Paul Kuttner

Beautiful Trouble takes on the “Trumpocalypse”

Are you drowning in think pieces about what Trump’s election means for the left? How about a little practical advice from our favorite troublemakers.

With Trump preparing to take over the White House, activists and organizers are scrambling to prepare themselves for the inevitable fights ahead. Getting out ahead of Trump will require struggling on multiple fronts at once, engaging in diverse organizing strategies, and thinking beyond common, predictable modes of protest.

Of course, this is the approach that the minds behind Beautiful Trouble, Beautiful Solutions, and Beautiful Rising have been promoting for years. Rather than laying out a single organizing strategy, these sites offer interconnected webs of tactics, stories, principles, and theories shared by activists around the world. Together, these modules serve as “toolboxes” for radical change, and can be combined in numerous ways to respond to different issues and local contexts.

Not long after the election, Andrew Boyd and Dave Mitchell, the original editors of the Beautiful Trouble book, turned on the B(A)T signal. They called on contributing editors to curate a Beautiful Trouble toolbox for the Trump era, selecting and summarizing modules with particular relevance to this moment in time. The result is Trouble Vs. Trump, an ongoing series that will be posted at the Beautiful Trouble Blog. I’ve included a few below to whet your appetite. Click HERE to read the first set of six modules, with much more to come.


 

TROUBLE VS. TRUMP

Insights from Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Rising for the era of Trump.

As our movements gear up to face down the looming Trumpocalypse, here are 10 modules from the Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Rising toolboxes that may prove useful.

By Rae Abileah, Nadine Bloch, Andrew Boyd, Paul Kuttner, Dave Mitchell

We have a lot more leverage than we might realizeTHEORY: Points of Intervention

In sum: Points of intervention are specific places in a system where a targeted action can effectively interrupt the functioning of power and open the way to change. 

If we are going to mobilize people to effectively resist the Trump agenda, we must pick our battles wisely, and recognize where we can intervene to have the greatest leverage. It’s worth

considering five different types of points: production, consumption, destruction, decision, and assumption. For example, ongoing boycotts and targeted phone-jams of Trump’s business empire are applying economic pressure at the point of consumption. Trump’s threat to deport millions of undocumented Americans is being forcefully resisted by rebel cities and a new Sanctuary Movement that will challenge migrants’ criminalization at the point of assumption and potentially, through mass direct action at airports, train and bus stations, at the point of destruction. Strikes and other point-of-production actions have historically been used to resist terrible presidencies. Yes, the Presidency is a powerful office, but there are many, many other points of decision at which we can intervene and win victories: remember how during the dark days of the Reagan Presidency, ACT-UP brought the fight for justice for people with AIDS directly to drug companies and the FDA.

—AB

 

Guerillas in Trump-LandPRINCIPLE: Know your cultural terrain

In sum: The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know your terrain and use it to your advantage. This holds true whether you are fighting in an actual jungle or in the metaphoric wasteland of mass culture.

Trump did not reach the White House by offering a coherent economic policy or political platform. Rather, he made a cultural appeal to voters discontented with the direction they saw the country going. We need to understand this cultural wave that helped lift Trump to the presidency if we are going to counter his administration’s policies and divert some of this discontent toward more progressive ends.

A significant part of Trump’s campaign was based in white identity politics. He stoked racial fears while offering a nostalgic vision of a time when the privileges of white Christian men went unchallenged. This aspect of Trump culture is toxic, and must be countered at every turn. Other aspects of Trump’s appeal, however, resonate with the concerns of many on the left and can be built upon to support radical politics. Trump effectively played on people’s utter disgust with a “rigged” two-party system that is elitist, out of touch, and in thrall to undemocratic interests. He spoke to a feeling that the economy has left many, many people out even as it has “recovered.” These appeals may seem a bit absurd, given Trump’s own elite background and support for Wall Street over main street, but they offer potential leverage points for holding Trump accountable and crafting effective cultural strategies. Every time he nominates an establishment politician, or gives a tax break to the wealthy, there is a crack in his narrative we can exploit.

A word of caution: We shouldn’t overestimate the strength of Trump’s narrative — he did, after all, lose the popular vote amid very low turnout. We also shouldn’t simplify the story, for example painting Trump voters with a broad brush as poor and working class whites. Much of Trump’s support came from traditional Republican strongholds (read: wealthy white people). Still, Trump’s discourse during the election has shaped the cultural terrain that he is about to step into, and that terrain, while largely hostile, has some pitfalls we should be taking advantage of.

—PK

 

Now more than ever, we've got to take care of one another

PRINCIPLE: Seek safety in support networks

In sum: When activists are threatened, it’s important to harness national or international networks that can provide support and deter violence.

As the large numbers of women and minorities signing up for self-defence classes since the election testifies, many people are taking the threat of Trump very seriously. The threat of violence against activists, both directly from the State and indirectly from individuals and groups emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric, has escalated greatly in the last year and may continue to rise.

To counter this threat, we must reach out to and support one another: report threats we’ve received, reach out to others who have been targeted by threats, disrupt and defuse bullying or harassment when we see it, form networks of support, share skills and resources, and call on organizations that can assist: the Southern Poverty Law CenterNational Lawyers GuildACLU, the Anti-Fascist Network, and the Sanctuary City and Sanctuary Campus campaigns, to name a few.

Now is the time to move from impartial observer to ally to solidarity actor, to risk privilege and favor, to take a stand, to show up the way asked to. As Barbara Kingsolver writes, “There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud.”

—DM

 

Read More…

Take a Stand for Cultural Democracy

USDAC launches Cultural Policy & Action Platform

At November’s Culture/SHIFT conference in St. Louis, some of my fellow cabinet members at the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) took the stage. They were there to mark the launch a national “policy and action” platform we’ve been working on, titled Standing for Cultural Democracy. The platform outlines a ten-point framework for promoting arts, equity, and the universal right to cultural participation.

Policy and Action Platform CoverIt couldn’t have come at a more important time. The campaign that elevated Donald Trump to the presidency was fueled in large part by a discourse of cultural supremacy. Trump communicated a vision of the US as a monoculture — a white, Christian country where “good” immigrants and Muslims and People of Color might live and work, but where they will never be fully “American.” The success of this strategy has emboldened white supremacists and has fostered a climate of uncertainty and fear for those that fall outside of this narrow nationalist vision.

Standing for Cultural Democracy, offers an antidote to Trump’s America. It is rooted in a vision of a pluralistic, participatory nation, where our multicultural makeup is exactly what makes us “great.” It proposes major investments in art and cultural work as a strategy for address pressing injustices in our country, whether that be gentrification, educational inequity, or the horrors of the prison system. More broadly, it promotes a shift in our national culture toward “equity, empathy, and belonging.”

HELP MAKE THIS PLATFORM A REALITY

  1. Download the Summary or the Full Platform.
  2. Endorse the policy and action platform
  3. Apply for a USDAC Lab Microgrant
  4. Take action in your community today!

