about building community engagement in the revitalization of the river and the waterfront, which was now was coming back to life.


Then in 2013, I spontaneously went back to India, to Madurai, the city that originally inspired me. I reconnected with the people I had interviewed 25 years earlier. And I discovered how polluted their river had become. When I had been there in ‘89 you didn’t have all this plastic packaging, you hardly had any cars. Now there were cars everywhere, you could barely breathe, it was overpopulated, there was no recycling program and sketchy garbage pickup, and because of climate change it was drought-stricken.

I thought maybe they could apply their own art form here for the cleaning up of this river, just like I had used the art form to protect the gardens. So with my friend Sekar we approached a large NGO in the city, the Dhan Foundation with the idea. The NGO got it immediately, and said, “Lets’ do it,” but indicated that I needed to come up with half the budget. So I ran all over New York looking for the most important people connected to India, and eventually met up with Dr. Geeta Mehta, president of Asia Initiatives. She put in $20,000 dollars and became a full partner and sponsor.

I flew back and forth five times in the course of a year and a half to build the pageant. The Dhan Foundation had deep roots within the city and rural villages, so I was able to connect with all the stakeholders. We engaged community associations, schools, educational and cultural institutions, women’s empowerment groups, municipal offices and government officials. I adapted process I had developed into 2-3 week engagement and workshop periods.

It was incredible to see the enthusiasm. The pageant form was immediately embraced. I reached out to local folk artisans to create work connected to the riverfront. These artisans practiced bamboo sculpture, paper mache, costume, “kolam” rice flour painting, clay sculpture, fabric dying, as well as music, song, dance, poetry and performance. It was slightly different that working with artists in our own culture. These artisans were skilled craftspeople, continuing family cultural traditions and using traditional iconography. I was asking them to expand the imagery and concepts, in order to express current issues around pollution and solutions for the river’s restoration. To facilitate the process, I built collaborations with some of the university art and architecture departments, and had the folk artisans work collaboratively.

Vaigai Fish

Vaigai Fish at the Vaigai River Restoration Project, photo by Mark Antrobus


It resulted in a pageant of 5,000 people that went along the river front in Madurai. India can seem so chaotic; I can’t even believe how that whole thing came together. And then, out of the pageant, the city appointed an official panel for the restoration of the river, and then they decided through the local NGO to keep the idea of the pageant going as monthly full moon ceremonies on the river. Dr. Geeta Mehta also engaged the Department of Urban Studies and Architecture at Columbia University in an exchange program around the project. Students and professors came as a group several times to Madurai to work collaboratively on waterfront and river restoration design projects. Then Columbia invited the professors and representatives from Madurai to New York City. It was really incredible to see how this effort grew, eventually launching a city initiative, panel, and river restoration trust.

It’s amazing how this work that you’ve done has been so sustainable, beyond your direct involvement.

That’s it. You are the catalyst. It was one of those things where I was an outsider, but I wasn’t. I had roots there, I had family members buried in the city and a deep connection going back hundreds of years. And I think they also found the story of the Hudson River restoration very inspiring. But also, it was because the NGO had a 30 year history of relationships in that community. That is why I was able to do the project in such a short time. And then they were able to continue the effort. This was around the same time that Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, won his campaign saying that the most important issue for India was the restoration of our rivers. It was good timing, and the Vaigai River Restoration Project got a seat at the table in Delhi with the Ganges Project.

This has been a great story, and I know that there are many other projects you could talk about. Before you go, I wanted to ask you, on this inauguration day, what you are thinking for yourself and for other cultural organizers going forward.

I’m angry, everybody’s angry. But you have to somehow transform that anger in a different way. Art can do that, it brings you to a new place because you’re actually doing something that’s creative.

Well, I I’m heading down in a few hours to Washington, and what I’ve seen in the past few days is the joining of forces of advocacy groups, activist groups, church groups, artists, all coming together in joyous affirmation.  With all the horrors of what we’re facing it’s amazing how people are pitching in and coming together. And also, we’ve just witnessed the Standing Rock movement – the idea that we are not protestors we are water protectors, and the whole idea of going back to ceremony as a way of reconnecting people to the Earth. Because once you create those connections, you move forward in a different way. It’s not out of that sense of just being angry and protesting. I mean, I’m angry, everybody’s angry. But you have to somehow transform that anger in a different way. Art can do that, it brings you to a new place because you’re actually doing something that’s creative.

