August 3, 2023
Narrative and Identity
Lessons in Art Activism - DPI Digest
This newsletter summarizes the findings and recommendations from the Art & Activism case studies in Ohio, Michigan, and Mississippi.
Penn State University
Harvard Kennedy School
Ohio Organizing Collaborative
Ohio Organizing Collaborative, Detroit Action, Mississippi Votes

Summary of Findings and Recommendations

Cultural organizing is the process of activating and leveraging culture, artist-cultural works, and their audience for a demonstration of political power. Cultural organizing often entails mobilizing people—sometimes called the “audience”—and communities through cultural activities, expressions, and traditions or by educating audiences on issues via engagement platforms in order to build collective power, resist oppression, and advance social justice movements. It also involves using the unique cultural assets and practices of a community to engage, educate, and empower its members to become active participants in shaping their own communities, as agents in a political formation and wider society.

Cultural organizing organizations (also called art-activist organizations) are social justice organizations that have explicitly political missions, engage in base-building advocacy, and deploy cultural strategies to educate, activate, and mobilize their members and constituents. As such, cultural organizing organizations use culture organizing as a tactic to advance their power-building mission.

Working with the former Midwest Culture Lab and their various affiliated organizations (e.g., the Ohio Student Association or OSA), and other art-activism organizations, including Ohio Organizing Collaborative,  Detroit Action, and Mississippi Votes, Tova Wang Senior Fellow in Democratic Practice at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School,  Dr. Ray Block Jr., Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Penn State—with the research assistance of Professor Christine Slaughter, a faculty member at Boston University and analyst at the African American Research Collaborative, and Prentiss Heny, co-executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative,  conducted research from 2020-2022 on the role of cultural organizing programs to support political activism in Black organizing. Via in-depth case studies, the goal of this research was to strengthen the arts and activism movement’s power to educate and mobilize artists and to activate audience members who support progressive issues whose civic engagement and advocacy could be strengthened via strong cultural organizing programs.

The researchers went about this work by:

  • Evaluating how cultural organizing programs in political organizations work (i.e., planning, implementation, and evaluation) and engage their members; and
  • Deepening our understanding of how this work is key to the development of political agency and activation in black communities.

Key Takeaways from the research include:

  • Artists are important leaders in social justice spaces. One way for organizations to respond to social issues is simply to give art activists the space and support to be their authentic selves, to be the nurturing space for art activists to thrive. This space helps people elevate the impact and leadership of members who sit at the intersection of organizer and artist. Artists are community leaders. They know how to move people. Successful cultural organizers & creative directors cultivate spaces for artists to bring people in.
  • Art- activism has tangible policy benefits, specifically to shift narrative. Beyond thriving in spaces where they can be their authentic selves, art activists also intervene in policy spaces. The organizers the researchers worked with took aggressive approaches to fostering art-enabled policy interventions. For example, one organization started a mini-grant program to humanize those impacted to lay the groundwork for specific policies.  
  • Art is a uniquely effective means of civic education and engagement. Because art can communicate ideas in ways that resonate intensely with audiences, art activists can be particularly effective as information sources and opinion leaders in a community. Art can also be the “entry point” from which people become politically mobilized. One group described how they would “crash” parties on campus to spread the word about reproductive freedoms.
  • Art organizing is a way to sustain community engagement all year long, building power beyond election cycles. Art is a thriving entity that brings in communities and envisions new futures. By engaging and politicizing artists, the organization gets to deepen its community bonds. It can positively influence the audiences who are part of its ecosystem and who need the change that is being fought for (i.e., the young people who won’t be reached otherwise as in a form of microtargeting).

Related Research

July 11, 2023
Art & Activism: A Three-State Case Study
This research focuses on the innovative cultural organizing these groups are doing in partnership with artists and activists and examines how arts and culture move narratives within communities of color.
How Art and Culture Move Political Narratives
This breakout session from the 2021 DPI Annual Convening helped participants understand how culture creates and moves civic engagement narratives. Past findings were included, and new research on these organizing strategies was discussed.