The idea of cultural democracy is an important one to have in the national consciousness right now. First developed in the early 20th century, cultural democracy proposes a kind of multiculturalism in which there is no hierarchy, no center, no “high” or “dominant” culture. Its goal is pluralism rather than assimilation. It promotes not just inclusion but participation. It goes beyond tokenism to ensure that people of all cultural backgrounds have the resources and access they need to effectively participate in and co-create our national cultural fabric.

Cultural democracy has always stood as a bulwark against racist and nationalistic ideologies like those put forward by Trump and some of his supporters. As Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard write:

“Cultural democracy…was first espoused in the 1910’s and 1920’s by progressive thinkers such as Horace Kallen and W.E.B. DuBois. They advocated cultural pluralism in the face of widespread assertions of white superiority and nativist calls to delimit a single, true American culture, embodied most frighteningly in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and other manifestations of xenophobic violence…Racist articulations of monoculture and liberal ideas of the “melting pot” both work against cultural democracy’s vision of a culture that accepts and respects diversity as a strength to be preserved rather than a problem to be resolved. As was the case in the early decades of the Twentieth Century, cultural democracy has always been an insurgent idea, pushing against dominant values, never gaining the ascendancy, but persisting because its essential truth resonates with the lived experience of people who refuse to be dismissed or “melted” down.”

The USDAC was founded on the principle of cultural democracy. One of its goals is to guide cultural policy in the US, from the grassroots up. So, over the last two years the USDAC has been involved in a massive, national participatory research project involving thousands of people at hundreds of local arts actions around the country. You can read about the findings of this work in the USDAC report, An Act of Collective ImaginationNow, Standing for Cultural Democracy synthesizes these findings into ten recommendations, along with concrete strategies, examples, and tools. These recommendations include:

  • Adopt a “cultural impact study,” requiring developers to research the potential negative impacts of new development on the cultural resources and fabric of a community.
  • Reform the culture of punishment that has led to our current status as “Incarceration Nation.”
  • Implement a “rapid artistic response” system to address the cultural harm of natural and human-made disasters.
  • And more…

Parts of the platform will require state- and national-level engagement. Progress will surely be slow, particularly in this political climate (though no less important for that). Others can be implemented today, right in your neighborhood, community, or city. So stop reading this blog and start reading the report. Check out the tools. Endorse it today. And then, let’s get started.

We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever

On Tuesday night, while I was half-watching MSNBC, I kept one eye on Twitter. As the outcome of the election became clear, the rise in emotion was palpable. People were processing the result in so many different ways: in tweets of mourning, in calls to action, in blame and recriminations, in critical analysis, in “I told you so’s,” and in silence. I certainly had no idea what to write.

Since then, a lot of thoughtful things have been said about the election. My inbox is full of essays by progressives and activists of all stripes exploring what this means, what went wrong, and what comes next. I don’t have any ground-shattering wisdom to add. But I do want to take a moment to share some thoughts, as I look at this election through the lens of cultural organizing. These are things I’ve learned from the amazing artists, cultural workers, and organizers I’ve had the honor to connect with. I find some comfort and direction in them. More than anything, I offer this essay with love and gratitude to all of you.

1. We need creativity and imagination as much as (or more than) ever

Among the many dynamics at play this election season was a failure of political imagination. Liberal politicians could not fully grasp the levels of anger and frustration coursing through the nation. Meanwhile, conservative politicians fell back on fear and hate, when hope is what was needed. But while imagination at the highest levels of power may be stunted, it continues to thrive in communities across the country where artists, cultural workers, organizers, and so many others are imagining and crafting new possibilities. We will need all of our combined creativity in the coming months and years in order to push back hate and make room for transformation.

2. We are more than just red and blue states

Every four years we are forced to channel all our hopes, fears, values, and dreams into an either-or choice between two people. We are then given a map covered in red and blue, and fed a story about “two Americas.” This is a deficient narrative that does little to explain the complexity of our country, and even less to guide us forward. There are certainly many divides in our country, which were brought into stark relief during this campaign. But to address them we will have to put aside this single story, and get back to telling the multiplicity of true stories that capture who we really are.

3. The cultural shifts of the past decade are still underway

The country that elected Trump is the same country that elected Obama. We enter into this new era with a powerful movement proclaiming the value of Black lives, an increasingly diverse and politicized pop culture sphere, a large cohort of young immigrant rights leaders with skills honed in recent struggles, and a plethora of new voices amplified through creative use of social media. I don’t believe, as some have said, that the “whitelash” we saw in this election is necessarily the “last gasp” of the old order. Whiteness surely has more tricks up its sleeve. But the strength of the backlash should signal to us how strong the forward movement has been.


I don’t share these thoughts to deny anyone their anger or sadness, to say “it’s going to be fine.” There are dark times ahead, and many fights coming. If you need to mourn, mourn. If you need to organize, organize. This is where my mind goes as I try to sort through all my thoughts and feelings. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Sharing our stories is a necessary first step toward healing and change.

In solidarity,

CulturalOrganizing.org

 

 

Map image from Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan

How do you visualize a world you haven’t yet seen?

Earlier this year, I did some graphics work for the Family Leadership Design Collaborative (FLDC), a group whose mission is to radically re-imagine family engagement in schools and other institutions. It turned out to be one of the toughest design challenges I’ve faced.

In this post, I want to share a bit of that design process with you. The back-and-forth that the process inspired — with me offering draft images and them giving critiques — was fascinating on its own. But more than that, this project exemplified some of the tensions I’ve struggled with over the years creating visual communications for social justice groups.

One of these recurring tensions has to do with the use of symbols. Infographics and other visualizations often rely on simple, widely-recognizable symbols to communicate ideas. We know instantly that a paintbrush means art, a graduation cap means education, and two tall figures and two short figures means family. These symbols serve as visual shorthands, allowing images to be comprehended quickly, and by a broad audience.

A social justice perspective, however, values diversity and inclusiveness. There is no one kind of family, no one educational path, and to simplify these ideas into universal symbols is to marginalize those who deviate from that single image. In addition, social justice is often about imagining how the world could be. That can be hard to do using symbols that are based on the world as it is — particularly if you’re not totally sure what the future you are fighting for will look like. But the farther you stray from the dominant culture’s symbols, the less you can assume that viewers will immediately recognize your meaning.

These are not insolvable dilemmas. Many artists are navigating them creatively. Here’s a story of one of my attempts. I hope it offers some useful insights; I certainly learned a lot. And since I recently critiqued another person’s visualization, it’s only fair that I share some of the critiques I’ve received — all of which, ultimately, have led to better designs.

The Job

Ann Ishimaru, a professor at the University of Washington, approached me with the job. She and her colleague Megan Bang had received funding from the Kellogg Foundation to bring together a group of nationally-recognized community organizers, educators, and researchers from around the country for a two-day meeting. The topic under discussion was family engagement — the practice of supporting families as leaders, advocates, and collaborators in schools and communities.

