Paul Kuttner

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:

Valerie Amor, Cultural Agent
T. Lulani Arquette, Catalyst for Native Creative Potential
Caron Atlas, Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts
Judy Baca, Minister of Sites of Public Memory
Daniel Banks, Catalytic Agent
Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging
Jack Becker, Public Art Mobilizer
Ted Berger, Senior Policy Advisor
Ludovic Blain III, Chief Political Wonk
Sarah Boddy, Cultural Agent
Larry Bogad, Minister of Tactical Performance
Eric Booth, Secretary of Teaching Artists
Amelia Brown, Minister of Emergency Arts
Katherin Canton, Regional Envoy
Con Christeson, Cultural Agent
Monique Davis, Cultural Agent
Chrislene DeJean, Cultural Agent
María López De León, Minister of Inclusive Leadership Transformation
Jayeesha Dutta, Cultural Agent
Dana Edell, Secretary of Creative Sparks
Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk
Beth Grossman, Cultural Agent
Lynden Harris, Cultural Agent
Bob Holman, Minister of Poetry and Language Protection
Adam Horowitz, Chief Instigator
Yvette A. Hyater-Adams, Regional Envoy
Denise Johnson, Cultural Agent
James Kass, Secretary of Belief in The Next Generation
Devon Kelley-Yurdin, Regional Envoy
Paul Kuttner, Minister of Cultural Scholarship
Dave Loewenstein, Cultural Agent
Mo Manklang, Chief of Making Things Happen
Charlene Martinez, Cultural Agent
Liz Maxwell, Chief Dot Connector
E. Ethelbert Miller, Minister of Sacred Words
Meena Natarajan, Radical Equity Catalyst, Pangaea Division
Emmett Phillips, Cultural Agent
Nora Rahimian, Cultural Agent
Nora Rasman, Cultural Agent
Martha Richards, Chief Strategist for Women Artists
Favianna Rodriguez, Secretary of Cultural Equity
Julianna Ross, Cultural Agent
Sebastian Ruth, Secretary of Music and Society
Carissa Samaniego, Cultural Agent
Michael Schwartz, Cultural Agent
Shirley Sneve, Tribal Liaison
Jessica Solomon, Cultural Agent
Harold Steward, Regional Envoy
Julia Terry, Cultural Agent
Makani Themba, Minister of Revolutionary Imagination
Carlton Turner, Minister of Creative Southern Strategies
Angela Wasekuk, Cultural Agent
Roseann Weiss, Cultural Agent
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McKenzie Wren, Cultural Agent
Lily Yeh, Urban Alchemist
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*The USDAC is not a government agency. 

Creative Catalyst: An Interview with De Andrea Nichols

I recently had the privilege of talking with De Andrea Nichols, award winning social impact designer and “creative catalyst.” De is the director of Civic Creatives, and received the 2016 Visionary Award for community impact in the city of St. Louis. An artist and designer in her own right, much of De’s work over the past few years has been as a connector — bringing artists, organizers, designers, community members, and allies together in the struggle for justice in Ferguson and beyond. Over the course of an hour-long interview we discussed the importance of design for social movements, how museums can be more human, “common cultural denominators,” and activist self-care.

I noticed, when I looked you up online, that your name is usually followed by a long list of titles or job descriptions. At this moment in time, how would you describe what it is that you do?

That is a very hard question to answer because I am very multidisciplinary in the way that I create with others, and even how I create for myself. I would say that I am a creative catalyst. I help people catalyze new, novel, and remix ways of engaging in social issues that they care about.

I’m always intrigued by how people come to these nontraditional, hybrid spaces. What’s been your journey into this work?

Since I was young, I’ve always been at that intersection of creativity, community, and social change. Growing up in rural Mississippi I was bullied a lot, and I was very conscious of racism and prejudice. In elementary and middle school a lot of my drawing and painting was about transforming the narrative of how I felt, and how I witnessed others feeling. Similarly, a lot of my work in high school and college dealt with using art as a way of presenting back what people who were marginalized were feeling. During those early years I was also a student organizer for a lot of diversity and inclusion initiatives. So, what I do now is just a maturation of something that was always there.

How did you get into design?

I started off in fine arts. Then, when I was an undergrad, I chose to major in communications design, learning how to take huge bodies of information and make them visually digestible and understandable. I wanted to take social causes and nebulous ideas and spread them across different media and platforms.

After I graduated from college I found myself in a design fellowship that transformed the way that I wanted to do my work as a designer. It’s called Project M Lab and is headed up by John Bielenberg, a huge leader in the design field. The premise of Project M Lab is to teach designers how to “think wrong” in order to do good, meaning think outside of the present paradigm in order to innovate new ideas. I learned a lot from that experience. But with the context of being in rural America, being the only person of color on my team, one of two women, and the only person who had actually lived in poverty, I had a lot of issues with how I was engaging with community. That’s what drove me to go back to grad school for social work.

What was it about social work that drew you back to school? What were you looking for?

I had so many curiosities about community organizing, economic development, and policy, and the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University had really strong programs that allowed me to explore all of those topics while specializing in social entrepreneurship. While I was in grad school I started Catalyst by Design, my first nonprofit, and that’s what led into a lot of what has transpired since — being a two-time Clinton Global Initiative recipient, receiving a Visionary Award for St. Louis. That experience in grad school, and the things that the Brown School of Social Work helped me to build, continue to fuel the work that I do today.

After grad school, what was the next step?

While I was still in school I did my practicum with the Contemporary Art Museum here in St. Louis. During my final semester we wrote a job description for a full-time community engagement specialist and funded that position for a year. At the same time I was transitioning Catalyst by Design into a for-profit, which is now Civic Creatives. So I left grad school in 2014 with a full time job as well as my own business.

Are you still working at the museum?

I am on my way out actually. I am still based there, but not for long.

There’s quite a movement today of museums shifting away from audience building and trying to do some sort of community engagement. Given your background, what did your efforts look like?

At CAM I was entrusted with space and resources to really explore what community engagement meant in this context. A lot of it has entailed radical work with schools in the area. Our museum serves every middle and high school art class with virtual tours and contemporary art workshops in collaboration with local artists from around the city. Artists come in not to just to teach their practices but to merge art with contemporary social issues. Everything ties back to what’s happening in society right now, and that has led to some really dynamic projects and collaborations.

Youth involved in the Art Reach program through the Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis

In addition, I’ve been doing hyper-local engagement with the neighborhoods that surround the fine arts district. At first we wanted to just see if people who live within a one-mile radius of our museum even know that we exist. For a year, I led the effort to just meet neighbors and build relationships and listen to their recommendations about how they would like to be in better relationship with the museum. We implemented a lot of the recommendations that they suggested. We’ve also been collaborating with stakeholders and organizations that are already in the neighborhood, because a lot of the programs that families want, we aren’t able to provide on our own.

From your experience at CAM, what do you think are the ideal roles that an art museum can play in neighborhoods like those you’re working with in St. Louis?

