Where is the Power? Creative Power Analysis and the Arts

This is Part 4 of a series on Art and Power

Where is the power? That’s the question at the core of a power analysis, one of the most useful tools that community and movement organizing have today. While it can look different across organizations, a power analysis basically charts out the power relationships relevant to a campaign, an issue, or a movement.

A controversial pic of Obama teaching about Power Analysis, much attacked by the right.

A youth organizing group taking on discipline policies in schools, for example, might gather together and map out who really holds power over discipline policies. Can the principal change them on her own? Is it mandated by the district? Is it a state government matter? What outside forces are supporting the current policies? Who funds them? These questions help the organization to choose allies and targets. On the flip side, power analysis can be done on ourselves. What kinds of power do we have? Where does our power come from? How is it best used?

Cultural organizers and arts activists may struggle to answer these kinds of concrete questions, as we work in the realm of culture and are often taking on invisible forms of power. But there are a few methods that I’ve run across that could be helpful in this regard.

One of the most comprehensive frameworks to help groups do power analysis is that developed by John Gaventa at the Institute of Development Studies, building on the work of many organizers and academics. It is called the Power Cube, and it breaks down power across three axis: levels of power (global, national, local, household), spaces where power is exercised (closed, invited, and claimed) and forms (visible, hidden, and invisible). The power cube helps us to look not only at formal decision making, but at the cultural and psychological aspects of power — key to the work of cultural organizing. This tool has been used by groups around the world, and you can find an interactive explanation and many examples at the power cube site.

Another fabulous process is narrative power analysis, developed by SmartMeme and outlined in their book Re:Imagining Change. This analysis can help groups who want to shift the cultural discourses around their issues as a key part of addressing injustice. First groups analyze the current narratives that are helping to maintain the status quo by making injustice seem normal, inevitable, or justified (for example, the narrative of meritocracy and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” helps to justify poverty). Next, groups figure out where these narratives are weakest — for example where they contain unstable contradictions. Finally, groups build new, truer stories meant to challenge, subvert, or replace these dominant stories. This is part of SmartMeme’s “story-based strategy.” While such a strategy doesn’t need to involve art per se, it is inherently cultural in nature, and quite in line with the goals and principles of cultural organizing.

Finally, Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed (TO). I was trained in these techniques in college, and was fortunate to attend a workshop with Boal before he passed away. Boal saw the possibility that theatre could be, if not the revolution, then “rehearsal for the revolution.” As a method of power analysis, TO is particularly good at addressing very personal and internal forms of power. TO brings people together to explore how oppression functions in their lives, and how they might confront it, by quite literally performing different possibilities. It starts not with big ideas — racism, homophobia — but with their everyday manifestations. Through image theatre, forum theatre, and the largely internal rainbow of desire, we can come to better understand — cognitively, emotionally, kinetically — what forces shape our lives, and what power we have to create real change.


Taking On the Invisible “Man”: How Art Confronts Power

This is Part 2 in a series on Art and Power.

If our arts and cultural work is to truly bring about social change, we need to understand what we are up against. There are multiple kinds of power wielded by the powerful, some more conducive to artistic intervention than others.

According to a theory first put forward by Steven Lukes, and further developed by John Gaventa and others, power has three faces. The most visible face is the power to win out in formal decision making, whether in congress or in the board room. This is sometimes called visible power, and some have made the mistake of thinking this is the only kind of power there is. Visible power can be engaged with through formal channels such as lobbying. The arts have been used occasionally in the realm of visible power — for example, Augusto Boal’s Legislative Theater.

There is a second kind of dominating power called hidden power. This is the power to decide who is at the table when visible decisions are made, and which issues can be raised. Much of the work of activist and organizing groups is focused on getting new voices to the table, and raising ignored issues. The arts can help amplify these voices, and frame issues — for example, through political posters or grassroots media.

But there is also a third, more insidious, kind of power: invisible power. This is the power to control what people even think is possible. Invisible power hides the very fact that power is at work. We can see its effects when we begin to think that poverty or racism, for example, are natural: “just the way things are.” This power does not need to be used intentionally — it exists in the culture and shapes all of us. Arts and other forms of cultural work are at their most potent in the invisible realm — in fact, they may be essential to confronting invisible power.

I think of invisible power in two different ways, each of which suggests a different kind of creative intervention. From a traditional psychological perspective, invisible power acts within a person’s mind. For example, it creates feelings of inferiority and the internalization of stereotypes; also called internalized oppression. The remedy is to engage in internal consciousness-raising processes such as political education, radical healing, or conscientization.

Artistic and cultural practices can serve as spaces for this kind of transformative work. Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques are specifically geared towards conscientization, but many art forms can be used to help us explore our struggles, and collectively begin to imagine a different world. Philosopher Maxine Greene has written eloquently about how experiences with the arts can help us develop our social imagination — the ability “to bring alternative realities into consciousness, to look at things as if they could be otherwise.” Furthermore, many groups use traditional practices and rituals to  draw strength from shared histories and identities, and counter this kind of oppression.