Ann, Megan, and their colleagues were not content with the current state of “best practices” in family engagement. Their goal was to to develop “next practices” — approaches that go beyond what we’re doing now to what is possible tomorrow. They wanted to center racial justice and the voices of “nondominant” groups, with the ultimate goal of “family and community wellbeing and educational justice.” Ann wanted to capture all this in an image to share at the meeting.

Clearly no small task.

We began with a couple different concepts. One was Tupac Shakur’s metaphor of “the rose that grew from concrete,” which is about the strength and beauty of people who learn to thrive despite facing significant life challenges. Ann wanted to expand the metaphor to explore what was happening below the surface of the concrete, as well as the broader ecology around the rose.

Another concept was root systems. The root systems of plants are often much more extensive than you’d expect, just as there is much going on beneath the surface in marginalized communities that goes unrecognized by outsiders. As a starting point, Ann shared with me the image below, showing a fungus that that attaches to plant roots. She liked the way the tendrils were interconnected through nodes, which suggested ideas about human interconnectedness and networks.

Mycorrhizosphere graphic

After some back and forth, I drafted the image below. I carefully selected flowers from different climates around the country to communicate the diversity of the gathered group. I also used flowers at different stages of growth, to symbolize inter-generational collaboration. The urban landscape signified the broader ecology within which family engagement took place, as well as the large, often inaccessible institutions that families had to navigate. Linked root systems signified networks of mutual support, and a rootedness in shared history and culture.

flowers-v4web

The image sparked some great discussion at the meeting. Basically, they didn’t like it. Perhaps the loudest critique was about the lack of people in the image. Family engagement and leadership, they said, is about human beings, and that needs to be clear. Another critique was that the use of flowers made it seem like the image was about the environment. A third critique was that family leadership isn’t just about breaking through racism and oppression (the concrete), but also about building something new. Ann summarized it this way:

“The roots of schools as we know them are stunted and problematic from the get-go. They are rooted in oppression, in colonization, in assimilation and the stealing of land. How do we reconstruct something entirely different — not a school building, per se, but a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities and then builds from there…the process of growing or cultivating that somehow helps communities to heal, to be well, to build solidarities, to envision themselves into the future.”

planet-sketchwebIn conversation with Ann and Jondou Chen, the project director, I began to sketch out a new image that showed people with roots in the ground. The people had tools in their hands, to symbolize the building of new types of institutions. But Ann and I agreed that it was getting a bit too “we are the world,” and losing any indication of oppression and struggle.

At this point I realized I needed to shift my design approach. Simple stick figures could never capture the full humanity of people, or the complexity of family leadership across all the different groups involved. What if I used actual photographs? This idea led to the image below, based on Ann’s description of “a system of education that starts from the roots and strengths and cultural practices of different communities.” What would such an education system look like? (I used photos from an older project on community organizing for these early drafts, so thank you to all the groups featured!).

treessolid2web

Ann and Jondou liked the photos. However, they said the root system looked like a honeycomb. Also, they really didn’t like the top part. It was immediately clear, when they looked at the image, that the idea of a new institution as the end-goal wasn’t right. (I wasn’t thrilled with it myself, since it ended up looking like a cathedral, which is culturally specific and has its own baggage). Having an idea rejected like this can be frustrating, but over the years I’ve realized that this is one of the more helpful services visualizations can offer. By having their words reflected back to them as an image, they were able to clarify what they did not mean, and the dialogue moved forward in a better direction.

After some more conversation, I merged the ideas from my last two designs and came up with the graphic below. I moved the images of family leadership work into the leaves, rather than the roots. This suggested that people in communities around the country were already carrying out “next” practices, that the future goal was already here within today’s struggle. The multi-colored soils were meant to represent the diverse cultural and historical roots that fed this work. (At one point I tried to put historical images of family leadership and activism among the roots, but it got WAY too busy.)

peopletree-colorweb

Ann, Jondou, and their colleagues really liked the new direction, but had a few concerns:

  • The image came across as too individualistic. Each person was on their own, rather than connected to larger families or communities. As an alternative, they suggested multiple figures in groups, with arms/branches connected.
  • The landscape, at least to some, read as literally urban (rather than as a metaphor for unwelcoming institutions). They worried this was not inclusive of groups working in rural areas.
  • They wanted more age diversity among the figures, because so much of the work was intergenerational.

After a few more rounds of back-and-forth, we landed on the image below. In the end a wall, rather than a city, was used to symbolize the barriers faced by families. I drew inclusive, diverse groups of connected people, which purposefully did not read as traditional nuclear families. To be sure, it not the kind of graphic whose meaning is immediately clear to a viewer. Rather, it invites exploration, explanation, and discussion. It is as much about the feeling of the work as about the idea of the work.

Though it took a long time, and many re-drawings, ultimately the critiques greatly improved the design. In addition, the design process helped Ann and her colleagues clarify their own mission, goals, and values. Now the FLDC is running collaborative research projects in communities around the country, and I’ve been told that one group used the image to guide their discussions. They asked participants to describe how race and class have shaped their own histories (the roots); to write their hopes and dreams for their children, schools, and communities on cut-out leaves; and to use white note cards as “walls” to represent the barriers and challenges to realizing those hopes and dreams.

All around, a success, though I wouldn’t be surprised if we continued to adapt it going forward.

tree-image-vectors-v3-web

The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using

[NOTE: November 1, 2016. This post has been updated based on the new things I’ve learned about these images since posting the original article.]

I was doing some work for a colleague at the Family Leadership Design Collaborative, and she gave me a challenge: redesign the “equity vs. equality” graphic that’s been circulating on the web. You’ve probably come across a version of this graphic yourself. There are a bunch of iterations, but basically it shows three people trying to watch a baseball game over the top of a fence. The people are different heights, so the shorter ones have a harder time seeing. I’ve included the original image above, by Craig Froehle.

In the first of two images, all three people have one crate to stand on. In other words, there is “equality,” because everyone has the same number of crates. While this is helpful for the middle-height person, it is not enough for the shortest and superfluous for the tallest. In contrast, in the second image there is “equity” — each person has the number of crates they need to fully enjoy the game.

The distinction between equity and equality is an important one. For example, if we’re talking about school funding, advocating for equality would mean ensuring that all schools had the same amount of resources per pupil (an improvement in most cases, to be sure). On the other hand, advocating for equity would mean recognizing that some schools — like those serving students in low-income Communities of Color — will actually need more resources (funding, experienced teachers, relevant curriculum, etc.) if we are going to make a dent in the educational disparities that have come to be known as the “achievement gap.”

The problem with the graphic has to do with where the initial inequity is located. In the graphic, some people need more support to see over the fence because they are shorter, an issue inherent to the people themselves. That’s fine if we’re talking about height, but if this is supposed to be a metaphor for other inequities, it becomes problematic. For instance, if we return to the school funding example, this image implies that students in low-income Communities of Color and other marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable. They (or their families, or their communities) are metaphorically “shorter” and need more support. But that is not why the so-called “achievement gap” exists. As many have argued, it should actually be termed the “opportunity gap” because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are afforded. It is rooted in a history of oppression, from colonization and slavery to “separate but equal” and redlining. It is sustained by systemic racism and the country’s ever-growing economic inequality.

