Social Media

Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob

A little over a year ago I reviewed a book on this site called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Since then, the book — edited by Andrew Boyd (of Billionaires for Bush) and Dave Oswald Mitchell — has grown into an expanding, interactive website filled with resources for the creative activist. Recently I had the opportunity to contribute a chapter to the site and it has just been released. I am excited to share with you all my piece, looking at the cultural work of the Idle No More movement for indigenous sovereignty. The text of the case study is below, but for the full BT experience, head over to read the piece on the Beautiful Trouble website. Enjoy!

In October of 2012, the Canadian government introduced Omnibus Budget Bill C-45, which significantly eroded Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections. Indigenous communities immediately voiced concerns. In Saskatchewan, four women — three Indigenous and one non-native — launched a teach-in and website in order to raise awareness about the issue. They dubbed their effort Idle No More.

By December, the “Idle No More” movement was in full swing. Rallies were being held across Canada and internationally; the hash tag #idlenomore was trending on Twitter; and Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence was on hunger strike seeking a meeting with the Canadian government. The movement had quickly broadened to encompass a collective demand for governments worldwide to “honor Indigenous sovereignty and to protect the land and water,” as the group’s website declared.

It was in this context that a group of organizers put out a call to action on Facebook asking “Aboriginal people, non-Aboriginal people, Metís, youth, and anyone willing to dance/sing/drum with us” to meet at the Cornwall Centre shopping mall in Regina, Saskatchewan. At 7:00pm on December 17, Aboriginal activists gathered at the mall and began beating out a steady rhythm on hand drums and singing. Others soon emerged from the holiday shopping crowd to join hands around the mall’s massive Christmas tree, circling clockwise in a traditional Indigenous round dance. By the end, an intergenerational and interracial group of over 500 people had gathered on two floors to take part in the action. Mall security and city police arrived, but the flash mob remained entirely peaceful before melting away.

While the flash mob itself lasted less than 15 minutes, videos and articles about it circulated widely on the Internet. Another round dance took place the following day in the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta. These actions captured the imagination of others in the movement, and dozens of round dance flash mobs began popping up in malls and public spaces across Canada and the United States. On December 29, over 1,000 people gathered for a round dance protest at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Round dances, often used as a form of celebration and as an expression of friendship and unity, are practiced in different forms by many Indigenous nations in North America. Along with many other aspects of Indigenous culture, the round dance was suppressed in the process of colonization, but it has recently reemerged as a celebratory practice, and recorded round dance music has become increasingly popular. The round dance flash mobs, then, represented both a powerful expression of resistance and a practice of cultural regeneration.

Round dance flash mobs became a strong enough presence in the Idle No More movement for some to begin referring to it as the “round dance revolution.” Organizers had hit upon a way to combine social media and flash mobs — both highly popular forms of activism among young people — with traditional music and dance in a way that bridged generations and cultures, creating space for building a sense of community. The round dances symbolized the movement’s core tenets of peace and unity, while sending the simple message: “We are here, our culture is strong, and we will not be silent in the face of destruction.”

Why it worked

The round dance flash mobs addressed multiple movement goals at the same time. To opponents, they demonstrated the grassroots power and the continuing strength of Indigenous nations. For Indigenous participants and viewers, they promoted cultural pride and connection. For newcomers, they offered a welcoming and easy opportunity for involvement. And for the movement as a whole, they served as a powerful visual symbol. The flash mobs carried the resonance of tradition and ceremony, while also being fun, loud, entertaining, and contagious.

Key Tactic at work

Flash mob

Flash mobs are unrehearsed public actions that can be easily replicated while maintaining a sense of coordination. In this case, Idle No More organizers found synergy between the flash mob and the round dance, itself an improvisational performance that invites observers to join in. Quickly planned and carried out, these events helped drive the rapid spread of the movement in a way that more rehearsed and controlled performances would not have been able to do.

Key Principle at work

Use the power of ritual

The Idle No More round dances served as collective rituals with deep symbolic resonance. They made it easy for people from many backgrounds to “fall into the rhythm” of the action; they offered participants a direct experience of unity and solidarity; and they spoke viscerally to the strength and vitality of Indigenous cultures.

Use your cultural assets

Opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, mass media in particular. To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths — their stories, symbols, arts, rituals, shared knowledge, and ways of being together. Using these cultural assets can strengthen participants while pushing opponents outside their comfort zones. The Idle No More flash mobs drew effectively on the cultural wealth of Indigenous communities such as traditional music and dance, as well as the social media practices of younger generations.

Photo Credit: Drummers for a Round Dance flash mob held at the Eaton Centre shopping mall in Toronto, December 30, 2012. Photo by Kevin Konnyu.

Am I Worth It? Crowdsourcing and Critical Pedagogy

by guest blogger Dalitso Ruwe.