Another way to think about invisible power is through a discursive lens, like that of Foucault. In this sense, invisible power exists in not in our heads, but in our culture. It acts as a set of narratives that are taken as true, or common sense. For example, in the US this power works through the myth of meritocracy that says anyone can make it if they work hard enough — thus making us feel that when we do not succeed, it is all our fault. If we think of invisible power this way, then the response is to introduce alternative discourses, or counter narratives, that challenge, shift, and replace these dominant stories.

To do this, we can call upon the arts as powerful storytelling media. Just as advertising companies wield invisible power by saturating our lives with narratives of consumption, artists can develop and spread alternative stories — through plays, murals, creative actions, posters, and more. And social media have created ever more accessible ways of spreading these new narratives into the public sphere — though more traditional modes of public and street art can still hold particular strength. We see this kind of work being done by groups like SmartMeme, with their story-telling strategies, or with the “Drop the I-Word” campaign.

The power to oppress is often at its strongest when it is least visible. Cultural organizing, and other forms of arts activism, might be our best chances to uncover it, and face it.

Book Review — Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution

The playing field has changed drastically for activists and organizers over the past few decades. The initially revolutionary tools of sit-ins, marches, and boycotts have become standardized and — let’s be honest — predictable. With media saturation reaching record levels, new avenues for protest have opened up. But at the same time it takes more and more effort to get even a brief moment of media attention. And the problems we struggle against are often less visible than they once were. Long-running oppressions like racism have shifted towards more subtle and covert forms, and newer issues like climate change can often feel invisible and distant.

These changes have arguably led to a new wave of creativity in political action, from flash mobs and critical mass bike rides to viral videos and culture jamming. People across the globe are taking action in innovative new ways — drawing on a long history of creative protest, but also responding to uniquely modern opportunities and constraints. Through this process, activists have developed an enormous amount of expertise and knowledge about how to do effective and creative protest.

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution seeks to gather together, in one place, as much of this dispersed knowledge as possible. In doing so, editors Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell have produced a true treasure trove of collective wisdom. Authors include activists from a wide array of organizations — including Code Pink, the Yes Men, Ruckus Society, Justice for Janitors, Rebel Clown Army, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers — along with journalists, filmmakers, trainers, and researchers. Some of these authors have been in the struggle for decades, and here have managed to summarize their expertise into compact, easily digestible bits — with plenty of additional resources for those who want to go into more depth.

The 99% Bat Signal on the Brooklyn Bridge

The book is broken up into four parts. Section one, Tactics, includes descriptions of and practical advice about specific forms of public action — occupation, banner drops, invisible theater — as well as couple broader pieces on the concepts of direct action and strategic nonviolence. Section two, Principles, shares “hard won insights” about activism, such as “Brand or be branded,” “Make the invisible visible,” and (my favorite title), “No one wants to watch a drum circle.” Section three, Theories, does an impressive job of taking theories about social change — cultural hegemony, pedagogy of the oppressed, environmental justice — and summarizing them in ways that are practical and easy to read. Section four, Case Studies, offers examples of these tactics, principles, and theories in action. Cases include the Teddy-bear Catapult, the 99% Bat Signal, and the Lysistrata Project.

To be clear, this book is primarily about action. It is not a comprehensive guide to organizing a movement — it is about that small but vital place where an organizing campaign or movement meets the public sphere. Many of the authors are not organizers as much specialists in political action, coming from groups like the Yes Men and the Rebel Clown Army. That said, a number of chapters do touch on broader aspects of organizing. Harsha Walia, for example, writes about challenging patriarchy within your organization or group. And Joshua Kahn Russell from the Ruckus Society pens a few thoughtful pieces on basic organizing principles like “Take leadership from the most impacted,”

The arts certainly have a significant presence in Beautiful Trouble. The book includes examples of forum theater, guerrilla videos, massive human banners, and lots of public performance. But many of the actions in the book are not “artistic” per se. What they all share is a close attention to the form that protest takes. Authors advocate aligning the form of an action with its message, audience, goals, and overall strategy. They push a vision of protest that thinks beyond standard marches and rallies, to utilizing the broad range of tools open to activists. And they understands that political action functions at both the literal and symbolic level.

The Lysistrata Project, a global theatrical peace event

Beautiful Struggle speaks to two cultural faces of social change. First of all, many of the chapters are based in an understanding of dominant culture. Mainstream culture is seen mostly as a target for social change, but also as containing a set of resources — memes, narratives — that are ripe for usurpation. Secondly, a smaller number of chapters touch onmovement culture, particularly collective decision making and addressing power relationships within organizations. What the book lacks is attention to the deep and powerful resources embedded in existing non-dominant cultures. A good addition might be a chapter on something like counter-storytelling, a narrative technique that draws on long histories of strength and resistance in marginalized communities.

