Shifting Culture Making Change

By Malkia Cyril, Executive Director, Center for Media Justice 

Last week, I had the great fortune of participating in a passionate discussion with a set of brilliant and effective leaders on what some call the "progressive project", in reference to the long-term goals and strategies of a broadly defined progressive movement. In the brightly lit meeting rooms of the Desmond Tutu Retreat Center in NY, a set of very smart people puzzled over the question many in the progressive movement have been asking for the last fifty years.

What will it take for us to win? 

As we talked, a comrade of mine from the League of Young Voters announced that the more than 60 million dollars spent by Republicans on the Scott Walker campaign in Wisconsin resulted in 38% of union households voting for Walker, and therefore against their own self-interests- according to a June 5th article published in the NY Times. The big question on everyone's mind was why.

This same question was on the minds of an amazing group of Black leaders convened by the 'Black Organizing for Dignity and Leadership' project. I had the honor of facilitating a workshop on strategic framing at their final retreat, and it didn't surprise me these sharp minds raised the same questions I'd heard earlier in the week.

Both events convinced me that we all know that the ideological terrain on labor has been bought, sold, and organized by the conservative right for at least the last fifty years- and that strategies to overcome that history needed to be more comprehensive now than they have ever been. What we don't know, is beyond matching the conservative right dollar for dollar on media and political campaigns, what strategies might out-maneuver these painful and consistent wins, and allow us to bend the arc, as Martin Luther King described.

While there are likely a million reasons why Scott Walker won, it occurred to me that at least part of the broad question of "why we can't seem to win" resides in the desperate lack of a comprehensive strategy for progressive social change that impacts both heart and mind, and shifts the mental models of individualism, meritocracy, and corporate personhood that have been etched into our national consciousness for generations.

To accomplish this impressive feat, we must learn from historical precedent, the emergence of new sciences, and best practices on transforming relations of power from around the world. What those before us, and around us, have learned is that political change without cultural change is a near impossibility.

That's why a small group of alliance, communications, and arts leaders formed the Echo Collaborative. Together, these leaders have begun examining and experimenting with cultural collaborations for social change using traditional and non-traditional methods.


Last October, the Center for Media Justice, where I work, brought together a small group of Echo Collaborative leaders to map the communications conditions facing our movements, and begin to outline new, integrated cultural strategies for change. Together, they identified the need for an effective pipeline for communications leadership development, public relations to boost immediate political impacts, clear opportunities and infrastructure for communications and cultural collaboration, and resources that strengthen the capacity of critical local campaigns to win framing contests on wedge issues.

In short, the 25 organizations that came together recognized the need for a cohesive national narrative that is deeply grounded in grassroots organizing with substantive leadership from local communities.

That said, in a nation increasingly fractured by racial and wealth gaps and united in double consciousness by the best and worst of times- building a cohesive national narrative is a complex under-taking. It takes a bold vision, a comprehensive strategy, a powerful and coordinated grassroots and grasstops infrastructure, and resources to organize mental models that can build majorities, and mobilize those majorities to their activation point, while overcoming the kind of challenging assumptions and beliefs that led the 38% in Wisconsin to vote against their own self-interests.

Mental models are powerful frames that have been integrated into the consciousness of a public, and subsumed into their own worldview. Today's progressive fights for jobs, housing, and rights are often subject to dominant mental models that support the status quo, even within the base of many progressive organizing groups.

In his December 2010 article in the American Prospect, "Culture Before Politics", Jeff Chang agreed that cultural and communications strategies, as part of a larger organizing strategy, are critical for change to happen.

Chang, along with leaders at the Highlander Center and the Arts and Democracy Coalition, suggest that cultural change precedes political change, and is a path to generating the emotional capacity and will for change. 18th Century political theorist Antonio Gramsci also agreed with this assumption, evolving Marxism to suggest that conditions alone are not predictive of how a populace will behave. One must also consider what they believe.

The idea that an intersectional approach to cultural change that engages art, culture, communications, organizing, research and all forms of knowledge production aren't new. They draw on traditions and methodologies that have been engaged in every major movement for the last 500 years. And the last week of events has convinced me that the progressive movement is more than ready to align its methodology with a 21st century digital age, where notions of space, time, and collective action, have been altered by the media landscape.

Right now, thousands of organizations across the U.S. are engaged in the battle for a more humane policy approach to immigration that honors both history and human rights. As many are engaged in the fight for a more redemptive criminal justice system. As these organizers partner with artists to create cohesive and collaborative strategy to alter the security frames that anchor the anti-immigrant, anti-black, and anti-poor prison industrial policy landscape, they are also considering how the predatory cost of calls from prison, the lack of broadband access in rural communities, and other restrictions on communication rights of their base create obstacles to organizing for change. Their efforts are one of many examples of how justice sectors are already using the integrated approach to change that 21st century progressive leaders need.

They already know from experience that traditional approaches to strategic communications represent only a sub-set of the larger practice of communications, and are often insufficient to mobilize a new vision for the nation.

The conservative right knows it too. They learned it from the Civil Rights Movement. During the late 50's and 60's, leaders of the civil rights movement not only considered how to re-frame core issues through traditional communications and arts and culture, they also took television stations to task over their failure to report on the issue of segregation. These leaders partnered with the United Church of Christ to bring a lawsuit against one southern television news station, and the legal victory that resulted provided the precedent for the Federal Communications Commission to consider public engagement a core element in defining media policies from that point on. It was the Civil Rights movement that gave today's public the opportunity to use media policy as a strategy in the fight for justice.

The conservative right, in all its variations, has learned this integration well. The purchase of Fox News and transformation of news into punditry, the strategy to control the conversation on religion, and the explicit interventions to privatize the public school system are all examples of a conservative integration of cultural approaches to social change into a larger strategy to bend the arc away from equity.

So, if I know, you know, history knows, and thousands of organizers and artists know that cultural change precedes political change and is critical to bend the arc of change in the direction of justice- why do explicit strategies that tie media activism, cultural production, and communications together with grassroots organizing remain under-resourced and de-prioritized?

That is one question I cannot answer. If you can, do tell.

Note: This Blog was originally written for Organizing Upgrade