Making change by making art. Campaigners have long recognized the power of culture in their efforts to effect social change, whether it’s weaving a well-timed pop culture reference into campaign messaging or organising an entire movement around a cultural idea, custom, value or tradition.
Cultural campaigning can transform narratives, mobilise communities, and shift public perceptions of issues in important ways. But what’s the best way to go about it? And how has the age of hashtags and internet memes influenced this tactic?
Below, watch a recording of the session, catch up on all of the discussion’s takeaways, and explore a list of resources related to cultural campaigning.
Lessons and takeaways
Culture is the fabric that holds us all together — so your campaign is cultural, whether you realise it or not.
Discourse around economic, political and social issues doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s rooted in culture. It follows that your organising around those issues will similarly be rooted in culture, even if you’re not doing so with culture actively in mind.
Cultural campaigning offers people an important “shelter from the storm”.
Fighting for social change, or even bearing the burden of the status quo, is taxing. Cultural campaigning can be a reprieve: it’s grounded in creativity, and gives us the space to create the world we want.
Dr. Toby Jenkins spoke about open mic nights for spoken word poetry and other speech that she organizes on university campuses in the U.S. These spaces are one of the few venues for students to speak out on issues that affect them, she said.
It doesn’t end with the students, however. The experience is meaningful for the audience too, she said, and inspires energy and motivation in them to dream of a better world.
But cultural means much more than simply artistic or creative.
A campaign that doesn’t take culture into account will struggle to connect with people, however creative or artistic it may be. It must be true to the real lived experiences of people.
Cultural isn’t always synonymous with good, either.
Culture gives us a wealth of sources of inspiration and innovation to transform society for the better. However, culture can also contain norms that undermine human rights.
Masih Alinejad pointed out how many people are hesitant to criticise the compulsory veil law in Iran because they conflate one cultural norm with the whole of Iranian culture.
Not every cultural campaign can or should be a viral national phenomenon — and that’s OK. There is tremendous power to effect change at the local level; besides, different communities have different cultures, so cultural campaigning designed for one community might not connect as well with another.
But think globally too.
The internet, and social media in particular, is a tool that can take a cultural campaign beyond its “target” audience, as long as you frame it in a way that makes it accessible to someone of another culture. In My Stealthy Freedom’s case, that meant engaging not only with feminists on the other side of the globe, but also men within Iran.
Effective cultural campaigning comes from the bottom up.
Cultural organising can’t come from the top down, Dr. Paul Kuttner said — otherwise it won’t connect with people.
Kuttner referenced his work with Project Hip Hop, which trains young artists in Boston as cultural organisers who can address social justice issues in their communities. The project’s campaigners didn’t impose a love or understanding of hip hop culture on participants. Instead, they created space to discuss hip hop and its role in social change — for good and for ill. These sorts of conversations have to happen first within a culture, he said, before any sort of public campaigning can be undertaken.
My Stealthy Freedom’s success is in part because of its decentralised leadership, Masih Alinejad said. Had her opponents shamed her into disowning it — which they have tried, but failed to do — the movement would have continued without her because she is not its sole leader.
In fact, in her view, anyone who has used the movement’s hashtags to contribute their resistance to compulsory veil in Iran has become a leader.
When US residents are asked about the priorities they want policymakers to address, education is always near the top. That’s not surprising. Most of us have a child, a neighbor, a niece, a nephew, a grandchild, or someone we care about who is making their way through the school system. We’re rightly concerned about what happens after youth are dropped off at the school door — particularly after decades of being told how badly our public schools are failing.
What is surprising is how little attention mainstream media outlets give to education. A Brookings Institute study of national print, television, web, and radio news sources in 2009 found that just 1.4% of news coverage addressed topics related to education. Of this coverage, most was focused on topics like finances, politics, and the H1N1 flu outbreak, rather than on issues of teaching and learning. The authors concluded that national education coverage is “virtually invisible.”
The question of how the news media covers education is important. It’s important because democracy only works when the public is informed, and we rely on the media to inform us about pressing issues like school reform. It is important because of the “agenda setting” role that the media plays; by selecting some topics over others, the media affects which issues we see as significant and worth our time. And it is important because the media shapes how we think about educational issues, depending on how they are framed: what is left in and what is left out, what is forefront and what is left in the background, who speaks and who is silent.
A few years ago, my colleague at the University of Utah, Dr. Kevin Coe, and I launched a research project looking into mainstream news coverage of education. Dr. Coe is a scholar of rhetoric and political communication. My research is in education and culture. Together, we pulled together a large body of data: every story about Pre-K-12 education (preschool through high school) in the U.S. that aired on broadcast evening news (ABC, NBC, CBS) over the course of 35 years.
Our research immediately confirmed what others have found about education coverage: There is very little. Pre-K-12 education news made up less than 1% of all evening news coverage. In an average year, the three networks presented just 194 minutes of education news.
This low percentage makes the topics that are covered that much more important. We wanted to know: What topics within education are being covered? What’s being left out? And how has this changed over time? So we categorized all the stories by their most prominent topic. This involved developing a typology of 30 different education topics sorted into four broad categories. Our data set is publicly available for other researchers to use.
We’ve only scratched the surface of what this data can tell us about how the network news media might be shaping educational policy and practice. In this post, we present a couple of data visualizations based on this research. These interactive visualizations chart the level of coverage for each topic, year by year. If you want some of our interpretations, check out the full article. But we encourage you to use these visualizations to explore for yourself, and begin to think about why these trends might look the way they do. The typology and definitions of each topic can be found here.
In the first figure, you can see the 35-year trends for the four broad categories (Teaching and Learning; Structures of Schooling; Equity and Diversity; Climate, Health, and Safety), as well as changes in total education coverage. You can expand the graph to full screen, and click on each topic on the right to highlight that trend.
This second figure takes a more fine-grained look, following 30 specific topics. Many of these topics are related to prominent school reform movements like school choice and standards, hot button issues like religion in schools, and long-running struggles to address (in)equity in education. Again, you can use the graph below to explore each separate topic and how focus on it has waxed and waned over time.
Dr. Coe and I have now begun to dig deeper into specific topics and how they are framed by network news media. We’re studying what is sometimes called the “discourse of derision” — a discourse that attacks the U.S. education system and places blame squarely on the shoulders of educators. We’re interested in the discourses used to discuss race and equity, and how they have evolved over the years through multiple equity-focused reform efforts.
As with any research, there are limits to what we can learn from this data. These days, network news media is only one part of a vast media landscape that includes social media, online blogs and news sites, podcasts, and much more. Still, this data gives us the rare ability to track dominant education discourses over the course of decades, and to analyze how the way we talk about schools has evolved (or not) over time.
Featured Image: Montage of news anchors, created for LikeTheDew.com from sources all over the web through fair use.
The struggle for the soul of U.S. culture is heating up. White supremacy and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise, along with attacks on truth and accountability. Meanwhile, social movements are helping us to reckon with how society (de)values Black lives and the stories of cis and trans women facing sexual abuse. Groups across the country, and around the world, are taking seriously the work of shifting culture as an indispensable part of organizing for social justice.