I think museums at large can do a better job of being a space where people feel affirmed and cared for, where they feel their stories are of value. Museums need to think about the hospitality of spaces. What does it looks like to better educate people about what happens in a museum, but also to welcome people to take more ownership of their experiences? As an example, with the art education team we think a lot about the museum as a space where youth can feel empowered to take ownership. Teens curate exhibitions every summer at the museum, and we have a children’s play space where parents can tell us what they want and by the next time that they come there’s something new for them that is responsive to those needs. There are many ways museums can do a better job collaborating with everyday people instead of just the wealthy, and being more humble. I think people want museums to be more human.

I’d love to hear more about your organization, Civic Creatives. It sounds like a lot of your work has been focused around Ferguson and the struggle for Black lives.

I graduated in May of 2014, and a lot of great things were happening that spring. But on the other side of the summer, that’s when the unrest and the rebellion happened here in Ferguson. A lot of my prior work…I wouldn’t say that it unraveled, but it kind of pivoted in response to what was happening on the ground. So from 2014 through now we’ve been organizing in many different capacities: through the arts, through traditional pathways, through storytelling, and through technology.

FoodSpark Hosting Guide

A big part of Civic Creatives is organizing people around what we call “common cultural denominators.” These are cultural universals that people share, despite their differences. Like the fact that everyone has to eat. We have an ongoing series called FoodSpark that has been operating since 2013. On a monthly basis we convene people within the city of St. Louis to talk about hard issues over the course of a meal. And during that meal we’re helping people spark new connections, new ways of conversing, as well as new ideas. At some of the convenings we’re brainstorming ways of making our ideas happen. But in many of them we’re literally just helping people be able to better understand and talk comfortably about issues like racism and sexism and homophobia. In October of 2014, when the unrest was happening in Ferguson, we hosted four FoodSparks all on the same day around the metro area of St. Louis. Each one of those convenings amassed 50-100 people, including a lot of people who were not from St. Louis and were here to stand in solidarity with the movement. Recently, we launched our FoodSpark Hosting Toolkit, which you can download online. It gives everyone the framework and the tools to take the conversations that have been had at the last 50+ FoodSpark convenings and have them with people in their own communities.

Another one of those common cultural denominators is storytelling. No matter if you’re rich or poor you have a story to tell about your experiences as a human being. Our United Story effort partnered with the local PBS station. We gave cameras to residents who lived in Canfield, where Mike Brown was shot, as well as residents who lived near the Ferguson police department, and we had them all talk about their experiences in the aftermath of the protesting and organizing in their neighborhoods. We then shared those stories and hosted gatherings to get people talking about this issue in a brave space. In 2015 we organized the United Story Summit, which allowed people to listen to each other’s stories and then, from those stories, tap into solutions. It’s about recognizing that within our stories are both the issues and the answers to the things that we care about.

A final common cultural denominator is the arts. All of us are surrounded by made objects, by art and things that are designed to influence how we behave and interact. I was traumatized when I first started protesting, because of the constant threat of white males and police officers. That drove me to have a lot of nightmares, and from a series of those nightmares I organized artists to help me build this object called the Mirror Casket. Long story short, we marched that casket in different protests and it went on a touring exhibition across the state. This past year it was collected by the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Because they bought it, we now have a lot of funding that we’ve been strategizing how to put back into this movement in a very dynamic way. We can’t tell you what we’re going to do with that funding yet, but it does relate to museums.

The Mirror Casket, which will be joining the collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On the tech side of things, I organized a bunch of designers and coders to help me build a platform called Connected for Justice. It lasted for, I think, 8 months of the initial unrest while things were at their height. Through a web based platform as well as some SMS text messaging technology, we were able to match people who were not living in St. Louis to people who were on the ground in Ferguson, to organize around different needs and actions that led by people here locally. We coined the term “civic matchmaking” to describe this work.

You say “we” a lot. Who have you been working with through this time?

My immediate team is myself, a woman named Cambrie Nelson, and a woman named Sophie Lipman. Sophie and I are primarily responsible for FoodSpark and Connected for Justice, and Cambry is on the United Story Project. We’ve also collaborated with other artists, designers, makers, and activists for everything that I just described to you. This has included Artivist STL, which I’m one of the co-leaders of. It’s a collective of artists that found each other through the movement, and we still do work together to this day in protest and in solidarity with other social movements, like what’s happening in Syria and in Baltimore and in Standing Rock. In addition to that, we’ve collaborated with MORE, which is an organization for organizers, as well as the Organization for Black Struggle. There have also been numerous media and arts groups in other cities that we’ve collaborated with, just to exchange methodologies.

You’ve been vocal about wanting to transform the way that we do community and social movement organizing. I was hoping you could talk a little about what you think needs to change. I’m thinking particularly from a cultural standpoint, in terms of what the world of arts and design and cultural work can teach organizers.

As creative organizers, there’s so much that we’ve been able to do that’s outside of those traditional organizer frameworks of marches and protests and boycotts. Having performing artists interrupt a symphony performance, having people toss their bodies onto sidewalks, having flash mobs in public spaces that primarily white audiences navigate, stepping outside of the boundaries — that is something that artists bring to the table. There’s also a new wave of artists who are stepping into policy work. I’m thinking about Hank Willis Thomas, about the US Department of Arts and Culture, where they’re calling for certain demands that politicians otherwise may not consider. That type of creative pressure is something to keep in mind as we move forward.

In terms of designers, we’re realizing that our skills can meet this movement in a lot of dynamic ways too. A big part of that is in tool building. There are a lot of communicative needs, and techies and designers have the skills to do that work — to be civic hackers. Even ideas like civic matchmaking, stepping outside of the traditional volunteer signup and really thinking innovatively about how we get people who are not already a part of our choir to join in these movements.

I want to ask, on a more personal level, how the last few years have been for you. It sounds like it has been a whirlwind of work and emotion and learning — what big changes have you gone through? What have you learned?

It’s funny that you ask that. At the recent Culture/SHIFT conference I moderated a roundtable of artivists, and I received a direct question about self-care. In answering that question I almost broke down into tears. Because being in this movement, being in this work — even before Ferguson — there have just been layers upon layers of trauma that I as an individual have not processed or healed from. That has caught up with me in many ways. In 2014 I was hospitalized and learned that I was severely anemic. That has changed a lot of the ways that I navigate life, with more consideration of my energy and the fact that my body doesn’t pump blood and iron as efficiently as others. I have to take moments to step back. I have to make sure that I’m eating and sleeping, and that means I have to make sure that I’m delegating and balancing my work.

The emotional trauma is very real, and one of the things that has changed really dynamically is kind of like this loss of innocence. I feel like prior to these last few years I was always that really bubbly person, that extreme optimist — and I still am. But that optimism has been joined with a lot of realness, a lot of seriousness. I find myself being someone who doesn’t just like to talk about issues anymore. I want to talk about actions and solutions and otherwise I don’t want to talk.