What Trump is doing is just like what Giuliani did when he went after all the gardens. He didn’t just go after one neighborhood, he went after all of them, and it forced us to create a city-wide coalition, and by joining forces we actually achieved what we were trying to do, right? Well, I think that’s what’s happening now in a big way. Because everything – democracy, civil rights, our health, the environment –everything we should be caring about is under attack right now. That goes beyond party lines. So you’ve got to hope that since it’s an attack on so many fronts and so many issues, that people will come together. And I think we’re seeing that. It’s a matter of our health, life, and future.

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Creating Art That’s Needed: An Interview with Mat Schwarzman

When I was starting out as a community-based arts educator in Chicago, the Beginners Guide to Community-Based Arts — with its welcoming, bright-yellow cover — was one of the most thumbed-through books on my shelf. Recently I had the chance to speak with one of its co-authors, Mat Schwarzman. We discussed his background in political theater, the CRAFT model of community organizing, working with cartoonist Keith Knight, and his plans for a series of creative youth development trainings across the country.

I’d like to start by asking you about your background. How did you first get into the world of community-based arts and cultural organizing?

I went to college for theater, and then got a job as company manager for a touring theater company in Philadelphia. It was called the Big Small Theater, based on a quote from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “Deal with the big while it is still small.” This was a political theater company that created and performed original work around social issues, frequently in partnership with social justice organizations in Philadelphia. I was very lucky to get that job so early in my career, and to be exposed to the notion of artists partnering with social justice organizations.

Do you remember any of the shows?

Sure. One of the shows we did was called The Thinking Heart. It was based on a book by the same title about a romance in Nazi-dominated Holland in the 1940s between a Jew and a Christian. The play was about what people do when they think that the end of the world is nigh. That piece was created in partnership with the local American Friends Service Committee. Also, my first project there was working on street theater with the Philadelphia Zoo, focused on ecological issues for kids.

A fan selfie I took with Mat at the Imagining America conference last year

I ended up co-organizing a conference in Philadelphia on the history of arts and social change in the United States. It was called Voices of Dissent. This was 1987, the 200th anniversary of the US Constitution, so we used the concept of free speech through the arts. The conference was very successful. It spawned a book called Reimaging America: The Arts of Social Change, an anthology of articles published in 1990 by New Society Publishers.

In many ways that conference has driven the rest of my life and my career. I married the conference organizer. I live in New Orleans because John O’Neal lives here, and he and I basically got to know each other through that conference. I lived for a while in San Francisco because I met Joe Lambert from the Center for Digital Storytelling at that same conference. I got a job in San Francisco at a place called New College of California, and I ended up co-founding one of the first undergraduate majors in arts and social change in the country.

It was this kind of embarrassingly wonderful faculty. There were just oodles of arts and social change leaders in San Francisco. Rhodessa Jones was on our faculty, Ronnie Davis, founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Joe Lambert, Keith Hennessy who’s very active in Alternate ROOTS now, Sonia BaSheva Mañjon and a bunch of others. The program operated for a couple of years, but unfortunately after six years there I was summarily terminated.

What happened?

I was kind of a victim of my success, in the sense that the enrolment for our program was going so well that the leadership of the college started paying attention to us. They got in our way, started fomenting conflict between the faculty in my department. It was a lot of ego stuff, which I didn’t handle all that well either. At that point I ended up creating a new organization. I wanted to go younger, work with high school students, so I created an organization called East Bay Institute for Urban Arts.

Is this the one you founded with Rinku Sen?

Correct. It was an outgrowth of the Center for Third World Organizing. They wanted to develop more youth leaders, and they felt like the arts would be a great way to do that. I was really interested in working with younger people and also having a more systemic relationship to direct action efforts — trying to get deeper into what it is we mean by “social change” when we talk about arts and social change. Rinku really taught me an enormous amount about that. Their methodology was called CRAFT (Contact, Research, Action, Fundraising, Training).

I was intrigued by the acronym because of the idea that there is a craft of community-based art. To me, a craft is somewhere between an art and a science. Sometimes I think we throw a false mysticism into the work, and there is resistance to approaching the work as a craft. It’s supposed to be intuitive and non-linear and that’s all true. But there are basic ideas that undergird much of what we do. Without that acknowledgement it’s really hard for people to collaborate. If all collaborators are going to have an equal stake, the other partners – the educator, the organizer – also need to have a sense of “Oh, this is the process we are going to go through.”