Because I didn’t want to miss anything, I read Beautiful Trouble in order, from front to back. But I do not recommend this method, because one of the best things about the book is its modular structure. Each short piece ends with a list of related pieces in the book, and web links to more resources. And if you are reading the ebook version (which I highly recommend for just this reason), these lists are hyperlinked. So you can wander, weaving between practice and theory, between the book and the web, forging your own path.

At the same time, this modular structure leads to some lack of cohesion in terms of understanding how these pieces fit together into an overall strategy. For this reason, I think it would pair well with a book like (Re)Imagining Change by SmartMeme that offers a method for embedding creative action within an overarching strategic narrative. (Members of SmartMeme author some of the pieces in Beautiful Trouble, which can give you a sense of their approach.)

The editors are planning to make all of this content available online, with additional pieces. And they are inviting others to submit their own cases, theories, tactics, and principles for online publication. So Beautiful Trouble will be able to grow far beyond the confines of the book, offering an evolving, collaborative, and ultimately invaluable resource for action.

The Danger of the Simple Story: Kony 2012

Tonight the Kony 2012 campaign kicks into high gear with “Paint the Night.” This can serve as a moment to reflect on the power of narrative in social change, and the danger of the simplified story.

A big focus of this blog is on the stories that we tell about ourselves — the stories that trap, the stories that marginalize, and the stories that liberate. Cultural organizing, in many ways, can be seen as a centering of the narrative of social change. We can offer new narratives, show the flaws in mainstream narratives, and uncover narratives that are kept out of the conversation. New media has become a major way such narratives are constructed and negotiated, and powerful strategies have been developed to center narrative in organizing efforts by groups like SmartMeme.

The Kony campaign, in some ways, has been very adept at this kind of strategy. They have taken the meme of the campaign poster and flipped it, using it to make someone famous who currently does not want to be found. And with the creative use of documentary and social media, the reach has been incredible. The story Invisible Children is telling is one that has appealed to thousands of young people in the US. It more or less goes like this:

Once upon a time there was a very evil man, who forced children to do horrible things in war. He needs to be (individually) brought to justice, and you can be one of the heroes of this grassroots movement to save Ugandan children.

Despite its wide appeal, this story has drawn much valid criticism. The issue, from the narrative standpoint, is that while well-told and engaging, the story itself is flawed. There is truth in it — the crimes are very real and horrible, and putting Kony on trial in the international criminal court could be one part of a strategy to address the use of child soldiers in war. But there are a few issues:

I don’t know what exactly the best narrative would be, as an outsider to the conflict. But I do know that it would need to be created by those who actually experienced the war. This debate reminds me of a number of questions we should ask ourselves as we develop the narratives that drive our organizing efforts:

  1. Does this narrative explain the real core problem being addressed?
  2. Does the solution it offers address that core problem?
  3. Does it include the most important actors?
  4. Are those most directly affected by the issue presented as active agents rather than just victims?
  5. Does it feel authentic to those experiencing the situation first hand?
  6. Does it draw on other, problematic or oppressive narratives in our culture?

There is power in the well-told, media-savvy narrative of social change, but without deep reflection, there are plenty of pitfalls along the way.

Book Review: Re:Imagining Change

Re:Imagining Change
How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world.
by Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning
Oakland, CA: PM Press

Human beings make sense of the world through stories. The narratives we as individuals construct about our lives — based on our experiences — tell us who we are, where we came from, and how we came to be this way. The myths societies produce tell us who we are collectively, how we should relate to one another, and what constraints and possibilities we face. Just as we see faces in all kinds of unexpected places, we see stories everywhere. And numerous industries in our modern world are dedicated to story production: from movies, theater, and television, to advertising, journalism, motivational speaking, and political campaigning.

Just as stories can aid understanding, they can also inhibit it. Just as they can open our eyes, they can blind us. So stories are inextricably linked to power. They make up what John Gaventa (1980) calls the “third dimension” of power — the power to create meaning, to shape what can be thought about and what is inconceivable. Some stories are told so often that they become “common sense” or “the way things are.” Such stories, or dominant narratives, maintain the current power structure and imply that it is “natural” or “right.” But these stories are constantly being contested by counter narratives, alternative stories that challenge these common sense notions of truth.

