Highlander Research and Education Center

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

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.”