Social Movements

Black Symbols Matter

The one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder has many of us looking back in wonder at the powerful social movement that has coalesced over the past three years. Neither police violence in Black communities nor resistance to that violence are new. But something new has emerged: a new focus for anger and despair, a new source of critical hope, a new catalyst for social imagination and creativity. There are surely many reasons that a movement has developed at this particular moment. The wide availability of cameras on phones has been a key factor. But another factor has certainly been the skill with which organizers have deployed symbols, hashtags, chants, metaphors, and images in order to communicate — quickly and powerfully — the underlying values and goals of the movement.

Every social movement develops a cache of symbols. These symbols give coherence to dispersed grassroots efforts. They tap into our emotions and encourage us to learn more. We use them to mark our collective identity and to capture the attention of media outlets, with their famously short attention spans. Sometimes, these symbols and the meaning they carry can be the most long-lasting effects of a social movement — just think about the raised fist symbol that came out of the Black Liberation struggles of the 1960s, and its continuing importance. In the timeline below, I chart the evolution and spread of the Black Lives Matter movement’s symbolic repertoire, beginning with the protests following Trayvon Martin’s death. I could never capture them all, of course, so please be in touch to add some that are meaningful to you.

Interview with Ebony Noelle Golden Part 2

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?

Ebony Golden

Ebony Golden teaching the cultural organizing triad

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.

“Any movement for liberation, any movement for progressive social change, cannot happen if the people aren’t well.”

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.

“We’re not it crisis mode or fight mode or campaign mode; we are in community mode.”

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.

For Part 1 of this interview, Click HERE

Rituals of Social Change

Can rituals — with all their focus on continuity and tradition — be a force for social change?

Last week, about fifteen family members and friends gathered in a small chapel in Detroit for my grandfather’s funeral. The dais was decorated with white flowers and photographs of Papa Joe at various points in his 93 years — a young navy man in a bomber jacket, an excited groom, a proud father with his three girls, the grandfatherly face I remember best. The funeral was a catholic mass, complete with responsive readings, bible verses, and communion. Then two representatives of the Navy played taps, and performed a flag folding ceremony, honoring Papa Joe’s service during WWII. These rituals, each movement prescribed down to the creasing of the flag, had a surprisingly strong effect on me. At one moment, during the playing of taps, I was able to imagine my grandfather as a young navy man hearing those same notes decades earlier.


An American Flag Folding Ceremony:

The experience has left me thinking a lot about rituals. According to the sociologist Robert Wuthnow rituals are any actions or events that have symbolic meaning beyond their instrumental value. For the navy, folding the American flag is not just about easy storage. And rituals communicate something about the social order: its norms, power relations, etc. We are surrounded by mundane rituals every day — from sending thank you cards to brushing our teeth. But there is a special place in our lives for large, collective rituals that we share with our communities.

Rituals are often associated with maintaining the status quo. They are about continuity. Their repetition and lack of change are what make them powerful. Rituals are used to inculcate new members into a culture, or affirm a group’s values. But can they also be forces for change and resistance? Organizers and cultural workers are doing just that, in a few different ways.

Northwest Bronx Annual Meeting

Northwest Bronx Annual Meeting

Rituals as Unifying Practices
Many organizing groups and social movements have made use of the rituals of religion to cohere participants together. In the research my colleagues and I conducted with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in NYC, religious ritual was key to developing a sense of “shared fate” among the diverse Bronx population. For example, beginning their annual meeting with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish prayers served to connect members to the social justice values inherent in their own faiths, and to affirm shared values across religions.

Rituals as Counter-Narratives
idle-no-more-image-aaron-paquetteWhile many rituals serve as connections to the past, this does not always make them conservative. Last post I wrote about the Idle No More movement, whose public actions in support of indigenous sovereignty are built around the traditional native circle dance. In a society that often treats indigenous culture as something for the history books, these rituals help to reassert the strength of a marginalized culture. Moreover, doing so in a mall contrasts a native ritual of unity with one of the key rituals of consumer culture — shopping.

New Rituals for a New Culture
Often citing Gandhi’s call to “be the change you want to see in the world,” social change groups develop internal cultures where they can live out the values they preach. One way to do this is through creating or adapting new rituals that embody these new ways of being. The human megaphone or people’s mic used by Occupy Wall Street protesters was more than just a clever solution to restrictions on sound equipment. It became a ritual through which the group publicly lived their values of do-it-yourself sufficiency and collectivity.

Toolbox of Activist Rituals
Over the years, an array of rituals have been created specific to activism and social change. Once innovative, these rituals now serve as available and adaptable resources: sit-ins, work stoppages, marches. They link one action to the history of activism and the spirit of social change. The modern community organizing movement has similarly developed a set of shared rituals, such as one-on-ones, narratives of empowerment, and public meetings (Hart, 2001).

SOA Watch March

SOA Watch March

Rituals and Emotion
Finally, rituals can elicit and make space for emotion, a powerful driver for involvement in social action (Taylor & Whittier, 1995). SOA Watch, a group that protests the US government training of military personnel from Latin America, gathers each year outside Fort Benning in Georgia for a massive march/vigil. Each participant holds a white cross with the name of someone killed by soldiers trained at Fort Benning. Leaders read off a long list of the dead, followed by a chorus of “presente” (present). To be a part of this march is to feel a combination of sadness and anger, and to recommit oneself to the cause.