I also realize that I’ve become more paranoid of a lot of people around me. I’ve become more sensitive about who touches my body and who can ask me certain questions. Part of that is consciousness of microaggressions and bias, but part of it is also a need to self-protect in a world and a movement that has so much of my life on a public stage. I recognize I have to own my own part in that. As a YouTuber, I put my opinions on the Internet, and as a public speaker I stand in front of hundreds and thousands of people at least twice a month. That means being more guarded, and also recognizing that I may receive more critique than before. I was able to connect with a foundation during Culture/SHIFT, and they actually fund fellowships for artists to go on retreats of self-healing and self-care. I’ll be on one of those in 2017.

I appreciate you sharing that. Even though I’ve seen more conversations about activist self-care at conferences and other events, I still don’t think it gets talked about enough in the broader public. You’re certainly not alone.

Indeed. One of the things that I shared on that panel is that, in as much as I value being a very honest person, I lie every single day simply answering that question, “How are you?” That has been the hardest question for me to answer during the last few years, because the realness of my answer is not what the person greeting me wants to here. We ask that question so lightly in passing, and the expectation is that the person will respond with “good” or “fine.” And right now I’m not good and I’m not fine. I am here, and I am present, but there is more complexity to how I feel. And so I’ve been challenging people lately on finding healthy ways of communicating, even in those small moments, like in the ways that we greet each other.

Since the election, it seems like more people are becoming activated, but are struggling with what exactly to do. There’s a lot of advice flying around, but I’m wondering what your thoughts are, as a civic matchmaker. What do you recommend to people who are looking to step up now, perhaps in ways that they weren’t previously? Or is there a change in terms of how we should be thinking about our work in this new context?

I definitely have a lot of opinions on that. Over the last few weeks I’ve had a lot of white peers reach out to me directly and say, “What should I do?” I’ve actually resisted giving people the answers, primarily because the things happening right now are things that people of color and people from marginalized groups have been saying for decades have been happening, and it took this moment for the masses to finally listen. Now that it has occurred, a lot of people are turning to us for the answers and part of what I’ve been telling people is that it’s not upon us to fix this. We did not cause this.

What it takes is what a lot of white activists here in St. Louis call “white folks’ work.” As I hear it, white folks’ work entail a few things. One is talking to those cousins and uncles and fathers and mothers who still do not consider human beings human, who are still questioning if Jewish people are human, who are still dehumanizing Muslims and Native Americans and Black and Brown people. It takes having courageous conversations, stepping up to your family at the dinner table and not being afraid to call them out or call them in to this movement. It takes white people talking to white people right now more than ever, especially white men.

It also takes a lot of learning. There are a lot of syllabuses that are going around right now, and I encourage people to read those and really catch up so they can be equipped with the tools and the knowledge and the language to have these types of conversations. And it takes connecting with existing groups. I’ve witnessed some people, especially designers, creating new tools and platforms and spaces that already exist and are already led by people in marginalized groups. Instead of a group of white people who support brown people, how about collaborating and being around those brown people and listening in the spaces that they cultivate. It takes a lot of political action as well — it takes calling your local representative, it takes stirring things up, it takes disrupting spaces, it takes stepping up and being present. One of the things I think it does not take are safety pins. There have been a lot of people who have created symbolic support, and symbols like safety pins and changing your Facebook profile and having a sign in your yard, all of those do mean something. So yes, do those, but that shouldn’t be the end of your work. You have to get into the trenches with us more than ever.


Featured photo of De by Lindy500

Beautiful Trouble takes on the “Trumpocalypse”

Are you drowning in think pieces about what Trump’s election means for the left? How about a little practical advice from our favorite troublemakers.

With Trump preparing to take over the White House, activists and organizers are scrambling to prepare themselves for the inevitable fights ahead. Getting out ahead of Trump will require struggling on multiple fronts at once, engaging in diverse organizing strategies, and thinking beyond common, predictable modes of protest.

Of course, this is the approach that the minds behind Beautiful Trouble, Beautiful Solutions, and Beautiful Rising have been promoting for years. Rather than laying out a single organizing strategy, these sites offer interconnected webs of tactics, stories, principles, and theories shared by activists around the world. Together, these modules serve as “toolboxes” for radical change, and can be combined in numerous ways to respond to different issues and local contexts.

Not long after the election, Andrew Boyd and Dave Mitchell, the original editors of the Beautiful Trouble book, turned on the B(A)T signal. They called on contributing editors to curate a Beautiful Trouble toolbox for the Trump era, selecting and summarizing modules with particular relevance to this moment in time. The result is Trouble Vs. Trump, an ongoing series that will be posted at the Beautiful Trouble Blog. I’ve included a few below to whet your appetite. Click HERE to read the first set of six modules, with much more to come.



Insights from Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Rising for the era of Trump.

As our movements gear up to face down the looming Trumpocalypse, here are 10 modules from the Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Rising toolboxes that may prove useful.

By Rae Abileah, Nadine Bloch, Andrew Boyd, Paul Kuttner, Dave Mitchell

We have a lot more leverage than we might realizeTHEORY: Points of Intervention

In sum: Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of power and open the way to change. 

If we are going to mobilize people to effectively resist the Trump agenda, we must pick our battles wisely, and recognize where we can intervene to have the greatest leverage. It’s worth

considering five different types of points: production, consumption, destruction, decision, and assumption. For example, ongoing boycotts and targeted phone-jams of Trump’s business empire are applying economic pressure at the point of consumption. Trump’s threat to deport millions of undocumented Americans is being forcefully resisted by rebel cities and a new Sanctuary Movement that will challenge migrants’ criminalization at the point of assumption and potentially, through mass direct action at airports, train and bus stations, at the point of destruction. Strikes and other point-of-production actions have historically been used to resist terrible presidencies. Yes, the Presidency is a powerful office, but there are many, many other points of decision at which we can intervene and win victories: remember how during the dark days of the Reagan Presidency, ACT-UP brought the fight for justice for people with AIDS directly to drug companies and the FDA.



Guerillas in Trump-LandPRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain

In sum: The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. This holds true whether you are fighting in an actual jungle or in the metaphoric wasteland of mass culture.

Trump did not reach the White House by offering a coherent economic policy or political platform. Rather, he made a cultural appeal to voters discontented with the direction they saw the country going. We need to understand this cultural wave that helped lift Trump to the presidency if we are going to counter his administration’s policies and divert some of this discontent toward more progressive ends.

A significant part of Trump’s campaign was based in white identity politics. He stoked racial fears while offering a nostalgic vision of a time when the privileges of white Christian men went unchallenged. This aspect of Trump culture is toxic, and must be countered at every turn. Other aspects of Trump’s appeal, however, resonate with the concerns of many on the left and can be built upon to support radical politics. Trump effectively played on people’s utter disgust with a “rigged” two-party system that is elitist, out of touch, and in thrall to undemocratic interests. He spoke to a feeling that the economy has left many, many people out even as it has “recovered.” These appeals may seem a bit absurd, given Trump’s own elite background and support for Wall Street over main street, but they offer potential leverage points for holding Trump accountable and crafting effective cultural strategies. Every time he nominates an establishment politician, or gives a tax break to the wealthy, there is a crack in his narrative we can exploit.

