“Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational, and community context of its practitioners. Cultural organizing is about integrating arts and culture into organizing strategies. It is also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, community of place, or worldview.” – Paul J. Kuttner, 2015
In my previous post, I discussed how art can be used as a very powerful tool to create social change. If you haven’t checked that out yet, do so here. There is no doubt that art is a wonderful tool for individuals to inspire others or be inspired to bring about change. However, art becomes an even more powerful tool when it is used by or for the wider community to bring about change, and this is cultural organizing. Cultural organizing is a systematic approach to using art as a tool for social change within the wider community.
What is Cultural Organizing?
There are many different ways in which to define what cultural organizing actually is, however according to Paul Kuttner, founder of CulturalOrganizing.org there are 4 key features that cultural organizing efforts should all hold.
1. Cultural Goals: Cultural organizing efforts aim to have an effect on people’s ideologies or identities. At the core of cultural organizing is this concept of using art as a catalyst for change.
2. Utilizes Language of Culture: A message is spread through the use of visual arts, rituals, story telling, or celebrations.
3. Strategic: Cultural organizing efforts take the concept of using art as a catalyst for change, but rather than just creating opportunities for individuals to spread a message or be inspired, cultural organizing has long term goals and collective aims for the wider community.
4. Combines art with community: In cultural organizing efforts, explicit links are made between cultural goals and policy goals, or those involved and people with power to generate change. At its core, cultural organising is creating art to bring about change within a community. Cultural organizing efforts are usually undertaken by a community, and/or for a community (or other social group.)
Different Approaches to Cultural Organizing
Cultural Strategy Approach:
The cultural strategy approach is built upon an underlying notion that ideas and action are connected, so in order for people to change their actions (this can also include policy making), we must first change the way people think about it. In order to shift public discourse around a particular issue, this approach relies on the use of artistic products to do so. This is usually done through a collaboration between artists and the organizers (activisits or advocates) of a particular social issue or movement. The ultimate goal of such efforts is to develop a cultural and political strategy, and use artistic products to change current ideas or create alternative ideas about an issue, and catalyze collective action.
Community Arts Approach:
The community arts approach to cultural organizing has a strong focus on creating works of art or other cultural products in a way that engages members of a community who may not see themselves as artist, by contributing to or participating in an art project. Community art approaches to cultural organizing are often facilitated by a professional artist in the field or by an expert in the area of which change is needed, and will draw upon the stories, voices, practices, or particular art form of either those involved in the project, or the target audience of the project. The final goal of a particular project is usually to spark dialogue, educate, raise awareness, or inspire action, but the artistic process for those involved in the project is just as important.
Cultural Integration Approach:
The cultural integration approach involves integrating a particular project into a cultural organizing model. For example, employing the use of the arts into an ongoing political campaign strategy. It is based on the notion that effective and sustainable community organization must be rooted in the local culture, which is why local cultural practices, forms of expression, and views ought to be strongly considered.
Cultural Organizing in Action
My own experience in cultural organizing began when I visited India in early 2014. It was my second solo overseas trip at age 17, and I spent my time at Sangam World Centre in Pune. During my visit I spent some time at Maher, assisting a group with final touches on their community arts project. Maher is a home for homeless women and their children, who were abused or at high risk of being abused by men. The teenagers who lived at Maher (high school students and some university students) had banned together to work on a project that utilised a community arts approach to cultural organizing. The project was a street play called “Saving the Girl Child,” which they went and performed in different slum communities to speak out about gender based violence and provide alternative ideas in these communities about the value of women beyond their current (often oppressive) views. My role was to just help out the facilitators with tasks such as creating props and costumes, and providing feedback on the play before it was performed in pubic. I was able to attend one of the community performances. Although I couldn’t understand what was said in the performance, I know it must have moved the people who watched it, as I saw many women and men crying and hugging afterwards.
If you’re interested in other ways cultural organizing is being used in activism all around the world, CulturalOrganizing.org is an excellent source to find out more about real examples of cultural organiziation in action.
What are your thoughts on cultural organizing? Have you seen successful cultural organizing in action? Are there ways you could implement a cultural organizing strategy into your own advocacy, activism or other type of community organizing? If you like what you’ve read here about cultural organizing, why not share this infographic on social media about the ways in which cultural organizing can bring about positive social change 🙂