What Democracy Looks Like

A blog post


Morning in America
Ice sculpture by Ligorno/Reese melted at the two political conventions  

There’s nothing like the election season to make you wonder about the state of democracy. With partisanship at its peak following the political conventions, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that democracy is not a spectator sport. And with yesterday's anniversary of 9/11 and the upcoming anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, it’s also a good time to consider the state of the free speech and assembly that underlie our ability to participate. 

On September 20 at 1pm EST, 10am PST our Arts & Democracy conference call will focus on the making of democracy – before the election and after. To register for the call click here.

The call will feature among others, the League of Young Voters, whose ongoing work builds an inclusive democracy and protects our basic voting rights. One of the ways the League has ignited youth engagement has been through arts and culture. Says Executive Director, Biko Baker, “The power of the League has always been its artist-activism. The soul of our movement-making is exemplified by the young performers, poets, writers, graffiti artists, filmmakers and musicians who spend all day in the field with clipboards and then all evenings in their studios.”

Also presenting will be the Dream Defenders: “students, alumni, black, brown, and white, young and old. We are a generation of world changers, writers, readers, rebels, marchers, dreamers, leaders, thinkers, organizers and activists” and the Futuro Media Group. The day after the call, September 21, Futuro Media Group’s new film  “America by the Numbers with Maria Hinojosa” will premiere as a PBS Need to Know, Election 2012 special presentation. The pilot episode features Clarkston, Georgia, one of the most diverse communities in the US with residents from over 40 countries speaking over 60 different languages. The series seeks to put a human face on demographic changes across the country and stimulate dialogue about how a growing multicultural population impacts our culture and democratic participation.   

From America by the Numbers: Clarkston, Georgia

Democratic spaces where diverse people can assemble is the subject of the new book: Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of Assembly and the Occupation of Public Space. At the book launch on the eve of 9/11 questions were raised about how to privilege public space in the same way that we regulate it, whether our city needs a Department of Public Space, or whether involving city government is antithetical to the dynamic nature of democratic space. The group also considered the continued loss of freedom that came in the wake of the 9/11 “fear factor” and what changes in attitude are needed to fully regain our democratic freedoms.  

I wrote in “Radical Imagination," my essay for the book, that “arts, culture, and grassroots media can provide vital spaces to cultivate democracy and generate change in a time of inaccessible public squares and political debates.” These democratic and imaginative spaces were in full evidence at Arts & Democracy’s August cultural organizing workshop in Brooklyn--community cultural centers and creative campaigns for civil rights and jobs.  We also experienced how dance, singing, and mural making  can create spaces of dialogue, belonging, and liberation.  

As the Arts & Democracy Project plans for the year ahead we are excited about the many creative ways that we can play a role in building our democracy by strengthening our neighborhoods as hubs of innovation, equity, and civic participation. We are excited to be working citywide in New York to integrate arts, culture, and grassroots media into the second year of Participatory Budgeting. We are following up on our artist in residence program with four SEIU locals in their home communities in Minnesota, California, Florida, and Ontario and exploring how to adapt the program to community based organizations. In New Orleans and Louisville we are building on last year’s cultural organizing workshops. In New York we are promoting policies that strengthen neighborhood creativity and democracy through NOCD-NY (Naturally Occurring Cultural District coalition).


We also plan to stimulate the dialogue that supports democracy on our Blog. In addition to posts from the Arts & Democracy team we are including writing by colleagues that raises critical issues and challenging questions.  We’ve started with “Shifting Culture Making Change” by Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice and “Creative Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging” by Roberto Bedoya, Executive Director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council. We hope you take a look at these posts and let us know what you think!