The original Beginner’s Guide, published in 2005

I was in graduate school at that time and ended up writing my dissertation about how one could adapt the CRAFT methodology for use in community based arts practice (Contact, Research, Action, Feedback, Teaching). My dissertation was a case study of a yearlong project we did in Oakland. Community organizations were trying to pass a budget a line item in the Oakland city budget to go toward youth development. Young people in our organization developed all the visual materials from the campaign. The budget line passed, and it was a very powerful experience.

Urban Arts lasted until 2000, and then my wife Mimi Zarsky and I decided to move. I got this job here in New Orleans at the National Performance Network. It enabled me to go from the dissertation to a publishable book, and that’s the Beginner’s Guide. It’s a series of demonstration case studies about the ideas that were in my dissertation, translated in such a way that a high school student can read them, so a high school teacher could use it if they wanted to.

How did you end up getting hooked up with Keith Knight for the book?

Keith had done some workshops with us at Urban Arts working with the young people. That’s how we got to know each other a bit. And then it was my wife’s idea to do it as a cartoon. I collected comics as a teenager and still have my comic book collection from that time, and so when Mimi heard that my goal for the book was to take all this stuff about community-based art that has been written about mainly in academic or intellectual circles, and put it in hands of the grassroots community whose issues are often the ones focused on, she suggested doing it as a comic.

Even though I did the research, and I wrote the draft text for everything, it was Keith’s genius to make it readable and interesting and to make connections. It’s really information design. He translated what I wrote into another medium, and in so doing kind of reflected back my thought process to me. That was just eye opening. Because Keith is so busy, I’ve tried to work with other cartoonists and it hasn’t gone nearly as well. The fact that Keith understood the ideas as a practitioner, not just as an illustrator, was crucial.

How long did it take you and Keith to put the book together?

5 years

Did you travel around interviewing people? Because that was not the case study that was in your dissertation.

Correct. My goal in choosing artists and arts groups to cover was to find ideal exemplars, almost like Biblical or comic book heroes who could act as universal object lessons. So we organized a national advisory council of about 12 or 15 people who were all really active leaders in cultural, political, or educational fields, and we went through a process of probably about a year. We were looking at art form, political issue, part of the country, ethnicity. Each of the advisors made suggestions, we reached out to those artists to find out materials, and there was a lot of back and forth because I knew that each case study also needed to demonstrate a different concept within the overall CRAFT model. So there were some artists who I felt like had all the other requisite parts but weren’t a good fit for that reason. By the time we went to do the research it was relatively straightforward. It was still very hard, but we at least knew what stories we were coming to tell.

Keith Knight’s portrayal of Mat for the Beginner’s Guide

Not being a professional graphic storyteller, I had a pretty steep learning curve. And not only was I working with Keith, but I was also working with a graphic designer named Christine Wong on the overall visual design of the book. While the graphic stories were the center of the book, I always knew I wanted to have other sections and wanted them to be visual as well. It was Christine that developed the design and layout and concepts for those front pieces and back pieces.

I believe the Beginner’s Guide represents more than just a model or approach but a different general theory for community based arts, a fundamentally different way of looking at the arts. So in the front of the Beginners Guide we include Three Premises of Community-Based Arts: (I) creativity is a muscle, (II) art is information, and (III) communities are cultures. To really understand the CRAFT process you need to also understand these basic ideas. “Creativity is a muscle” means that art is not a leisure or recreational activity. It’s a core genetic capacity that we have as evolved human beings. “Art is information” is the idea that art is designed to tell our most important stories, and that its political power comes out of the internal drive that human beings have to make and witness art. And then “communities are culture” is that idea that no matter how advanced or sophisticated we have become we still interact with a core group of somewhere between 150 and 250 people in our daily lives, and our relationships are governed by the signs and the symbols and the rituals and the stories that circulate in that community. Community-based artists are attuned to those signs, symbols, rituals, and stories and how they interact with specific audiences and communities.

When you’re book first came out, how was it received?

That’s a funny story. I always knew I wanted the book to be the initial point of contact for what would become an ongoing learning community of teachers and teaching artists that work with young people. So, my plan was to organize a series of professional development workshops and things that would go along with the book and keep me busy for several years. The timing of publication, along with the place where I live being New Orleans, made that impossible. My author’s copies of the book arrived at my house on August 27, 2005, two days before Hurricane Katrina hit land. I took one copy with me as I evacuated.

