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 has 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
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
Are you drowning in think pieces about what Trump’s election means for the left? How about a little practical advice from our favorite troublemakers.
With Trump preparing to take over the White House, activists and organizers are scrambling to prepare themselves for the inevitable fights ahead. Getting out ahead of Trump will require struggling on multiple fronts at once, engaging in diverse organizing strategies, and thinking beyond common, predictable modes of protest.
Of course, this is the approach that the minds behind Beautiful Trouble, Beautiful Solutions, and Beautiful Rising have been promoting for years. Rather than laying out a single organizing strategy, these sites offer interconnected webs of tactics, stories, principles, and theories shared by activists around the world. Together, these modules serve as “toolboxes” for radical change, and can be combined in numerous ways to respond to different issues and local contexts.
Not long after the election, Andrew Boyd and Dave Mitchell, the original editors of the Beautiful Trouble book, turned on the B(A)T signal. They called on contributing editors to curate a Beautiful Trouble toolbox for the Trump era, selecting and summarizing modules with particular relevance to this moment in time. The result is Trouble Vs. Trump, an ongoing series that will be posted at the Beautiful Trouble Blog. I’ve included a few below to whet your appetite. Click HERE to read the first set of six modules, with much more to come.
In sum: Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of power and open the way to change.
If we are going to mobilize people to effectively resist the Trump agenda, we must pick our battles wisely, and recognize where we can intervene to have the greatest leverage. It’s worth
considering five different types of points: production, consumption, destruction, decision, and assumption. For example, ongoing boycotts and targeted phone-jams of Trump’s business empire are applying economic pressure at the point of consumption. Trump’s threat to deport millions of undocumented Americans is being forcefully resisted by rebel cities and a new Sanctuary Movement that will challenge migrants’ criminalization at the point of assumption and potentially, through mass direct action at airports, train and bus stations, at the point of destruction. Strikes and other point-of-production actions have historically been used to resist terrible presidencies. Yes, the Presidency is a powerful office, but there are many, many other points of decision at which we can intervene and win victories: remember how during the dark days of the Reagan Presidency, ACT-UP brought the fight for justice for people with AIDS directly to drug companies and the FDA.
In sum: The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. This holds true whether you are fighting in an actual jungle or in the metaphoric wasteland of mass culture.
Trump did not reach the White House by offering a coherent economic policy or political platform. Rather, he made a cultural appeal to voters discontented with the direction they saw the country going. We need to understand this cultural wave that helped lift Trump to the presidency if we are going to counter his administration’s policies and divert some of this discontent toward more progressive ends.
A significant part of Trump’s campaign was based in white identity politics. He stoked racial fears while offering a nostalgic vision of a time when the privileges of white Christian men went unchallenged. This aspect of Trump culture is toxic, and must be countered at every turn. Other aspects of Trump’s appeal, however, resonate with the concerns of many on the left and can be built upon to support radical politics. Trump effectively played on people’s utter disgust with a “rigged” two-party system that is elitist, out of touch, and in thrall to undemocratic interests. He spoke to a feeling that the economy has left many, many people out even as it has “recovered.” These appeals may seem a bit absurd, given Trump’s own elite background and support for Wall Street over main street, but they offer potential leverage points for holding Trump accountable and crafting effective cultural strategies. Every time he nominates an establishment politician, or gives a tax break to the wealthy, there is a crack in his narrative we can exploit.
A word of caution: We shouldn’t overestimate the strength of Trump’s narrative — he did, after all, lose the popular vote amid very low turnout. We also shouldn’t simplify the story, for example painting Trump voters with a broad brush as poor and working class whites. Much of Trump’s support came from traditional Republican strongholds (read: wealthy white people). Still, Trump’s discourse during the election has shaped the cultural terrain that he is about to step into, and that terrain, while largely hostile, has some pitfalls we should be taking advantage of.
To counter this threat, we must reach out to and support one another: report threats we’ve received, reach out to others who have been targeted by threats, disrupt and defuse bullying or harassment when we see it, form networks of support, share skills and resources, and call on organizations that can assist: the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Lawyers Guild, ACLU, the Anti-Fascist Network, and the Sanctuary City and Sanctuary Campus campaigns, to name a few.
Now is the time to move from impartial observer to ally to solidarity actor, to risk privilege and favor, to take a stand, to show up the way asked to. As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud.”
