Use Your Cultural Assets — A Principle of Creative Activism

Today I’m excited to share with you the second piece I have written for Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, a book-turned-website with tons of great resources for creative activists. This was an excellent exercise for me, because it forced me to take the ideas about culture that I’ve been exploring here and in my other work, and boil it down to some key pieces of advice. The full text is below, but for the full, interactive experience read it on the Beautiful Trouble website

“Never go outside the experience of your people. . . . Wherever possible go outside the experience of the enemy.”

— Saul Alinsky

Principle In Sum: By drawing on the cultural assets of the community, organizers can deepen the involvement of participants, disorient opponents, and shift the cultural terrain in their favor.

Radical social change groups can rarely compete with their opponents in terms of financial resources or institutional power. Instead, they must draw on what they do have: passionate, committed people willing to take action. The same is true in the cultural arena: opponents of social change efforts often have powerful cultural tools at their disposal, from dominant paradigms and frames to control of mass media (see THEORY: Cultural hegemony). To combat this, groups working for justice must recognize and build upon their own cultural strengths.

 All communities develop shared cultures — stories, symbols, art forms, knowledge, norms, and practices that hold the community together and shape its identity. These cultures offer rich resources for action, whether it’s youth organizers performing hip-hop street theater; Japanese-American activists repurposing traditional Taiko drumming; or Harry Potter fans drawing on the narratives of Rowling’s books to address an array of social justice issues (see CASE: Harry Potter Alliance).

If social change efforts are to be led by those most affected by injustice (see PRINCIPLE: Take leadership from the most impacted), then this principle calls for a particular focus on the cultural strengths of marginalized communities, or what researcher Tara Yosso calls “community cultural wealth.” In the face of ongoing oppression, communities develop many ways of strengthening themselves and resisting domination. They hone storytelling and communication skills, share counter-stories that challenge dominant narratives, create new art forms, and develop practices of mutual support. Many of the most powerful social change efforts, from the African-American civil rights movement in the US to the environmental justice movements throughout the world, have relied heavily on the cultural wealth of participating communities.

When communities draw on their own cultural assets to carry out actions, they strengthen their own membership while simultaneously disorienting and discomfiting opponents. They are playing by their own rules rather than accepting the existing terms of engagement. By inserting their own stories, perspectives, and practices into the broader dialogue, they are not just operating within, but actively shifting the cultural terrain (see PRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain).

Culturally specific practices can serve as a statement of cultural pride, and can strengthen collective identity. When the Idle No More protests spread across Canada and the United States beginning in 2012, organizers utilized Indigenous music, dance, and language as a way to assert the power and continued relevance of Indigenous culture (see CASE: Idle No More and the Round Dance Flash Mob). Utilizing shared cultural assets can also help to draw in others who are not yet onside politically, but who relate culturally. For example, given hip hop’s worldwide cache with young people, many see it as an effective tool for organizing across racial, ethnic, and national lines.

Potential Pitfalls

Exclusion: When drawing on culturally specific practices, there is always a risk of alienating not just opponents, but also people you would like to welcome into your effort. Then again, this is true of any cultural practice: protest marches, press conferences, sit-ins, and other organizing staples all energize some folks while making others feel excluded (see THEORY: Political identity paradox and PRINCIPLE: Make new folks welcome). If exclusion is an issue, it can be moderated by adapting or combining practices from different cultural communities; educating allies on the meaning of the practices; or carefully selecting practices that are welcoming. For example, the freedom songs of the African-American civil rights movement combined Black spirituals and white folk music as a way to assist in organizing across racial lines.

Appropriation: Organizers must also be aware of the dangers of simplification and appropriation. Cultures are complex and dynamic, with blurry boundaries and lots of internal diversity. They cannot be reduced to a small set of symbols or art forms. Those who are not directly involved in a cultural community may have a particularly difficult time understanding this complexity. Beware of appropriating aspects of a culture you do not fully appreciate or understand, no matter how pure your intentions.