Poetry

Celebrating Joe Hill on Labor Day

“The Copper Bosses killed you Joe,
They shot you Joe” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”
Says Joe “I didn’t die”

— Paul Robeson (and many others), Joe Hill

This past Saturday I took my three-year-old son down to Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City for the Joe Hill Centennial Celebration. The event — which included food, printmaking, and of course lots of good folk music — took place on the site of the former prison where Hill was executed, 100 years ago this November. In honor of labor day, I, too, want to take a moment to celebrate the life and art of one of the labor movement’s foremost cultural organizers.

A Swedish immigrant who came to the US in 1902, Joe Hill worked as an itinerant laborer in cities across the country including New York, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Portland. In 1910, while working on the docks in San Pedro, Hill joined the International Workers of the World (IWW). A long-time agitator and an organizer, Hill was, at heart, an artist. He played played multiple instruments, drew cartoons, wrote poetry, and, most famously, wrote some of the labor movement’s most memorable songs. As Michael Löwy writes, for Hill, to be an artist meant to be a “rebel.”

While awaiting execution, Joe Hill wrote, in two separate letters: “I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist,” and “I have lived like a rebel and I shall die like a rebel.” For him, being an artist and a rebel were the same.

Hill’s songs, which were featured in the Wobblies’ “little red songbook,” celebrated the power of unions, criticized scabs, and promoted class consciousness. He once wrote, pragmatically if a bit paternalistically,

A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over. And I maintain that if a person can put a few common sense facts into a song and dress them up in a cloak of humor, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read.

Hill was convicted of the murder of a Salt Lake City grocer and his son, on very circumstantial evidence, and executed by firing squad. But his influence on radical labor culture lives on — even, apparently, in the city that killed him. Below I share a couple of his classic songs, but first, his last wishes:

My body? Ah, if I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some fading flowers grow.

Perhaps some fading flowers then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to you.

 

 

“I Don’t Mind Standing a Little Longer”: Remembering Julian Bond through Poetry

Yesterday, long-time civil rights organizer and social justice warrior Julian Bond passed away at the age of 75. His legacy reads like a map of the African American civil rights struggle in the US: from co-founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Poverty Law Center, to sitting 20 years in the Georgia State Legislature and being elected Board Chairman of the NAACP. Some very moving statements and retrospectives have been making the rounds, including from President Obama, who said that Julian Bond “helped change this country for the better. And what better way to be remembered than that.”

Here at Cultural Organizing we would like to remember another piece of Julian Bond’s legacy — his poetry. Bond was an English major at Moorehouse, where he co-founded the literary magazine the Pegasus. Along with his many essays on race and politics, Bond’s early poetry has appeared in a number of anthologies and publications. These poems speak to Bond’s love of Black culture, his understanding of racial oppression, his commitment to the long, difficult work of social change, and his beauty as a person. Below are four of his most well-known poems.

Rest in Power, Julian Bond.

 

I TOO, HEAR AMERICA SINGING

This poem was written as a response to Walt Whitman’s, I Hear America Singing, and resonates with the language and spirit of Langston Hughes’, I Too (also likely a response to Whitman). The poem was published in the first issue of SNCC’s newsletter, The Student Voice, in 1960.

I too, hear America singing
But from where I stand
I can only hear Little Richard
And Fats Domino.
But sometimes
I hear Ray Charles
Drowning in his own tears
or Bird
Relaxing at Camarillo
Or Horace Silver doodling,
Then I don’t mind standing
a little longer.

 

LOOK AT THAT GIRL

In the video below, Bond reads his most famous poem, a couplet he wrote in college.

Look at that girl shake that thing,
We can’t all be Martin Luther King.

 

THE BISHOP OF ATLANTA: RAY CHARLES

In this poem, Bond celebrates Ray Charles, whose combination of blues and gospel inspired many young African Americans in the emerging civil rights struggle. “Bond was quoted as saying about Charles, “He just seemed to me to be such a compelling personality. The voice, the music, the whole package taken together, pulled me in as it pulled in many, many others.”

The Bishop seduces the world with his voice
Sweat strangles mute eyes
As insinuations gush out through a hydrant of sorrow
Dream’s, a world never seen
Moulded on Africa’s anvil, tempered down home
Documented in cries and wails
Screaming to be ignored, crooning to be heard
Throbbing from the gutter
On Saturday night
Silver offering only
The Right Reverend’s back in town
Don’t it make you feel alright????????

