You Gotta Work the Culture If You Wanna Change the Politics

Rinku Sen profiles several artists and cultural organizers who's work you can check out this summer--and at our Facing Race conference in November.

By Rinku Sen Aug 14, 2012

I was at the Sundance Resort in Utah recently, attending the annual Creative Change retreat that the Opportunity Agenda hosts for people working at the intersection of arts and social justice. Lots of interesting discussions took place about the purpose of art, the differences/similarities in artistic process and political process, and what makes good/effective political art–or if there is even such a category.

I’m going to highlight some of the very cool projects and people I met. But before I do, I’ll just name one lesson from these discussions for organizers and advocates: People like me, who have been trained in the linear world of policy change, tend to have a very transactional view of art and culture in relation to their work, although they may be perfectly capable of appreciating art for its own sake in other contexts. Politicos consider artistic projects valuable if they increase pressure on a targeted decision maker, generate press for a campaign or attract celebrities to the cause. These are tactical benefits. There’s nothing wrong with any of these goals, but they don’t fill the gap between what people believe and the policies we want to push. Every political strategy needs a corresponding cultural strategy.

To win on workers issues, immigrant rights, prison issues over the long term, we have to change the way society sees workers, immigrants and prisoners. That takes more human and material energy than getting someone to make a poster for your campaign. The political organizer doesn’t have to carry out the cultural strategy, but she should surely be active in creating one.

With that in mind, here are some artists and cultural organizers that I respect.

Filmmaker Angad Bhalla is finishing "Herman’s House" about Herman Wallace, who went to prison in 1972 for bank robbery and who has been in continuous solitary confinement for 30 years, for allegedly killing a prison guard in Angola. This film is about Wallace’s fascinating collaboration with an artist who asked him, by snail mail, to describe the kind of house he dreamt about. Sounds kind of random and turns out to be totally fascinating. You can sign a petition on the film’s site to ask for Wallace and Albert Woodfox to be released from solitary, and connect to organizations working on this issue.

Negin Farsad is an Iranian-American comedian who will be speaking at the closing panel of Facing Race, our national conference in Baltimore, Md., this November. Farsad runs Vaguely Qualified Productions, where she makes video and designs cultural interventions for campaigns, and she was a major player in the comedy tour The Muslims Are Coming. The tour is the subject of a documentary by the same name, for which Farsad and friends raised $47,000 on Facebook. Farsad’s latest is a request to Jamie Dimon to step down and stop pretending to be regulating his own greed.

David Lubell is the founding director of Welcoming America, whose mission is to build a nation of neighbors. The group wants native-born and immigrant Americans to know each other, to talk, to become friends, to actually see each other. Local chapters take up communications and public engagement activities to dispel myths and misunderstandings about modern immigration. It might sound ridiculous, but direct contact has a huge effect on peoples’ attitudes on immigration. Last year at this same retreat, Farsad, Lubell and others came up with the You’re Welcome meme. As in: immigrant offers up a taco, native-born American finds it delicious.

Native-born: Thank you!
Immigrant: You’re welcome!
Native-born: You’re welcome!

I find that brilliant in its simplicity.

We have covered before Favianna Rodriguez’s awesome work as a printmaker and mentor of young political artists, most notably DREAMers. She worked with Julio Salgado and Jesus Iñiguez and others to produce Undocunation, a show of prints related to Arizona and the DREAM movement. Students in her recent printmaking workshop at Stanford University produced some work inspired by our own Shattered Families investigation. Favianna will curate the visual art gallery at Facing Race as well as lead a workshop on cultural interventions.

Michael Premo and Rachel Falcone run Housing is a Human Right out of Brooklyn. Their site features video, audio and photography about the "ongoing struggle for home." The stories are connected to eviction defense campaigns, and other supports for taking action. You can share your own story on the site, and they exhibit in unusual "public" spaces like storage containers, laudromats and vacant storefronts. Cool, moving stuff.

There were many more amazing people with us in Utah, whom I’ll have to feature another time. We’ve got a big movement that needs a lot of fuel. We can’t have enough art, music, literature, movies, food. Lucky thing, people are unbelievably creative.