Operating from the Place of Yes

GIA Conference Blogger Tram Nguyen reports from the preconference, Culture at the Intersection of Race, Space, and Place, that took place on Sunday, October 21, in Oakland, California.

It seems like everywhere you turn these days in the social justice/progressive nonprofit world, the catch phrase is “transformative not transactional change.” As I mentioned in my first post, I’m a local government staffer by day, and our bureaucracies and elected offices specialize in transactional exchanges — here’s some money for a program, here are some services, here’s a policy change even… but transformative change, what the heck do you mean by that? (I imagine myself raising the topic of transformational change with a city council aide or a county agency head and the raised eyebrow or blank look at best before we get down to business discussing that, you got it, transactional thing we’re trying to get done.)

Yet the reason this catch phrase has caught on, and is more than a catch phrase, is because I think many of us recognize the truth of the need for deep shifts in how our institutions, norms and practices operate in reproducing and maintaining inequity, injustice, and exclusion. Which brings me to this theme of reimagining the role of the arts and artists in social movements.

Earlier this morning, Favianna Rodriguez, an Oakland-born and bred gem, spoke about how social justice spaces tend to privilege action, often in a “fight back” mode against something. Reactive action, even if it’s focused on prevention, well-planned, and proactively undertaken. (This is the space in which I primarily work.) Artists on the other hand, “work in the realm of ideas, in the space of yes not no,” as Favianna put it.

To elaborate on this, I think of the work of Octavia Butler, opening up the imaginative capacities we need to contend with where our society’s fissures take us in the not-so-distant future. This isn’t about playing some music to open up a conference, providing the lunchtime entertainment, and making some posters. It’s about arts and culture as intellectual work and a strategic lens as well as a social value for the world we want to live in, to fight for. It’s about an integration of arts into social movements, recognizing that without culture, we can’t change politics—an insight at the heart of the national organization Culture Strike that Favianna helped to found along with my ColorLines compadre Jeff Chang and others.

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