To some extent the importance of story is common knowledge in the world of social change. Sharing personal stories of struggle or empowerment is central to organizing — first in personal conversation, and later in the public sphere. But though many know stories are powerful, few have taken it as far, or gone as deep, as SmartMeme, a San Francisco-based movement-building organization that offers training and consulting on how progressive organizations can use “story-based approaches” that “amplify the impact of grassroots organizing and challenge the underlying assumptions that shape the status quo.” In Re:Imagining Change: How to use story-based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world, SmartMeme co-directors Patrick Reinsborough & Doyle Canning outline the theory and practice behind the organization’s work. They describe how organizations can disrupt dominant narratives and shift discourses in ways that facilitate change.

After a brief introduction, the authors walk readers through the process of narrative power analysis, in which participants deconstruct the dominant stories, or control mythologies, that under-gird oppressive systems. Next they explore the battle of the story — creating and disseminating counter narratives based on the truths of those marginalized by mainstream discourse. The central tool used in communicating these narratives is the meme. A term first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and made popular by viral on-line media, memes are the smallest unit of culture: “self-replicating units of cultural information that spread virally…with a life of their own” (p. 32). Next the authors map out what they call points of intervention, the specific moments and spaces — both physical and discursive — where the new story can be inserted. Finally, the authors offer four case studies of campaigns that used a story-based strategy.

Throughout this step-by-step guide, Canning and Reinsborough introduce key concepts on which they base their ideas, coining a number of terms along the way. But they do not claim to have invented story-based strategy. Rather they see it as something that has emerged — and will continue to develop — through on-the-ground organizing practice, both by them and by others. They also are purposeful in clarifying that story-based strategy is not the totality of organizing, or even the most important part; it is not a replacement for the more traditional work of relationship building, mobilizing, etc. But they do make a strong and compelling argument that this aspect of political change is under-appreciated, or at least underutilized, and that movements for social justice could benefit from more intentionality around the stories we tell, and how we tell them.

Canning and Reinsborough are obviously very interested in their book being widely accessible. While a book on political strategy will never quite read as easily as a Dan Brown novel, Re:Imagining Change succeeds in being eminently readable. Considering how complicated and dense questions of cultural narratives can be (If you’ve ever given reading Foucault a shot, you’ll know what I mean) this is a remarkable achievement — paired with a huge amount of useful information packed into an non-intimidating 118 pages. Though the occasional chart can get a bit overcomplicated, the authors do something that many social scientists and political writers should pay close attention to: they clearly define every one of their terms. They even have a glossary, but everything was so well explained that I never needed to use it.

One core assumption that underlies the book’s argument is that story-based strategies are effective in helping to bring about social change. As an artist and writer I personally am on board, and the fact that the authors are able to pull examples from decades of activism to illustrate their ideas implies that the collective, hard-won knowledge of activists and organizers supports this assumption as well. Still, there were moments in the book where this assumption was stretched.

For instance, one action highlighted was Earth First’s banner that looked like an enormous crack in the Glen Canyon Dam. This, the authors argue, was meant to challenge the dominant narrative of dams as permanent and immovable. In the next paragraph they say that, twenty-five years later, this narrative has shifted and dams are seen as something one can remove. The implication is that this “iconic action” helped to make that happen, but is that true? How much did it, and similar story-based techniques, really have an effect — compared to other aspects of anti-dam campaigns?

Certainly these are difficult, if not impossible, questions to fully answer, and I say this not to put down the argument — which I think is sound — but because this could be a useful area for further exploration. When an organization is trying to decide where to put its limited resources in a campaign, how much should go to this kind of work? And perhaps more importantly, how can one gauge the effectiveness of such framing actions afterwards? Where do we look for evidence that our stories took hold and really changed the discussion?

Almost immediately upon reading Re:Imagining Change, I found myself using it. An organizing campaign sprung up at the Harvard School of Education, which sought to challenge the school around how it addressed (or didn’t) issues of race, community, and organizing in education (among other things). We had many different takes on the campaign, and a real tough time coming up with a clear message. But as the person in charge of our online media work, and making buttons (since I had the button maker), I desperately needed a clear name or short statement of who we were. I needed a meme. After a number of conversations with my partner, and a lot of emailing, I picked up Re:Imagining Change and skimmed through it again looking for advice. Two pieces popped out at me. The first was the concept of a meta-verb, a single verb that summarizes the logic of a campaign. The second was the idea of repurposing popular narratives.

These concepts inspired me immediately, and the result was a new slogan and name combined: Reform the Ed School. The verb “reform” very much captured the kind of systemic change we were looking for, but perhaps more importantly it took a popular discourse at the school — we were constantly talking about reforming schools — and turned it back on itself. After all, who at the ed school could argue against “school reform?”

I offer this example not because it’s that great of an illustration. It is a mediocre meme in a very small campaign (though I was pretty proud of it). I offer it to give what I think is one of the greatest compliments you can give to a book like this: While playing with very big ideas, it remains relevant to the day-to-day work of organizing. It is usable knowledge, and it will change your work for the better.

Gaventa, J. (1980). Power and powerlessness: Quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian valley. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.