A word of caution: We shouldn’t overestimate the strength of Trump’s narrative — he did, after all, lose the popular vote amid very low turnout. We also shouldn’t simplify the story, for example painting Trump voters with a broad brush as poor and working class whites. Much of Trump’s support came from traditional Republican strongholds (read: wealthy white people). Still, Trump’s discourse during the election has shaped the cultural terrain that he is about to step into, and that terrain, while largely hostile, has some pitfalls we should be taking advantage of.



Now more than ever, we've got to take care of one another

PRINCIPLE: Seek safety in support networks

In sum: When activists are threatened, it’s important to harness national or international networks that can provide support and deter violence.

As the large numbers of women and minorities signing up for self-defence classes since the election testifies, many people are taking the threat of Trump very seriously. The threat of violence against activists, both directly from the State and indirectly from individuals and groups emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, has escalated greatly in the last year and may continue to rise.

To counter this threat, we must reach out to and support one another: report threats we’ve received, reach out to others who have been targeted by threats, disrupt and defuse bullying or harassment when we see it, form networks of support, share skills and resources, and call on organizations that can assist: the Southern Poverty Law CenterNational Lawyers GuildACLU, the Anti-Fascist Network, and the Sanctuary City and Sanctuary Campus campaigns, to name a few.

Now is the time to move from impartial observer to ally to solidarity actor, to risk privilege and favor, to take a stand, to show up the way asked to. As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud.”



Read More…

Take a Stand for Cultural Democracy

USDAC launches Cultural Policy & Action Platform

At November’s Culture/SHIFT conference in St. Louis, some of my fellow cabinet members at the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) took the stage. They were there to mark the launch a national “policy and action” platform we’ve been working on, titled Standing for Cultural Democracy. The platform outlines a ten-point framework for promoting arts, equity, and the universal right to cultural participation.

Policy and Action Platform CoverIt couldn’t have come at a more important time. The campaign that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency was fueled in large part by a discourse of cultural supremacy. Trump communicated a vision of the US as a monoculture — a white, Christian country where “good” immigrants and Muslims and People of Color might live and work, but where they will never be fully “American.” The success of this strategy has emboldened white supremacists and has fostered a climate of uncertainty and fear for those that fall outside of this narrow nationalist vision.

Standing for Cultural Democracy, offers an antidote to Trump’s America. It is rooted in a vision of a pluralistic, participatory nation, where our multicultural makeup is exactly what makes us “great.” It proposes major investments in art and cultural work as a strategy for address pressing injustices in our country, whether that be gentrification, educational inequity, or the horrors of the prison system. More broadly, it promotes a shift in our national culture toward “equity, empathy, and belonging.”


  1. Download the Summary or the Full Platform.
  2. Endorse the policy and action platform
  3. Apply for a USDAC Lab Microgrant
  4. Take action in your community today!

The idea of cultural democracy is an important one to have in the national consciousness right now. First developed in the early 20th century, cultural democracy proposes a kind of multiculturalism in which there is no hierarchy, no center, no “high” or “dominant” culture. Its goal is pluralism rather than assimilation. It promotes not just inclusion but participation. It goes beyond tokenism to ensure that people of all cultural backgrounds have the resources and access they need to effectively participate in and co-create our national cultural fabric.

Cultural democracy has always stood as a bulwark against racist and nationalistic ideologies like those put forward by Trump and some of his supporters. As Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard write:

“Cultural democracy…was first espoused in the 1910’s and 1920’s by progressive thinkers such as Horace Kallen and W.E.B. DuBois. They advocated cultural pluralism in the face of widespread assertions of white superiority and nativist calls to delimit a single, true American culture, embodied most frighteningly in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other manifestations of xenophobic violence…Racist articulations of monoculture and liberal ideas of the “melting pot” both work against cultural democracy’s vision of a culture that accepts and respects diversity as a strength to be preserved rather than a problem to be resolved. As was the case in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, cultural democracy has always been an insurgent idea, pushing against dominant values, never gaining the ascendancy, but persisting because its essential truth resonates with the lived experience of people who refuse to be dismissed or “melted” down.”

The USDAC was founded on the principle of cultural democracy. One of its goals is to guide cultural policy in the US, from the grassroots up. So, over the last two years the USDAC has been involved in a massive, national participatory research project involving thousands of people at hundreds of local arts actions around the country. You can read about the findings of this work in the USDAC report, An Act of Collective ImaginationNow, Standing for Cultural Democracy synthesizes these findings into ten recommendations, along with concrete strategies, examples, and tools. These recommendations include:

  • Adopt a “cultural impact study,” requiring developers to research the potential negative impacts of new development on the cultural resources and fabric of a community.
  • Reform the culture of punishment that has led to our current status as “Incarceration Nation.”
  • Implement a “rapid artistic response” system to address the cultural harm of natural and human-made disasters.
  • And more…

Parts of the platform will require state- and national-level engagement. Progress will surely be slow, particularly in this political climate (though no less important for that). Others can be implemented today, right in your neighborhood, community, or city. So stop reading this blog and start reading the report. Check out the tools. Endorse it today. And then, let’s get started.

We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever

On Tuesday night, while I was half-watching MSNBC, I kept one eye on Twitter. As the outcome of the election became clear, the rise in emotion was palpable. People were processing the result in so many different ways: in tweets of mourning, in calls to action, in blame and recriminations, in critical analysis, in “I told you so’s,” and in silence. I certainly had no idea what to write.

Since then, a lot of thoughtful things have been said about the election. My inbox is full of essays by progressives and activists of all stripes exploring what this means, what went wrong, and what comes next. I don’t have any ground-shattering wisdom to add. But I do want to take a moment to share some thoughts, as I look at this election through the lens of cultural organizing. These are things I’ve learned from the amazing artists, cultural workers, and organizers I’ve had the honor to connect with. I find some comfort and direction in them. More than anything, I offer this essay with love and gratitude to all of you.

1. We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever

Among the many dynamics at play this election season was a failure of political imagination. Liberal politicians could not fully grasp the levels of anger and frustration coursing through the nation. Meanwhile, conservative politicians fell back on fear and hate, when hope is what was needed. But while imagination at the highest levels of power may be stunted, it continues to thrive in communities across the country where artists, cultural workers, organizers, and so many others are imagining and crafting new possibilities. We will need all of our combined creativity in the coming months and years in order to push back hate and make room for transformation.

2. We are more than just red and blue states

Every four years we are forced to channel all our hopes, fears, values, and dreams into an either-or choice between two people. We are then given a map covered in red and blue, and fed a story about “two Americas.” This is a deficient narrative that does little to explain the complexity of our country, and even less to guide us forward. There are certainly many divides in our country, which were brought into stark relief during this campaign. But to address them we will have to put aside this single story, and get back to telling the multiplicity of true stories that capture who we really are.

