Aesthetics and Mathematics of Social Change

Dee Davis and Michelle Miller discuss the art of strategic communications.

By Michelle Miller

"I feel lucky in that being able to deal with social change work I’m able to see the work in the same way that you see producing a record or making a film or writing a short story. You get to pay attention to the rhythm of the voices, the movement, and the relationships."

"Artists bring their work to harder-hit communities in the most significant and powerful way when it’s intentionally integrated into existing work in those communities."

Dee Davis and Michelle Miller discuss the art of strategic communications.

Dee Davis is the founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. He started in 1973 as a trainee at Appalshop; while he was Appalshop’s executive producer, the organization created more than 50 TV documentaries, established a training program for Appalachian youth, and used media as a strategic tool.

Michelle Miller is a cultural organizer and strategist. She spent the past decade working with artists to magnify the voices of everyday people at the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She recently became director of creative projects at Strategic Productions LLC, a women-led national network that crafts digital campaigns.

THE CENTER FOR RURAL STRATEGIES (CRS) is a public-spirited communications organization that seeks to improve rural life by increasing public understanding about the importance and value of rural communities. Its goals are to use media strategically to reframe the broad public discourse that defines rural communities, and create an environment in which positive changes can occur. CRS helps communities and nonprofit organizations incorporate media and communications into their work in support of strategic goals. They also design and implement information campaigns that educate the public about the problems and opportunities that exist in contemporary rural communities. They believe that healthy rural communities are essential to the overall health of the nation, that Americans’ overwhelmingly positive perceptions of rural life are a starting point for creating better governmental policies and institutions that rebuild and sustain rural communities, and that communicating the stories of rural America’s struggles and successes to a broad audience is essential to creating positive change.

THE SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION (SEIU) is 1.9 million working people and 50,000 retirees united to improve services and our communities throughout North America. SEIU members are winning better wages, healthcare, and more secure jobs at home, while uniting their strength with their counterparts around the world to help ensure that workers, not just corporations and CEOs, benefit from today’s global economy.

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Dee Davis’s longtime work building bridges between arts and activism made me the cultural activist that I am today. I don’t mean his work contributed to some vague larger whole that impacted me, or that in the midst of becoming an activist I ran across it and liked it. I mean it made me.

As a film student, I was initially interested in merely observing the world and editing it down into a neat story. But Appalshop’s work organized me. I was a transplant from West Virginia to Washington, DC, and finding this group of people whose film, radio, theatrical, and community work reflected the value of my own history and culture helped me see my own experience in a more politicized context and turned me into an activist. I have learned from my own experience how art and media can bring people into a movement.

Dee’s work at the Center for Rural Strategies continues on this path, helping to influence policy around rural issues by reflecting the diversity of the rural experience in this country through a variety of media and campaigns.

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MICHELLE MILLER: You come from a creative media background and are now running the Center for Rural Strategies, which is focused more on creating policy around rural issues. How do you integrate that background into your approach to this more straightforward policy work?


DEE DAVIS: Cunning and wile. The great part about coming to policy or social change work after having worked in the arts is that you develop an appreciation for trying to do the job well. There’s something about trying to create art where you’re trying to be excellent and reach out to audiences that appreciate the work, and there’s something about that approach that is different from the mathematics of social change. By mathematics of social change I mean this idea of ‘if I can get enough of my people and we can garner enough power’. It’s a different approach. It has to do with the way you communicate, the quality of the relationships. That’s not to say that coming at social change work in an Alinsky* style of organizing isn’t good. I just think that those of us who have the opportunity to work in the arts field are lucky in that we get to approach it from a different perspective. I feel lucky in that being able to deal with social change work I’m able to see the work in the same way that you see producing a record or making a film or writing a short story. You get to pay attention to the rhythm of the voices, the movement and the relationships. I feel like I have a sense of the aesthetics of gatherings and what gets put on the page. I get that feeling. That allows me to feel joyful in this work. I’m not saying that people who come at it in other ways are joyless. It’s great to have this filter when you’re approaching social change work. It doesn’t make the losses any easier (laughs), but it helps you to see the long-term impact of this kind of relationship-building approach.


A lot of what peeves me about the typical social change work is that the approach is all about logic. In reality, people become motivated and act around moments and relationships and feelings and trying to find which tribe you belong to.

Sometimes we misunderstand how change works. We don’t always know the nuances of it. Sometimes we don’t actually know what changes someone’s point of view. The whole thing about art is that it changes people—they are actually changed by seeing a piece of art or a performance. That can happen when you’re in the right space where you’re open and you’re emotionally reaching out. These moments are quite important. They’re catalytic. They change you, they change others. It’s these powerful moments that are important. You still have to do the work. You still have to involve the day-to-day work of organizing, of shoe leather, research, analysis. But these moments are an important part of social change work that is often neglected.

MILLER: I definitely agree about these catalytic moments. And an important thing to keep in mind is that we don’t always know for certain when they will happen, or how they will turn out. A lot of this work relies on our faith in the process. I tend to temper my own frustration with nonarts-based activists by remembering that we are all deeply committed to the communities we serve. And because of that it’s difficult to consider spending even a minute on something with an uncertain outcome or a different approach. How do you communicate this approach to nonarts people, these folks that approach social change from that specifically mathematical equation that you find problematic?


DAVIS: We’re building coalitions around issues. We don’t try to maintain the coalitions as much as we try to be honest brokers with the understanding that people change at their own rate and for different reasons. We try to be consistent and do our work from a set of values that we’re comfortable with. We know that we make mistakes but we also know that we must engage openly and let people know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and where we’re coming from. We just try to create a critical mass for the things we’re doing. We try to do a lot of work with our friends because they tend to know what we’re doing and we can have a frank conversation and if we lose our way they can help us back. We’re not a model social change organization but we’re trying to find a strategy.

MILLER: I don’t know if there is a model social change organization! But you’ve certainly had some successes. Is there a particular approach that you have that has resulted in those successes?


DAVIS: We do different things, so sometimes we try to affect press and try to affect coverage with the idea being that we’re contributing to a mass of information. Then sometimes we’re working on campaigns that have a policy result we want, like when we dealt with the Community Reinvestment Act to make sure banks weren’t exempt from their rural obligations. Or in the Beverly Hillbillies campaign, where we stood up to Viacom. Oftentimes it’s catching the right spokesperson and convincing them so they feel like they can join in. Sometimes it’s getting people to understand and get active. There isn’t one moment, and you don’t know if you’ve succeeded for a long time.

MILLER: And what about us? Is there something that we in the art-based activism community can do better or learn more about? At SEIU, I tend to look to our organizing campaigns and try to draw on lessons we’ve learned with organizing our community partners or bringing a different crop of people into our work and apply that to the way I do my own outreach.

DAVIS: I think that the arts can learn more about connectedness. How you connect different groups of people who aren’t the usual suspects. In some ways, art is good about that, but in other ways it doesn’t reach out into harder-hit communities. I think the arts can learn a lot about reaching into new communities and finding allies that they wouldn’t necessarily have. That’s funny in a way to say it. A lot of art really goes to the same folks over and over.

MILLER: We can do better about reaching more people. I think that’s where the power of building bridges between artists and activists really lies. Artists bring their work to harder-hit communities in the most significant and powerful way when it’s intentionally integrated into existing work in those communities.

*Saul David Alinsky, an organizer and writer who founded the Industrial Areas Foundation.

Original CAN/API publication: June 2008