“Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Political transformation must be accompanied not just by spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but by an explosion of mass creativity.”
Imagination — the ability to envision what is not before us, to look beyond the surfaces of things — is an essential piece of any effort toward political and social change. The capacity to imagine how things could be different allows us to question the way they are. The ability to imagine how other people feel makes empathy possible, allowing for caring and solidarity. The capacity to envision a better world gives us the hope we need to keep struggling in this one. And social change is an inherently creative act. In seeking to change society, we must craft not only new policies and laws, but also new ways of being with one another. Through sampling, remixing, and invention, we must produce new symbols, mold new identities, and piece together new kinds of communities.
Imagination and creativity are at the heart of artistic practice, and artists have often put these capacities to work in pursuit of political and social change. When we look at the major progressive social movements of the last century — the settlement houses, the African American civil rights movement, the anti-Apartheid struggle, the Arab Spring — we see groundswells of music, dance, visual art, poetry, storytelling, digital media, theater, film, and creative protest. Artists, whether in collaboration with other political actors or simply inspired by the changing times, use their art to recruit people into the movement, to reframe how we understand ourselves and the world, and to help us envision new possibilities.
In doing so, these artists practice a form of cultural work that scholars and activists increasingly see as important to the success of social movements. Such movements are as cultural as they are political, seeking not only to change laws and policies, but also the way people think and act. As organizer and author Rinku Sen writes, “You gotta work the culture if you wanna change the politics. To win on workers issues, immigrant rights, prison issues over the long term, we have to change the way society sees workers, immigrants and prisoners” (para. 3). Just as a movement needs political organizers, it also needs cultural organizers: individuals and groups who can catalyze our imaginations and guide our creative potential.
CulturalOrganizing.org is an effort to explore this vital relationship between social change and culture. The blog is centered around the concept of cultural organizing — a form of social change work that explicitly places art and culture at the center its strategy. However, the blog reaches far beyond the borders of cultural organizing to explores the interconnected worlds of art, culture, design, activism, organizing, education, and social movements. It offers interviews, book reviews, opinion, news, and more.
I hope this site can serve as a resource for practitioners and researchers working in these hybrid worlds of art, culture, and organizing. I think of this site as a slowly growing “literature review,” or survey of the models, ideas, practices, and people in the field. Each time I profile an organization or interview someone, each time I force myself to take ideas and put them into words, I end up learning so much. I also hope that this can facilitate new connections and dialogue. Certainly it has already helped me to connect with a number of wonderful people, some of whom have been so kind as to give interviews for the site.
So please explore the site, and I hope you find it useful. And if you are so inclined, join the conversation, or get in touch with resources you would like to share.
Paul Kuttner is an educator, organizer, and scholar, interested in community-based and culturally-rooted approaches to education and social change. Paul is currently working at University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) at the University of Utah, where he builds university-community partnerships that promote educational equity, access, and justice, and produce valuable knowledge that advances scholarship.
Paul is a co-author of A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform (Oxford, 2011), and a co-editor of Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline (HER, 2012). He is a contributor to Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, a board member at the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, and the “Minister of Cultural Scholarship” for the US Department of Arts and Culture. Paul received his doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, prior to which he worked as a community-based teaching artist in organizations and schools across Chicago. To find more of Paul’s writing visit https://utah.academia.edu/PaulKuttner