Public Transportation

Profile: Project HIP-HOP

A civil rights education project transforms into the kind of creative movement organization that it was founded to inspire.

Founded in 1993, Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past: History, Organizing, and Power) originally had little to do with the arts or culture of hip-hop. It began as an effort to engage young members of the hip-hop generation in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In its first years, while still under the auspices of the Massachusetts ACLU, Project HIP-HOP (PHH) took high-school-aged youth on annual “civil rights tours” through the South, visiting important sites and meeting with movement veterans. The goal was to offer young people a “living history of the Civil Rights Movement,” and to inspire them to continue the struggle.

After a few annual tours of the South, and a powerful visit to South Africa, young people in PHH decided to take the organization in a new direction, expanding from simply learning about social justice movements to organizing for change. They also began to integrate their own youth cultural practices into the organization, including poetry, rap, djing, hip-hop dance, visual art, and more. Then, in 2001, PHH left the ACLU, formed an independent non-profit, and hired one of their former members as executive director.

Over the next decade PHH initiated a flurry of artistic and organizing projects, from open mics and hip-hop cyphers to campaigns against military recruitment and mass incarceration. But while connected by a political sensibility, the organizing and artistic practices remained, on the whole, separate. This changed when, starting in 2009, PHH began a strategic planning process to determine the future of the organization. Rather than be stretched in two directions, PHH decided to fully merge these two pieces of itself through the practice of cultural organizing.

PHH seeks to address not only the policies but also the ideologies that maintain systems of oppression. Internally, young people at PHH hone their self-understanding and political analysis by studying oppression and resistance across the centuries — from African history to the inner-workings of hip-hop culture and art. They draw on collective artistic practices like cyphers, along with shared rituals, to build community and construct an organizational counter-culture that challenges the racism and individualism of dominant US culture. And externally they bring their arsenal of street theater, flash mobs, poetry, and more — all based in a hip-hop aesthetic — to addressing issues affecting young people of color.

Recently, PHH has joined the Youth Way on the MBTA coalition. In partnership with other youth-led organizations like the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project and the Roxbury Environmental Empowerment Project, they have been pushing the city to limit fair increases, create a new youth pass, and ensure affordable public transportation across Boston. Below is a short street theater piece from a March, 2012 rally at the transportation building.

Designing Change

Ever since I wrote my recent post on information design, I seem to see infographics everywhere. This one I found at the office of Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE). This is a perfect example of using information design to support organizing, by taking information that is complex and a bit dry (a series of practical policies to save the public transportation system money) and making it easier to read and grasp. I like the color scheme, and the use of the old T tokens. (See my recent post on Superheroes to learn more about this campaign.)


Superheroes Fight for Boston Transit

It’s been a good week for superheroes. Friday saw the release of The Avengers (which was hot), and Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. But if you live here in Boston, you don’t need to go to the theater or the comic book store for a superhero fix — we’ve got our own team of spandex-clad do-gooders and they are asking you to join.

The Fast Five fight for affordable, quality public transportation in Boston. They have been spotted often across the city — at protests, marches, and transit board meetings — during the recent fight against budget cuts for Boston’s transit system, “The T.” Just as Batman lurks in his Bat Cave, the Fast Five base their operations out of the T Riders Union (TRU), part of the advocacy and organizing group, Alternatives for Community and Environment. Each of the superheroes is currently associated with a policy that could help save the T money — from renegotiating debt to drawing on snow-removal savings after a warm winter (that one ended up being approved).

If you’ve read this blog since the beginning, you know the superhero myth is one of my favorites, and I think it holds a lot of potential for framing activism, so I love that ACE has been using it. At the same time, the superhero myth’s focus on saviors is at times in conflict with organizing’s focus on collectivity and empowerment. You can see that the Fast Five campaign is trying to deal with this tension. Though the superheroes may be here to “save the day,” they are calling on others to make it happen, with the tag line “Be a Hero; Save the T.” It probably also helps that the superhero outfits are so self-consciously silly, with some quite literally having underwear on the outside. They give off a sense of “do-it-yourself” superheroism that is endearing.

While this year’s transportation budget battle is over, there is still much to do in the fight for justice in public transportation. Most of the solutions used for plugging this year’s gap are one-time, setting us up for another battle next year. And youth across the city continue to organize for an affordable 24/7 youth pass. So I have no doubt we will be seeing more of the Fast Five. If you’re in the area, grab your underwear and suit up.

Flash Mob Protesting Transit Cuts

During the recent protests over proposed transit cuts in Boston, young people from the Youth Way on the MBTA coalition were a major force in pushing for alternative options — responding in particular to plans to double the cost of youth passes, which would have had detrimental effects on youth’s lives and education. While rallying outside the Transportation building, young cultural organizers from Project HIP-HOP put on a short piece of street theater stressing the harm being done to youth in this process. Check it out.