But how do you go about intentionally shifting culture? The answer depends a lot on your understanding of what culture is and how it evolves. Without a clear theory of culture, it’s difficult to create effective strategies for change. And there are almost as many theories of culture as there are people trying to change it.
For example, in the 18th century, European Enlightenment thinkers proposed a theory of cultural change that is now called “unilineal evolution.” This theory proposes that all cultures evolve in a predictable linear pattern — from primitivism to barbarism to civilization. Western European culture, of course, was placed at the height of civilization. Unilineal evolution has been widely discredited. However, for many years it undergirded Europe’s imperialist project, and its assumptions can still be found lurking in modern discourse, as in efforts to promote development in “underdeveloped” countries.
In this post, I share some prominent theories of cultural change that have informed justice-oriented cultural organizing efforts. Each suggests a different approach to cultural organizing, though they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the best efforts combine approaches. We’re all working from some sort of theory of culture, even if it is just implicit. Being more explicit about how we conceptualize cultural change should help us to be more intentional in making it happen.
1. Cultural Change as Evolution
One way to think about cultural change is that it is analogous to biological change. From this perspective, “cultural traits” (norms, ideas, beliefs, habits, skills, etc.) are passed on to younger generations much as biological traits are. Cultural traits can change over time in response to new needs in the environment. New traits can be introduced and spread through a population via innovation or interaction with other cultures. In this way, culture literally evolves over time, in the Darwinian sense. The analogy is not perfect; for example, cultural evolution moves much faster than biological evolution, and cultural traits can be passed on by non-relatives. Still, decades of research have documented the workings of cultural evolution and how it is similar to, and interacts with, biological evolution.
Richard Dawkins famously coined the word “meme” to describe the cultural analogue to the biological “gene.” According to Dawkins, a meme is a single unit of culture –- for example, the knowledge of how to make a certain tool, or the norm of having fewer children, or the concept of a “meme” itself. Like a gene, a meme is a replicator. It spreads from brain to brain, host to host, like a virus. Memes compete with one another for our attention, our billboard space, and our twitter feeds, and successful memes become self-replicating. Memes may proliferate because they help their hosts (us) survive. But memes can also take on a life of their own, spreading for reasons that have nothing to do with biological survival.
This view of cultural change implies that a cultural organizer is something akin to a dog or plant breeder — introducing and replicating certain cultural traits over others. Of course, we have nothing like the kind of control that a breeder does, working instead in what Dawkins calls the “primordial soup” of culture. But we can take part in the struggle for the survival of the fittest memes. For example, we can identify memes, or cultural traits, from the past and reintroduce them into new contexts. We can build bridges across cultures so that we have a larger pool of cultural traits to choose from. Or we can craft new memes — symbols, rituals, concepts, etc. — and support their spread throughout our communities.
This style of cultural organizing has exploded in recent years with the proliferation of internet hash tags and other symbols that carry memes across the world in an instant. We are learning what kind of memes catch on — or are “sticky” — on these new platforms, and how to actively use them to start new conversations and movements. This theory of cultural change, however, does have its limitations. It suggests a relatively fair playing field upon which the “best” memes will win, obscuring more structural barriers and privileges that affect which ideas come out on top in the cultural arena.
2. Cultural Change as Meaning Making
A second way to think about cultural change is as a process of revising how we collectively make sense of the world. This perspective is rooted in sociological theories such as symbolic interactionism and social constructionism. According to these theories, the important thing about humans is that we are meaning makers. We use our past experiences and interactions to invest the world around us with meaning. The meaning that we make of the world, in turn, shapes how we interact with it.
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
This bottom-up understanding of culture leaves a lot of room for human agency. Socially constructed meanings are not permanent. In fact, they require ongoing reinforcement and repair. Every time one of us tells a young boy they shouldn’t wear pink, for example, we reinforce a shared understanding of the male/female dichotomy. On the flip side, every time we challenge the shared way of making meaning — dressing our boy in pink, or not telling anyone their gender at all — we put a tiny dent in the cultural consensus. It is through lots of these tiny communicative encounters that we can see a cultural shift start to take hold.
We don’t make meaning of the world by ourselves, though. We do it through interactions with other people. We communicate through language and other symbol systems, and this impacts how we make sense of our experiences. Over time, through repeated interactions, groups of people develop shared meanings — for example, what it means to be a “man” or “woman” in a particular society. A group’s full web of shared meanings and associated practices is called a culture. To say it another way, culture is an emergent phenomenon, based on billions of small everyday interactions.
This understanding of cultural change encourages us to think not only about large-scale cultural campaigns, but also the importance of small everyday interactions. It resonates with the “personal is political” perspective that came out of the US Feminist movement, and the Environmental Movement’s call to “think globally, act locally.” Our goals may be large in scale, but first we need to attend to ourselves and the ways we interact with our families, our friends, and our fellow organizers. However, as with the evolutionary perspective, these theories may lead us to underestimate the power of social and economic hierarchies to stymie cultural change efforts. For a more structural analysis, we turn to our next theory of culture.
3. Cultural Change as Ideological Struggle
A third way of thinking about cultural change is as a power struggle. This perspective comes to us from critical and Marxist traditions, and is rooted in conflict theory, which argues that societies are made up of social groups competing for resources and power. In this framework, the dominant culture in any society reflects the values, ideologies, and worldviews of the dominant social group. Through its control of institutions like education and mass media, the dominant group is able to project its particular values and ideologies across society in a way that makes them seem normal, neutral, or simply “common sense.”
This is why we can talk, for example, about the culture in U.S. schools or institutions being “white” even if not all of the people in charge are. The underlying assumptions, values, and rules that govern these institutions are aligned with the culture of the dominant (white) group in the country. To the extent that the people in those institutions are a part of that culture and buy into its values, they will find it easier to navigate the institution and earn its rewards. Those who differ too much — who don’t have the right kind of cultural capital — will be marginalized and labeled as deviant.
The dominant group uses its cultural influence to maintain control. By making the status-quo seem fair and just — or at least inevitable — the dominant group earns the allegiance of the majority of the people. After all, if this is the natural order of things, what reason is there to revolt? Gramsci termed this form of domination cultural hegemony. Importantly, cultural hegemony is never complete. There is diversity among elites, and there is always some level of dissent from the population. But cultural hegemony sets the parameters for what forms of dissent are deemed legitimate, and even what kinds of alternatives are imaginable.
In this framework, the job of the cultural organizer is to find and promote counter-hegemonies. Sub-cultures, often thriving at the margins of mainstream society, develop values and worldviews that challenge the status quo. These counter-hegemonic cultures are all around us, at least in partial form — in hip-hop culture, in Black Twitter, in Indigenous communities, in anarchist collectives, etc. By supporting, promoting, and taking part in the evolution of these sub-cultures, we help amass the cultural resources we need to challenge the powers that be.
According to these theories, cultural resources by themselves are not enough. Cultural struggle needs to be linked to the struggle for economic and political resources as well. Cultural organizers are called on to launch grassroots media outlets that carry countercultural messages; to build new institutions founded on counter-hegemonic values and norms; and to organize with oppressed communities to build power and take control of the economic, social, and political systems.