3. The cultural shifts of the past decade are still underway

The country that elected Trump is the same country that elected Obama. We enter into this new era with a powerful movement proclaiming the value of Black lives, an increasingly diverse and politicized pop culture sphere, a large cohort of young immigrant rights leaders with skills honed in recent struggles, and a plethora of new voices amplified through creative use of social media. I don’t believe, as some have said, that the “whitelash” we saw in this election is necessarily the “last gasp” of the old order. Whiteness surely has more tricks up its sleeve. But the strength of the backlash should signal to us how strong the forward movement has been.

I don’t share these thoughts to deny anyone their anger or sadness, to say “it’s going to be fine.” There are dark times ahead, and many fights coming. If you need to mourn, mourn. If you need to organize, organize. This is where my mind goes as I try to sort through all my thoughts and feelings. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Sharing our stories is a necessary first step toward healing and change.

In solidarity,



Map image from Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan

How do you visualize a world you haven’t yet seen?

Earlier this year, I did some graphics work for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC), a group whose mission is to radically re-imagine family engagement in schools and other institutions. It turned out to be one of the toughest design challenges I’ve faced.

In this post, I want to share a bit of that design process with you. The back-and-forth that the process inspired — with me offering draft images and them giving critiques — was fascinating on its own. But more than that, this project exemplified some of the tensions I’ve struggled with over the years creating visual communications for social justice groups.

One of these recurring tensions has to do with the use of symbols. Infographics and other visualizations often rely on simple, widely-recognizable symbols to communicate ideas. We know instantly that a paintbrush means art, a graduation cap means education, and two tall figures and two short figures means family. These symbols serve as visual shorthands, allowing images to be comprehended quickly, and by a broad audience.

A social justice perspective, however, values diversity and inclusiveness. There is no one kind of family, no one educational path, and to simplify these ideas into universal symbols is to marginalize those who deviate from that single image. In addition, social justice is often about imagining how the world could be. That can be hard to do using symbols that are based on the world as it is — particularly if you’re not totally sure what the future you are fighting for will look like. But the farther you stray from the dominant culture’s symbols, the less you can assume that viewers will immediately recognize your meaning.

These are not insolvable dilemmas. Many artists are navigating them creatively. Here’s a story of one of my attempts. I hope it offers some useful insights; I certainly learned a lot. And since I recently critiqued another person’s visualization, it’s only fair that I share some of the critiques I’ve received — all of which, ultimately, have led to better designs.

The Job

Ann Ishimaru, a professor at the University of Washington, approached me with the job. She and her colleague Megan Bang had received funding from the Kellogg Foundation to bring together a group of nationally-recognized community organizers, educators, and researchers from around the country for a two-day meeting. The topic under discussion was family engagement — the practice of supporting families as leaders, advocates, and collaborators in schools and communities.

Ann, Megan, and their colleagues were not content with the current state of “best practices” in family engagement. Their goal was to to develop “next practices” — approaches that go beyond what we’re doing now to what is possible tomorrow. They wanted to center racial justice and the voices of “nondominant” groups, with the ultimate goal of “family and community wellbeing and educational justice.” Ann wanted to capture all this in an image to share at the meeting.

Clearly no small task.

We began with a couple different concepts. One was Tupac Shakur’s metaphor of “the rose that grew from concrete,” which is about the strength and beauty of people who learn to thrive despite facing significant life challenges. Ann wanted to expand the metaphor to explore what was happening below the surface of the concrete, as well as the broader ecology around the rose.

Another concept was root systems. The root systems of plants are often much more extensive than you’d expect, just as there is much going on beneath the surface in marginalized communities that goes unrecognized by outsiders. As a starting point, Ann shared with me the image below, showing a fungus that that attaches to plant roots. She liked the way the tendrils were interconnected through nodes, which suggested ideas about human interconnectedness and networks.

Mycorrhizosphere graphic

After some back and forth, I drafted the image below. I carefully selected flowers from different climates around the country to communicate the diversity of the gathered group. I also used flowers at different stages of growth, to symbolize inter-generational collaboration. The urban landscape signified the broader ecology within which family engagement took place, as well as the large, often inaccessible institutions that families had to navigate. Linked root systems signified networks of mutual support, and a rootedness in shared history and culture.


The image sparked some great discussion at the meeting. Basically, they didn’t like it. Perhaps the loudest critique was about the lack of people in the image. Family engagement and leadership, they said, is about human beings, and that needs to be clear. Another critique was that the use of flowers made it seem like the image was about the environment. A third critique was that family leadership isn’t just about breaking through racism and oppression (the concrete), but also about building something new. Ann summarized it this way:

“The roots of schools as we know them are stunted and problematic from the get-go. They are rooted in oppression, in colonization, in assimilation and the stealing of land. How do we reconstruct something entirely different — not a school building, per se, but a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities and then builds from there…the process of growing or cultivating that somehow helps communities to heal, to be well, to build solidarities, to envision themselves into the future.”

planet-sketchwebIn conversation with Ann and Jondou Chen, the project director, I began to sketch out a new image that showed people with roots in the ground. The people had tools in their hands, to symbolize the building of new types of institutions. But Ann and I agreed that it was getting a bit too “we are the world,” and losing any indication of oppression and struggle.

At this point I realized I needed to shift my design approach. Simple stick figures could never capture the full humanity of people, or the complexity of family leadership across all the different groups involved. What if I used actual photographs? This idea led to the image below, based on Ann’s description of “a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities.” What would such an education system look like? (I used photos from an older project on community organizing for these early drafts, so thank you to all the groups featured!).


Ann and Jondou liked the photos. However, they said the root system looked like a honeycomb. Also, they really didn’t like the top part. It was immediately clear, when they looked at the image, that the idea of a new institution as the end-goal wasn’t right. (I wasn’t thrilled with it myself, since it ended up looking like a cathedral, which is culturally specific and has its own baggage). Having an idea rejected like this can be frustrating, but over the years I’ve realized that this is one of the more helpful services visualizations can offer. By having their words reflected back to them as an image, they were able to clarify what they did not mean, and the dialogue moved forward in a better direction.

After some more conversation, I merged the ideas from my last two designs and came up with the graphic below. I moved the images of family leadership work into the leaves, rather than the roots. This suggested that people in communities around the country were already carrying out “next” practices, that the future goal was already here within today’s struggle. The multi-colored soils were meant to represent the diverse cultural and historical roots that fed this work. (At one point I tried to put historical images of family leadership and activism among the roots, but it got WAY too busy.)


Ann, Jondou, and their colleagues really liked the new direction, but had a few concerns:

  • The image came across as too individualistic. Each person was on their own, rather than connected to larger families or communities. As an alternative, they suggested multiple figures in groups, with arms/branches connected.
  • The landscape, at least to some, read as literally urban (rather than as a metaphor for unwelcoming institutions). They worried this was not inclusive of groups working in rural areas.
  • They wanted more age diversity among the figures, because so much of the work was intergenerational.

