Arts & Democracy

The Many Faces of Cultural Organizing

Some great new publications on cultural organizing have come out recently, and they’ve helped me beef up my collection of cultural organizing definitions. If you look closely you can see some significant differences in how it is being conceptualized. Please share others if you know of them!

Definitions of Cultural Organizing

Arts & Democracy Project

“Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational, and community context of its practitioners. Cultural organizing is about integrating arts and culture into organizing strategies. It is also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, community of place, or worldview.”

Dudley Cocke, Roadside Theater

“Cultural organizing means putting culture, including its concentrated expression of art at the center of a social and political organizing strategy.”

Ebony Golden, Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative

“Cultural organizing is the strategic use of art and culture to shift policies and practices most impacting marginalized people…Practiced in communities since the beginning of time, cultural organizing honors the traditions, knowledge, practices, beliefs, ways of healing, cooking, worshiping that formed and maintained communities during times of abundance and prosperity as well as trauma and despair.”

Highlander Research and Education Center, Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project

“The strategic use of art and culture to promote progressive policies with marginalized communities.”

Jan Cohen-Cruz, author of Engaging Performance, Theatre as Call and Response

“Various forms of artistic communication that provide a cultural dimension to community organizing in order to expand and humanize a social movement.”

Joe Street, author of The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement

“When activists made an explicit attempt to use cultural forms or expressions as an integral, perhaps even dominant, part of the political struggle and when, during this process, attention was drawn to the intrinsic political meaning of the cultural activity.”

Tamejave Cultural Organizing Fellowship

“A community-building process in which people share cultural traditions and artistic expression with one another to build stronger, more active communities.”

The Culture Group

“A practice that fuses arts, culture, and political organizing. Cultural organizing seeks to organize politically engaged artists together into networks of collaboration, and form intentional, cohesive partnerships between artists and like-minded advocacy organizations, funders, and political campaigns. Cultural organizing builds the power and capacity of artists as a community, both as skilled workers whose labor has value and as essential partners in the progressive movement.”

New Arts & Democracy Site

The State of Things, by BrushFire, Provision Library

This week saw the launching of the new Arts & Democracy website. This group is quickly becoming my main source for the word on cultural organizing. I’m also excited to be hosting Arts & Democracy director Caron Atlas as a speaker at the upcoming Community Organizing and School Reform conference I’m working on at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The new site keeps some of the features of the old site, but has a couple new pieces. In particular, they’ve got a page on the Art of Policy Change, which looks at efforts using art and cultural organizing to, you guessed it, shift policy. Can’t wait to go through them, I’m always interested in new examples of cultural organizing in action. (I think i see a picture of a comic book on there…)

What on earth is Cultural Organizing?

In the developing field of cultural organizing, definitions are changing, context-specific, and difficult to settle on. But the Arts and Democracy project offers a helpful working definition, which emerged from a workshop they helped to run in New Orleans in 2011. I thought I’d share it with you below. For the full reflection on the workshop, visit this blog post by Kathie Denobriga.

Arts and Democracy Working Definition of Cultural Organizing: 

Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational and community context of its practitioners.  Cultural organizing is about placing art and culture at the center of an organizing strategy and also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, and community of place or worldview.

Cultural Organizing Principles (working list):

o   Values multiple ways of knowing and being

o   Reconceptualizes power and power relationships

o   Prioritizes the centering of a creative process to address change

o   Addresses the issues people face in their communities

o   Moves people toward a place of action

o   Develops new leadership

o   Is based on the lived experiences of those participating

o   Deepens Analysis, i.e. gain knowledge, engage with theories of social change & liberation

o   Allows participants to bring their full self

o   Confronts oppression and privilege

o   Involve whole communities in a transformative process

o   Process and outcome are valued equally

o   Real emphasis on listening and story-telling as a method for generating knowledge and understanding

New Arts & Democracy Newsletter

The new e-newsletter from Arts & Democracy is out! If you’re not on their email list, you should be. This one’s looking back at the highlights from 2011, including:

  • Their recently published (and free online) book of cross-disciplinary conversations
  • Info on their projects in New York City
  • And links to their resource lists and conference call recordings on the intersection of arts and the revolutions in the Middle East, the Occupy Movement, and Economic justice.

If you haven’t been following their newsletters this year, this is a great place to start. Click here to check it out.

Profile: Arts & Democracy Project

“The Arts & Democracy Project builds the momentum of a cultural movement that links arts and culture, participatory democracy, and social justice. We catalyze and support cross-pollination between sectors, cultures, and generations.”

If you run across an online dialogue between activists and artists who you never suspected would connect, or a national gathering of cultural organizers, you may very well find the Arts & Democracy Project behind it. This eclectic collective of consultants — cultural organizers, artists, advocates, writers — is connecting strands of a growing web among those working towards creative social transformation.

A&D is a project of State Voices, which builds networks among progressive grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2005, emerging from a major voter registration initiative, and is directed by Caron Atlas, a long-time cultural organizer and consultant who has worked with groups such as Appalshop, Animating Democracy, and Fractured Atlas.

Each of A&D’s projects uses a different medium for linking people and igniting dialogue within and across fields. This work is desperately needed in the dispersed and siloed realm of cultural organizing, which is after all not so much its own separate field as a hybrid of fields that often do not communicate, such as community organizing and community arts.

Since its inception A&D has run a number of convenings across the country, bringing people together around topics like hip-hop activism and grassroots cultural organizing. In 2008 they facilitated a series of online “Bridge Conversations” that put individuals from disparate fields in conversation, and which have been collected into a book titled Bridge Conversations: People Who Live And Work in Multiple Worlds. The book is available as a pdf or in print form. Every other month A&D hosts a conference call where people can share work on a specific topic in the realm of arts and activism. These calls are recorded and avaiable online; the most recent was a discussion of art and culture in the Occupy movement. Finally, they have a small collection of profiles of cultural organizing groups.

Together, these are some of the best cultural organizing resources on the web, and will introduce you to so many individuals, projects, and organizations across the country. In fact, it was through a Bridge conversation that I was first introduced to the term “cultural organizing.” To keep up with their work, I highly recommend signing up for their e-newsletter.