 

HABANA

According to Bond, this poem was based on conversations he had during his first trip to Cuba as a nineteen-year-old college student at Morehouse, soon after the Cuban Revolution.

Soldiers fuzz the city in khaki confusion
Pincushioned with weapons
Seedy orange venders squeeze among the pulpy masses
Camera pregnant tourists click down the Prado
Lotería salesmen tear along the dotted line
Guitars pluck loafers into corner bars
Uniformed schoolgirls genuflect languorously
Climactic roaming rainbow dresses cling slowly
Punctuating neon orgasms in the mambo night
And above Fidel’s sandpaper voice,
“You want a girl, maybe?”

The State of our Collective Story

What if the annual State of the Union was not a speech spoken by one, but a poem created by many?

A couple of weeks ago, I facilitated a story circle for the USDAC People’s State of the Union with the students in my Communication and Social Justice course. Rather than a monologue from a single elected leader, the People’s State of the Union is a national dialogue. All around the country, community members met in living rooms, churches, community centers, classrooms, parks, and other public and private spaces to share personal stories about the current state and future potential of this nation.

During our story circle my mind turned, as it often does, to the question of how we know what we know. Where do we turn when we seek truth? What counts as accurate knowledge? How do we come to understand the true state of our conflicted and striving union?

Too often, it seems to me, we limit ourselves to a chosen few sources of knowledge, while ignoring the rest. We privilege the measurable over the elusive, numbers over stories, average trends over quirkiness and diversity. We idolize logic and dispassion, while discounting the wisdom of embodiment and emotion. In our striving for the “right” answer, we lose sight of the value of ambiguity, contradiction, and the possibility of multiple truths.

As my students shared their stories, I was struck by how much we had to learn from one another. Embedded in our 14 diverse yet interconnected narratives was a wealth of knowledge about family and community, identity and ability, discrimination and acceptance, and what it means to truly belong. What if we, as a nation, opened ourselves up to the many sources of knowledge available to us? What if we looked to artists as often as we do to scientists? What if we listened to young people alongside adults, community members as well as so-called “experts”? What wonders might we learn, and how much more effective might we be in building something better?

 

The stories from the People’s State of the Union have been collected at the USDAC Story Portal. Visit, search, and share your own.

The Role of Art in Social Justice: A Speech at the UN Headquarters

Our Strong Hands Make Music

 
Today I want to share the audio of a speech by author and teaching artist Renée Watson, on the topic of social justice arts education. Recently, Watson (whose work teaching about Hurricane Katrina has been featured on this site) was asked to give the keynote speech at the International Symposium of Cultural Diplomacy at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

In her speech, which at times reads like an extended poem, Watson challenges listeners to understand the difficulty and complexity of social justice arts education. Social justice education, she explains, is about more than just addressing controversial topics.

“Along with a comprehensive arts curriculum, teaching for social justice requires a willingness to ask difficult questions; an openness to want to learn about someone else’s perspective; it is widening the canon of arts and including a diverse roster of artists; it is bringing what is going on outside of the classroom inside; it is about paying attention to the world and creating art that responds to what is happening.”

It is a beautiful and inspiring 22 minute speech, which I can’t recommend highly enough. For more from Watson, you can visit her blog, Art is for Action.

 

 

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…

Meet the UndocuArtists: Using art & culture for immigrant justice, & much more!

by Favianna Rodriguez

This post has been reposted from the blog of Favianna Rodriguez at Favianna.com. It was originally posted on May 2, 2012. If you like my CulturalOrganizing.org (or even if you don’t), you should definitely be reading hers.

I’m really honored to be able to collaborate with some off-the-hook undocumented artists and writers who are not only making waves in the immigrant rights space, but also in the arts and culture space overall. If you are in San Francisco, you will the opportunity to meet some of these artists at the upcoming Undocunation event on May 3.

Last year, I had heard about Julio Salgado, an undocumented artist who was posting images all over Facebook in support of the DREAM Act and about undocumented youth coming out of the shadows. I had seen the images around but hadn’t actually met Julio, until last may when he visited the Bay and I invited him over for lunch. (Art below by Julio Salgado)

Quip-claudia

Empowered by both his queer and undocumented identities, Julio was following the tradition of using art as a tool to fight anti-migrant laws. I was so tremendously inspired by him that I committed to supporting his creative work and I invited him be a part of a delegation of artists that went to Tucson, Arizona, last September.