After a few more rounds of back-and-forth, we landed on the image below. In the end a wall, rather than a city, was used to symbolize the barriers faced by families. I drew inclusive, diverse groups of connected people, which purposefully did not read as traditional nuclear families. To be sure, it not the kind of graphic whose meaning is immediately clear to a viewer. Rather, it invites exploration, explanation, and discussion. It is as much about the feeling of the work as about the idea of the work.

Though it took a long time, and many re-drawings, ultimately the critiques greatly improved the design. In addition, the design process helped Ann and her colleagues clarify their own mission, goals, and values. Now the FLDC is running collaborative research projects in communities around the country, and I’ve been told that one group used the image to guide their discussions. They asked participants to describe how race and class have shaped their own histories (the roots); to write their hopes and dreams for their children, schools, and communities on cut-out leaves; and to use white note cards as “walls” to represent the barriers and challenges to realizing those hopes and dreams.

All around, a success, though I wouldn’t be surprised if we continued to adapt it going forward.


The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using

[NOTE: November 1, 2016. This post has been updated based on the new things I’ve learned about these images since posting the original article.]

I was doing some work for a colleague at the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, and she gave me a challenge: redesign the “equity vs. equality” graphic that’s been circulating on the web. You’ve probably come across a version of this graphic yourself. There are a bunch of iterations, but basically it shows three people trying to watch a baseball game over the top of a fence. The people are different heights, so the shorter ones have a harder time seeing. I’ve included the original image above, by Craig Froehle.

In the first of two images, all three people have one crate to stand on. In other words, there is “equality,” because everyone has the same number of crates. While this is helpful for the middle-height person, it is not enough for the shortest and superfluous for the tallest. In contrast, in the second image there is “equity” — each person has the number of crates they need to fully enjoy the game.

The distinction between equity and equality is an important one. For example, if we’re talking about school funding, advocating for equality would mean ensuring that all schools had the same amount of resources per pupil (an improvement in most cases, to be sure). On the other hand, advocating for equity would mean recognizing that some schools — like those serving students in low-income Communities of Color — will actually need more resources (funding, experienced teachers, relevant curriculum, etc.) if we are going to make a dent in the educational disparities that have come to be known as the “achievement gap.”

The problem with the graphic has to do with where the initial inequity is located. In the graphic, some people need more support to see over the fence because they are shorter, an issue inherent to the people themselves. That’s fine if we’re talking about height, but if this is supposed to be a metaphor for other inequities, it becomes problematic. For instance, if we return to the school funding example, this image implies that students in low-income Communities of Color and other marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable. They (or their families, or their communities) are metaphorically “shorter” and need more support. But that is not why the so-called “achievement gap” exists. As many have argued, it should actually be termed the “opportunity gap” because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are afforded. It is rooted in a history of oppression, from colonization and slavery to “separate but equal” and redlining. It is sustained by systemic racism and the country’s ever-growing economic inequality.

This metaphor is actually a great example of deficit thinking — an ideology that blames victims of oppression for their own situation. As with this image, deficit thinking makes systemic forms of racism and oppression invisible. Other images, like the one of  different animals having to climb a tree, or of people picking fruit, suffer from the same problem. How would we make these root causes more visible in our “equity vs. equality” image?

Well, if we began with the metaphor of the fence, this would require making clear that the reason some people have more difficulty seeing than others is not because of their height, but because of the context around them. Below is a sketch of this idea. In this image, some people are standing on lower ground (a metaphor for historical oppression) and are trying to see over a higher fence, a metaphor for present-day systems of oppression. (I also put a hole in the fence, made by the person on the right, to symbolize the creative and often subversive ways that people find to work around systems and get some of what they need.)


However, I still don’t love this new version, because nothing is being done here to address the real problem: the fence. So I drew this third image for fun. Though by this point it’s losing a lot of the original images nice simplicity.


iisc_equalityequityIf you want to play around with this metaphor yourself, check out the 4th Box toolkit. Recently, the people at the Center for Story-Based Strategy and the Interaction Institute for Social Change worked with artist Angus Maguire to recreate the fence image, producing the beautiful version to the right. It went viral, and they noticed a lot of people remixing the image to expand on the concepts. So they collaborated with Maguire again to create an adaptable visual toolbox, which makes it easy to create your own image in the “4th box” as shown below. They’ve been using it to inspire both in-person and online dialogues.


I still see a lot of drawbacks to the core metaphor, however, so I’ve been on the lookout for others. One I’ve heard, which I think works better, references runners on a racetrack. On an oval track, the outer lanes are actually longer than the inner lanes. If everyone started at the same place, some would have to run farther than others. So, naturally, we start runners at different places along the track. Here’s a mock-up of this metaphor, though it assumes that you already know about the different lengths of each lane:


Beyond this, I haven’t had any major breakthroughs, and the idea of life as a “race” isn’t very appealing to me. Fortunately, I was not the only one trying to figure this out. Meyer Memorial Trust and Northwest Health Foundation had similar concerns, so they launched the Equity Illustrated contest, asking Oregonian artists to take up the challenge.

First place winner Salomé Chimuku rejected the simple metaphoric approach all together, noting that “equity isn’t about watching baseball.” Instead she offers a series of cartoon portraits of friends, with quotes from each illustrating a different aspect of equity. The result has the quality of a conversation. Here’s a sample. You can download the whole pdf HERE.




The third place illustration, from Matt Kinshella, is also pretty great. It keeps the simplicity of the fence image, but puts aside the baseball metaphor for a more concrete example — one close to my heart as someone invested in community work.


It may seem that I am reading too much into these images. Certainly they were all created with the best of intentions. But metaphors are important. They help us understand new ideas by referencing things we already know. At the same time, they shape our experience, opening us up to some ideas while closing us off to others. The mental shorthand we use to understand “equity” will affect how we go about fighting for it.

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, I’ll end with this image from Sam Killermann, which I find pretty amusing, and which you can buy in poster or t-shirt form.



Daring to Imagine: An Interview with Arlene Goldbard

If you’re active in the world of community-based arts, you probably know Arlene Goldbard. She has been at the forefront of cultural policy in the US for decades, and is the author of New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, the go-to overview for the field of community-based arts. More recently, she published a pair of books titled The Culture of Possibility and The Wave, outlining an emerging paradigm shift in the way we think about culture. These days Arlene is promoting just, equitable cultural policy as Chief Policy Wonk for the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), the country’s first “people-powered department.”

I had the opportunity to interview Arlene about her past, her ideas, and her plans for the USDAC. Our talk was fascinating: part tour through the history of arts activism and cultural policy, part critique of the mainstream art world, part hopeful vision for the future. Enjoy!


Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk, US Department of Arts & Culture

Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk, US Department of Arts & Culture

Maybe you could start off by talking a bit about your trajectory through the field of community arts and cultural policy.