This metaphor is actually a great example of deficit thinking — an ideology that blames victims of oppression for their own situation. As with this image, deficit thinking makes systemic forms of racism and oppression invisible. Other images, like the one of  different animals having to climb a tree, or of people picking fruit, suffer from the same problem. How would we make these root causes more visible in our “equity vs. equality” image?

Well, if we began with the metaphor of the fence, this would require making clear that the reason some people have more difficulty seeing than others is not because of their height, but because of the context around them. Below is a sketch of this idea. In this image, some people are standing on lower ground (a metaphor for historical oppression) and are trying to see over a higher fence, a metaphor for present-day systems of oppression. (I also put a hole in the fence, made by the person on the right, to symbolize the creative and often subversive ways that people find to work around systems and get some of what they need.)

equalityequity

However, I still don’t love this new version, because nothing is being done here to address the real problem: the fence. So I drew this third image for fun. Though by this point it’s losing a lot of the original images nice simplicity.

justice2

iisc_equalityequityIf you want to play around with this metaphor yourself, check out the 4th Box toolkit. Recently, the people at the Center for Story-Based Strategy and the Interaction Institute for Social Change worked with artist Angus Maguire to recreate the fence image, producing the beautiful version to the right. It went viral, and they noticed a lot of people remixing the image to expand on the concepts. So they collaborated with Maguire again to create an adaptable visual toolbox, which makes it easy to create your own image in the “4th box” as shown below. They’ve been using it to inspire both in-person and online dialogues.

the4thpanel_kit

I still see a lot of drawbacks to the core metaphor, however, so I’ve been on the lookout for others. One I’ve heard, which I think works better, references runners on a racetrack. On an oval track, the outer lanes are actually longer than the inner lanes. If everyone started at the same place, some would have to run farther than others. So, naturally, we start runners at different places along the track. Here’s a mock-up of this metaphor, though it assumes that you already know about the different lengths of each lane:

track

Beyond this, I haven’t had any major breakthroughs, and the idea of life as a “race” isn’t very appealing to me. Fortunately, I was not the only one trying to figure this out. Meyer Memorial Trust and Northwest Health Foundation had similar concerns, so they launched the Equity Illustrated contest, asking Oregonian artists to take up the challenge.

First place winner Salomé Chimuku rejected the simple metaphoric approach all together, noting that “equity isn’t about watching baseball.” Instead she offers a series of cartoon portraits of friends, with quotes from each illustrating a different aspect of equity. The result has the quality of a conversation. Here’s a sample. You can download the whole pdf HERE.

 

salomepdf-4

 

The third place illustration, from Matt Kinshella, is also pretty great. It keeps the simplicity of the fence image, but puts aside the baseball metaphor for a more concrete example — one close to my heart as someone invested in community work.

matt-2

It may seem that I am reading too much into these images. Certainly they were all created with the best of intentions. But metaphors are important. They help us understand new ideas by referencing things we already know. At the same time, they shape our experience, opening us up to some ideas while closing us off to others. The mental shorthand we use to understand “equity” will affect how we go about fighting for it.

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, I’ll end with this image from Sam Killermann, which I find pretty amusing, and which you can buy in poster or t-shirt form.

equity-vs-equality-poster-18x24-small

 

Daring to Imagine: An Interview with Arlene Goldbard

If you’re active in the world of community-based arts, you probably know Arlene Goldbard. She has been at the forefront of cultural policy in the US for decades, and is the author of New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, the go-to overview for the field of community-based arts. More recently, she published a pair of books titled The Culture of Possibility and The Wave, outlining an emerging paradigm shift in the way we think about culture. These days Arlene is promoting just, equitable cultural policy as Chief Policy Wonk for the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), the country’s first “people-powered department.”

I had the opportunity to interview Arlene about her past, her ideas, and her plans for the USDAC. Our talk was fascinating: part tour through the history of arts activism and cultural policy, part critique of the mainstream art world, part hopeful vision for the future. Enjoy!

 

Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk, US Department of Arts & Culture

Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk, US Department of Arts & Culture

Maybe you could start off by talking a bit about your trajectory through the field of community arts and cultural policy.

I’m one of those people who always wanted to be an artist. When I was a little girl, drawing — entering the world of visual depiction — was an urgent necessity for me. It was the way that I created the world that I wanted to inhabit instead of the one that I lived in, which left a lot to be desired. I was a painter and a graphic designer, and until I was maybe 30 that was my primary mode of activism. I did a lot of posters and illustrations for movement organizations. I was involved primarily in the peace movement, but also did work for civil rights and human rights movements. That thing of using your skills as an artist to help various organizing campaigns — that’s where I started.

Then, in the mid ’70s, across the country there was a big upsurge in arts activism. Some of it was critical activism directed at arts institutions and funders. I was an organizer for the San Francisco Art Workers’ Coalition, and we did a lot of work bringing socially conscious artists together around issues of funding and representation and control of that city’s publicly supported arts institutions. There began to be quite a lot of organizing work in which artists took the lead, and weren’t just adjuncts to somebody else’s campaign. I think that a lot of us had the insight that the same social, economic, and power relations that we had been struggling with in other sectors were true of our sector as well.

I was doing a lot of work around the People’s Bicentennial — a huge alternative organizing effort that happened all across the country on the bicentennial of the American revolution — when the governor of California, Jerry Brown, completely wiped out the old California Arts Commission. He replaced it with the California Arts Council with cool people on it like Gary Snyder and Ruth Asawa and Peter Coyote. Peter, who was a friend of mine from San Francisco, invited me to come to Sacramento and set up a technical assistance and organizing program under that umbrella. It was called Cultural News Service. Much of it was practical support for artists like how do you do finances, how do you do planning, how do you have a public meeting, how do you disseminate your work. We had small grants program as well. Then that crashed and burned as a casualty of a conflict between state control agencies and Jerry Brown.

I moved on after a little while to a group called NAPNOC, the Neighborhood Arts Programs National Organizing Committee, which changed its name later to the Alliance for Cultural Democracy. It was a national network of community-based arts organizations started by Eric Reuther, whose family was so seminal to the organizing of the United Auto Workers. It was a time when a lot of public money was being invested in creating job programs, and CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, was created, a public service jobs program at the federal level. Some people had the bright idea of making those jobs available to artists doing community work, so Eric took advantage of that moment and his family’s roots in labor organizing and convened a meeting at a labor center in Black Lake Michigan. He got from the Department of Labor a rather large grant to set up several offices around the country and help people use the CETA money to employ artists in different ways. My then-partner Don Adams and I were asked to take over the national leadership of that.

It all coincided in a very unfortunate way with the election of Ronald Reagan, who ended these programs overnight. But we went to Washington and became national organizers for this movement. We didn’t invent the concept of cultural democracy; that has long roots. But we did a lot to popularize it, and we did a lot to bring people who were working at the grassroots level into a discussion about cultural policy, which hadn’t really been much of a topic.

