Planning the Revolution over Collards

Tufara Waller Muhammad and Javiera Benavente talk about arts and culture in Southern organizing and the danger of spotlighting individuals.

By Javiera Benavente

"Art, deep and resonant art, takes time to make, and if you are going to make it in community, with community, it takes even longer, and if you are going to align this art with an organizing campaign, then you have your work cut out for you."


Tufara Waller Muhammad is a cultural organizer who for more than 17 years has combined art and activism to help people deepen their relationships with each other, demystify complex problems, nurture and sustain their communities, and strengthen their work for justice.

Javiera Benavente is an artist, educator, and cultural organizer who has been involved in a variety of social justice issues for over two decades. She is currently involved in several projects including Food For Thought Books Collective, C3, Permaculture F.E.A.S.T., and the Arts & Democracy Project.

HIGHLANDER research and education CENTER is a residential popular education and research organization based on a 106-acre farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, 25 miles east of Knoxville, Tennessee. Since 1932, Highlander has gathered workers, grassroots leaders, community organizers, educators, and researchers to address the most pressing social, environmental, and economic problems facing the people of the South. Highlander sponsors educational programs and research into community problems, as well as a residential workshop center for social change organizations and workers active in the South and internationally. Generations of activists have come to Highlander to learn, teach, and prepare to participate in struggles for justice.

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This essay is based on a telephone conversation Tufara Waller Muhammad and I had in late April 2008. Prior to the conversation, Tufara had shared some concerns with me about participating in this project, and I was surprised to learn that she didn’t think she fit into its framework. I met Tufara for the first time in November 2007 during a three-day gathering of artists, activists, organizers, and cultural workers who had come together in Jackson, Mississippi, to talk about different approaches to integrating art and culture with organizing. During the course of gathering, it became clear to me that Tufara had a great deal of insight to share about the value and challenges of being a bridge between sectors, communities, and cultures.

As we talked in March, and later in April, I came to understand that for Tufara being a ‘bridge person’ is such an integral part of her work as an organizer that it was strange to separate it out and examine it as if it were a unique feature of what she does. Tufara also shared her discomfort with being singled out to participate in this project and share her experience and knowledge.

Again, I was surprised. I was excited about this project, and it had not occurred to me that the proposition to have this conversation might create discomfort for some people. I believed that this project was valuable and needed to articulate why. What value does a conversation like ours have? What is the value of this series of conversations? What is the value of sharing them publicly?

My response went something like this: I think it is important for us, as organizers, to be transparent about the work that we do, to be explicit about the values and visions we bring to our work, and to share what we are learning along the way. This is especially true if our approach to organizing is facilitative, if it is about bridge building. I believe the only way we can create positive social change is through an open process of reflection, deliberation, action. That is why I think these conversations are important, and that is why I think it is important for us to share publicly what we learn through conversations like these, and identify ourselves as part of the conversation: so that we can find each other. At the same time, I think it is critical that we acknowledge that much, if not all, of what we learn happens in community, with other people, and that this knowledge is collective knowledge. We need to honor the people and communities that have taught us what we know. With that said, we agreed to have this conversation, though Tufara’s questions remained.

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JAVIERA BENAVENTE: Talk about your experience being a bridge between sectors, communities, and cultures.

TUFARA WALLER MUHAMMAD: Every organizer should be using art and culture as a strategy to help people build bridges. I come from a school of Southern organizing where the organizers need to be invisible and the focus is placed on the people we work for. Sometimes this creates conflict with the art world because artists want to be in the spotlight.

This is why I’ve questioned whether or not this conversation is even appropriate.

BENAVENTE: I think what you are talking about has a lot to do with organizers following the leadership of the people they are working with and playing a facilitative role, rather than a leadership role. I think this is the work of bridge building. While this can create conflict with some artists who are invested in getting a certain kind of recognition for their work, you are still committed to integrating art and culture into your work as an organizer. This isn’t the case with many organizers. Why do think that is?

