This post covers the second half of my recent interview with Ebony Golden, CEO of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative (BDAC) in New York City. Ebony has helped to design and implement the curriculum for the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Institute at the Highlander Research and Education Center, so she is at the center of defining cultural organizing at this moment in history, particularly for the US South. I took advantage of the opportunity to get deep into what cultural organizing is all about, beginning by asking how she explains cultural organizing to students at the Institute.
For as many organizations as I’ve worked with there are as many definitions of cultural organizing. At Highlander we teach that cultural organizing is the strategic use of art and culture to shift policies and practices negatively impacting marginalized communities.
It would be great if you could break that down. What do you mean by strategic? What do you mean by “using” art and culture?
We have developed what we call the “cultural organizing triad,” the three components that a cultural organizing effort needs if it is to be sustained and community accountable. If you draw it as a triangle, the base of the triangle is wellness and transformation, the left side of the triangle is the strategic use of art and culture, and the right side of the triangle is policies and practices.
If we understand that the base of the triad is wellness and transformation, that means that we understand that any movement for liberation, any movement for progressive social change, cannot happen if the people aren’t well. When the people are well, the people can vision and make what they want to see in the world. This is huge. It means that we have to start from this place of: What is wholeness? What is health? And what does it mean to have a vision? Because you can’t change a policy or a law without a vision that is bigger than the oppression. Right now I and some others are looking at the role of meditation, conflict resolution, food justice, environmental justice, spiritual practice, and all of those things that sustain culture and sustain community.
In terms of arts and culture, we are talking about the ways in which we shift culture, and the ways that we use culture to shift other things. Cultural organizing is not just about having a poetry reading about the war in Afghanistan to educate people. We have to give folks a strategy to use outside of coming to a poetry reading. So, back to applied poetics, what are some aspects of the process of writing the program, or of developing a community event, that can be applied to the strategy? The art is not just the product, it’s the process, and the process is embedded in the strategy to get people to talk to each other. That’s how art becomes a strategy.
The third piece of the triad is around using arts and culture strategically to shift policies and practices that are negatively impacting marginalized people. Coming out of the Highlander School, we are talking about political change, voting laws, environmental justice. Highlander is responsible for working regionally across the south and helping organizers and activists to figure out how to resist and how to change things politically, on the local or national level. But the legacy of Highlander is that you can’t build a campaign if you don’t attend to culture. It’s just not possible.
And it’s not just about going in one direction. Culture is immersive, its not uni-directional. We can’t just go from here to here then to here. We change policies and practices with art and culture, but at the same time our culture is impacted by our wellness, our culture is impacted by these policies. The cultural organizer has to to figure out, “Where do I jump into this mix?”
So, you see this as a big-picture effort? One group might address politics, another might do work around wellness?
Yeah, but it’s not really that clean. Cultural organizing is becoming very professionalized, it is being funded, and so it is becoming necessary to have a language to describe how to do it: what is the blueprint? But culture is not as clean as the definitions make it sound. Some people think cultural organizing is about the campaign. It’s not. It’s about the people. It’s about building infrastructure and community networks so if there is a need for a campaign then you’re able to mobilize and activate. But the is that we’re not it crisis mode or fight mode or campaign mode; we are in community mode. For example, the Laundromat project is not launching a political campaign, but they are embedded in this practice of building communities so that when folks walk down the street or go to the Laundromat they are not strangers, they are neighbors.
Why is there a need to distinguish a distinct practice called cultural organizing, as opposed to, say, promoting more cultural practice within community organizing?
Cultural organizing is a buzzword, like “social practice” or “community-based arts.” The actual doing of the thing is much older than the words that describe it. When I go into communities in rural Tennessee, rural Mississippi, even places in the Bronx, nobody on the ground uses the term cultural organizing — unless they are funded by several of the major cultural organizing funders in the country. Funding agencies oftentimes drive the language and the conversation for non-profit arts and cultural organizations.
Cultural organizing is about thinking strategically about all of the cultural practices that make up a community, and being able to activate those as the campaign. Cultural organizing is not necessarily related to making art, because culture is bigger than art. For example, I worked with this one community, and I wanted to write a play with them. But they didn’t want a play. They needed me to help them figure out the most effective way to get information out through their own cultural practices. So I helped them plan a festival. Arts and cultural institutions have to think more broadly than art, in order to really work locally. Or if they do want to do just art then they can’t just say “we have great theater so we are going to put theater there.” That’s actually oppressive. They have to really think strategically about, “What are practices that are really going to facilitate some kind of change in a local community?
In the communities I come from, these things have always been a part of the way we’ve organized. There is no effort in my communities that does not involve culture, that does not involve healing, that does not involve food, that does not involve attending to the whole person. This idea that organizing happens in meetings and workshops and conventions and conferences it is very antithetical to where I come from. I’ve been in some rooms recently where there are more business marketing people, more “strategic planners,” more urban designers and architects than organizers and artists. And there are no people from the community in the room. It is big business. With one of the efforts I am working with in Brooklyn, the only reason I am on the team is to help remind people that we need to stay grounded in community and the needs of the community. That’s what I’m there for.