Art and Social Justice: Those who can, are

photo credit Julius MweluBrandi Staley, "Justice Compels us to Move" Brandi Staley, "There is Freedom in Story"

I have virtually zero artistic ability. No, really–ask my preschooler how well I do when he asks me to draw him a truck or a train or even a house. It’s not pretty.

As an organizer, then, I often struggled to find ways to connect with people’s creativity. I get it that many people (maybe even most) really find meaning in arts–visual arts, theatre, music…it’s just not in me, really, and so it was hard to integrate into my organizing. I mean, if community organizing needs to be authentic, then how could I be authentic with something so entirely foreign?

I still remember a DREAM Act coalition planning meeting when this came up. We were planning a press event to push for a vote in the Kansas Legislature on our instate tuition bill and trying to connect it with a call on Congress to advance the DREAM Act legislation, since the press conference would be held during the spring congressional recess. One of the student activists said that we really needed a visual, something to resonate with people who might just see the press conference on TV (but not pay attention to the audio) or just see a picture in the paper (very smart advocate, no?). We all agreed but had no idea where to go with it. Filling the silence (almost always a bad idea, I know), I threw out some ideas: photographs of students (confidentiality concerns, plus maybe distracting), a quilt (overdone, and too peripheral to our issue), a mural (good idea, maybe, but too hard to pull off quickly).

A young woman who seldom spoke much said, “let’s make an American flag out of our hands.” I think I gave her a blank stare; I have no ability to visualize things. She sketched a little bit and showed me–we’d cut students’ hands out of red, white, and blue paper, have them write their first name and their ‘dream’ on them, and then assemble them to look like an American flag. It was an awesome idea.

My then-coworker, Jennifer Gordon, got the task of cutting out the hands and finishing up the final assembly, and the students took responsibility for getting the hands signed and collected. We used the ‘hand flag’ not just at that press conference but in many events afterwards. Once, in the capitol, a photographer specifically asked some of our DREAM advocates to move over closer to it for a better picture. It ran on the front page.

There are many other examples from my organizing of how we wove the arts, loosely defined, into successful campaign work. Many of them come from that same effort around immigrant youth; young people are, perhaps, especially good at integrating these aspects of their lives into a coherent message: a DREAM Act rap that was really catchy (“I want to go to college…”), a Día de los Muertos altar for family members left behind in countries of origin, a fantastic collage around the message of fragmented dreams.

My work in an immigrant community helped me with this, too; our rallies always featured songs and dancing and multilingual chanting–it was understood that this helped people to feel at home and represented and alive, in the context of the struggle. If we fail to make room in our social justice work for people’s full creative expression, we risk sterilizing our movement, alienating our allies, and neutering our message.

Recently, I found this blog, social (he)art, dedicated to artists working for social justice. It profiles artists and social justice/arts organizations and highlights their work. I think that this could be a real area of potential contribution for social workers in social change work, given what our clinical colleagues know about the healing power of artistic expression.

How have you used art, music, theatre, in your practice? How do you use art to inspire you, personally, to continue your social justice pursuit? Did you see any work at social (he)art that particularly resonated with you? Are you an artist with social justice-related content you want to share?

2 responses to “Art and Social Justice: Those who can, are

  1. When I joined the team at the Kansas Association of Community Action Programs, one of my goals was to find new ways to tell the poverty story. I’m very excited that we are moving ahead with the planning stages of a photography-as-advocacy project called Poverty:A-Z. I’d be happy to keep you abreast of the journey we’re embarking on.

    • Jesyca, I would LOVE to see what you’re doing with the photography as advocacy work. I’d love to feature some of the work, too, if that would be OK. It sounds awesome. And I’ve worked with Tawny and others at KACAP over the years, and may some more here in the near future, so please give her my regards! Thanks so much for your comments.


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