Cultural Organizing

Use Your Cultural Assets — A Principle of Creative Activism

Today I’m excited to share with you the second piece I have written for Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, a book-turned-website with tons of great resources for creative activists. This was an excellent exercise for me, because it forced me to take the ideas about culture that I’ve been exploring here and in my other work, and boil it down to some key pieces of advice. The full text is below, but for the full, interactive experience read it on the Beautiful Trouble website

“Never go outside the experience of your people. . . . Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.”

— Saul Alinsky

Principle In Sum: By drawing on the cultural assets of the community, organizers can deepen the involvement of participants, disorient opponents, and shift the cultural terrain in their favor.

Radical social change groups can rarely compete with their opponents in terms of financial resources or institutional power. Instead, they must draw on what they do have: passionate, committed people willing to take action. The same is true in the cultural arena: opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, from dominant paradigms and frames to control of mass media (see THEORY: Cultural hegemony). To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths.

 All communities develop shared cultures — stories, symbols, art forms, knowledge, norms, and practices that hold the community together and shape its identity. These cultures offer rich resources for action, whether it’s youth organizers performing hip-hop street theater; Japanese-American activists repurposing traditional Taiko drumming; or Harry Potter fans drawing on the narratives of Rowling’s books to address an array of social justice issues (see CASE: Harry Potter Alliance).

If social change efforts are to be led by those most affected by injustice (see PRINCIPLE: Take leadership from the most impacted), then this principle calls for a particular focus on the cultural strengths of marginalized communities, or what researcher Tara Yosso calls “community cultural wealth.” In the face of ongoing oppression, communities develop many ways of strengthening themselves and resisting domination. They hone storytelling and communication skills, share counter-stories that challenge dominant narratives, create new art forms, and develop practices of mutual support. Many of the most powerful social change efforts, from the African-American civil rights movement in the US to the environmental justice movements throughout the world, have relied heavily on the cultural wealth of participating communities.

When communities draw on their own cultural assets to carry out actions, they strengthen their own membership while simultaneously disorienting and discomfiting opponents. They are playing by their own rules rather than accepting the existing terms of engagement. By inserting their own stories, perspectives, and practices into the broader dialogue, they are not just operating within, but actively shifting the cultural terrain (see PRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain).

Culturally specific practices can serve as a statement of cultural pride, and can strengthen collective identity. When the Idle No More protests spread across Canada and the United States beginning in 2012, organizers utilized Indigenous music, dance, and language as a way to assert the power and continued relevance of Indigenous culture (see CASE: Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob). Utilizing shared cultural assets can also help to draw in others who are not yet onside politically, but who relate culturally. For example, given hip hop’s worldwide cache with young people, many see it as an effective tool for organizing across racial, ethnic, and national lines.

Potential Pitfalls

Exclusion: When drawing on culturally specific practices, there is always a risk of alienating not just opponents, but also people you would like to welcome into your effort. Then again, this is true of any cultural practice: protest marches, press conferences, sit-ins, and other organizing staples all energize some folks while making others feel excluded (see THEORY: Political identity paradox and PRINCIPLE: Make new folks welcome). If exclusion is an issue, it can be moderated by adapting or combining practices from different cultural communities; educating allies on the meaning of the practices; or carefully selecting practices that are welcoming. For example, the freedom songs of the African-American civil rights movement combined Black spirituals and white folk music as a way to assist in organizing across racial lines.

Appropriation: Organizers must also be aware of the dangers of simplification and appropriation. Cultures are complex and dynamic, with blurry boundaries and lots of internal diversity. They cannot be reduced to a small set of symbols or art forms. Those who are not directly involved in a cultural community may have a particularly difficult time understanding this complexity. Beware of appropriating aspects of a culture you do not fully appreciate or understand, no matter how pure your intentions.

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…

Portrait of a Cultural Organizer

I am excited to share with you an article I wrote, which just came out in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. It is a biographical portrait of Mariama White-Hammond, the Executive Director of Project HIP-HOP. The piece traces her development as an artist and activist, and looks at the way these two trajectories intersect in moments of synergy and tension. In addition to the writing, the piece includes a few of my comics to help bring Mariama to life. Click on the link below for a PDF of the article.

The Beauty of Transformation: Becoming a Cultural Organizer (PDF)

I want to thank the excellent editors of this special issue of JCT, Erica Meiners and Therese Quinn, and of course Mariama. Here’s a little taste.