4. Cultural Change as Counterstorytelling
A fourth way to think about cultural change is as a process of storytelling. This perspective is rooted in the interdisciplinary field of narrative theory. Humans are, as Jonathan Gottschall puts it, “the storytelling animal.” Story is one of the main ways that we make sense of the world and pass along the values, norms, assumptions, and worldviews that make up culture.
For narrative scholars, a “story” is a particular kind of discourse that makes sense of our messy world by “emplotting” it. Story structures differ across cultures, but in western societies they generally include sequences of events with causal links between them (one thing leads to the next), central conflicts that drive the plot forward, and characters who have agency to make choices. Importantly, stories do not exist on their own; they are told. They are social acts. A story involves both a teller and an audience, and it is together that they produce the story’s meaning.
Storytelling serves many purposes. We tell folktales and fables in order to teach children how to behave: don’t shirk your responsibilities, don’t go into the woods at night. We tell friends the stories of our day in order to elicit emotional support and influence how they perceive us. We pass on myths to explain why the world is the way it is and how we should care for it. We narrate our histories in order to solidify a collective or national identity. Even our individual personalities can be understood as stories we tell ourselves in order to find coherence in the complexity of our lives.
Over time, societies develop shared narrative repertoires. These are the stories that “everyone knows” and that communicate what that society deems meaningful, moral, and valuable. This includes specific stories such as folk tales, religious narratives, legends, and popular versions of history. It also includes what the Storytelling Project’s Lee Ann Bell calls “stock stories” or what are often referred to as “dominant narratives.” These are not so much specific stories as genres. These genres show up repeatedly in novels, films, TV shows, and history books. They also serve as blueprints for telling our own personal stories.
For example, take the stock story of the “American Dream.” American Dream stories tell of individuals migrating to the U.S., working hard, and finding a better life for themselves and their children. Barack Obama used this genre at his famous DNC convention speech. The DREAMers movement leveraged this narrative to advance immigration reform. The danger of using dominant narratives is that they tend to reinforce the status quo — in this case upholding ideas about meritocracy and U.S. exceptionalism. Plus, it can be hard to tell alternative stories. Immigrants whose stories don’t match the single story of the American Dream — for example, those who have experienced racism or intergenerational poverty — are silenced, marginalized, and treated as abnormal. If your story doesn’t fit the dominant narrative, there must be something wrong with you.
As this example suggests, stories are deeply connected to questions of power. Which stories can be told, who is able to tell them, and who listens are all arenas of struggle. The Center for Story-Based Strategy refers to this as the “battle of the story.” We see this battle everyday in the media, among policymakers, and in organizing campaigns: groups attempting to advance their version of a story and the way it frames a particular issue or concern. Embedded in these competing stories are different assumptions about what exactly the problem is, how it came about, and how it should be solved.
Stories can shatter complacency and challenge the status quo…They can open new windows into reality, showing us that there are possibilities for life other than the ones we live…They can show us the way out of the trap of unjustified exclusion. They can help us understand when it is time to reallocate power.
Richard Delgado, Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others
Through this lens, the job of the cultural organizer is to be a counterstoryteller.Counterstories, or counter-narratives challenge, subvert, complicate, or counteract the dominant stories that uphold unequal power relationships. A counterstory might be a personal narrative that doesn’t fit into the dominant mold and thus undermines its claim to truth. Or it might be a historical account that has been left out of our history books and that presents a different perspective on the past. Or it might be a visionary narrative laying out more just possibilities for the future. Counterstories are all around us, despite concerted efforts to silence them.
There are many different ways that cultural organizers can support counterstorytelling. For example, the Storytelling Project advocates for a more micro approach, cultivating “counterstorytelling communities” in which multiracial groups can share, critique, and reimagine stories about race. The Center for Story-Based Strategy takes a more macro approach, working with organizing and advocacy groups to develop “narrative strategies” that complement more traditional campaigns. These and other approaches shift culture by uncovering stories that have been silenced, validating the stories of people whose experiences have been marginalized, and inserting new narratives into public discourse.
In the previous sections, I outlined four perspectives on cultural change and what they imply about how organizers can intentionally shift culture. This is far from a complete list. (For example, we’ve barely touched the surface of the complex world of discourse analysis, or the impact of the environment on culture.) However, these are some of the theories that I have found to be most useful in conceptualizing cultural organizing, and have seen expressed by others doing this kind of work. I hope this essay can help further the conversation about our shared understanding of cultural change, and how to enhance our collective struggles for justice.
Every generation, it seems, worries that the next one is not as politically active as it should be. But, in recent decades, a new concern has emerged: “gaps” in civic knowledge and participation in the US along lines of race and class. According to a number of researchers, youth from low-income Communities of Color score lower on measures of civic knowledge, civic attitudes, and political action than their white, wealthier peers. Harvard’s Meira Levinson labeled these disparities the “civic achievement gap”. More recently, she and others have begun referring instead to the “civic empowerment gap,” stressing that these disparities are rooted in unequal access to quality civic education opportunities.
These findings are highly disturbing. They suggest that Youth of Color are being systematically denied the education they need to be effective participants in political life. At the same time, this research seems to be contradicted by the political reality we see around us. From the the immigration activism of the DREAMers, to #BlackLivesMatter, to campus efforts to end racism and sexual assault, young People of Color are often at the vanguard of political and cultural change.
From the the immigration activism of the DREAMers, to #BlackLivesMatter, to campus efforts to end racism and sexual assault, young People of Color are often at the vanguard of political and cultural change.
What explains these two simultaneous realities? One answer is differing definitions of what it means to be civically engaged. Evidence of the civic achievement/empowerment gap (for example, the NAEP civics test) tends to be based on a relatively narrow view of civic knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The “good citizen,” in this case, is someone who participates in formal government processes (voting, communicating with representatives), who can engage in traditional political debate, who identifies with “American” nationhood and values, and who is more or less supportive of the current system.
And this definition has never been adequate for understanding civic development in low-income Communities of Color. Communities that have been denied access to formal political power have long turned to more local, cultural, clandestine, and activist-oriented forms of engagement. Such engagement is often rooted in racial, ethnic, or tribal affiliations rather than national pride, and is based in a much more critical perspective toward the status quo.
Youth of Color today are continuing this tradition. While they may not vote at the same rate as their white peers, they often show equal or higher rates of engagement in other realms like local community involvement, online participation, and mutual support (like translating for neighbors). In one particularly rigorous national study, researchers found that when participatory politics — peer-based efforts to exert influence on issues of public concern — were included alongside more traditional institutional politics, Black youth actually demonstrated the highest levels of overall involvement.
Researchers found that when participatory politics were included alongside more traditional institutional politics, Black youth actually demonstrated the highest levels of overall involvement.
By pointing out these critiques of the “civic achievement gap,” I am not arguing against the need for more civic education opportunities. There are many youth (and adults) who are disengaged from civic and political life, and this is a loss for us all. I am arguing that a narrow definition of civic engagement offers a poor starting point for civic educators. Peddling a vision of the “good citizen” that is divorced from the reality of civic life in many communities is a recipe for irrelevance.
