Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative

Interview with Ebony Noelle Golden Part 2

This post covers the second half of my recent interview with Ebony Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative (BDAC) in New York City. Ebony has helped to design and implement the curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute at the Highlander Research and Education Center, so she is at the center of defining cultural organizing at this moment in history, particularly for the US South. I took advantage of the opportunity to get deep into what cultural organizing is all about, beginning by asking how she explains cultural organizing to students at the Institute.

For as many organizations as I’ve worked with there are as many definitions of cultural organizing. At Highlander we teach that cultural organizing is the strategic use of art and culture to shift policies and practices negatively impacting marginalized communities.

It would be great if you could break that down. What do you mean by strategic? What do you mean by “using” art and culture?

Ebony Golden

Ebony Golden teaching the cultural organizing triad

We have developed what we call the “cultural organizing triad,” the three components that a cultural organizing effort needs if it is to be sustained and community accountable. If you draw it as a triangle, the base of the triangle is wellness and transformation, the left side of the triangle is the strategic use of art and culture, and the right side of the triangle is policies and practices.

If we understand that the base of the triad is wellness and transformation, that means that we understand that any movement for liberation, any movement for progressive social change, cannot happen if the people aren’t well. When the people are well, the people can vision and make what they want to see in the world. This is huge. It means that we have to start from this place of: What is wholeness? What is health? And what does it mean to have a vision? Because you can’t change a policy or a law without a vision that is bigger than the oppression. Right now I and some others are looking at the role of meditation, conflict resolution, food justice, environmental justice, spiritual practice, and all of those things that sustain culture and sustain community.

In terms of arts and culture, we are talking about the ways in which we shift culture, and the ways that we use culture to shift other things. Cultural organizing is not just about having a poetry reading about the war in Afghanistan to educate people. We have to give folks a strategy to use outside of coming to a poetry reading. So, back to applied poetics, what are some aspects of the process of writing the program, or of developing a community event, that can be applied to the strategy? The art is not just the product, it’s the process, and the process is embedded in the strategy to get people to talk to each other. That’s how art becomes a strategy.

“Any movement for liberation, any movement for progressive social change, cannot happen if the people aren’t well.”

The third piece of the triad is around using arts and culture strategically to shift policies and practices that are negatively impacting marginalized people. Coming out of the Highlander School, we are talking about political change, voting laws, environmental justice. Highlander is responsible for working regionally across the south and helping organizers and activists to figure out how to resist and how to change things politically, on the local or national level. But the legacy of Highlander is that you can’t build a campaign if you don’t attend to culture. It’s just not possible.

And it’s not just about going in one direction. Culture is immersive, its not uni-directional. We can’t just go from here to here then to here. We change policies and practices with art and culture, but at the same time our culture is impacted by our wellness, our culture is impacted by these policies. The cultural organizer has to to figure out, “Where do I jump into this mix?”

So, you see this as a big-picture effort? One group might address politics, another might do work around wellness?

Yeah, but it’s not really that clean. Cultural organizing is becoming very professionalized, it is being funded, and so it is becoming necessary to have a language to describe how to do it: what is the blueprint? But culture is not as clean as the definitions make it sound. Some people think cultural organizing is about the campaign. It’s not. It’s about the people. It’s about building infrastructure and community networks so if there is a need for a campaign then you’re able to mobilize and activate. But the is that we’re not it crisis mode or fight mode or campaign mode; we are in community mode. For example, the Laundromat project is not launching a political campaign, but they are embedded in this practice of building communities so that when folks walk down the street or go to the Laundromat they are not strangers, they are neighbors.

Why is there a need to distinguish a distinct practice called cultural organizing, as opposed to, say, promoting more cultural practice within community organizing?

Cultural organizing is a buzzword, like “social practice” or “community-based arts.” The actual doing of the thing is much older than the words that describe it. When I go into communities in rural Tennessee, rural Mississippi, even places in the Bronx, nobody on the ground uses the term cultural organizing — unless they are funded by several of the major cultural organizing funders in the country. Funding agencies oftentimes drive the language and the conversation for non-profit arts and cultural organizations.

“We’re not it crisis mode or fight mode or campaign mode; we are in community mode.”

Cultural organizing is about thinking strategically about all of the cultural practices that make up a community, and being able to activate those as the campaign. Cultural organizing is not necessarily related to making art, because culture is bigger than art. For example, I worked with this one community, and I wanted to write a play with them. But they didn’t want a play. They needed me to help them figure out the most effective way to get information out through their own cultural practices. So I helped them plan a festival. Arts and cultural institutions have to think more broadly than art, in order to really work locally. Or if they do want to do just art then they can’t just say “we have great theater so we are going to put theater there.” That’s actually oppressive. They have to really think strategically about, “What are practices that are really going to facilitate some kind of change in a local community?

In the communities I come from, these things have always been a part of the way we’ve organized. There is no effort in my communities that does not involve culture, that does not involve healing, that does not involve food, that does not involve attending to the whole person. This idea that organizing happens in meetings and workshops and conventions and conferences it is very antithetical to where I come from. I’ve been in some rooms recently where there are more business marketing people, more “strategic planners,” more urban designers and architects than organizers and artists. And there are no people from the community in the room. It is big business. With one of the efforts I am working with in Brooklyn, the only reason I am on the team is to help remind people that we need to stay grounded in community and the needs of the community. That’s what I’m there for.

