Youth Organizing

Education for Liberation through Art and Culture

I’m excited to announce an open, national conference call on education for liberation through art and culture, which I am working on with the Arts & Democracy Project. We will have some excellent speakers from across the country. Info is below. Join us if you can on Thursday, February 6 at 3PM EST, 12PM PST. CLICK HERE TO RSVP AND GET CALL-IN INFO.

Education for Liberation through Art and Culture.

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
–    Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Amid the clamor of standardized tests, school privatization, and punitive accountability, we can lose sight of one of the most enduring purposes of education: freedom. Education for liberation is about understanding and addressing oppression in all its forms. It is a creative process, rooted in an appreciation of the rich cultural wealth of marginalized communities. It involves collaboratively reimagining our relationship with the world through dialogue and action.

Some of the most innovative forms of liberatory education are embedded in visual arts, literature, history, music, theater, and other artistic and cultural traditions. But as the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona makes clear, the right to liberatory education is something that must continually be fought for.

This conference call brings together representatives of three groups committed to supporting liberatory educational practices through engagement with culture and the arts. They will explore the possibilities and challenges of practicing – and fighting for – culturally relevant, creative, liberating educational opportunities for young people.

Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) is a community-based organization whose mission is to build a progressive and sustainable Long Beach community that works for gender, racial and economic justice led by Southeast Asian young women.
Save Ethnic Studies / Xican@ Institute for Teaching & Organizing in Arizona is an organized effort of social justice educators to challenge racist laws banning Mexican American and Ethnic studies programs in Tucson Unified School District, and across the state.
Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past, History, Organizing, and Power) is a Boston-based organization that trains young artists as cultural organizers who can address pressing social justice issues in their communities.

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.


Youth Organizing and Transformation

Videos are now available from the recent Community Organizing and School Reform conference at the Harvard Ed School. The quality of the video isn’t great, but the speakers are fabulous. Below is a video of the panel on how youth organizing supports young people in developing and transforming. It features young leaders/organizers from Sistas and Brothas United in the Bronx, the Baltimore Algebra Project, and the United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, MA. They’re joined by Shawn Ginwright, whose excellent book Black Youth Rising has been reviewed on this site.

This conference panel highlights the individual and collective transformation experienced by young adults engaged in organizing — from civic empowerment and consciousness raising, to healing and community building. Panelists share both the outcomes of organizing for young people, as well as the processes by which youth-led organizing groups foster individual and group transformation.

Chair: Meredith Mira, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Dahiana Laucer, Youth Leader, Sistas and Brothas United
Bryant Muldrew, Education Organizer, Baltimore Algebra Project
Shawn Ginwright, Associate Professor of Education, San Francisco State University
Carline Kirksey, United Teen Equality Center, Lowell

Profile: Khmer Girls in Action

Khmer Girls on the March

Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) empowers young Southeast Asian women with an eye towards individual, political, and cultural transformation.

KGA began its life in 1997 as HOPE for girls, an empowerment-based reproductive health program for young Cambodian (or Khmer) women in Long Beach, CA — the location of the largest Cambodian community in the US. A sexual harassment campaign, sparked by a comment from a school teacher towards on of HOPE’s members, launched the group into the world of organizing. Eventually KGA split off from its parent organization, Asian Pacific islanders for Reproductive Health (APIRH).

Having widened their focus beyond health to include many issues faced by young Southeast Asian women (and now men, with the introduction of the Young Men’s Empowerment Program), KGA combines leadership development, political education, community organizing, and arts and media work to create “gender and culture specific approaches to youth organizing.” In addition to reproductive health, KGA has tackled issues such as police harassment, and making sure Cambodians are fully counted in the 2010 census. Last year they worked with the UCLA Datacenter to survey over 500 Khmer youth about their experiences. The results, which have been written up in a visually creative report, highlight issues of (more…)

Book Review: Black Youth Rising

In Black Youth Rising: Activism and Radical Healing in Urban America, activist, academic, and educator Shawn Ginwright offers an in-depth ethnography of Leadership Excellence, the Oakland-based organization he co-founded in 1989. With a mission to “educate African-American Youth for personal and social change,” LE’s leadership development model is embedded in principles of afrocentricity, community, well-being, and collective action towards social justice.

Ginwright uses this book to put forward the concept of radical healing, drawing on his direct experiences as an activist and educator as well as often separate fields of study, such as youth organizing and public health. For Ginwright, radical healing comprises a process of building strong relationships, developing a healthy racial identity, and raising political consciousness in a way that pushes young people towards action to confront systemic issues in their own neighborhoods. It is a matter of healing not just from individual trauma, but from the collective trauma of current and historic oppression. In this framework action is healing, and healing is an act of resistance.

The strength of this book — and the work it describes — lies in part in the attention it pays to identity and culture, which is not always the case in the world of leadership development. Culture is cited as one of the four pillars of the Black community that support this healing process. By “culture,” Ginwright refers to both a historically grounded Black/African identity, and modern urban black youth culture, both of which he sees as being rich resources for radical healing. This focus on culture as healing manifests itself in the LE programs in part through sharing stories, rituals that draw youth into historical experiences, and hip-hop performance.

Ginwright very explicitly appreciates and draws on the power of cultural expression — art, ritual, storytelling — as a form of radical healing, with deep roots in Black history. He sees it as vital for young people to develop, in the words of Robin Kelly, a “radical imagination.” However, cultural expression is not an overriding aspect of his work. I believe this is a rich area for further development. Arts educators and cultural organizers could benefit from the radical healing framework, and could do much to develop new methods and take it in new directions. Radical healing sits at the intersection of some of the keys strengths of the arts: cultural expression has often served as a process of individual and collective healing; many forms of art and ritual are centered on building relationships and community; and both political education and political action have often been intertwined with the arts.

At a time when our efforts towards justice can often become fragmented, radical healing keeps our focus on the systemic, the communal, and the internal levels of social change — and offers a potent tool for the cultural organizer’s conceptual toolbelt.

For more on the book, check out this fabulous review by my colleague Thomas Nikundiwe, in the Harvard Educational Review.