 

 

Interview with Cultural Organizer Favianna Rodriguez

Last week I had the privilege of talking to a powerful cultural organizer from Oakland. Favianna Rodriguez is a visual artist best known for her political prints and posters addressing issues from the Iraq war to women’s rights. She is the director of CultureStrike, a grassroots collective of artists, and the founder of Presente.org, an online network “dedicated to the political empowerment of Latino communities.” She has recently been featured in an online documentary titled Migration is Beautiful.

We began by talking a bit about how Favianna came to her artistic and political work, but quickly fell into discussing the role of artists in the immigrant rights movement, the challenges political artists face, and the difference between art as a tactic and art as a strategy for social change. We also spoke about her effort to promote the monarch butterfly as a powerful symbol of the humanity and beauty of migrants.

How did you first get involved with art, when did that start?

FaviannaSince I was a child I was really into art, but it wasn’t something that was encouraged in my family. My family wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer; given I was a first generation college student it was always really important for me to pursue, in their eyes, a more meaningful career. But art has always been a way for me to claim my identity and make sense of who I was, because I grew up in an environment where I would be one of the only students of color in many honors classes in high school. I would find myself not reflected in the curriculum, not reflected in student government or extracurricular activities, so for me art was a way to claim that space.

When did politics and activism start to move into the picture?

When I was 16 the governor of California introduced Proposition 187, the first anti-immigrant state based proposition. Around that time you also saw propositions killing affirmative action; you saw the prison industrial complex creep up in California via Proposition 21, which was a way to criminalize young people of color. All of that happened in my teenage years and I found youth organizing. I got involved when I was about 14 years old, walking out of my high school, doing actions at the juvenile detention centers. For me organizing was a real wakeup call because I could really understand how political power was formed.

Back then were you finding ways to work your art into your organizing?

Yeah, I was more working in my art as a designer. I was filling the need that was emerging, which was that you needed flyers, you needed educational materials for the community. I understood art as a tactical thing, and not necessarily as a strategy.

What does it mean for art to be a tactic instead of a strategy?

For a long time I was using my art skills to serve the immediate and short term needs of movement work, whether that would be making flyers or giving away art for auctions by political organizations or doing pop-up art exhibits at rallies. On the other hand, I would spend time developing my own body of work, or working with other artists. And we were not necessarily thinking about policy outcomes or the next rally — we were thinking, “What is this space of big ideas we want to go into? What are the values we want to promote?” I began to understand that while artists were valued for the short-term work that they can do, we were not valued for the creative capacity to touch people’s hearts. Dance choreography, or a short play, or a novel — anything that did not fit into the short-term needs of a movement, people just could not see it as useful.

Now I see the value of cultural strategy, which means to me that we are thinking about culture as a tool that can move our ideas forward. Culture is a space that we actively need to be working in, and we need to respect the labor of artists. Its important to work in a rapid response mechanism, but its equally as important to work on long term ideas that are going to shift the way people fundamentally think about an issue. Cultural strategy is not communication strategy, and art is not just as a tactic. When you see artists as a tactic it means you have predesigned a pathway to a campaign which the artist is going to participate in. To me cultural organizing is to see that art it can be a complimentary path that is not driven by the short-term needs of a campaign. Another part of cultural strategy is artists also need to be organized.

What does that look like when artists are organized?

When artists are organized, it means we have an awareness of the political strategy, and the general direction the movement is trying to go in, so that we can position ourselves. This is why I think it’s important to use the word strategy. I do think we need to be strategic with our timing. We have to think about how our art is going to advance or not advance different beliefs.

What do you see as the ideal relationship between artists and more traditional organizers?

I think that there has to be ongoing communication. Artists are not sitting at the table when strategy is being designed, and I think that’s a mistake. Artists need to be a part of overall movement work in a way that really values what we do. The tendency has been to contact artists at the end, about campaign engagement, or “Now that we have our rally planned, let’s invite the artist.” That to me is only one very small piece of cultural strategy.

Also, artists need to have strong relationships with movement folks so we can understand what they’re pushing for, because some things we do could actually not help. I’ll give you an example. Steve Jobs’ widow just released a video-based site called The Dream Is Now, and its all about undocumented youth. I can tell you, as somebody who works directly with undocumented youth and has good relationships with organizers, that the dream narrative is no longer as helpful to our movement as it was 2 years ago. Undocumented youth are now saying “It’s not just about us as youth, we want our parents legalized. Our parents brought us here because they are responsible and they want opportunity for us, and we’re not going to shove our parents under the bus.” At CultureStrike I work with artists, and if artists say we want to do something around young DREAMers I’m able to say “Well, the political strategy is no longer moving in that direction. In fact, dreamers have gotten some relief via DACA. What is now urgent is that we address the deportation of parents, and move away from a youth-only lens” And by understanding where the movement is at it makes the art all that more powerful and effective.