WALLER MUHAMMAD: Sometimes people don’t (use art) because they feel intimidated. Even if they don’t mean to, sometimes artists make it seem like art is something that people can’t do themselves, that there are skills that you need. It’s complicated because if you create situations where organizers and people can (be artistic) themselves without being dependent on a professional artist, then artists work themselves out of a job.

BENAVENTE: That is a very interesting point—that some artists who work in communities hold on to their power as artists for fear that if they pass it on, they will no longer be needed. I think this is very similar to a dynamic that happens with social service providers and organizers who, while they come at the work from very different places, make a living by virtue of the fact that injustice exists in the world. Sometimes we hold onto the power we gain by being gatekeepers between communities and outside resources and, in the process, we perpetuate some of the very injustices that we want to dismantle. Because if we create a world in which injustice doesn’t exist, we won’t be necessary anymore, we will also be out of a job and then what will we do? I think it is really tricky when this work of creating social change becomes our livelihood. It is not always easy to navigate the sometimes competing interests of the movement and our own individual needs. What do artists need to know about working with organizers and communities?

WALLER MUHAMMAD: I have formal training in different (artistic) genres and have operated solely as an artist. I’ve toured as an artist. But I identify myself as an organizer and, because I’ve done both, I realize that there are certain things that people need in order to work effectively.

Artists need to learn about the community. Three-week short-term residencies are ineffective because they don’t give folks the time to build relationships. There is no such thing as microwave relationships. Artists need to get in there with the community, they need to get in and work with the community on an issue, get dirty with them, share a meal with them so that then a bridge can be built with them. This work is about long-term collaboration.

Some artists doing community-based work are only interested in doing research, learning and taking from the community rather than giving something back to the community. This kind of work doesn’t inspire people, and it’s just as bad as global conglomerates like Wal-Mart taking from the community and not giving back anything that is of any real value to the community. I only work with artists who have a political analysis and clear intentions.

BENAVENTE: Tufara explained to me that her work as an organizer is primarily about bringing people together. When community members ask her to help them address an issue or set of issues, the first step is to put together a team of people that can work with the community. These people can come from within the community or outside the community. Either way, there is a balance that needs to be present and, Tufara has an equation for working this out, which she explained.

WALLER MUHAMMAD: As an organizer, the hardest part of my work is thinking about who I’m going to bring together in a room. Something happens organically there. The magic is about who you put in the room. Once you get the right people together, you let it go. You’ve done your job. You go on and build the next bridge. It becomes the people’s project.

The equation needs to include an organizer, an educator (popular or formal), a person of faith, and an artist. Within this equation, you need to try to make sure you have a young person and an old person, so that it’s intergenerational. The team can include more than four people, but it needs to be balanced in terms of power. Artists are an important part of this equation, but they need to have a political analysis because we are building a movement here, we are trying to change the world.

If you are working on environmental justice issues, for example, everyone needs to understand the issues, the community, and its values and culture. You might work with an artist from the community, but you might also partner with an artist from outside the community who has experience working with similar issues. For example, you can bring in a White artist from a mining community in West Virginia to work with Black folks in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. Perhaps the community in the deep South is not used to working with White people, so you bring a White artist who has experience working with Black people. This is not just about artists presenting their work (to the community), this is about (the artist) being the connector, the bridge. Everyone in the equation needs to be willing to be a bridge, which is a long and in-depth process that takes time. A lot of artists don’t want to work in this deep way.

BENAVENTE: While I agree that some artists are not interested in making the long-term investment that this way of working requires, I also believe that many organizers aren’t willing to make this kind of investment either. I think that this is one of the barriers to organizers working with artists. The truth is that art, deep and resonant art, takes time to make, and if you are going to make it in community, with community, it takes even longer, and if you are going to align this art with an organizing campaign, then you have your work cut out for you. So, I think this is why some organizers shy away from working with artists in any deep and meaningful way, because it is a long and complex process.