We had supported all of this work that we were doing with consulting and research in the areas of cultural planning, organizational development, and cultural development. We came back to California and continued that, and I switched my personal interest from painting to writing. I’d given a lot of speeches and written a lot of articles, and always thought of them as being something on the side. And then I realized, “No. Words, that’s my medium.” During this time I co-wrote and published a book of essays called Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture.

New Creative Community Book CoverAround 2000 my partner and I got a series of contracts with the Rockefeller Foundation, including a commission to evaluate a community cultural development program called PACT: Partnerships Affirming Community Transformation. What they wanted was not just an evaluation. They wanted it to be contextualized in the history and values of the field. So we wrote a report, and then they published the contextualizing sections as Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development. Years later Rockefeller gave me back the rights and I revised that book and New Village published it as New Creative Community, which is probably the most used book I’ve written so far. It’s used as a text in many university courses.

That book was certainly how I was introduced to you, and when I think of the term “community cultural development” I think of you. I’m curious: Where did that term come from? Who introduced it to you? Was that the term that was used at the time?

No, it wasn’t. Mostly people said “community arts,” which was very confusing because all the local arts councils called themselves community arts too. About the time I went to the state Arts Council in Sacramento, I was introduced to UNESCO cultural policy studies, and it was like a whole world opening up. I remember reading the new cultural policy for Sweden for the first time and thinking, “Oh my god, there’s a totally different way to look at this.” So “community cultural development” was more in use in Europe and elsewhere abroad.

We decided to use it because everything else was weak or too specific. We also wanted to make a distinction (even though it’s somewhat problematic) between people who are making art in conventional modes around social issues, and people for whom the first-person embodied experience of making culture is the organizing technique. We wanted to distinguish community cultural development from people who didn’t have a commitment to collaboration, mutuality of leadership, social justice, and participation. But it’s bad. They’re all bad. There isn’t a single good term to describe it all.

“Social practice” seems to be winning the fight now for nomenclature triumph. It really pisses me off that that phrase has traction, just because it’s rooted in established arts institutions like museums and art schools and so therefore has had a much better distribution system, much better branding. I agree with Rick Lowe when he says that social practice is the gentrification of community arts. It’s a largely White phenomenon, and the people who practice it are seldom actually rooted in the communities they’re working with or co-directing the projects with people who are rooted in those communities. While there are some social practice people who are good on all those scores, there’s a large number who are deploying the methods of community arts but not the values, not the liberatory social justice reasons to deploy the methods — and without acknowledging where they come from.

Book Covers for The Culture of Possibility and The WaveIn your recent book, The Culture of Possibility, you talk about how you shifted from researching and working with community arts groups to a new role as public spokesperson for the field. Could you tell me about how that transition took place?

Part of it was a personal thing. I realized that writing is my instrument, that’s what I want to do. I’m asked to do public speaking a lot, which I love, and its always a really interesting challenge for me to try to say something that helps people break open whatever their embedded assumptions are and see freshly. It also had to do with the fact that I felt I could take the emotional and political risks of saying things that are sometimes hard for people who have something to protect. For example, many of the projects I’ve done over the years have had to do with racial justice and it’s always been really important to me to stand up and speak as powerfully as I can about racial justice. As you know, that’s a task that is often left to People of Color as if it was their problem, but obviously White supremacy is our problem. So I don’t know if I’m a spokesperson for anyone else, but when I talk about cultural democracy and community cultural development, I know I have a lot of experiences having people come up to me and say, “OK, now I have the language to understand the impact of what I’m doing.” That makes me feel amazing.

In The Culture of Possibility and The Wave, you write about a new moment, a Zeitgeist, in which people are coming to realize the importance of culture. It’s one of the most hopeful books I’ve read in a while. Where did this idea come from?

People always tell me I’m optimistic. I always rejected that because I thought optimistic meant I know how the story will end and that it will have a happy ending. And, of course, I don’t have the vaguest idea how the story will end. But then I came to the understanding that to be optimistic means you see possibility. And that’s hard-wired into my character. I came from a really challenging background, and in many ways I see myself as a self-made person. So the desire to make whatever you can out of the broken pieces you were given is in my DNA somehow. It seems intrinsic to what Abraham Joshua Heschel has called the “moral grandeur” of the human subject.

People like the National Endowment for the Arts keep complaining that we’re not selling as many tickets to the symphony, or what the major cultural institutions call the “greying of the audience.” Well, for those older Eurocentric forms something is changing. But in terms of the feeling that “I can make culture,” something is changing in the other direction. People are so engaged in making their own videos now, there’s all this participatory dance competition, this proliferation of community singing, this complete upsurge in hands-on crafts like knitting — what they call the informal arts.

There’s a widespread feeling that the way that the old order has organized the world is not working for us anymore. Everyone hates it. The question is whether people think its inevitable or whether there’s a possibility of changing it. So there’s a tiny little lever you can push to change everything, and the lever is to recognize that, no, this isn’t timeless. This isn’t eternal. This isn’t the real right way to do things. This is a historically grounded set of choices that has resulted in something that’s gone off the rails. And it’s not that hard to change.

Although you talk about the arts in your newer books, you’re main focus is culture. How would you summarize your key argument about culture?

For some time, culture has been a central arena in which we work out identity, we work out shared values, we find out how we feel about the important questions of the day. All of this is being communicated in films and videos people are making, in their music, their writing, in all the many ways that the digital universe has increased our capability for generating material. But for the people who are still stuck in the old paradigm, this is not visible. They think the real important stuff is happening somewhere else, in the movement of money and numbers and laws and regulations, the “hard stuff.” They’re not really giving what’s happening in the cultural realm its true meaning and value. And because of that they have a distorted understanding of where we are as a global civilization and what the possibilities are.

So if I had to make one point, the point I would want to make is: open your eyes, question your assumptions, look at what’s been going on in the place you are not looking. That’s why culture is so important to me. It is the right word, not art, to define that arena in which all these signs, symbols, codes, and other ways that we convey this kind of information is swirling around. If there was one thinker who has had the most influence on me it’s Paulo Freire. Freire writes that it is language that makes the world, and by speaking truth you become a subject of history instead of its object. For me it’s a straight shot to saying it’s culture, not just language, that makes the world.

What will it take to push forward this alternative way of looking at the world in terms of a real shift in priorities?

I’m not sure, but two different answers arise in my head. There’s this story in the Bible about how the children of Israel had to wander around for 40 years before they could enter the promised land. If somebody actually shows you a map of that part of the world you can see by the names where the area was, and it wasn’t any bigger than Chicago. It was like wandering around Chicago for 40 years. Why did they have to do that? What the Midrash—the oral story tradition around that—says is that the generations that were born into slavery had to die out before they could appreciate what it would be to live free. So when you say what will it take, I think one thing it’s going to take is time. The guardians of the old paradigm are mostly in older generations now, and that consciousness will literally die out, and the other consciousness will take its place. Because I don’t think you really make a paradigm shift happen. You stand aside, you try to give it a little nudge.