More importantly, the danger of rallying around “gaps” in civic knowledge and engagement is that we start with what we perceive to be lacking in low income Communities of Color, and can miss the many assets that Youth of Color bring to our shared civic lives. These assets — such as connections to histories of social movement organizing, networks of mutual assistance, fluency in new forms of social organization, and influential forms of art and communication — are the same assets that have powered the social movements of the past decades.
Amid rapid political, social, and technological change, we need a different kind of civic education. One that re-centers the cultural and historical experiences of marginalized communities. One that takes an expansive and pluralistic view of what a “good citizen” might look like. One that meets youth in the cultural, social, and online spaces where they already are, not just as a gateway toward “real” politics but as a way to learn from and support these evolving approaches to civic engagement. In other words, we need civic education that is culturally sustaining.
Culturally sustaining pedagogy, as coined by Django Paris, is about much more than making traditional content more “responsive” or “relevant” to students. It is about truly valuing the diverse languages, cultural practices, and forms of knowledge youth bring to the table. It is about maintaining and cultivating this cultural wealth, even while helping youth access the dominant culture and its systems. Whether we’re talking about heritage cultures passed down through generations, or the fast-changing world of youth culture, young people’s cultural backgrounds are not obstacles to overcome. They are foundations on which to build.
Young people’s cultural backgrounds are not obstacles to overcome. They are foundations on which to build.
Culturally sustaining civics, then, begins with the assumption that Youth of Color and other marginalized youth have access to powerful civic resources in their communities. Some of these resources relate to traditional institutional politics: for example, histories of voter registration organizing among African Americans. Others may be less directly connected to institutional politics, but are no less important. There is value, of course, in learning about institutional politics — how to run for office, for example, or petition a legislator. But this should not overshadow the value of building online social networks, or sharing one’s story through poetry, or offering help to extended family members, or organizing healing circles to address trauma, or developing a strong racial identity.
To teach civics in a culturally sustaining way requires a critique of civic education itself, including how it has been implicated in systems of colonization and racism. The very concept of citizenship has long been used to exclude not only those without certain legal documents but anyone who does not fit a particular vision (white, Christian) of the nation’s identity. Rather than promoting a hegemonic and nationalistic view of the “good citizen,” culturally sustaining civics opens up space for a plurality of civic identities, commitments, and approaches. It is about maintaining the civic skills, knowledge, and attitudes embedded in youths’ cultural communities as part of a broader project of redefining what it means to be a “competent and responsible” member of a society.
These days, it seems like we are in a constant state of emergency. Last week’s terror attack against anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville is only one in a string of local, national, and international crises. Whether its a police shooting, an illegal pipeline project, a ban on Muslims entering the US, or the threat of nuclear war, we are bouncing from one disaster to the next with head-spinning rapidity. And this is to say nothing of long-simmering, chronic emergencies like poverty, climate change, and colonialism. In this context, we can be forgiven if we’re a bit unsure about where to start.
As Hurricane Sandy made its way toward the east coast in October of 2012, an array of local, state, and national emergency management systems went into effect. Even before landfall, the Federal Emergency Management System (FEMA) and its New York counterpart began setting up distribution points for meals, blankets, and water. In the hours after the storm hit, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations mobilized thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars to feed and clothe survivors, get the power back online, and clean up the physical impact of the disaster. FEMA and its partners were publicly lauded for their efforts.
Less well recognized, and far less well funded, was the work of volunteers like those at the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn. The Armory had been turned into an evacuation shelter for 300 elderly and special needs evacuees. Seeing that these individuals had needs beyond shelter, food, and water, a local city councilman asked Caron Atlas of Arts & Democracy to organize cultural and wellness activities onsite. Soon, the Armory was filled with volunteer- and evacuee-led activities: music, dance, films, knitting, massage, religious services, therapy dogs, and more. Artists came from all around to run workshops and share their talents. Atlas reflects on the value of this experience:
“I’ve always known that arts and culture had the power to heal, but this direct experience proved to me how extraordinary they could be in a disaster. Above all, our work helped return peoples’ dignity and respect. They went from being an evacuee in a row of cots to being the incredible human beings that they truly are — a woman who got her PhD years before it was common for women to do so, a Jazz drummer, a torah scholar, a painter, amazing knitters.”
This is just one example of what Amelia Brown calls “emergency arts,” a combination of artistic practice, emergency management, and community development. Drawing on her own experience in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina, Amelia Brown works to build collaborations among artists, community members, and emergency management agencies to support resiliency, healing, and recovery in the midst of disaster. Even as she addresses the deep trauma and tragedy of disaster, Brown recognizes opportunities as well.
“Serving in New Orleans helped me develop a deeper understanding that emergencies can lead to opportunities. One of the most precious opportunities is to rebuild community with people gathered around an emergency who were once strangers and become family. These relationships are one of our greatest community assets.”
What does Artistic Response Look Like?
As Brown lays out in the Guide, emergencies come in many forms. They can be “acute shocks” like an instance of violence or a flood. They can also can be “chronic stresses” like unemployment or water deficiencies. Emergencies can be natural, technological, or human created. In fact, every crisis, she explains, is actually multiple crises. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina can be exacerbated by human error and discrimination. Acute shocks can uncover deep, festering divisions in our society. For example, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville was not only a startling act of violence. It was also symptom of our country’s inability to come to terms with its long history of white supremacy.
Different emergencies require different responses. In Art Became the Oxygen, artistic responses are sorted into three broad categories:
1. Care, Comfort, and Connection
Traditional emergency management systems are focused first and foremost on personal safety, ensuring that people survive an acute disaster intact. Artistic response can help with the next steps: creating spaces of safety, reasserting strength and dignity, and connecting with one’s community in preparation for the long, collaborative process of recovery. This is what took place at the Park Slope Armory after Hurricane Sandy. The tools of community-based arts — like the facilitation collaborative art making rooted in people’s experiences and cultures — are well suited to this work.
Not all emergencies receive the kind of outpouring of support that we saw with Hurricane Sandy. Often political pressure is needed to demand an effective response. In this context, the arts can be used to highlight emergency situations, uncover root causes, generate empathy for those impacted, and share counterstories to those in mainstream media. In addition, disasters often clarify the need for more systemic political and social change — whether that’s more investment in infrastructure or police reform. Artists can draw on a long history of protest art to support movements for systemic change.
3. Reframing and Resilience
Once initial disaster relief efforts wind down, the hard work of recovery begins. Building back up the physical, emotional, spiritual, or social fabric of community is slow, patient work, and requires high levels of collaboration. Community artists can support this process in numerous ways, such as making space for storytelling, creating opportunities to heal from trauma, bringing community members together to strengthen social ties, and helping to imagine a strong, resilient future.
Artists and cultural workers of all stripes are called to action in times of emergency: muralists, graphic designers, digital media artists, photographers, dancers, musicians, theater artists, storytellers, artisans, etc. Most of the work featured in the Guide is of a community-engaged, collaborative nature. However, artists who work on their own can also play valuable roles, particularly in the category of protest. The Guide is full of examples to inspire and inform new efforts. For examples, check out the work of Transforma in New Orleans, Dancing for Justice, Project Jukebox, and We Are The Storm, to name just a few.
