The Hard Problems Integrating “Culture” into Social Change

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues

Mural 2221 First PanelNew Orleans      Jagrati Bhatia is community organizer I know in London who I’ve talked to about our organizing in Narobi, where she has family.  I posted on my Facebook page that I was rolling through Lake Village, Arkansas between Little Rock and New Orleans and stopped by:

….to help set up the KABF sponsored Oxbow Jazz & Gospel Festival in Lake Chicot State Park outside of Lake Village, Arkansas today. KABF’s John Cain and Robert Griffith were the organizers and I was a helper along with other volunteers. The first group was blowing the leaves off the trees on a beautiful day at a beautiful site as I left.

She commented, “You have time to absorb culture, Wade Rathke?  Wish I was there.”  I glibly responded something about being the KABF station manager so it was part of the job essentially, but Sister Jagrati has a point.  It’s not easy to connect culture to the work of organizing.

           Part of it plainly and simply has to do with sustainability and KABF’s partnership with Arkansas’ Lake Chicot State Park is a good example of the pleasures and pitfalls.  The park is a great facility in southern Arkansas closer to Louisiana than anywhere else and in the very outer range of KABF’s 100,000 watt signal.  The park people wanted to encourage visitors and show off their improvements so were donating the pavilion and some other services. Putting on a jazz and gospel, two day festival is great for the audience and the players, but hell on the organizers.  The park would be ahead and the local school system was getting 40% of the ticket sales to buy musical instruments for their students.  The sheriff was getting the beer permit, but he dropped the ball and filed too late, so much for that.  The food vendors and sound people were coming from distances and could hardly find the park, 8 miles from the 2200 person town of Lake Village.  To have a shot Cain and Griffith had raised $10,000 through another one of the DJs connections to some small foundation.  All of us will be lucky to breakeven, and that doesn’t count the real issue which is how to get a crowd out to the venue, swaying to great music with their hands in the air.  Culture takes hard organizing just like social change does, and maybe that’s the real issue Jagrati? 

            All you can do is your best.

            At our new building we had a driveway which will end up being the entrance way to the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude once we finally get all the state fire and health people to give their blessings.  There is a 9 foot tall wall that runs 50 feet from the street to the patio area.  How about a mural that celebrates all of this says Dine’ Butler with Local 100?   A friend of hers recommended Danae Brissonnett, a young, talented muralist from Montreal, Canada with a great sense of color, politics, and adventure, so we made a good deal all around.

The first panel has now gone up.  We’re working with a serious artist!  I understand it’s meant to convey the forces aligned against us and the fight for justice and power.  It’ll be interesting to see this develop, but it’s a “buckle the seat belt” and “hope for the best” proposition.  Will people run into the building and the coffeehouse or run away from it once it’s done?  What do a bunch of organizers know about art?  We know what we like, but….

            So, yes, Jag, we do “absorb culture,” and we try to integrate it into the work, but it’s not easy, and too often it’s not sustainable except on the margins, when we find artists as scrappy and committed as organizers.

            But speaking of culture and KABF and all of its music, we’ll let Bruce Springsteen, somebody we do understand better than most, and his song, “Jack of All Trades,” summarize the problem and our notion that we have to stand steady and tall in the face of it, just as Danae’s mural is symbolizing:

The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, yeah they’ll bet your life
I’m a jack of all trades, darling we’ll be all right