The other thing is that we really need a big public dialogue. A lot of people who don’t think of themselves as being into “art” have to start understanding what an important arena culture is for bringing about the future that we want. A project that you and I are both involved in, the U.S. Department of Arts & Culture (USDAC), has that an underlying goal. We are explicitly making a statement about the importance of culture, and we’re having some success at engaging people who aren’t artists themselves, so that feels encouraging.

Maybe you could say a few more words about the USDAC and how it fits into this paradigm shift.

The USDAC is structured to work on two different levels, and to have a constant flow of engagement and information between them. On one level, at the grassroots, we’ve been working with volunteer Cultural Agents creating “Imaginings” around the country — art-infused community dialogues that help people envisage their future say 20 years from now, and now we’re shifting to Regional Envoys, who organize in multi-state regions. And then we work on nation-wide community actions like USDAC Super PAC and the People’s State of the Union.

Then, on the national level, we have the USDAC National Cabinet, of which you are a member. The Cabinet’s role is to help transmute what we’ve learned in the aggregate at the grassroots level into elegant, accessible, hopefully viral proposals for policies and interventions, along with actions that can make these proposals real. Those propositions at the national level should give aid and comfort to the local level, where Cultural Agents and thousands of Citizen Artists can integrate them into their on-the-ground experience, and then send that experience back to the Cabinet, and so on. What we’re trying to do is community-envisioned, or crowd-sourced, cultural policy, which is a new paradigm for cultural policy. We think we can get some traction because, unlike abstract policy, which emerges from discourse among experts, this really relates to lived knowledge as much as to expert knowledge.

 

 

The Art of Restorative Questions

We live in a punitive culture. We are so used to punishment as the go-to solution for any behavior we want to change, that it can be difficult to imagine other options. A group of artists, organized by Project NIA, are here to help us.

When it comes to discipline and punishment, we seem to be reaching a tipping point. The number of people incarcerated in the US has become so outrageously large, that bi-partisan support (a rare thing these days) is building up behind criminal justice reform. People are (re)considering alternatives to incarceration, particularly for non-violent crimes. In schools, too, it has become clear that a largely punitive approach to dealing with behavior “problems” has only led to more problems. Schools hand out unconscionable numbers of suspensions and expulsions. This disproportionately harms low income Students of Color, exacerbates the large opportunity gaps that already exist, and fosters what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

In response, we have seen rapid growth of the restorative justice movement, which offers a radically different approach. Restorative justice asks that we make a paradigm shift in the way we think about “crime” and “misbehavior.” As Dr. Carolyn Boyes-Watson at the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University explains,

“Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Restorative justice seeks to build partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing within our communities. Restorative approaches seek a balanced approach to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community through processes that preserve the safety and dignity of all.”

Within this realm, practitioners have developed a wide range of “restorative practices” — such as victim-offender dialogues and peacemaking circles — often drawing on conflict resolution practices from indigenous societies around the world. But restorative justice cannot be reduced to a set of practices. It is a way of thinking about and approaching conflict. It requires a shift in how we relate to one another. It is about developing a restorative culture in our schools and communities.

If this seems daunting, a new arts-based campaign offers a simple, but powerful, starting point. The effort was catalyzed by Project NIA, an influential Chicago-based organization dedicated to “participatory community justice” (which encompasses restorative justice as well as more systemic approaches like transformative justice). Project NIA brought together a group of (mostly) Chicago artists to create restorative justice posters. These stunning posters feature “restorative questions,” drawn from the work of Margaret Thorsborne.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The posters, and the questions they pose, are deceptively simple. However, if we were to truly use these questions as our starting point to address crime, violence, and conflict, we would find ourselves veering far from the punitive path. To ask someone who has been harmed, “What is needed to make things right?” is to privilege healing over retribution.  To ask someone who has done harm, “Who do you think has been affected by what you did?,” is to assume that learning and growth are possible.

All posters are available for public download. Print out your favorites and hang them in your neighborhood. I’m definitely going to be putting some up in the schools I work with here in Salt Lake City, where restorative practices are just beginning to gain traction. If you take a photo of the posters you hang, you can share it with the project by emailing it to transformchi2013@gmail.com.

Shifting from punitive to restorative approaches to justice and discipline will take more than learning new practices. It will require what Jeff Chang calls a “collective leap of imagination.” Fortunately, catalyzing our imaginations is something many artists excel at. As it says on the restorative posters website, “Artists help us to imagine new worlds. Let’s keep imagining together.”

 

 

What’s Hip-Hop Got to Do with Education?

This post has been re-posted from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts blog, and was written by UMFA intern Courtney-Rae Reinecke. It reports on an event that I had the chance to work on with the museum, as well as many other partners, back in May. Enjoy!

“This ACME Session had such a block party vibe!” —ACME Session participant

“This ACME Session had such a block party vibe!” —ACME Session participant

Outside the Glendale Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library, break dancing erupted when DJ Dynamic started busting out the beats. Onlookers ate pizza and enjoyed the dancing and music, while artist Zach Franzoni from Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts prepped canvases for a collaborative graffiti session. As the crowd swelled (ultimately to some 200 people), so did the excitement for what this May 11 ACME Session hosted by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts—“What’s Hip Hop Got to Do with Education?”—had in store.

ACME (Art. Community. Museum. Education.) is the UMFA’s outreach initiative dedicated to rethinking the public role of the museum. These bimonthly ACME Sessions bring together Salt Lake City’s most creative, inventive, and cross-disciplinary minds—K–12 educators, artists, museum professionals, university faculty and students, engineers, scientists, technologists, activists, researchers, and others. May’s session was designed to demonstrate the value of hip-hop as a relevant educational vehicle.

acme_lab_may_2016_01-1

“Performing lyrical brain surgery so we can see new visions of our one world” —excerpt from Jarred Martinez and Saia Langi’s poem

Jarred Martinez and Saia Langi from Truth Cypher, a Salt Lake-based community of writers, storytellers, and spoken word artists, started the session with a poem. They talked about the importance of school but also how hip-hop can help teachers connect with their students in more meaningful ways.

Jorge Rojas, UMFA director of education and engagement, gave a bilingual rundown of the ACME initiative. Paul Kuttner, the University Neighborhood Partners’ Education Pathways Partnership manager, explained that this session was designed to recognize hip-hop culture’s approach to learning and how to use it to transform traditional schooling methods to better serve our diverse youth.

acme_lab_may_2016_21Kuttner turned the audience’s attention to a poster that explained the original four “elements” of hip-hop, each of which line up with a different kind of “intelligence,” as proposed by Harvard University professor Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences.