What Does Effective Artistic Response Take?
Artistic response is necessarily diverse and flexible, taking into account the particularities of each emergency, so there is no one list of best practices. However, the Guide offers a lot of valuable advice for those considering getting involved. Any community engaged artistic project requires careful attention to local history, culture, and policy, and demands well developed skills in group facilitation, collaboration, and self understanding. Working with people living through trauma and stress heightens the importance of these skills. This is not an area of work to enter lightly.
Working in collaboration with other organizations or agencies brings in a whole other raft of concerns. In fact, almost a quarter of the Guide is dedicated to building bridges between artists and emergency management agencies. This is an area of exciting possibility, as well as huge barriers. Artists and agencies work from different paradigms, use different language, and measure their success in different ways. While goals may overlap, priorities may not be aligned. The USDAC suggests that artists interested in such partnerships study the basics of emergency management, approach agencies with respect, build trust and foster honest conversation about risks, and work as intermediaries that can translate between communities and agencies, among other advice.
Artistic responders, the USDAC stresses, are not saviors. They are supporters, partners, learners, and catalysts. They recognize that while emergencies inevitably affect some more than others, we all have a shared stake in building our collective strength and resilience. Amelia Brown offers this vision of a future where artistic response is the norm:
“Effective development of this field includes building relationships, policies, procedures and structures that support artists at every level of emergency management. Collaborations in this field will change the future of emergency management. I envision a time where there will be no emergency management plans that do not have dedicated arts policies and procedures. There will be no emergency management agencies that do not have artists as part of their leadership team. There will be no community organizations that do not recognize and support the value of artists in addressing emergencies in their communities. There will be Emergency Arts.”
Want to learn more? Read the report, and then join the conversation on August 28thfor the Art Became the Oxygen online “salon,” featuring Carole Bebelle of Ashé Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans; Michael O’Bryan, of the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia; and Amber Hansen, South Dakota-based visual artist and Co-director of Called to Walls.
In arts and social change work, we talk about the importance of being able to imagine a future that is better — more just — than the world we live in today. But often the struggle is a more existential one: imagining a future where one’s community or culture exists atall.
Last year I had the great pleasure of hearing a talk by artist and interactive designer Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde (Ayo). “Blackness,” he told the gathered crowd at the URBAN conference in New York City, “is being removed from the future.” This removal, he explained, is partly physical: black bodies are being violently removed from the future through police killings, mass incarceration, and other systems of racial oppression.
This removal is also representational. Black people are either misrepresented or completely unrepresented in popular visions of the future. Mainstream science fiction, on the page and on the screen, is dominated by white authors and their white characters. This lack of representation of People of Color is not only a question of equity. What happens when people spend their lives being fed visions of the future that don’t include them? What does that do to their self-perceptions? To their their ability to plan for the future? What does it do to our collective capacity to imagine — and enact — something different?
In response, Ayo has transformed himself into an Afronaut. He walks the streets of New York as Dr. Tanimowo, a time traveler from a future where African diasporic peoples and cultures are well represented. His outfit — part space suit, part Yoruba masquerade — blends space-age materials with West African-patterned fabrics. As he journeys through our present time, Dr. Tanimowo interacts with passers-by. For a moment, they are presented with an alternative and potentially liberating vision of the future. As Ayo explains, these travels are “a ritualistic rite, or a ritual that’s actually creating the future itself.”1
The Afronaut on expedition. Image copyright Ayodamola Okunseinde
Ayo is also encouraging others to imagine Black futures. With fellow artist Salome Osega, Ayo runs workshops where community members can become futuristic archeologists. Participants “uncover” artifacts from the future through design, and many of those designs are then built, here in the present. Ayo and Osega co-founded the Iyapo Repository to hold and display these artifacts: pills that teach African American history, a wetsuit that helps alleviate the cultural trauma of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a necklace that senses “bad vibes” by warning the user when they are in a location where there has been a police shooting.
Ayo’s interactive design work is rooted in, among other things, Afrofuturism. Coined in the early 90’s, the term Afrofuturism was an attempt to delineate a particular tradition of African American futuristic and technological imagination — a tradition embodied in the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, the music of Sun Ra and P-Funk, and the visual art of Basquiat and Rammellzee, among others.2 The concept was further developed by a group of writers and critics on Alondra Nelson’s Afrofuturism listserv, and came to encompass a much larger arena of cultural production. In the words of Nelson, Afrofuturism is
“a critical perspective that opens up inquiry into the many overlaps between technoculture and black diasporic histories. AfroFuturism looks across popular culture…to find models of expression that transform spaces of alienation into novel forms of creative potential. In the process it reclaims theorizing about the future.” 3
Unlike other “futurist” movements, Afrofuturism and its cousins are neither a break with the past nor a fetishization of the new. They are deeply rooted in history. They offer what Nelson calls “past-future visions.” Like Ayo’s high tech space suit, with its traditional West African elements, these visions “insist that who we’ve been and where we’ve traveled is always an integral component of who we can become.”4 They forefront continuity rather than rupture, overlaying past, present, and future. As the Afrofuturist Affair writes, this kind of time-bending is not new to Communities of Color.
“Whether you call it mythology, ghost stories, cosmology, parable, folktale, sci-fi, religious tale, or fantasy, people of color have always contemplated their origins in the same breath that they anticipated the fate of humankind.”5
Organizers and activists also seem to be taking an increased interest in the future. In 2015, the Movement for Black Lives and Huffington Post launched an annual celebration of Black Futures Month, a remixing of Black History Month that calls on people to “seize the opportunity to change the course of history by shaping our future.” That same year, AK press put out Octavia’s Brood, an engrossing collection of SF short stories written by activists and organizers. Of course, social justice organizing is often driven by a vision of a future better than the one we live in. But something deeper is going on here: a recognition that the future, despite its intangibility, is directly impacting us today.
Take US politics. The election campaign that lifted 45 to the presidency was premised largely on fear of the future. In his speeches and tweets, 45 conjured an imagined future in which the US is overrun by “terrorists,” “rapists,” and “criminals” from across our borders. In this racist, dystopian future, white people sacrifice power and safety amid hostile aliens. This future is not real in any concrete sense. And yet, it affects the present in multiple ways — increasing support for racist policies, emboldening white supremacist organizations, and igniting hate crimes, just to name a few. In this sense, the future is what Andrew Baldwin calls a “permanent virtuality,” unreal and yet ever-present.6
Scholars have taken to using the term futurity to explore these interactions between past, present, and future. From my reading, futurity refers to three main dynamics:
The ways that the future is defined (or “rendered knowable”) through practices such as prediction, projection, imagination, prefiguration, and prophecy;7
The ways that the future impacts the present, for example through fear, hope, preparation, and preemption;8and
The ways that our thoughts and actions in reference to the future make some futures more likely, and others less likely, to come about.9
In his book Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz proposes that queerness is a kind of futurity. “Queerness,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “is not yet here…Put another way, we are not yet queer.”10 Instead, he explains, queerness is an ideal. It is a utopian vision that can help us to see beyond our everyday restrictions toward new possibilities. We cannot touch queerness with our hands, or claim to fully know what it is. We can, however, get glimpses of it, particularly in the realm of cultural production. Through poems, plays, visual art, dance, and other types of performance, artists can step away from what Munoz calls “straight time” — that sense that the present is natural and enduring — to suggest alternative futurities.
