Organizing and Art

ACORN Organizing Voice of the People Wade's World

            Oakland          We’ve always been clear, organizing is an art, not a science.  We count everything of course and measure the probabilities closely in order to predict turnout, growth, staff development, and a host of other things, but mostly that is necessary to provide the infrastructure.  It doesn’t change the organic nature of the work or the number of variables that need to be aligned to create power and make change.

Just as organizing has to exist on its own terms to be effective, art exists within its own realm as well.  Ken Grossinger, who has often intersected with our unions and ACORN, while working in the labor movement and elsewhere, wants both organizers and artists to join their realms more closely.  In his book, Art Works:  How Organizers and Artists are Creating a Better World Together, he marshals an array of examples across a number of movements and organizations to buttress his case that these two worlds are already joined tightly together.  In reality, his argument is more aspirational and points to the directions that many organizations have taken to encourage a whole lot more of these partnerships.

Artists and their art’s expression in performance, music, representation, and more existing in its own realm is a classic case of “speaking truth to power.”  Given the slender business model of art and its place in culture, much of it only exists in relationship to the rich and deeply funded institutions.  Talking to Grossinger recently on Wade’s World, he is advocating that it works best, and I would say, works better, when it partners with organizations and social movements.  When lightning is captured in that bottle, there really is something better that can be created together.

Grossinger’s examples are numerous.  The campesinos theater enlivened the farmworkers’ union organizing, just as Honey and the Rock, Junebug Productions, and the Free Southern Theater were important to the civil rights movement.  Popular education was central to many of the worker center organizations, and an experience which helped propel the National Day Laborers Network under Pablo Alvarado.  Si Kahn has been using his singing, guitar, and organizing in the labor and civil rights movements, and more recently in protecting Bristol Bay from developers in Alaska.  ACORN launched a display on the history of movements, had art in our offices memorializing members’ organizing and campaigns, songs in meetings and marches.  To be successful, most major organizations and movements understood there had to be bread and roses.

Art is an important communication and organizing tool as well.  Cesar Chavez and ACORN both independently established noncommercial radio stations more than forty years ago to operate as platforms that moved art and culture in support of community solidarity and empowerment.  Our “voice of the people” stations provide a platform for music and conversation to build movement and change.

Joining these realms is hard work in the vineyards of change, but Grossinger’s voice is not a cry in the wilderness.  Many have already moved in this direction, but his voice is a cry for more action and work.  Let’s hope it is heard and heeded.