Unfortunately, because of Katrina, we ended up not really being able to run with that success like I wanted to. I’m very much of a place-based person, and I had always envisioned this book being useful here locally after. I tried to make that work, but I found that the school system was so chaotic and unformed — they basically fired all of the teachers. I got some funding to go into the schools to do professional development, and first of all, they didn’t have their shit together enough to make use of PD. They were just worried about getting a teacher to teach these 30 students who otherwise didn’t have a teacher. Second, the young people were the ones who seemed to need more of the help. So I ended up developing a direct service youth program called Creative Forces, a teen theater company that created and performed arts and social change plays, similar to what I did myself in Philadelphia. They did plays about adolescent asthma, adolescent obesity, violence against adolescents, stuff that was directly related to them and their lives. A lot of it was synthesizing stuff from the beginner’s guide into a single program.

That ended in 2010 and I had to get a job, so I was an administrator for five years working for this very worthwhile non-arts related org here called New Orleans Kids Partnership. That was about getting youth organizations to collaborate. It was very satisfying, but I completely burned out on it.

One of the unintended benefits of Katrina was that back in 2005 Keith and I ended up touring for a solid month. It was Keith’s speaking tour, but because I was without a home I ended up going with him and turning everything he was doing for himself into something about our book also. So I’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk about it with people. The book came out at a time when graphic novels were also gaining more validity, and there were more of them. I think we were part of that wave. So we didn’t know whether it was going to be adopted and it was — we got very positive feedback form it.

So 12 years later, I now want to see what, if anything, I can revive of my teaching and professional development career. In the meantime the beginners guide had kept selling, and it is by far our publisher’s biggest title, it was the first title New Village Press published, and it has continued to sell more than any other title. It’s in its fourth printing now, there’s something between 8 and 10 thousand copies sold, which within the world we operate in is not bad.

I would bet a lot of copies of your book are in the hands of people who use actually use them in their work, which is different than selling a million Stephen King novels.

Yeah. One of the things we started hearing early on, and which has become like a badge of honor, is that it’s the one title that’s stolen from people’s libraries more often than any other. And call me crazy, but I do think the comics have that power. They just draw you in, like a choir. It’s almost impossible to look away once you see what’s happening.

The other thing that surprised me is that no one else in this field has taken the concept further. So the next step for me is to circle back to a lot of the hopes that I had in 2005 when the book first came out, and trying to make those things happen with the benefit of 12 years of the book having been out. While I wouldn’t have chosen it to have it happen this way, I’m trying to make the most of it.

I’m cementing a partnership with Xavier University here in New Orleans, and they’re going to be most likely launching a new certificate program in the summer on the CRAFT of creative youth development. It will focus on training teachers and teaching artists and community organizers how to use the book, and the CRAFT methodology. I’m also thinking about developing an app for your tablet based on the section of the book called the “craft circle.” It is essentially a cookbook of games and exercises and projects that use the CRAFT methodology, with the idea that people in the certificate program will be able to contribute into the library as well as use what that they find inside it.

As you look back at the book, have your ideas have changed much in the last 12 years?

No, I would say they haven’t. However, I knew that when it was published the book was not really done. I’m very excited about the opportunity to go deeper into the ideas in the book, and to do another edition of the book that is articulated with the app, so that we can have a more dynamic relationship between the content of the book and whatever knowledge base I’m able to collect beyond the book. Of course, none of this is really funded yet.

That’s exciting. There is something about that book that is very welcoming, very friendly — the yellow cover that reminds me of those “for dummies” books.

Absolutely. When I was coming up with the book, my wife was reading Dream Weaver for Dummies, and she said, “You should do something like this.” That is what drove the whole concept. It didn’t make sense to do community based arts for dummies.

No, that would be going a little far.

I feel that the greatest strength of the book, and something I want to keep in this next phase, is welcoming new people into the fold. The CRAFT model has only so much use value. I think of it as being like a training wheel function. If you don’t understand this type of work, you can use this stage model. Because the reality is that community-based arts is not really linear. But my argument is that if seeing it as a linear process helps you do it the first time, then why the hell not. I see it as a pragmatic tool for collaboration more than anything else. It enables the artist and the educator and the organizer to align their processes toward the same endpoints.