The concept of futurity seems to have been most fully developed by Indigenous scholars and activists. As Native scholars have shown, settler colonialism (the kind of colonialism we have in the US, where the colonizer comes to stay) involves an ongoing project of erasure and replacement.11 After all, settler claims to the land in the Americas, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere only make sense if the original inhabitants are gone. And, despite centuries of genocide, they are not.
Part of the modern settler project, then, is to erase Indigenous peoples — if not physically (through policies that deny land, health care, etc.) or culturally (through blood quantum tests or the forced removal of children), then at least from popular consciousness. Movies, television shows, school curricula, political speeches, news reports, and other media relegate “the Indian” to our past — a sad chapter in history, perhaps, but nothing to concern ourselves with as we dream of the future. By erasing Indigenous people from the present and the future, these discourses advance the cause of what scholars like Eve Tuck call settler futurity. In other words, these discourses are premised on, and help to bring about, a future of endless settler dominance over the land and all that is on/of it.12
Indigenous communities, though, are (re)claiming the future — opening up space for indigenous futurities to flourish.13 To advance indigenous futurity is to assert, and takes steps to make possible, futures outside of settler colonialism. We can get glimpses of indigenous futurities in the social movement organizing of Idle No More, among the water protectors at Standing Rock, in the Indigenous media production of Indian and Cowboy, and in everyday assertions of Native culture and sovereignty. Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua writes that, although they are often framed as relics of the past, Indigenous communities are actually at the front lines of the struggle to protect the future. Writing about Native Hawaiian efforts to defend cultural and natural resources, she notes that “When colonial discourses frame blockades at Newcastle or on Mauna a Wākea as obstructions on a march to “the future,” they miss the ways this kind of activism is actually protecting the possibilities of multiple futures.”14
This work is rooted deeply in Indigenous cultural practices and epistemologies, which, according to Hawaiian activist and blogger Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, have always attended to both the past and the future.
“The future is a realm we have inhabited for thousands of years. You cannot do otherwise when you rely on the land and sea to survive. All of our gathering practices and agricultural techniques, the patterned mat of loʻi kalo, the breath passing in and out of the loko iʻa, the Kū and Hina of picking plants are predicated on looking ahead. This ensures that the land is productive into the future, that the sea will still be abundant into the future, and that our people will still thrive into the future.”15
A Final Note
When I was coming up in the world of social justice arts and organizing, much of the focus was on history. We studied how injustices like racism and colonialism were historically constructed. We learned how histories of activism and rebellion had been hidden, rewritten, and co-opted to reinforce the right of those in power to rule. We supported youth as they came to see themselves as part of long social movement traditions. This focus on the past was, and is, terribly important.
At the same time, I am energized by what I see as a growing emphasis on the future as an arena of active struggle. Because that’s certainly how those in power see it. Wall street traders are gambling on our futures. Tech companies are redesigning our futures. Hollywood is whitewashing our futures. And all the while, unfettered capitalism is foreclosing so many healthy futures for this planet. Imagining alternative futures is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
The struggle for futurity is on, and as artists and cultural workers we are right in the middle of it, whether we know it or not. It’s time to accept the invitation of Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada: “We live in the future,” he writes. “Come join us.”16
Featured image of the Hudson River Pageant, Photo by William Bourassa Jr.
On the day that 45 was inaugurated into office, I had a very hopeful conversation. I spoke on the phone with long-time cultural organizer Felicia Young, founder of the nonprofit Earth Celebrations, who was getting ready to hit Washington DC for the big protest. She graciously took some time out to talk to me, sharing a bit about her personal journey from the mainstream arts world to running massive pageants as a way to organize communities in New York City and India.
Part 1: Early Explorations & an Epiphany
It would be helpful if you could start by talking a bit about how you got into this work — what has your journey been like?
I grew up in New York City, and by the time I was a senior in high school I already knew I wanted to go into the arts. That year I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was 16, training 11-year-olds to give tours in the in the African Wing of the Met. That’s when I started thinking about these objects, and contrasting them with other art in the museum. They weren’t just meant to hang on the wall. They were meant to be seen in the context of ceremonies and functional rituals.
I went to college in the height of the ‘80s. I majored in art history and ended up interning at Christie’s after my freshman year. That was a whole experience of, “Oh my, if this is what art is about, you could be selling cars. This has nothing to do with what I’m interested in.” That was a very important negative experience for me, because by the time I was 18 I’d already figured out that the commercial art world was not for me.
I spent my junior year abroad in Italy and France and I did all this research on Jacques-Louis David. I came across the fact that not only was he a painter; he was staging these large-scale political pageants for the revolution with 200,000 people staged throughout Paris. I became really intrigued by the idea of art in the streets. Then I came back to NY, and during senior year I had my epiphany in an African art history class.
I’ll never forget that moment, sitting at my desk watching a slide show of this art called Mbari that they do in Igboland, Nigeria. In response to, say, infant mortality or drought, the whole community will decide to hold a communal art making process. And when they say they’re going to do Mbari it’s a commitment. It could be 10 years or more. So, part of the community goes into seclusion, and the rest of the community will provide food for them so they don’t have to work in the fields. They do the art with the shaman in a private, secluded area, and what they create is an elaborate mud hut with mud sculptures representing daily life and the gods. Then they open it up to the community and have a huge celebration, and people come from surrounding areas and admire it. Then, afterwards, they walk away and leave it to decay. It is organic and ephemeral.
That really blew me away. It is not focused only on the object. it is all about the process, it is community engagement, and it’s aiming to achieve a particular result. I didn’t know if I really believed in the magic of it — that this process would make drought go away — but I saw the solidarity that gets built, and how that can strengthen the bonds within communities so that they are better able to deal with whatever problems they have. It’s a method of social organizing and social bonding.
Part 2: Organizing Pageants in New York City
I got my first job at the Alternative Museum in 1987, when it was the only sociopolitical art museum in New York. They were doing incredible political art shows about homelessness, AIDS, the Middle East — but then who was coming to the shows? Other artists and their friends. It was still that insular art community. I used to run across the street to AT&T when the workers got out and say, “Hey, there’s a great show over here maybe you should come.” Sometimes I would get them to come, and they would say, “Oh, that was interesting,” but because it was in a gallery space I recognized that no matter what we were talking about we were talking amongst ourselves.
Once, they were doing a Day of the Dead show for homelessness and AIDS, and I proposed a Día de los Muertos procession. I connected to the women’s shelter and a treatment program, and I worked with them over months making visuals and poetry for a pageant that went from the museum down to city hall. After that I said to myself, “Oh, great, I’ve done my first pageant. I guess I can do this.”