I’m one of those people who always wanted to be an artist. When I was a little girl, drawing — entering the world of visual depiction — was an urgent necessity for me. It was the way that I created the world that I wanted to inhabit instead of the one that I lived in, which left a lot to be desired. I was a painter and a graphic designer, and until I was maybe 30 that was my primary mode of activism. I did a lot of posters and illustrations for movement organizations. I was involved primarily in the peace movement, but also did work for civil rights and human rights movements. That thing of using your skills as an artist to help various organizing campaigns — that’s where I started.

Then, in the mid ’70s, across the country there was a big upsurge in arts activism. Some of it was critical activism directed at arts institutions and funders. I was an organizer for the San Francisco Art Workers’ Coalition, and we did a lot of work bringing socially conscious artists together around issues of funding and representation and control of that city’s publicly supported arts institutions. There began to be quite a lot of organizing work in which artists took the lead, and weren’t just adjuncts to somebody else’s campaign. I think that a lot of us had the insight that the same social, economic, and power relations that we had been struggling with in other sectors were true of our sector as well.

I was doing a lot of work around the People’s Bicentennial — a huge alternative organizing effort that happened all across the country on the bicentennial of the American revolution — when the governor of California, Jerry Brown, completely wiped out the old California Arts Commission. He replaced it with the California Arts Council with cool people on it like Gary Snyder and Ruth Asawa and Peter Coyote. Peter, who was a friend of mine from San Francisco, invited me to come to Sacramento and set up a technical assistance and organizing program under that umbrella. It was called Cultural News Service. Much of it was practical support for artists like how do you do finances, how do you do planning, how do you have a public meeting, how do you disseminate your work. We had small grants program as well. Then that crashed and burned as a casualty of a conflict between state control agencies and Jerry Brown.

I moved on after a little while to a group called NAPNOC, the Neighborhood Arts Programs National Organizing Committee, which changed its name later to the Alliance for Cultural Democracy. It was a national network of community-based arts organizations started by Eric Reuther, whose family was so seminal to the organizing of the United Auto Workers. It was a time when a lot of public money was being invested in creating job programs, and CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, was created, a public service jobs program at the federal level. Some people had the bright idea of making those jobs available to artists doing community work, so Eric took advantage of that moment and his family’s roots in labor organizing and convened a meeting at a labor center in Black Lake Michigan. He got from the Department of Labor a rather large grant to set up several offices around the country and help people use the CETA money to employ artists in different ways. My then-partner Don Adams and I were asked to take over the national leadership of that.

It all coincided in a very unfortunate way with the election of Ronald Reagan, who ended these programs overnight. But we went to Washington and became national organizers for this movement. We didn’t invent the concept of cultural democracy; that has long roots. But we did a lot to popularize it, and we did a lot to bring people who were working at the grassroots level into a discussion about cultural policy, which hadn’t really been much of a topic.

We had supported all of this work that we were doing with consulting and research in the areas of cultural planning, organizational development, and cultural development. We came back to California and continued that, and I switched my personal interest from painting to writing. I’d given a lot of speeches and written a lot of articles, and always thought of them as being something on the side. And then I realized, “No. Words, that’s my medium.” During this time I co-wrote and published a book of essays called Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture.

New Creative Community Book CoverAround 2000 my partner and I got a series of contracts with the Rockefeller Foundation, including a commission to evaluate a community cultural development program called PACT: Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation. What they wanted was not just an evaluation. They wanted it to be contextualized in the history and values of the field. So we wrote a report, and then they published the contextualizing sections as Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. Years later Rockefeller gave me back the rights and I revised that book and New Village published it as New Creative Community, which is probably the most used book I’ve written so far. It’s used as a text in many university courses.

That book was certainly how I was introduced to you, and when I think of the term “community cultural development” I think of you. I’m curious: Where did that term come from? Who introduced it to you? Was that the term that was used at the time?

No, it wasn’t. Mostly people said “community arts,” which was very confusing because all the local arts councils called themselves community arts too. About the time I went to the state Arts Council in Sacramento, I was introduced to UNESCO cultural policy studies, and it was like a whole world opening up. I remember reading the new cultural policy for Sweden for the first time and thinking, “Oh my god, there’s a totally different way to look at this.” So “community cultural development” was more in use in Europe and elsewhere abroad.

We decided to use it because everything else was weak or too specific. We also wanted to make a distinction (even though it’s somewhat problematic) between people who are making art in conventional modes around social issues, and people for whom the first-person embodied experience of making culture is the organizing technique. We wanted to distinguish community cultural development from people who didn’t have a commitment to collaboration, mutuality of leadership, social justice, and participation. But it’s bad. They’re all bad. There isn’t a single good term to describe it all.

“Social practice” seems to be winning the fight now for nomenclature triumph. It really pisses me off that that phrase has traction, just because it’s rooted in established arts institutions like museums and art schools and so therefore has had a much better distribution system, much better branding. I agree with Rick Lowe when he says that social practice is the gentrification of community arts. It’s a largely White phenomenon, and the people who practice it are seldom actually rooted in the communities they’re working with or co-directing the projects with people who are rooted in those communities. While there are some social practice people who are good on all those scores, there’s a large number who are deploying the methods of community arts but not the values, not the liberatory social justice reasons to deploy the methods — and without acknowledging where they come from.

Book Covers for The Culture of Possibility and The WaveIn your recent book, The Culture of Possibility, you talk about how you shifted from researching and working with community arts groups to a new role as public spokesperson for the field. Could you tell me about how that transition took place?

Part of it was a personal thing. I realized that writing is my instrument, that’s what I want to do. I’m asked to do public speaking a lot, which I love, and its always a really interesting challenge for me to try to say something that helps people break open whatever their embedded assumptions are and see freshly. It also had to do with the fact that I felt I could take the emotional and political risks of saying things that are sometimes hard for people who have something to protect. For example, many of the projects I’ve done over the years have had to do with racial justice and it’s always been really important to me to stand up and speak as powerfully as I can about racial justice. As you know, that’s a task that is often left to People of Color as if it was their problem, but obviously White supremacy is our problem. So I don’t know if I’m a spokesperson for anyone else, but when I talk about cultural democracy and community cultural development, I know I have a lot of experiences having people come up to me and say, “OK, now I have the language to understand the impact of what I’m doing.” That makes me feel amazing.

In The Culture of Possibility and The Wave, you write about a new moment, a Zeitgeist, in which people are coming to realize the importance of culture. It’s one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in a while. Where did this idea come from?

People always tell me I’m optimistic. I always rejected that because I thought optimistic meant I know how the story will end and that it will have a happy ending. And, of course, I don’t have the vaguest idea how the story will end. But then I came to the understanding that to be optimistic means you see possibility. And that’s hard-wired into my character. I came from a really challenging background, and in many ways I see myself as a self-made person. So the desire to make whatever you can out of the broken pieces you were given is in my DNA somehow. It seems intrinsic to what Abraham Joshua Heschel has called the “moral grandeur” of the human subject.