What are the different roles arts are playing, or could play, in the immigrant rights movement?

I’ll give you a great example. A group of eight senators introduced what they call a blueprint for comprehensive immigration reform. That blueprint included drones at the border and at least two decades of waiting for citizenship. Unless you understand the nuances of what this means, the public hears the words “comprehensive immigration reform,” and may not necessarily approach with a critical lens. Here’s where artists can come in really great: artists can expose the truth about these policies and highlight the information or misinformation in a way that simplifies the message. We can begin to emphasize what drones are, connect it to the immense amount of debt, saying “This is what border enforcement looks like, this is what border enforcement costs.”

At the same time, there are 11 million undocumented migrants. How do we as artists help people see what those 11 million look like? It’s children, it’s mothers, it’s parents, it’s students it’s workers. How do we humanize that so that it’s not just a figure, so it tells a story?

We are all hoping that this is the year for immigration reform, and you can expect there to be a lot of rallies and visits to congress and marches. This is what we’ve been doing for the last six years already. What would new kinds of cultural engagement look like so we are not just repeating the same way of telling the story? Theatrical pieces, mobile art labs, filmmakers, concerts all over the country. What about Comic books, graphic novels, street art highlighting the immense pain that so many children feel from losing a parent because they are being deported.

Maybe you could talk about the symbol of the Butterfly, and what you’re trying to do with that.

Butterfly CrossingThe immigrant rights movement began to slowly adopt the butterfly as a symbol. As an artist, and as someone who studies symbols like the pink triangle, the black power fist, the black panther — I think symbols definitely have the ability to create a culture of resistance. So for me it was important to popularize the image of a butterfly. I wanted to piggyback on the symbol of the butterfly as a visionary symbol. Butterflies can cross borders, so the butterfly is the symbol to talk about the beauty of migrants as they are moving from place to place. Just like butterflies migrate in order to survive, people migrate in order to survive. It is not just about economics, it is also about people wanting to be unified with their families, or people wanting to be safe from environments where they can’t be gay, or women escaping situations that are dangerous to them, or young people trying to find opportunities. These are all beautiful stories of who we are as humans, and I think that the butterfly is very symbolic of that.

The butterfly as a symbol of policy can be a little bit tricky, because the butterfly clearly crosses borders . Yet I don’t believe in our lifetime we are going to see open borders. However, I think it’s an important idea to push out, because art sometimes is about imagining what could be, it’s about allowing people to think really big. Even though it may not translate to a policy outcome just yet, its important for the idea to be there because people in their subconscious associate migrants with really ugly concepts. People associate migrants with leeches, or they think about migrants like “Those migrants don’t belong here, they’re taking my job.” And that is because the media has repetitively shown those symbols, so we need to counter those with more positive symbols.

Who else do you see in the immigrant rights movement, or other movements, that you particularly think is doing great work around cultural organizing?

I think that 350.org does an excellent fob of activating folks around climate change. A few years back they did something called EARTH where they organized, in cities around the world, huge art productions that you could only see via satellite all produced on a particular day. I thought that was really powerful because first, it really maximized on artists being problem solvers. At the same time it requires community participation, because you needed people out there to make it work. And also it centered on a really simple idea, the number 350.

What keeps you going in this work?

Im A SlutI wake up and I am just so excited that my job is to think about how to organize artists. For a long time as an artist I felt really frustrated about the way artists’ labor wasn’t recognized, and frustrated because the art word marginalizes artists of color and socially engaged artists. The art world is already such an ultra-capitalist environment and sometimes that’s all we’re offered, that is shown to us as the ideal. So to be able to say to my fellow artists, “Lets get organized, lets think about the work that we do, and also think differently about art overall. There’s a saying that says “art workers don’t kiss ass,” and that is so true. The awesome thing about being an artist is that we have space to do the most controversial, in-your-face content that you can imagine and we can totally get away with it because we’re artists. That drives me. You’ve seen my “I’m a Slut” poster — I would never get the support to do that through the nonprofit world, and yet its so needed.