At November’s Culture/SHIFT conference in St. Louis, some of my fellow cabinet members at the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) took the stage. They were there to mark the launch a national “policy and action” platform we’ve been working on, titled Standing for Cultural Democracy. The platform outlines a ten-point framework for promoting arts, equity, and the universal right to cultural participation.
It couldn’t have come at a more important time. The campaign that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency was fueled in large part by a discourse of cultural supremacy. Trump communicated a vision of the US as a monoculture — a white, Christian country where “good” immigrants and Muslims and People of Color might live and work, but where they will never be fully “American.” The success of this strategy has emboldened white supremacists and has fostered a climate of uncertainty and fear for those that fall outside of this narrow nationalist vision.
Standing for Cultural Democracy, offers an antidote to Trump’s America. It is rooted in a vision of a pluralistic, participatory nation, where our multicultural makeup is exactly what makes us “great.” It proposes major investments in art and cultural work as a strategy for address pressing injustices in our country, whether that be gentrification, educational inequity, or the horrors of the prison system. More broadly, it promotes a shift in our national culture toward “equity, empathy, and belonging.”
The idea of cultural democracy is an important one to have in the national consciousness right now. First developed in the early 20th century, cultural democracy proposes a kind of multiculturalism in which there is no hierarchy, no center, no “high” or “dominant” culture. Its goal is pluralism rather than assimilation. It promotes not just inclusion but participation. It goes beyond tokenism to ensure that people of all cultural backgrounds have the resources and access they need to effectively participate in and co-create our national cultural fabric.
Cultural democracy has always stood as a bulwark against racist and nationalistic ideologies like those put forward by Trump and some of his supporters. As Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard write:
“Cultural democracy…was first espoused in the 1910’s and 1920’s by progressive thinkers such as Horace Kallen and W.E.B. DuBois. They advocated cultural pluralism in the face of widespread assertions of white superiority and nativist calls to delimit a single, true American culture, embodied most frighteningly in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other manifestations of xenophobic violence…Racist articulations of monoculture and liberal ideas of the “melting pot” both work against cultural democracy’s vision of a culture that accepts and respects diversity as a strength to be preserved rather than a problem to be resolved. As was the case in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, cultural democracy has always been an insurgent idea, pushing against dominant values, never gaining the ascendancy, but persisting because its essential truth resonates with the lived experience of people who refuse to be dismissed or “melted” down.”
The USDAC was founded on the principle of cultural democracy. One of its goals is to guide cultural policy in the US, from the grassroots up. So, over the last two years the USDAC has been involved in a massive, national participatory research project involving thousands of people at hundreds of local arts actions around the country. You can read about the findings of this work in the USDAC report, An Act of Collective Imagination. Now, Standing for Cultural Democracy synthesizes these findings into ten recommendations, along with concrete strategies, examples, and tools. These recommendations include:
Adopt a “cultural impact study,” requiring developers to research the potential negative impacts of new development on the cultural resources and fabric of a community.
Reform the culture of punishment that has led to our current status as “Incarceration Nation.”
Implement a “rapid artistic response” system to address the cultural harm of natural and human-made disasters.
Parts of the platform will require state- and national-level engagement. Progress will surely be slow, particularly in this political climate (though no less important for that). Others can be implemented today, right in your neighborhood, community, or city. So stop reading this blog and start reading the report. Check out the tools. Endorse it today. And then, let’s get started.
On Tuesday night, while I was half-watching MSNBC, I kept one eye on Twitter. As the outcome of the election became clear, the rise in emotion was palpable. People were processing the result in so many different ways: in tweets of mourning, in calls to action, in blame and recriminations, in critical analysis, in “I told you so’s,” and in silence. I certainly had no idea what to write.
Since then, a lot of thoughtful things have been said about the election. My inbox is full of essays by progressives and activists of all stripes exploring what this means, what went wrong, and what comes next. I don’t have any ground-shattering wisdom to add. But I do want to take a moment to share some thoughts, as I look at this election through the lens of cultural organizing. These are things I’ve learned from the amazing artists, cultural workers, and organizers I’ve had the honor to connect with. I find some comfort and direction in them. More than anything, I offer this essay with love and gratitude to all of you.