WALLER MUHAMMAD: I come from a long organizing tradition that includes the Ella Baker Schools, and people like Hollis Watkins and Bernice Johnson Reagon, among others, where art and culture have always been a part of organizing. When I started working outside the South, the thing that freaked me out was organizing with no cultural or artistic component. I didn’t realize that it didn’t happen everywhere until I left the South. For me, the cultural piece is integral to organizing, but for some people it is frivolous.

I think that a disconnect happened with the industry of professional organizing. Before that, folks organized out of necessity.

BENAVENTE: And art and culture were a part of that because people often came together at the end of long days of hard work, and it was essential to have food, music, dance, something for people to enjoy and that gave them physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance. Organizing doesn’t do that alone.

WALLER MUHAMMAD: When organizing became people’s jobs, this shifted. When someone else determines the bridges that you build, when it is a directive from the organization you work for, rather than an organic need emerging from the community you work with—this is corporate organizing, and it doesn’t work. You try to fit people and relationships into a specific timeline—like we have control over time, or over the way people connect, like we control when trees bloom. This organizing, I feel, is not holistic. It burns people out because it doesn’t allow people to grow and heal and develop together as a group.

BENAVENTE: This makes so much sense to me and I think it is a large part of why I have moved away from being a full-time organizer. When I had organizing jobs I often felt beholden to outside forces that had little to do with the needs and desires of the people and communities I was working with. Maintaining financial support for the work without compromising its integrity was a constant struggle, and it often left me feeling empty. That’s why I’m trying to integrate my work as an artist, organizer, and, most recently, as a collective member of Food For Thought Books, a worker-owned bookstore. This way I can bring all the resources I have to addressing the issues that affect my multiple communities.

WALLER MUHAMMAD: Sometimes money stifles people; we think if we don’t have it we can’t do the necessary work. But we need to remember that we are building something bigger than this capitalist system. We are building a new world and a new way of thinking.

BENAVENTE: What advice would you give other folks interested in this holistic approach to organizing that includes art and culture?

WALLER MUHAMMAD: When you come from the outside of the community you want to work in, you need to cultivate the ground, give people time, and make sure that people are ready to move with you. It is important to know the community you are working with, to know their reality, to be invited in by some members of the community. If some of the people in the group are looking for help outside their community, you know they are ready to move.

It is important to survey what already exists in a community before you get there. There may be an artist there that you can work with. Once you have identified the people in the equation, conversations have to happen among these people before you bring more folks together. Do they share the same values? Do they want to do the same things? If a part of the equation is missing in the community, who can they bring in from the outside?

BENAVENTE: What can be done to institutionalize what folks know about integrating art and culture with organizing?

WALLER MUHAMMAD: The political education work that Alternate ROOTS does and the cultural organizing workshop that took place at the Mississippi Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement Gathering are important parts of institutionalizing this work. It helps people see that this as a useful methodology, that we are not just a bunch of hippies who want to dance in the middle of the room, even though some of us are and that is necessary.

There is a great skit that Nayo Watkins wrote about artists working in communities. In the skit, Kathie deNobriga would play a community artist coming into a community from the outside and Nayo would play a member of the community. Kathie, the artist, would tell the people about a beautiful exercise that she wanted them to do. In response, Nayo would say, “But we don’t have any street lights and the kids keep getting run over.”

It is really important for community artists to be knowledgeable enough about the local community and their issues in order to be able to inspire people in a way that is related to what is affecting them right then and there. Artists need to be shape-shifters who can realize when something isn’t working and be able to shift their agenda in order to address the immediate needs of the community.

When people are hungry, it is hard for them to focus on ‘expressing themselves’. So, maybe what you need to do is take the art and make it about the children and the darkness, and show it to the city council, and dedicate it to the kids who got run over. Maybe you need to shift your agenda and meet people where they are at.

You need to know what is going on in a community; you need to be invited in by the community, and you need to take the time to sit down and eat with the community, because the revolution is going to be planned over collards, it is going to be planned over food. That is how our people get together.

Original CAN/API publication: June 2008