Can you explain a bit about what cultural organizing is, how it works, and how you think PSO might be able to get involved in cultural organizing?
In an article on Community Arts Network’s Reading Room webpage, Caron Atlas describes cultural organizing as “a means of placing culture at the center of an organizing strategy. It can be done to unite people through the humanity of culture and the democracy of participation. It can also be used to divide people though fear and polarization.”
Cultural organizing works because it situates organizing and social change in the environment of the moment. I want to share some examples from when I was working at Home Alive, a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. Because we were artists, musicians, performers as well as activists, art and music was an integral part of how we did our work. We organized benefit shows that created community dialogue about “How are you getting home tonight?” Which led to discussion around “Are you safe once you get home?” Out of these discussions (which took place in club bathrooms, the backs of taxi’s, on a barstool), rose organic responses that reflected the diversity of people and communities that were talking about things they may have never talked about before. Bartenders began organizing patrons by collecting cab fare for women who didn’t have a ride home; club bouncers called Home Alive to ask us to do a training on what to do with situations of domestic violence in front of clubs; artists approached Home Alive and clubs to post community resources in clubs and do art installations about issues of sexual assault and date rape in bathrooms after a woman was raped in a bathroom stall during a music show. Musicians asked us to table at their shows and during their sets asked fans to make sure to help each other get home alive.
In other words, Home Alive didn’t organize our community, we supported our community organizing. People made zines, organized speak outs with Home Alive’s support. Because community members were responding in ways that reflected them rather that a specific organizational agenda, there were conflicts of interest, conflicts of opinion, differing views, and even arguments and disputes over how to respond to violence. Our response was that there wasn’t one right way to respond and it wasn’t Home Alive’s job to tell people how to respond, but to support people responding to violence in order to create community dialogues that might help create communities and environments where we could not only respond to violence when it did occur, but where violence was less likely to happen. Because people were creating dialogues in their own language all kinds of conversations were happening and they were happening in places and in ways that activist don’t often think of as “organizing.” Beer drinking working class guys hanging out at Happy Hour were talking about domestic violence and how they heard (through music events) that on super bowl Sunday domestic violence increases. They started talking about how messed up that was and how they might respond if anyone they know says or does anything abusive. They didn’t talk about violence against women in feminist lingo. They would have scoffed if you called them activists and trying to get them to attend a rally or community meeting would be an exercise in futility. But they were talking about domestic violence. They were creating ways of responding to violence against women. They were taking it seriously and addressing it in their environments, in this case during happy hour and at super bowl parties. They were changing the culture of that landscape. This small and simple example of a community of men responding to domestic violence in their own language is a direct result of the cultural organizing done by Home Alive as well as a great example of culture organizing, although that particular group of men would never call it that.
Cultural organizing does not try to create one particular response, it’s about creating movement within a cultural context that impacts people and community in ways that shift the landscape in irreversible ways. PSO can engage in cultural organizing by supporting communities who are having dialogues about participation in democracies in all kinds of ways, whether it’s through a music show, arts campaign, spoken word show, button making parties, chalking art, dance-a-thons’s, whatever. The thing about cultural organizing is that it resists organizational control. Home Alive wasn’t successful at cultural organizing because we set out to do it; we were successful because it was how our communities expressed themselves. Home Alive supported people who wanted to respond to violence in their lives, envision liberation, raise money, heal from an incident or be engaged in community dialogues with money, time, resources, backing, belief and commitment. When a 13 year old girl walked into the office and said her friend was assaulted and she wanted to do a zine project, we supported her by helping her get the resources to do the project without micromanaging, even if Home Alive staff disagreed with some of the content or messages of the zine. We valued her project as much as when a famous band member called to say he believes in our cause and wants to throw a benefit show, again, even if some Home alive staff thought some of the band’s songs were sexist. It’s not about creating a consistent controlled message, it’s about supporting community.
What are the ways that organizations like PSO can support youth organizing?
It’s great when organizations ask about supporting youth organizing. A place to start is at our tips and tricks:
Tips and Tricks
For transitioning from organizing youth to youth organizing
• Have a power analysis that includes age
• Commit to prioritizing building multiple age bridges
• Have your adult staff and board attend a youth organizing 101 training
• Incorporate the information from youth organizing trainings into strategic planning
• Learn how to be an ally as individuals, as staff, as an organization and as part of a larger social movement
• Support other organizations that are youth run, youth led and have demonstrated a commitment to youth organizing
• Let go of power. Prepare to step down and relinquish control
• Envision youth as leaders
• Be excited about letting youth lead and letting go of control—it benefits all of us!
• Be prepared as an ally to advocate for youth organizing to funders
How does this compare with the activity of organizing youth?
Supporting youth organizing versus organizing youth takes a paradigm shift. The scenarios in our first post can help organizations think about how they might be colluding in organizing youth rather than supporting youth organizing. It’s important to first understand the difference and then make the commitment to support youth organizing. It’s not something you can do part way. If you aren’t sure you or your organization can do it, don’t say you are going to. Don’t represent your organization or project as youth led if it isn’t led by youth. A huge part of it is letting go of control, power and resources. If you are trying to support youth organizing but hold all the purse strings, it undermines youth power. Challenge yourself as individuals and as groups or organizations to examine what fears, feelings, or frustrations come up when you think about letting youth control their own project. Be honest and transparent. If you don’t think your organization is ready but you believe in supporting youth organizing, then give time, money, and/or resources to groups that are doing it. Ally ship is a huge part of this work and there are many different ways to be an ally.