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

This story has been re-posted from mobilisationlab.org

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

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

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

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

Lessons and takeaways

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

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

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

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

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

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

But cultural means much more than simply artistic or creative.

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

Cultural isn’t always synonymous with good, either.

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

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

Think locally.

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

But think globally too.

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

Effective cultural campaigning comes from the bottom up.

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

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

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

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

Resources and further reading