On February 18-20, 2011, two dozen folks gathered in New Orleans at the invitation of the Arts & Democracy Project, Moving Stories (a New Orleans-based arts nonprofit) and the New Voices Fellowship program, to participate in a workshop on Cultural Organizing for Community Recovery. New Voices Fellows Stephanie McKee and Wendi O'Neal planned the event with Kathie deNobriga, program manager for the Arts and Democracy Project, with the help of Linda Parris-Bailey (Carpetbag Theatre), Tufara Waller Muhammad (Highlander Center) and Amalia Deloney of the Center for Media Justice and a team-member of the Arts &  Democracy Project.

That particular February weekend was chosen because Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (founder of Urban Bush Women) -- whom the NOLA-based planners (McKee and O'Neal) definitely wanted to include -- had plans to be in New Orleans then. For a number of years, Jawole has been an avid fan of Krewe de Vieux, now in its 25th year of marching early in the Mardi Gras season. The Krewe boasts a wickedly satirical slant, characteristic NOLA bawdiness, live music and non-motorized floats.   As it turned out, the parade added immeasurably to the impact and meaning of the workshop itself.

The planners left Saturday evening open for everyone to enjoy the parade, which in retrospect perfectly illustrated the deeply-rooted cultural traditions that imbues a place with identity and spirit.  It also displayed the exuberant outflow of creativity and expression that belongs to all humankind - topics that had been part of the day's earlier discussions about cultural organizing, community organizing, their intersections and differences.  [See our working definition of cultural organizing BELOW along with some basic principles.] Several participants noted the connection in their post-workshop evaluations, calling the parade a real-life example of the theory and philosophy of the day's previous discussions.

Of course, the workshop wasn't all theory and philosophy: an opening panel with Ron Chisholm, John O'Neal, Tuffy Muhammad and Jawole Zollar, moderated by Linda Parris-Bailey, invited the veteran organizers to reflect on the turning points in their work. Participants shared their work in small story circles. Tuffy taught an exercise rooted in popular education techniques: Mind Blazing Conversations elicited an outpouring of knowledge, wisdom and further curiosity.

Throughout the weekend, people told stories about their struggles and successes at home, their hopes to make social change, with particular attention to how community/cultural organizing does - or doesn't - change the unequal balance of power. "Living in the questions" (listening more, answering less) found resonance in a session on how to engage in community mapping that identifies resources and neighborhood leaders. As Deloney and Parris-Bailey led the discussion of mapping, the notion of ‘ground truthing" emerged as an important way to check our internal biases and add nuance to our understanding.

Ricardo Levins Morales wove historical political struggles into the sharing of his iconic graphic images and introduced the notion of ‘gardening' as a metaphor for cultural organizing. He proposed that, although we talk of ‘planting seeds' in our cultural work, often the soil itself is more important than the quality of the seed. What are the organizing methods that prepare, preserve or enrich the soil? On Sunday, Levins Morales led a ‘skills swap'  and then framed another opportunity to bring analysis to the work that artists are doing in community. [ For those interested in the structure & chronology of the weekend, the amended agenda is available. ]

The weekend felt good - a balance of philosophy, strategic analysis, intimate story circles, and group singing  -- the final song took us to the streets, stopping traffic briefly along Carondelet Street in front of the Museum, in homage perhaps to the prior night's parade.

A word about the folks who came to the workshop, for the success of such event relies to a large degree on the openness and energy that its participants bring.  A car-full of young African-American women drove from Durham NC (see SpiritHouse's pictures on Facebook); a white couple flew down from Minneapolis for their first trip to the Big Easy. A goodly number of New Orleans activists and artists were there, and a few other folks scattered along the Gulf Coast, from the American Friends Service Committee, the Congress of Day Laborers to ArtSpot Productions. Their deep engagement and fierce questioning transformed the entire weekend into something memorable (and to be repeated, February 2011, with the help of Urban Bush Women).

Amalia Deloney wrote about her own experience of the workshop; Read it here.

Arts & Democracy Project plans to continue offering such workshops, partnering with various groups. For the February workshop, we partnered with Moving Stories (Stephanie McKee), McKenna Museum for African American Art, Junebug Productions, Carpetbag Theatre, People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, Highlander Center, Urban Bush Women and of course New Voices. Coming up is a collaboration with the Kentucky Foundation for Women in the fall of 2011, to be followed by others, as interest is expressed and resources identified.

Deloney extracted a little piece of the weekend workshop for folks attending the first session of the National Learning Exchange, held in Baltimore MD on June 22-24, 2011, as part of Alternate ROOTS' 35th Anniversary.

Arts and Democracy Working Definition of Cultural Organizing:  

Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational and community context of its practitioners.  Cultural organizing is about placing art and culture at the center of an organizing strategy and also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, and community of place or worldview.

Cultural Organizing Principles (working list):

o   Values multiple ways of knowing and being

o   Reconceptualizes power and power relationships

o   Prioritizes the centering of a creative process to address change

o   Addresses the issues people face in their communities

o   Moves people toward a place of action

o   Develops new leadership

o   Is based on the lived experiences of those participating

o   Deepens Analysis, i.e. gain knowledge, engage with theories of social change & liberation

o   Allows participants to bring their full self

o   Confronts oppression and privilege

o   Involve whole communities in a transformative process

o   Process and outcome are valued equally

o   Real emphasis on listening and story-telling as a method for generating knowledge and understanding