Julio eventually introduced me to his collaborative media project, DreamersAdrift.com. Along with Jesus Iñiguez, Fernando Romero and Deisy Hernandez, the four undocumented college graduates had started DreamersAdrift.com as a way to combat the negative language used by the media when they talked about undocumented folks in this country. Using video, art and music, DreamersAdrift.com has been a creative outlet for other undocumented students and allies to speak out about their immigration status. You can see some of their hilarious work here.

It was refreshing to see these artist take on serious subjects with humor and sarcasm. I also was really impressed that everyone involved in the production, down the video editor, was undocumented. This demonstrated to me the importance of art, culture and media coming directly from the folks most impacted by a given issues, in this case, our country’s failed immigration system. I believe that as radical artists, we have to recognize our priviledge and be able to strongly support other artists who do not have the same access we have. The fact that I was born in this country grants me access to a host of grants, public money, and artistic opportunities that undocumented artists dont’ have.

The “Undocumented and Awkward” series by DreamersAdrift.com have gone viral within pro-migrant activists who have used the videos to share the realities of being an undocumented immigrant.

They’ve also collaborated with other undocumented artists as well, such as Yosimar Reyes, who was featured in one of the “Undocumented and Awkward” videos that touched on the subject of being undocumented and queer, or “Undocuqueer.” Yosimar, a self-described “two-spirit gangsta” and author of “For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly,” has used his poetic talent to criticize the current state of immigrant politics. Issues of race, borders and “joteria,” are abundant in his work.

Julio also connected me with Felipe Baeza, a fierce, undocumented artist from New York who not only has he been actively creating art about being UndocuQueer, but has also been at the forefront of a migrant movement led by a lot of women and queer youth. Last year, Felipe participated in a sit-in in Gerogia and risked deportation. Check him out here:

These artists are a huge inspiration for me, and I’m excited to be working with them on national projects, like this print portfolio project here, and like “UndocuNation: An Evening with Artists for Immigrant Justice,” which opens tomorrow, May 3 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Poetry and Rebellion in Afghanistan: Mirman Baheer

A poem that was copied at a Mirman Baheer meeting in Kabul. Seamus Murphy/VII for The New York Times.

There is a beautiful and moving article in today’s New York Times Magazine about Afghan women’s poetry. Written by Eliza Griswold, this extended piece looks at the Mirman Baheer women’s literary group, which meets at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul — and particularly the women in rural Afghanistan who take great risks to call in and share there poetry. Mirman Baheer grew out of a literary network that met secretly under the Taliban, then known as the “Golden Needle,” where women shared writing while pretending to sew. But though the society is now above-ground and supported by the government, for many women writing poetry can still mean risking one’s life.

Griswold shows how in Afghanistan poetry and women’s power go hand in hand: “Pashtun poetry has long been a form of rebellion for Afghan women, belying the notion that they are submissive or defeated.” Their poetry often takes the form of the landai, a type of short “folk poem” traditionally written, even when done by men, in the voice of women, and covering topics from the bawdy to the political. Griswold quotes one parliamentarian as saying: “Landai belong to women…In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.”

I’ll let your read the rest for yourself, but let me leave you with this poem (called a rubaiya) by one of the women featured, which just killed me. It’s addressed to the Taliban:

You won’t allow me to go to school.
I won’t become a doctor.
Remember this:
One day you will be sick.

 

Support Youth Poetry: WordPlay Baton Rouge

Youth poetry needs your help.

WordPlay is a Baton Rouge organization that works with young people, creating poetic, transformative spaces where “artistic and civic voices can be amplified.” It has worked with thousands of youth over the course of seven years. But in these tough economic times, they need your help.

They have 20 days to raise $4,000 to put on All City, the annual city-wide teen poetry slam festival. They are asking us to support the “$30 for a 30” campaign at ALL CITY 2012 KickStarter Campaign. They are asking a minimum of $30, but all dollar amounts are accepted and appreciated. See the video below for a trailer for the event.

This is not just about promoting a program, it is about supporting a small part of the youth poetry movement. Here are some words from WordPlay founder Anna West:

I have made this my life’s work because I know, in the words of Audre Lorde, that “poetry is not a luxury.” I know that you already get what this is about, a life line and a movement for youth. You also know how important it is that it happens here in Louisiana. After all, this is the state that won’t pass anti-bullying legislation because it includes protections for gay and lesbian youth. This is the state where the ideal of public education seems to be steadily breaking down. We live in a state with the highest rate of teens disconnected from school and work in the country. You must understand what it means for young people here and now to document their lived experiences, to re-imagine those experiences and to build a public space where speaking truth to power is the norm, not the exception. This space is as critical today as it ever was.