Keynote speaker Robert Unzueta, a hip-hop and social justice professor at the University of Utah, then jumped in to explain that hip-hop is both an art medium that gives voice to marginalized communities and also a venue for knowledge production. He taught participants that marginalized communities use hip-hop as tool to engage in critical dialogue and action against social injustices. After Unzueta read Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete,” participants split into four breakout sessions to deepen the conversation:

  • Graffiti Art—Visual-Spatial Intelligence led by Franzoni.
  • Hip-Hop Dance—Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence led by Josh Perkins and the BBoy Federation
  • Turntablism & Producing—Musical Intelligence led by Luis Lopez, then-program coordinator of Artes de Mexico en Utah
  • Emceeing/Poetry—Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence led by Martinez and Langi from Truth Cypher

These stations provided four different contexts in which to explore two specific questions: “How does learning, teaching, and social change happen through hip-hop?” and “How can hip-hop culture help us rethink and transform schooling?”

After two rounds in which all participants discussed both questions, everyone joined together in a cypher of chairs to conclude the evening. A hip-hop cypher is a space for dancers or emcees to create room for each other to have their time and then step back so someone else can have their time, a place for listening and building off what others have to say. In this cypher, participants explained what they did and what they learned, sparking a discussion among the educators, parents, and students who gathered. All expressed their wishes to integrate what they learned in the Acme Session into traditional schooling.

Because of the excitement triggered by this ACME Session’s enthusiastic turnout, session leaders proposed a follow-up meeting to maintain the momentum, from bringing together a larger “think tank” in the Salt Lake City area to creating workshops for educators and artists. Stay tuned for more upcoming events!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

P.S. Here’s a list of resources compiled by the session leaders that you can use to explore how to integrate hip-hop into your own curriculum and classrooms!

Books

Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation by Christopher Emdin

Hip-Hop Genius by Sam Seidel

Black Noise by Tricia Rose

Hip-Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang

Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education across the Curriculum, edited by Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer

The Organic Globalizer: Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture, edited by Christopher Malone and George Martinez

Black Noise by Tricia Rose

The Art of Critical Pedagogy by Jeffrey M Duncan Andrade

The Hip-Hop Reader by Tim Strode and Tim Wood

Holler If You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson

That’s The Joint Reader by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal

Organizations

#HipHopEd, a network co-created by hip-hop educator Christopher Emdin

B.Love, the website of hip-hop educator Bettina Love

Hip Hop Congress

High School For Recording Arts, an entire school focused around hip-hop and music production

The Good Life Organization, a Chicago-Based group that developed the “Fulfill the Dream” curriculum

Videos

Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation

Hip-Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education

Hip hop, grit, and academic success: Bettina Love at TEDxUGA

 

USDAC Statement on Syrian Refugee Crisis

Today I am reposting a statement from the US Department of Arts and Culture, calling on artists and creative activists to step up in this time of increased xenophobia, and to stand for empathy and justice. The image above is We Are Not Numbers, by Heba Al Akkad, part of a collection curated at the World Bank.

The USDAC calls on all artists and creative activists to use our gifts for compassion and justice, sharing images, performances, experiences, writings, and other works of art that raise awareness, build connection, cultivate empathy, and inspire us to welcome those who are forced from homes that are no longer safe.

More than four million Syrians have been driven from their homes, becoming refugees. Although state governors hold no power to bar entry to the U.S., a short time after the acts of terrorism that took lives in Beirut and Paris, more than half have issued statements rejecting Syrian refugees within their borders. Polls have shown that many Americans oppose accepting Syrian refugees. Poll results from the 1930s and 1940s showed majority opposition to accepting German child refugees and Jews; and from the 1970s majority opposition to the admission of refugees from Southeast Asia.

Once again, we must ask:

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?

As a culture of fear and isolation? Or as a culture that values every human life, extending love and compassion to newcomers needing refuge?

As a people-powered department, we honor the stories of those whose ancestors were brought here by force, those who sought refuge here, and those rooted on this land before others arrived. Together, we can choose to create a culture of belonging, welcoming new culture-bearers. Together, we can live up to the promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome….

We join together in affirming to all public officials and policymakers that a culture of fear and isolation cannot stand. We join together in applying our gifts to sustaining a culture of compassion and justice. We stand together with generations of creative activists in communities across the nation who have been envisioning and working toward a world of equity and belonging for all.

Signed by:

Maribel Alvarez, Minister of Public Sentiment, Tucson, AZ
Liliana Ashman, Story Hunter-Gatherer, New York, NY
Caron Atlas, Minister of Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts, Brooklyn, NY
Judy Baca, Minister of Sites of Public Memory, Venice, CA
Daniel Banks, Catalytic Agent, Santa Fe, NM
Jack Becker, Public Art Mobilizer, St. Paul, MN
Roberto Bedoya, Secretary of Belonging, Tucson, AZ
Ted Berger, Senior Policy Advisor, New York, NY
Ludovic Blain III, Chief Political Wonk, Berkeley, CA
Larry Bogad, Minister of Tactical Performance, Berkeley, CA
Eric Booth, Head Cheerleader for Teaching Artists, High Falls, NY
Amelia Brown, Minister of Emergency Arts, Minneapolis, MN
Sarah Browning, Minister of Poetry and Public Life, Washington, DC
Con Christesen, Cultural Agent, St. Louis, MO
Chrislene DeJean, Cultural Agent, Boston, MA
Maria De Leon, Minister of Inclusive Leadership Transformation, San Antonio, TX
Martha Diaz, Minister of HIp Hop Education, New York, NY
Jayeesha Dutta, Cultural Agent, New Orleans, LA
Dana Edell, Secretary of Creative Sparks, Brooklyn, NY
Hayden Gilbert, Cultural Agent, Cleveland, OH
Arlene Goldbard, Chief Policy Wonk, Lamy, NM
Beth Grossman, Cultural Agent, Brisbane, CA
Lynden Harris, Cultural Agent, Cedar Grove, NC
Mattice Haynes, Cultural Agent, Decatur, GA
Jon Henry, Cultural Agent, Harrisonburg, VA
Barry Hessenius, Minister of Nonprofit Arts Organizations, San Anselmo, CA
Bob Holman, Minister of Poetry and Language Protection, New York, NY
Adam Horowitz, Chief Instigator, Santa Fe, NM
Denise Johnson, Cultural Agent, Baltimore, MD
James Kass, Secretary of Belief in The Next Generation, San Francisco, CA
Paul Kuttner, Minister of Cultural Scholarship, Salt Lake City, UT
Dave Loewenstein, Cultural Agent, Lawrence, KS
Kate McNeely, Action Maestr@, New York, NY
Liz Maxwell, Chief Dot Connector, New York, NY
Angela Miles, Master of Swag, Philadelphia, PA
E. Ethelbert Miller, Minister of Sacred Words, Washington, DC
Jaléssa Mungin, Deputy Deputy, Philadelphia, PA
Meena Natarajan, Radical Equity Catalyst, Pangaea Division, Minneapolis, MN
Martha Richards, Senior Strategist for Women Artists, Berkeley, CA
Favianna Rodriguez, Secretary of Cultural Equity, Oakland, CA
Julianna Ross, Cultural Agent, Seattle, WA
Sebastian Ruth, Secretary of Music and Society, Providence, RI
Allison Schifani, Lead Initiative Investigator, Bureau of Speculative Acts & Technologies of Empathy, Cleveland, OH
Michael Schwartz, Cultural Agent, Tucson, AZ
Shirley Sneve, Tribal Liaison, Lincoln, NE
Jessica Solomon, Chief Weaver of Social Fabric, Baltimore, MD
Elizabeth Streb, Action Architect, New York, NY
Jack Tchen, Secretary of Curiosities, New York, NY
Julia Terry, Cultural Agent, Philadelphia, PA
Makani Themba, Minister of Revolutionary Imagination, Detroit, MI
Fabiola Torralba, Cultural Agent, San Antonio, TX
Ali Toxtli, Cultural Agent, Passaic, NJ
Carlton Turner, Minister of Creative Southern Strategies, Atlanta, GA
Mark Valdez, Minister of Ensemble Creativity, Los Angeles, CA
Veena Vasista, ArtReach Coordinator, Santa Fe, NM
Lily Yeh, Urban Alchemist, Philadelphia, PA
Betty Yu, Cultural Agent, Brooklyn, NY
Roseann Weiss, Cultural Agent, St. Louis, MO
Yolanda Wisher, Rhapsodist of Wherewithal, Philadelphia, PA
Steve Zeitlin, Minister for Art in Everyday Life, New York, NY