I don’t know if you know Phyllis Yampolsky. She was one of the “happenings” artists from the ‘60s. She’s a cultural organizer, one of the political artists from the Judson Church in New York City. She was looking for an assistant because she had been trying to save McCaren pool out in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It had been shut down, and that had racial implications because some white people were aiming to keep the North Brooklyn Black community from swimming in the pool. I ended up getting a job part time working with her, which was an incredible training ground. My job was to go out through the entire North Brooklyn among the Russians, the Italians, the Polish, the Latino community on the south side, and the Black community. We did a series of festivals and a pageant that brought all these communities together creating visual art pieces. It included a 10 block long “Blue Ribbon for Racial Harmony,” which was carried by 100 participants moving from the south side of Williamsburgh through the various neighborhoods and into McCarren Park, creating the outline of the periphery of the pool.
I saw that by doing these pageants and festivals — and by getting the schools, community centers, YMCAs, churches, senior and neighborhood associations involved — people with all these different languages and different cultures who normally did not communicate, could come together. And it was breaking down a lot of the prejudices that people had. Eventually that pool was saved, and 25 years later it’s open.
This art, this ceremony, was as important as food. For these people, art was not luxury. It was essential and integrated into the core of their existence. A basic human need.
Much of my inspiration for the theatrical pageant art form comes from India. I had travelled to India in 1989. My mother is from Calcutta and I wanted to go to discover my roots and also explore the festivals and mythic drama pageants that are integral parts of their culture. I travelled there for four months to visit family and document festivals, including Kumbh Mela, which is the largest gathering on the planet, and the Chithirai festival, the wedding of Meenakshi. This elaborate drama takes place over the course of three weeks across an entire city and neighboring villages, with processions, ritual ceremonies, and a drama enacted through symbolic actions in various locations: streets, temples and along the riverbank.
It impressed me, again on so many levels. Everything that I’d been questioning was getting reaffirmed. It was a time of drought, and the government was coming in with water trucks and people were lining up, but instead of using this precious water for drinking and cooking they were using it to spray on statues as part of the festival. That’s when I started to think that this art, this ceremony, was as important as food. For these people, art was not luxury. It was essential and integrated into the core of their existence. A basic human need. I had seen these women in the desert going miles and miles and miles just to get pigment to create elaborate “rangoli” painting on their homes, when their precious time could be spent on collecting water or growing millet in the dessert sand.
Part 3: Garden Protectors
Then I came back to New York, and I ended up living right where I’m living right now, right down the street from what was the Garden of Eden that Adam Purple had created and that was destroyed in 1986 by the city. In 1991 there were nearly 60 gardens on the Lower East Side. These gardens had been created by local residents clearing out rubble strewn vacant lots that that had been neglected by the city since the 60s and 70s. Residents had cultivated over 500 city-owned lots throughout the city, planting trees, flowers and vegetable gardens. They had become outdoor community and cultural centers, environmental science classrooms and theaters for festivals and community programming, cultivating a positive and life affirming culture along with vital open green space.
I realized that the fate of the Garden of Eden could potentially happen to all these magnificent gardens. I reached out to my neighborhood: local gardeners, artists, youth, schools, churches, and community centers. These were the days before the Internet and cell phones, when you had to show up physically to connect with people, at garden meetings, church gatherings, community events. You couldn’t even find out about a meeting unless you walked up every block and looked at every fence for a flyer. So I showed up and told people, “I have this idea, we could do a procession.” It would be ten hours long it would go to 45-50 gardens. We’d do ceremonies and performances at each, telling the history of that garden and its struggles, and proposing their preservation.
So we collaborated for many months on a public art project and pageant. We created visual art, paper mache puppets, costumes, performances, dance, music, poetry and ceremonies. All the community centers got involved, teachers were creating visuals and costumes in their classrooms, and gardens hosted arts workshops. Artists were coming forward and volunteering — long-time Latino and African American community members, international artists who at that time were still hanging on in the east village. 1500 people participated in the first year.
After that first year, people immediately started planning for the next year. By the next year, Theater for the New City offered us free space. I incorporated as a nonprofit, and secured a permanent space at the 6th Street Community Center in 1994. By the time we got to 1995 and the threat to the gardens by development plans had increased. And because of the procession, I had contacts at every garden and could pick up the phone and notify them, “Your garden’s coming up at a community board meeting. You’d better get there!”
I think the fusion of those methods was really powerful, and had we not had the artistic component the organizing may have fizzled out.
In ‘94 I called a public meeting at the St. Brigid’s Church to explore different garden preservation options. Out of that, we formed the Lower East Side Garden Preservation Coalition to work toward solutions. We started meeting monthly, and we formed committees. It was really grassroots. So I had this year-long annual creative project that involved all these sectors creating the visual art pieces for the procession. Then you had some of the more traditional organizing methods: letter writing, going to community board meetings, showing up at these land-use and city planning hearings in city hall. I think the fusion of those methods was really powerful, and had we not had the artistic component the organizing may have fizzled out. The pageant brought people in who didn’t consider themselves activists. It was fun and positive. It functioned sort of like Mbari, reinforcing that solidarity with the people and strengthening the resolve of the community. The pageant itself was an organizing tool, and it got a lot of press.
Save Our Gardens Procession: Flower bulb and marking of the garden on map ceremony, performed at 47 gardens. Photo credit, Christopher Butt.
And the pageant told the story of what was happening with the gardens, which was critical for reaching out beyond our neighborhood. I wove in a mythic drama that told the story of Gaia, who represented the gardens, getting kidnapped by developers. A giant butterfly would fly off the top of a six-story building into the gardens bringing a message of hope that the community could save the gardens. In another scene a battle would ensue where Gaia would be rescued by children in butterfly costumes, and at the end of the day 50 live butterflies would be released by the butterfly children celebrating the saving of the gardens. I believe that the Save Our Gardens pageant helped participants connect to the importance of the gardens on a visceral and emotional level. It built empathy and deep connection to the gardens as the heart and soul of the neighborhood.
Our grassroots coalition became citywide when, in 1996, Giuliani aimed to sell off and develop over 800 gardens throughout NYC. We reached out to gardeners in Harlem, Upper West Side, Bronx, and Brooklyn and said, “We’ve been organizing, we’ve formed a coalition, we should meet.” I had over 200 people show up at our offices on 6th street, and we formed the New York City Coalition for the Preservation of Gardens, which is now called the New York City Community Garden Coalition. I managed that coalition for the next few years. More elected officials came on board, along with Bette Midler and her New York Restoration Project which, along with Trust for Public Land and other philanthropists gave, 4.2 million dollars. Our efforts finally led to preservation of hundreds of community gardens throughout New York City. In 2002, newly-elected Mayor Bloomberg transferred nearly 200 to the Parks Department where they remain temporarily protected.
I did the pageant for another 3 years, until 2005. That was 15 years of a community organizing art project that built a local garden preservation effort and then city-wide coalition that was affecting policy. Today the gardens are being seen in a new role, as part of a plan for ecological sustainability. After Hurricane Sandy the Lower East Side was devastated by flooding. The gardens we preserved can help reduce impacts of flooding, storm surges, pollution-run off – things occurring with increasing frequency due to climate change. A 2 million federal grant was awarded for the Gardens Rising project to design and implement green infrastructure within the 47 gardens.