For Part 1 of this interview, Click HERE

Interview: Ebony Noelle Golden, Betty’s Daugher Arts Collaborative (Part 1)

This month I had the pleasure of chatting with Ebony Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative (BDAC) in New York City. Golden works with cultural, political, and educational organizations to help them develop community-based cultural strategies aimed at justice and liberation. Golden is also at the heart of defining the modern field of cultural organizing, and helped to develop the curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center. We ended up talking for an hour and a half, and she got deep. She spoke at length about the inspiration she received from her mother; the similarities between studying poetry and studying culture; the professionalization of cultural organizing; and the necessity of embedding organizing in cultural expression and community wellness.

Rather than edit out too much, I’ve split the interview into two posts. This first post features Golden discussing her life trajectory and current work. The next will focus on her thoughts on the definition and field of cultural organizing. I began by asking her where she came from originally.

There are lots of ways in which I could describe where I come from but ultimately I entered the work through my family. I had  a mother who was a shining example of how to be accountable in community. I grew up in a working class African American and Mexican community on the south side of Houston, Texas, the oldest of four. Growing up, I saw very concrete images of my mother, Betty, doing work that involved lots of kids from the community, lots of art, physical fitness, and education.

What kind of things did your mother do?

My mother retired as a professor in educational psychology, but when I was a child she was a social worker and she started a not-for-profit called the Ebony Foundation that provided lot of opportunities for young people, mostly in the city. Then she went back to school and got a Masters and an Ed.D. Her dissertation was all about the need for experiential education for youth. Later, she started working in educational policy and changing the way youth-centered organizations were working. So, growing up, I saw lots of different examples of this kind of work, from very grassroots and local to very academic and macro, and everything in between.

“Studying poetry is really about studying culture. Poetry is a portal to understanding people’s lived experiences.”

I got my undergraduate degree from Texas A&M, where I studied writing and history and art and theater. But every summer my internships brought me back home to work with community arts groups. That community work deepened once I graduated and moved to DC. I went to American university and studied poetry in an MFA program. That experience was really profound. Studying poetry is really about studying culture. It’s about studying language, and how people relate to each other, and how people relate to their surroundings. Poetry is a portal to understanding people’s lived experiences. Through poetry you can learn about culture, you can learn about what’s important to people, what people are passionate about, and what people want to change.

But poetry got very boring in terms of sitting down and writing poems. So, very soon after I started my MFA, I needed to find a way to be creative in community, because that’s where I come from. And of course I have my mother in my ear talking about, “How is this going to do anything beyond something for you and your family?” I’m part of a community that believes that art and culture should have real, tangible applications in community. What happens? What improves? What changes because you spoke this poem? That’s a lot of weight to put on a poem, but that’s the intention: to be able to move something with the art.

I began finding community spaces for poetry, performance, and sharing progressive ideas. That was the most important part of my MFA process. I learned that however I was going to use this poetry thing that I was learning, it would have to be in a collective kind of a way. That’s also how I see my work right now: It’s about the ensemble approach. That’s why Betty’s Daughter is a collaborative. I see the organizations I work with as collaborators, not as clients. We are all helping to continue this story of what it means to work towards justice and progressive social change. In some ways I feel like I’m in “applied poetics.”

How did you move from that to founding BDAC?

“We are all helping to continue this story of what it means to work towards justice and progressive social change.”

After I finished the MFA I moved to Durham, NC and taught public school and worked as a visiting professor. I then went to NYU for a PhD in performance studies. But I decided I didn’t wan a PHD, so I finished up a Masters degree and went to find a job. The economy was tanking at the time, but career counseling at NYU helped my find some contract work, freelancing in the field of arts, culture, and community education. Then it began to snowball. When the money started to gel, and my clients didn’t want to write these checks out to me — they were like, “You don’t have a business bank account?” — I realized I needed to formalize this thing.

What kind of partners do you have?

Currently my collaborators include the Laundromat Project, the National Black Theater, the Highlander Research and Education Center, Spirit House down in Durham, Alternate Roots, and ArtSpot Productions. I do a range of things, and subcontract folks to help move pieces of work. One of my most recent clients is the New York Public Library. They asked me to come in and create a community arts and environmental education service learning project for 16- to 24-year-olds, and I basically had to hire a staff. Some collaborations are more extensive, some of them are more creative, some of them are more administrative, some are a combination. But whether I’m directing a play, writing a curriculum, or designing a community and cultural effort, folks typically want to work with me because they know that I am gonna help them stay accountable to community.

I have a longstanding relationship with the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander is one of the institutions that I went to in order to learn, and then a partnership was created. One of the things I’m most proud of is helping to write a cultural organizing curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute. It has been around for a number of years and I was a part of the initial residencies under the leadership of Tufara Muhammad, who is one of my mentors and teachers. They also have a program called Seeds of Fire, which is a youth cultural organizing camp, and I’ve been on the faculty for that for the last five years. Most recently I’ve been a part of a team of people that have been doing these southern-wide convenings in which we are talking to people in communities about what they need. It’s basically a participatory research and asset mapping process. We’ve been able to gather a lot of information about what the needs are in terms of cultural organizing campaigns, political campaigns, and efforts in the south. All of that will be compiled into a document and shared publicly.

Continued next post…