I don’t think the next step is doing the Advanced Guide to Community Based Arts. I want to find new and better ways to help beginners. At Xavier University, the next group of beginners I’m going to be working with is science and math teachers. The new program will offer a 3-unit, 30 hour certificate in the CRAFT of creative youth development. It would be like 10 hours of reading and preparation, 10 hours of face-to-face time where I would come to your community and do a day long workshop, and then 10 hours of follow up work writing a plan that you can use as the guts of a grant proposal. That’s the introductory level. Then there’s a second certificate which is Creative Youth Development in the Science and Math Classroom. That’s an 80-hour, 8 unit certificate designed for science and math teachers who are required to take continuing education. It is a way to help them learn how to integrate community based arts into the classrooms, and to partner with artists and organizations in the community.

It seems like you’ve jumped back into community based arts and you’re going full throttle with what you thought you’d be doing ten years ago. How are you feeling about it?

I feel very good. It’s a funny thing. Because I’m underemployed right now and talking about a project that I don’t have funding for. And I’m 56. So on the one hand I feel kind of crazy to be doing this. On the other hand, it feels very right to be doing that at this particular age because if I had been able to do it ten or twelve years ago when the book came out several things would have been to my disadvantage. One is that community based arts as a field would not be nearly as well known as it is now. Another is that online technology in terms of distance learning was much rougher 12 years ago. I also now have 12 years of data – I don’t have it in my hand, but if I start reaching out to people who have been using the book I’ll be able to gather a lot of great new information about how to teach people how to do the work. I don’t think I would have chosen for it to happen that way, but I can see how if I take advantage of I, the stars are really aligned in my direction.

So what’s next?

First, we are very proud to announce here for the first time that New Village Press will be publishing a revised 2nd Edition of the Beginner’s Guide in September 2017. It will include updated information on all ten featured artists and a new introduction on the state of the field by Keith Knight and me. This should lead to a new round of speaking engagements and such around the country.

Second, I am working with some amazing collaborators at Xavier University of Louisiana to realize my dream of a learning community based upon the concepts and approaches from the Beginner’s Guide. Our goal is to launch an online continuing education certificate program for teachers and teaching artists in 2018. To stay informed, sign up for our mailing list at

One last question. How do you understand the concept of “cultural organizing?”

There was a class at New College in the Arts and Social Change program called cultural organizing in the early 90s, taught by Sonia Mañjon. At that time the idea was kind of a binary concept. On the one hand I think it was referring to the field of what we call arts administration, but from an organizing mindset. On the other hand, it was about the art or cultural component of the organizing process. The approach I have tried to take is the intersection between those two things: how arts admin is like organizing, and organizing like cultural work. To me it was always about creating art that is needed.


Sign Now: USDAC Pledge on Cultural Rights and the Muslim Ban

The US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) is calling on artists, designers, cultural organizers, and other cultural workers to sign the following pledge: to stand with humanity against inhumanity at this vital political juncture. Commit your creative energy to the struggle, and stop by this blog in the coming weeks to find advice, resources, and opportunities for action. VISIT THE USDAC to sign the pledge today.



On 27 January 2017, a presidential executive order was issued blocking refugees and restricting immigration from Muslim countries. Protest has been immediate and massive.

History teaches us that authoritarian regimes start their mission of domination with the right to culture: limiting cultural communities’ freedom of movement and practice; condemning or restricting press freedom; condemning or restricting artistic expression; and denying the fullness of belonging to all but a privileged few. Artists and creative activists have key roles to play.


I stand with allies in the U.S. and around the globe to protect and extend cultural rights threatened by the 27 January 2017 presidential executive order blocking refugees and restricting immigration from Muslim countries.

The right to culture—to express customs, faiths, and creativity in freedom and dignity—is a fundamental human right. When it is transgressed, no matter which group is first targeted—every community and individual is in jeopardy. Culture is a right, not a privilege.

As artists, activists, and allies who cherish the right to culture, we pledge to oppose all actions to limit fundamental human rights; to use our gifts to expose and reverse such actions; and to exercise our freedom of expression to bring about full cultural democracy for all—Indigenous peoples, citizens and residents of all backgrounds, immigrants and refugees alike.

Sign the USDAC Pledge TodaySIGNED, THE USDAC:

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