PARK(ing) Day 2015

Today is PARK(ing) Day, when metered parking spaces around the world are transformed into parks as part of a global challenge to rethink how we use public space. In honor of PARK(ing) day, I want to share a hot-off-the-presses case study from the people at Beautiful Trouble. For the full BT experience, visit http://beautifultrouble.org

 

Case Study: PARK(ing) Day

by

When: Began October 2005 and now occurs annually on the third Friday in September

Where: Originated in San Francisco, California, USA, and now practiced globally

Imagine you are walking down a busy city street. Cars zoom by, walkers navigate narrow and dirty sidewalks, and drivers vie for precious parking spots. Then you come upon a park. But this is not a typical city park. It is a mini-park, slightly longer than a car, nestled in a metered parking spot. You take a moment to sit down on its single bench. Perhaps you chat for a moment with another curious passerby. Or perhaps you simply think about the questions this little park raises, such as: Why is there so much space in our cities for vehicles and so little for public gathering? How might we redesign our urban spaces to make them more convivial and humane?

This concept — a park in a parking spot — was the brainchild of Rebar, a design studio working at the intersections of art and activism. It became the initial spark for PARK(ing) Day, a worldwide movement to challenge and repurpose urban space by temporarily transforming metered parking spaces into public parks. The first PARK was erected in downtown San Francisco in October 2005. Rebar filled the meter with coins and thus effectively rented a seven by twenty-two foot curbside parking space in downtown San Francisco. They rolled out sod, added a potted tree, put out a bench, and created a temporary park for several hours.

The PARK capitalized on San Francisco’s legal code, which did not specifically state that parking spaces be limited to use by private vehicles. Co-organizer Blaine Merker described this performance installation as a “creative repurposing of familiar elements to produce new meaning,” using principles such as creative adaptation, absurdity, innovation, and beautification to change the way we think about metered parking spots and urban space more generally.[1] No longer just places to park automobiles, PARK(ing) spots become rentable public spaces, “temporarily expanding the public realm and improving the quality of urban human habitat, at least until the meter ran out,” as Rebar’s website put it.

Following the initial installation, a picture of the PARK in San Francisco was quickly disseminated through various electronic media. It became what’s known as a “sticky” idea (see The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath). After seeing the circulated image, people from all over the world contacted Rebar to find out how to stage a similar event. In response, Rebar chose the third Friday in September as “PARK(ing) Day” and, starting the following year, encouraged people to make their own playful and transformative PARK(ing) performances. PARK(ing) Day adopted a creative commons license and encouraged an open source ethic, so long as participants limited their events to the specified day and followed a few simple guidelines. PARK(ing) Day has thus become an international movement reaching hundreds of cities across the world. The initial PARK has become a meme that can be adapted to local situations, and used to raise awareness about a variety of issues facing urban residents.

The PARK(ing) Day movement has also resulted in more permanent changes in urban space. Several cities have created permitting processes for the creation of enduring “parklets.” For example, a parklet on 9th Avenue between Irving and Judah Streets in San Francisco’s inner sunset neighborhood provides several benches so passersby and patrons of nearby bakeries and shops can stop, take a rest, and question how we use urban space.

Why it worked

PARK(ing) Day works because it enacts or prefigures what it professes (see TACTIC: Prefigurative intervention). Instead of just talking about how urban space could be organized differently, PARK(ing) Day lets us experience a living example. It plays on the word “park” to perform a temporary disruption of the usual meaning of parking spaces (and the automobile-centric use of much urban space), instead highlighting the second meaning of park in an engaging and memorable way. If someone encounters a PARK, she can’t avoid noticing it. Even if she sees one of the thousands of photos of PARKs that circulate online it can potentially change forever how she sees “parking” spaces, while opening the door for her to rethink public space in general.

Key Tactic at work

Prefigurative intervention

PARK(ing) Day doesn’t just complain about or protest car culture, it offers the public a positive, participatory way to experience a more human-scale and convivial use of public space, prefiguring the positive change it seeks to bring about. Who knows what exciting initiatives might come about thanks to the efforts of par(k)ticipants inspired and excited by all the ways a parking space could be put to use!

Détournement/Culture jamming

Although détournement is most often used to describe the playful hacking of mass media, it can also be used to alter the meaning of a particular space or place. PARK(ing) installations subvert the normal use and understanding of parking spaces, and with the help of a pun on the double-meaning of “park,” suggest that every parking spot is just a PARK waiting to happen.

Key Principle at work

Don’t dress like a protester

In its PARK(ing) Day manual, PARK(ing) Day warns potential participants, “Remember, you are not protesting.” Importantly, they encourage participants to build temporary open spaces in which any passerby will be welcome to take part. Even though PARKs radically repurpose urban space, they do so by offering a fun, welcoming, and legal opportunity for everyone to participate.

Enable, don’t command

PARK(ing) Day is an open-source movement that calls on participants to adapt the form however they see fit, in keeping with the event’s creative commons license. The PARK(ing) Day website provides participants with tools to achieve their own vision as opposed to telling them what a PARK should be.

Reframe

PARK(ing) Day uses temporary parks as a way to reframe conversations about the use of public space. PARKs call our attention to the dominant frame of a car-centered mode of urban design and allow participants to envision alternative frames.


Danielle Endres is a professor of rhetoric and argumentation at the University of Utah. Her teaching and research examines discourse (verbal and nonverbal), persuasion (rational and irrational), activism, and social movements. Her research investigates climate change activism, Native American activism, and environmental justice. When not performing her day job, Danielle spends the majority of her time trying to encourage radical thinking and an expanded sense of the possible in her two young kids.

 

  1. Blaine Merker, “Taking Place: Rebar’s Absurd Tactics in Generous Urbanism,” in Insurgent Public Space: DIY Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, ed. Jeffrey Hou (Florence, KY: Routledge, 2010), 51.