Please join me in showing your solidarity with the youth of this community: Click here to donate today: ALL CITY 2012 KickStarter Campaign.

Book Review: Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives
Edited by Stephen John Hartnett
University of Illinois Press, $25.00

I’ve been working on an edited volume about the school-to-prison pipeline, and taking the opportunity to check out recent books on the topic. One of the more rich and intriguing tomes I have come across is Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, & Educational Alternatives. The book brings together scholars and educators — along with incarcerated poets and visual artists — to illuminate the workings of the prison-industrial complex and share strategies for confronting it.

The book is split in two parts. The first — Diagnosing the Crisis — is dedicated to understanding the prison-industrial complex (PIC), the web of government and for-profit institutions that monitor, control, discipline, and incarcerate millions of US residents. This country, Hartnet argues, has become a “punishing democracy,” a system in which “punishment has become a driving force in contemporary American life” (p. 6).

The chapters span an impressively wide range, illuminating multiple facets of the PIC. Erica Meiners uncovers the economic underpinnings of the PIC, and the ways that surveillance and control are privatizing public space. Julilly Kohler-Hausmann offers a compelling and disturbing account of how our domestic police force has been increasingly drawing on military tools, strategies, and metaphors since the Vietnam war. Rose Braz and Myesha Williams outline the school-to-prison pipeline, and the increased policing of schools, while other pieces look at stereotypes in media, and the “war on drugs.”

The second half of the book — Practical Solutions, Visionary Alternatives — offers a series of stories about on-the-ground work being done to engage with, shift, and challenge the PIC. I would hesitate to call them “solutions,” given the daunting task they take on, but they certainly offer practical actions that real people are taking, and begin to paint a picture of a different world — one in which we see the humanity of everyone, and truly question the ways that we engage with one another and the conflicts that arise between people.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog, the arts play a very large role in this section of the book. It begins with Buzz Alexander, writing about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan. This program — which I was a part of in college — runs theater and writing workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers, and public schools, as well as an annual visual art show. Alexander gives a bold yet humble account, offering a taste of the messiness and the promise of this work, to which he has given so many years. Robin Sohnen shares the work of the Each One Reach One program, which does playwriting and tutoring in prisons, and Jonathan Shailor recounts his experiences doing Shakespeare in prisons. While each of these programs has a different focus, pedagogy, and theory of change, together they demonstrate the potential of artistic programming to build humanizing relationships between those inside and outside of the prison system; to help individuals develop and grow; to spread awareness of the oppressions of the system and of the humanity of the incarcerated; and to begin much-needed dialogue about the future of our democracy.

Throughout the book, readers are treated to pieces of poetry from incarcerated men and women, and a stunning set of images from the PCAP Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. These pieces bring some concreteness to the stories told by the authors above, and connect a reader with not just the idea of prisoners but incarcerated humans in the particular.

The book as a whole, and the scholar-educator-artist-activists within, seek to shift our country from a punishing democracy to an abolition democracy. They are calling for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Drawing on writing by Angela Davis, Hartnett argues that prison abolition is not a negative effort of simply shutting down prisons, but a proactive process of creation — which is perhaps why artistic practice can play such an important role. He says that “shutting down the prison-industrial complex will require nothing less than a revolution — the question is not only how to abolish prisons, but how to reimagine a democracy that does not need such institutions” (p. 4).

 

 

 

No Poetry is Illegal

Last month saw a major attack on ethnic studies in Arizona, centered around the banning of the Tucson Mexican American Studies (MAS) program. This attack is about more than simply curriculum — it is about which stories can be told, and which people can tell them. It is part of a centuries-long struggle to define “America” and to control the narratives we live by.

This month, February 2012, people across the country are fighting back. One effort, the “No History is Illegal” campaign, asks educators to stand in solidarity with MAS by pledging to teach about the struggle in Arizona, and use the MAS curriculum, in our homes, schools, community centers, churches, and wherever else learning takes place. To pledge your support, and to download a document from the Network of Teacher Activist Groups with curriculum samples and ideas, click HERE.

The following is a poem that is read at the beginning of all MAS classes. It can serve as a moment of reflection, and a jumping off point for discussions about this crisis. If they close one program, let a hundred spring up in its place. No history, no poem, no culture, is illegal.

In Lak Ech

Tú eres mi otro yo
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mí mismo
I do harm to myself;
Sí te amo y respeto
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo
I love and respect myself.

– From Luis Valdez’s “Pensamiento Serpentino”