1. We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever
Among the many dynamics at play this election season was a failure of political imagination. Liberal politicians could not fully grasp the levels of anger and frustration coursing through the nation. Meanwhile, conservative politicians fell back on fear and hate, when hope is what was needed. But while imagination at the highest levels of power may be stunted, it continues to thrive in communities across the country where artists, cultural workers, organizers, and so many others are imagining and crafting new possibilities. We will need all of our combined creativity in the coming months and years in order to push back hate and make room for transformation.
2. We are more than just red and blue states
Every four years we are forced to channel all our hopes, fears, values, and dreams into an either-or choice between two people. We are then given a map covered in red and blue, and fed a story about “two Americas.” This is a deficient narrative that does little to explain the complexity of our country, and even less to guide us forward. There are certainly many divides in our country, which were brought into stark relief during this campaign. But to address them we will have to put aside this single story, and get back to telling the multiplicity of true stories that capture who we really are.
3. The cultural shifts of the past decade are still underway
The country that elected Trump is the same country that elected Obama. We enter into this new era with a powerful movement proclaiming the value of Black lives, an increasingly diverse and politicized pop culture sphere, a large cohort of young immigrant rights leaders with skills honed in recent struggles, and a plethora of new voices amplified through creative use of social media. I don’t believe, as some have said, that the “whitelash” we saw in this election is necessarily the “last gasp” of the old order. Whiteness surely has more tricks up its sleeve. But the strength of the backlash should signal to us how strong the forward movement has been.
I don’t share these thoughts to deny anyone their anger or sadness, to say “it’s going to be fine.” There are dark times ahead, and many fights coming. If you need to mourn, mourn. If you need to organize, organize. This is where my mind goes as I try to sort through all my thoughts and feelings. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Sharing our stories is a necessary first step toward healing and change.
Map image from Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan
Earlier this year, I did some graphics work for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC), a group whose mission is to radically re-imagine family engagement in schools and other institutions. It turned out to be one of the toughest design challenges I’ve faced.
In this post, I want to share a bit of that design process with you. The back-and-forth that the process inspired — with me offering draft images and them giving critiques — was fascinating on its own. But more than that, this project exemplified some of the tensions I’ve struggled with over the years creating visual communications for social justice groups.
One of these recurring tensions has to do with the use of symbols. Infographics and other visualizations often rely on simple, widely-recognizable symbols to communicate ideas. We know instantly that a paintbrush means art, a graduation cap means education, and two tall figures and two short figures means family. These symbols serve as visual shorthands, allowing images to be comprehended quickly, and by a broad audience.
A social justice perspective, however, values diversity and inclusiveness. There is no one kind of family, no one educational path, and to simplify these ideas into universal symbols is to marginalize those who deviate from that single image. In addition, social justice is often about imagining how the world couldbe.That can be hard to do using symbols that are based on the world as it is — particularly if you’re not totally sure what the future you are fighting for will look like. But the farther you stray from the dominant culture’s symbols, the less you can assume that viewers will immediately recognize your meaning.
These are not insolvable dilemmas. Many artists are navigating them creatively. Here’s a story of one of my attempts. I hope it offers some useful insights; I certainly learned a lot. And since I recently critiqued another person’s visualization, it’s only fair that I share some of the critiques I’ve received — all of which, ultimately, have led to better designs.
Ann Ishimaru, a professor at the University of Washington, approached me with the job. She and her colleague Megan Bang had received funding from the Kellogg Foundation to bring together a group of nationally-recognized community organizers, educators, and researchers from around the country for a two-day meeting. The topic under discussion was family engagement — the practice of supporting families as leaders, advocates, and collaborators in schools and communities.
Ann, Megan, and their colleagues were not content with the current state of “best practices” in family engagement. Their goal was to to develop “next practices” — approaches that go beyond what we’re doing now to what is possible tomorrow. They wanted to center racial justice and the voices of “nondominant” groups, with the ultimate goal of “family and community wellbeing and educational justice.” Ann wanted to capture all this in an image to share at the meeting.
Clearly no small task.
We began with a couple different concepts. One was Tupac Shakur’s metaphor of “the rose that grew from concrete,” which is about the strength and beauty of people who learn to thrive despite facing significant life challenges. Ann wanted to expand the metaphor to explore what was happening below the surface of the concrete, as well as the broader ecology around the rose.