People like the National Endowment for the Arts keep complaining that we’re not selling as many tickets to the symphony, or what the major cultural institutions call the “greying of the audience.” Well, for those older Eurocentric forms something is changing. But in terms of the feeling that “I can make culture,” something is changing in the other direction. People are so engaged in making their own videos now, there’s all this participatory dance competition, this proliferation of community singing, this complete upsurge in hands-on crafts like knitting — what they call the informal arts.

There’s a widespread feeling that the way that the old order has organized the world is not working for us anymore. Everyone hates it. The question is whether people think its inevitable or whether there’s a possibility of changing it. So there’s a tiny little lever you can push to change everything, and the lever is to recognize that, no, this isn’t timeless. This isn’t eternal. This isn’t the real right way to do things. This is a historically grounded set of choices that has resulted in something that’s gone off the rails. And it’s not that hard to change.

Although you talk about the arts in your newer books, you’re main focus is culture. How would you summarize your key argument about culture?

For some time, culture has been a central arena in which we work out identity, we work out shared values, we find out how we feel about the important questions of the day. All of this is being communicated in films and videos people are making, in their music, their writing, in all the many ways that the digital universe has increased our capability for generating material. But for the people who are still stuck in the old paradigm, this is not visible. They think the real important stuff is happening somewhere else, in the movement of money and numbers and laws and regulations, the “hard stuff.” They’re not really giving what’s happening in the cultural realm its true meaning and value. And because of that they have a distorted understanding of where we are as a global civilization and what the possibilities are.

So if I had to make one point, the point I would want to make is: open your eyes, question your assumptions, look at what’s been going on in the place you are not looking. That’s why culture is so important to me. It is the right word, not art, to define that arena in which all these signs, symbols, codes, and other ways that we convey this kind of information is swirling around. If there was one thinker who has had the most influence on me it’s Paulo Freire. Freire writes that it is language that makes the world, and by speaking truth you become a subject of history instead of its object. For me it’s a straight shot to saying it’s culture, not just language, that makes the world.

What will it take to push forward this alternative way of looking at the world in terms of a real shift in priorities?

I’m not sure, but two different answers arise in my head. There’s this story in the Bible about how the children of Israel had to wander around for 40 years before they could enter the promised land. If somebody actually shows you a map of that part of the world you can see by the names where the area was, and it wasn’t any bigger than Chicago. It was like wandering around Chicago for 40 years. Why did they have to do that? What the Midrash—the oral story tradition around that—says is that the generations that were born into slavery had to die out before they could appreciate what it would be to live free. So when you say what will it take, I think one thing it’s going to take is time. The guardians of the old paradigm are mostly in older generations now, and that consciousness will literally die out, and the other consciousness will take its place. Because I don’t think you really make a paradigm shift happen. You stand aside, you try to give it a little nudge.

The other thing is that we really need a big public dialogue. A lot of people who don’t think of themselves as being into “art” have to start understanding what an important arena culture is for bringing about the future that we want. A project that you and I are both involved in, the U.S. Department of Arts & Culture (USDAC), has that an underlying goal. We are explicitly making a statement about the importance of culture, and we’re having some success at engaging people who aren’t artists themselves, so that feels encouraging.

Maybe you could say a few more words about the USDAC and how it fits into this paradigm shift.

The USDAC is structured to work on two different levels, and to have a constant flow of engagement and information between them. On one level, at the grassroots, we’ve been working with volunteer Cultural Agents creating “Imaginings” around the country — art-infused community dialogues that help people envisage their future say 20 years from now, and now we’re shifting to Regional Envoys, who organize in multi-state regions. And then we work on nation-wide community actions like USDAC Super PAC and the People’s State of the Union.

Then, on the national level, we have the USDAC National Cabinet, of which you are a member. The Cabinet’s role is to help transmute what we’ve learned in the aggregate at the grassroots level into elegant, accessible, hopefully viral proposals for policies and interventions, along with actions that can make these proposals real. Those propositions at the national level should give aid and comfort to the local level, where Cultural Agents and thousands of Citizen Artists can integrate them into their on-the-ground experience, and then send that experience back to the Cabinet, and so on. What we’re trying to do is community-envisioned, or crowd-sourced, cultural policy, which is a new paradigm for cultural policy. We think we can get some traction because, unlike abstract policy, which emerges from discourse among experts, this really relates to lived knowledge as much as to expert knowledge.



The Art of Restorative Questions

We live in a punitive culture. We are so used to punishment as the go-to solution for any behavior we want to change, that it can be difficult to imagine other options. A group of artists, organized by Project NIA, are here to help us.

When it comes to discipline and punishment, we seem to be reaching a tipping point. The number of people incarcerated in the US has become so outrageously large, that bi-partisan support (a rare thing these days) is building up behind criminal justice reform. People are (re)considering alternatives to incarceration, particularly for non-violent crimes. In schools, too, it has become clear that a largely punitive approach to dealing with behavior “problems” has only led to more problems. Schools hand out unconscionable numbers of suspensions and expulsions. This disproportionately harms low income Students of Color, exacerbates the large opportunity gaps that already exist, and fosters what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

In response, we have seen rapid growth of the restorative justice movement, which offers a radically different approach. Restorative justice asks that we make a paradigm shift in the way we think about “crime” and “misbehavior.” As Dr. Carolyn Boyes-Watson at the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University explains,

“Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Restorative justice seeks to build partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing within our communities. Restorative approaches seek a balanced approach to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community through processes that preserve the safety and dignity of all.”

Within this realm, practitioners have developed a wide range of “restorative practices” — such as victim-offender dialogues and peacemaking circles — often drawing on conflict resolution practices from indigenous societies around the world. But restorative justice cannot be reduced to a set of practices. It is a way of thinking about and approaching conflict. It requires a shift in how we relate to one another. It is about developing a restorative culture in our schools and communities.

If this seems daunting, a new arts-based campaign offers a simple, but powerful, starting point. The effort was catalyzed by Project NIA, an influential Chicago-based organization dedicated to “participatory community justice” (which encompasses restorative justice as well as more systemic approaches like transformative justice). Project NIA brought together a group of (mostly) Chicago artists to create restorative justice posters. These stunning posters feature “restorative questions,” drawn from the work of Margaret Thorsborne.

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The posters, and the questions they pose, are deceptively simple. However, if we were to truly use these questions as our starting point to address crime, violence, and conflict, we would find ourselves veering far from the punitive path. To ask someone who has been harmed, “What is needed to make things right?” is to privilege healing over retribution.  To ask someone who has done harm, “Who do you think has been affected by what you did?,” is to assume that learning and growth are possible.

All posters are available for public download. Print out your favorites and hang them in your neighborhood. I’m definitely going to be putting some up in the schools I work with here in Salt Lake City, where restorative practices are just beginning to gain traction. If you take a photo of the posters you hang, you can share it with the project by emailing it to

Shifting from punitive to restorative approaches to justice and discipline will take more than learning new practices. It will require what Jeff Chang calls a “collective leap of imagination.” Fortunately, catalyzing our imaginations is something many artists excel at. As it says on the restorative posters website, “Artists help us to imagine new worlds. Let’s keep imagining together.”