It’s a plan for climate resiliency and urban sustainability based in 50 years of work by local residents cultivating and preserving these gardens — an act of urban improvisation. And it can be replicated and cultivated in many urban neighborhoods.
Part 4: River Restoration
Finally, in 2005, I said, “Okay, I put in 15 years of my life, the gardens are safe.” I felt like the pageant had lost its edge. I had my daughter in 2004, so I kind of pulled back a little bit. And when she was young I kept taking her to the Hudson River Park. I grew up in New York City, and the Hudson River was brown, polluted, and largely inaccessible. But after 9/11 it was renovated. So I looked out at the river and I just had this vision or a dance of boats, and I said, “That’s it! I would love to bring attention to what’s going on here on the river. It’s coming back to life.”
So I started talking to the different river groups, including the Hudson River Park Trust and the River Project, and I was discovering that they were doing oyster planting programs to organically cleanse the river, that seahorses were breeding right off of Christopher Street, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is incredible.” I proposed a pageant down the whole Lower Manhattan section. I ended up amassing 50 community partners.
I did not want to just create an entertaining celebration, but rather a meaningful and functional ceremonial action. The procession had 13 stops along the riverfront where we held ceremonies to honor “stewards of the river” — representatives from the river organizations who wore stewards of the river robes made by children in workshops. The culminating performance ceremony featured a dance of boats. I enlisted various educational boating groups, paddle board and kayak clubs along with volunteers from the Harbor School and Stuyvesant High School to participate. The collaborative process built a sense of community and linked groups together around a common effort. The river was already in a restoration mode, not the crisis mode that the gardens were in, so it was a different point of impact. It was about building community engagement in the revitalization of the river and the waterfront, which was now was coming back to life.
Then in 2013, I spontaneously went back to India, to Madurai, the city that originally inspired me. I reconnected with the people I had interviewed 25 years earlier. And I discovered how polluted their river had become. When I had been there in ‘89 you didn’t have all this plastic packaging, you hardly had any cars. Now there were cars everywhere, you could barely breathe, it was overpopulated, there was no recycling program and sketchy garbage pickup, and because of climate change it was drought-stricken.
I thought maybe they could apply their own art form here for the cleaning up of this river, just like I had used the art form to protect the gardens. So with my friend Sekar we approached a large NGO in the city, the Dhan Foundation with the idea. The NGO got it immediately, and said, “Lets’ do it,” but indicated that I needed to come up with half the budget. So I ran all over New York looking for the most important people connected to India, and eventually met up with Dr. Geeta Mehta, president of Asia Initiatives. She put in $20,000 dollars and became a full partner and sponsor.
I flew back and forth five times in the course of a year and a half to build the pageant. The Dhan Foundation had deep roots within the city and rural villages, so I was able to connect with all the stakeholders. We engaged community associations, schools, educational and cultural institutions, women’s empowerment groups, municipal offices and government officials. I adapted process I had developed into 2-3 week engagement and workshop periods.
It was incredible to see the enthusiasm. The pageant form was immediately embraced. I reached out to local folk artisans to create work connected to the riverfront. These artisans practiced bamboo sculpture, paper mache, costume, “kolam” rice flour painting, clay sculpture, fabric dying, as well as music, song, dance, poetry and performance. It was slightly different that working with artists in our own culture. These artisans were skilled craftspeople, continuing family cultural traditions and using traditional iconography. I was asking them to expand the imagery and concepts, in order to express current issues around pollution and solutions for the river’s restoration. To facilitate the process, I built collaborations with some of the university art and architecture departments, and had the folk artisans work collaboratively.
Vaigai Fish at the Vaigai River Restoration Project, photo by Mark Antrobus
It resulted in a pageant of 5,000 people that went along the river front in Madurai. India can seem so chaotic; I can’t even believe how that whole thing came together. And then, out of the pageant, the city appointed an official panel for the restoration of the river, and then they decided through the local NGO to keep the idea of the pageant going as monthly full moon ceremonies on the river. Dr. Geeta Mehta also engaged the Department of Urban Studies and Architecture at Columbia University in an exchange program around the project. Students and professors came as a group several times to Madurai to work collaboratively on waterfront and river restoration design projects. Then Columbia invited the professors and representatives from Madurai to New York City. It was really incredible to see how this effort grew, eventually launching a city initiative, panel, and river restoration trust.
It’s amazing how this work that you’ve done has been so sustainable, beyond your direct involvement.
That’s it. You are the catalyst. It was one of those things where I was an outsider, but I wasn’t. I had roots there, I had family members buried in the city and a deep connection going back hundreds of years. And I think they also found the story of the Hudson River restoration very inspiring. But also, it was because the NGO had a 30 year history of relationships in that community. That is why I was able to do the project in such a short time. And then they were able to continue the effort. This was around the same time that Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, won his campaign saying that the most important issue for India was the restoration of our rivers. It was good timing, and the Vaigai River Restoration Project got a seat at the table in Delhi with the Ganges Project.
This has been a great story, and I know that there are many other projects you could talk about. Before you go, I wanted to ask you, on this inauguration day, what you are thinking for yourself and for other cultural organizers going forward.
I’m angry, everybody’s angry. But you have to somehow transform that anger in a different way. Art can do that, it brings you to a new place because you’re actually doing something that’s creative.
Well, I I’m heading down in a few hours to Washington, and what I’ve seen in the past few days is the joining of forces of advocacy groups, activist groups, church groups, artists, all coming together in joyous affirmation. With all the horrors of what we’re facing it’s amazing how people are pitching in and coming together. And also, we’ve just witnessed the Standing Rock movement – the idea that we are not protestors we are water protectors, and the whole idea of going back to ceremony as a way of reconnecting people to the Earth. Because once you create those connections, you move forward in a different way. It’s not out of that sense of just being angry and protesting. I mean, I’m angry, everybody’s angry. But you have to somehow transform that anger in a different way. Art can do that, it brings you to a new place because you’re actually doing something that’s creative.
What Trump is doing is just like what Giuliani did when he went after all the gardens. He didn’t just go after one neighborhood, he went after all of them, and it forced us to create a city-wide coalition, and by joining forces we actually achieved what we were trying to do, right? Well, I think that’s what’s happening now in a big way. Because everything – democracy, civil rights, our health, the environment –everything we should be caring about is under attack right now. That goes beyond party lines. So you’ve got to hope that since it’s an attack on so many fronts and so many issues, that people will come together. And I think we’re seeing that. It’s a matter of our health, life, and future.
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.
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.
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?
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 www.thecraftcircle.org.
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.
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.
THE FIRST STEP IN A TOP-DOWN CAMPAIGN TO OBLITERATE CULTURAL RIGHTS IN THE U.S. HAS BEEN TAKEN. We are called to stand together in response.
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.
THE USDAC CALLS ON ALL ARTISTS, CREATIVE ACTIVISTS, AND ALLIES TO TAKE THE USDAC PLEDGE ON CULTURAL RIGHTS AND THE MUSLIM BAN:
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.
SIGNED, 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
Yolanda Wisher, Cultural Agent
McKenzie Wren, Cultural Agent
Lily Yeh, Urban Alchemist
Betty Yu, Cultural Agent
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.