Another concept was root systems. The root systems of plants are often much more extensive than you’d expect, just as there is much going on beneath the surface in marginalized communities that goes unrecognized by outsiders. As a starting point, Ann shared with me the image below, showing a fungus that that attaches to plant roots. She liked the way the tendrils were interconnected through nodes, which suggested ideas about human interconnectedness and networks.
After some back and forth, I drafted the image below. I carefully selected flowers from different climates around the country to communicate the diversity of the gathered group. I also used flowers at different stages of growth, to symbolize inter-generational collaboration. The urban landscape signified the broader ecology within which family engagement took place, as well as the large, often inaccessible institutions that families had to navigate. Linked root systems signified networks of mutual support, and a rootedness in shared history and culture.
The image sparked some great discussion at the meeting. Basically, they didn’t like it. Perhaps the loudest critique was about the lack of people in the image. Family engagement and leadership, they said, is about human beings, and that needs to be clear. Another critique was that the use of flowers made it seem like the image was about the environment. A third critique was that family leadership isn’t just about breaking through racism and oppression (the concrete), but also about building something new. Ann summarized it this way:
“The roots of schools as we know them are stunted and problematic from the get-go. They are rooted in oppression, in colonization, in assimilation and the stealing of land. How do we reconstruct something entirely different — not a school building, per se, but a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities and then builds from there…the process of growing or cultivating that somehow helps communities to heal, to be well, to build solidarities, to envision themselves into the future.”
In conversation with Ann and Jondou Chen, the project director, I began to sketch out a new image that showed people with roots in the ground. The people had tools in their hands, to symbolize the building of new types of institutions. But Ann and I agreed that it was getting a bit too “we are the world,” and losing any indication of oppression and struggle.
At this point I realized I needed to shift my design approach. Simple stick figures could never capture the full humanity of people, or the complexity of family leadership across all the different groups involved. What if I used actual photographs? This idea led to the image below, based on Ann’s description of “a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities.” What would such an education system look like? (I used photos from an older project on community organizing for these early drafts, so thank you to all the groups featured!).
Ann and Jondou liked the photos. However, they said the root system looked like a honeycomb. Also, they really didn’t like the top part. It was immediately clear, when they looked at the image, that the idea of a new institution as the end-goal wasn’t right. (I wasn’t thrilled with it myself, since it ended up looking like a cathedral, which is culturally specific and has its own baggage). Having an idea rejected like this can be frustrating, but over the years I’ve realized that this is one of the more helpful services visualizations can offer. By having their words reflected back to them as an image, they were able to clarify what they did not mean, and the dialogue moved forward in a better direction.
After some more conversation, I merged the ideas from my last two designs and came up with the graphic below. I moved the images of family leadership work into the leaves, rather than the roots. This suggested that people in communities around the country were already carrying out “next” practices, that the future goal was already here within today’s struggle. The multi-colored soils were meant to represent the diverse cultural and historical roots that fed this work. (At one point I tried to put historical images of family leadership and activism among the roots, but it got WAY too busy.)
Ann, Jondou, and their colleagues really liked the new direction, but had a few concerns:
The image came across as too individualistic. Each person was on their own, rather than connected to larger families or communities. As an alternative, they suggested multiple figures in groups, with arms/branches connected.
The landscape, at least to some, read as literally urban (rather than as a metaphor for unwelcoming institutions). They worried this was not inclusive of groups working in rural areas.
They wanted more age diversity among the figures, because so much of the work was intergenerational.
After a few more rounds of back-and-forth, we landed on the image below. In the end a wall, rather than a city, was used to symbolize the barriers faced by families. I drew inclusive, diverse groups of connected people, which purposefully did not read as traditional nuclear families. To be sure, it not the kind of graphic whose meaning is immediately clear to a viewer. Rather, it invites exploration, explanation, and discussion. It is as much about the feeling of the work as about the idea of the work.
Though it took a long time, and many re-drawings, ultimately the critiques greatly improved the design. In addition, the design process helped Ann and her colleagues clarify their own mission, goals, and values. Now the FLDC is running collaborative research projects in communities around the country, and I’ve been told that one group used the image to guide their discussions. They asked participants to describe how race and class have shaped their own histories (the roots); to write their hopes and dreams for their children, schools, and communities on cut-out leaves; and to use white note cards as “walls” to represent the barriers and challenges to realizing those hopes and dreams.
All around, a success, though I wouldn’t be surprised if we continued to adapt it going forward.