“Look at the weak and cry, pray one day you’ll be strong
Fighting for your rights, even when you’re wrong
And hope that at least one of you sing about me when I’m gone
I am worth it?”
— Kenderick Lamar

The existential question posed by Kenderick Lamar in the song “Sing About Me,” off his album good kid m.A.A.d city, aptly depicts the states of terror that shape the subjectivity of today’s youth. While critics may be prompted to dismiss his anecdotes as part of Hip Hop’s phantasmagoria, contextualized they excavate the growing nexus of violence that dominate the lives of youth. The State terror that drove Aaron Schwartz to commit suicide; the domestic violence that killed Kasandra Perkins; the communal violence that killed Trayvon Martin and fatally wounded Malala Yousufzai; have all become commonplace.

Education is not the sole key to addressing this public crisis, yet educators must help reclaim the public by affirming with youth that life is worth living. Pedagogy must wrestle with the fact that the worth of youth often vacillates between being targeted as consumers and being seen as a disposable population fit for the prison industrial complex. Critical pedagogy, as postulated by world-renowned educator Paulo Freire, helped us understand the need for renewed societal values by showing how racism, sexism, and economical exploitation shaped the experience of youth through the lens of popular media in the 80’s. Feminists building on critical pedagogy illuminated the complex ways that power and violence function in the nuclear family and heterosexual relationships. Yet the buck stops there. Critical pedagogy has become confined in academic camps because we lack the language and values necessary to address the states of terror that have escalated into youth-on-youth violence.

As we move into a more technologically-integrated society, the pressing question is how to elevate youth concomitantly through social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube. The first task in answering this question is to challenge the notion that the youth are aloof and normalized to the violence in their midst. If we look closely at these social media hangouts, cultivated by the idea of crowdsourcing. we find that youth are driven by two goals: the need to share information, and the need to be content creators. Our next task, then, is to engage them in transforming their ingenuity and passion to share and create content into a social praxis that revisions the modern world. Blueprints have been offered. The revolutionary maneuvers of youth in North Africa have been realized through Twitter as a cabal for strategy. The Occupy movement illustrated how we can create webs of inclusion in a leaderless movement, and introduced the public speaking platform known as mic check. These ideas engender a generational attitude capsulated in crowdsourcing as a way of being.

Crowdsourcing, however, isn’t the Marxist dream of a classless society. The
carnage youth face in the streets makes us culpable for failing to create effective institutions that integrate youth into society. If the future belongs to the youth, we must engage them by transforming the ideas of identity management on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram into community management by asking them to help share and create ideals we can live by.


Dalitso Ruwe is a research assistant for the upcoming publication Kanye West: Philosophy and the Tragic Image.

Drop the I-Word: From Paint to Pixels

67 Sueños mural, by Pancho Pescador in collaboration with the Community Rejuvenation Project, San Francisco

In honor of the recent International Workers Day (May Day) celebrations, I write today about immigrant justice. While May Day’s long history is centered around workers rights more broadly, our workforce has always been made up of a large number of recent immigrants — particularly in the most exploitative jobs. And it was the immigrant rights movement that revitalized the holiday in the US in 2006 with its strike, “A Day Without Immigrants.”

The struggle for immigrant justice is of course a political one. But it is also cultural. It is about changing the way we think about immigrants, and the stories we tell. Despite being a nation founded on immigration from Europe and the genocide of native peoples, the dominant narrative today is of dangerous, unlawful, and above all “illegal” immigrants coming to take what is rightfully “ours.” We have moved from talking about “illegal immigration” to talking about “illegal immigrants” — a small but important shift in subject. In the process, the word “illegal” has become more than a judicial term; it has become a racial epithet, and shorthand for this dominant — and false — story.

Mark Vallen’s Original 1988 Poster

But a counter-story has emerged, finding its most condensed form in the powerful slogan “No Human Being Is Illegal.” While I’m not sure where the phrase originally emerged, it seems to have been popularized by a particular piece of art. The poster, seen to the right, was used in 1988 as part of a campaign by the Central American Resource Center in LA, fighting for the rights of Central American war refugees. It features a stirring image by artist Mark Vallen. In 2010 the poster was republished, to support the current fight for immigrant rights.

The phrase has spread like wildfire, serving as a call for humanization across the world. It has spawned murals, t-shirts, posters, graffitti, and more.

Oakland Poster

Bronx Mural by DASIC


The most recent iteration of this struggle is the Drop the I-Word campaign. An effort that started with paint and posters is now taking advantage of social media and digital video. Launched by the Applied Research Center and its (excellent) website Colorlines, the Drop the I-Word campaign calls on media outlets, as well as other organizations and individuals, to pledge to stop using the term “illegal” to refer to people. As they state on their site:

Use of the i-word ignores the fact that our laws are unjustly applied. Immigrants without documents are regularly hired as cheap, exploited labor. No one else who benefits from the set up, including the employers who recruit and hire these migrants, is labeled this way. No one should ever be labeled this way. No human being is illegal.

So in honor of May Day, or just because it is a Thursday and it feels right, pledge to drop the i-word. Absolutely no human being is illegal.

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.