More Than the Sum of Our Parts
I should have known Ken Grossinger would burst my bubble, in the best way. Ken has worked at the beating heart of movements for social change for decades, so I knew his new book, Art Works: How Organizers and Artists Are Creating a Better World Together (2023) would be rich with movement stories. And since I already fashioned myself one of those enlightened organizers who knows a thing or two about how to use art and music in campaigns and direct actions, I assumed this would be a stroll down memory lane.
But when I read the book, I woke up: I quickly realized Grossinger is up to something great and new here. He wants to challenge us all to be more creative, so we can more effectively craft the conditions for social change. Grossinger has the experience to grasp, in ways that few of us can, how art and organizing make each other more the sum of their parts. He now wants more of us to benefit from what he has learned.
Despite my own amazing stories and incredible enlightenment, I had all along been doing what anti-disciplinary artist Aisha Shillingford calls, in the book’s powerful close, “aestheticizing protest.” As Art Works makes clear, art is not a tactic; it is a way to engage people’s whole selves in the work of social change. Art as individual expression does have its place, but if we want to move people into action, we need to reach their hearts and souls with the kind of political art Grossinger describes here, the kind artists and organizers co-create in powerful campaigns.
In Art Works Grossinger offers new ways to build power, which is something none of us can ignore: “When artists and organizers combine forces, new forms of political mobilization follow — which shape lasting social change… Art Works features organizers who brought artists to their strategy tables to contribute their ideas beyond their art and artists who deployed their artwork in the service of social movements. The book explores the challenges of these collaborations and the extent to which organizations and artists have developed practices that enable or stymie their capacity to work together.”
In a manageable 248 pages, Grossinger leads us on a whirlwind tour of historical and contemporary stories from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to Black Lives Matter, Sweet Honey in the Rock to Standing Rock, from El Teatro Campesino to “Rebels to the Pebble” and Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay. You’ll be hard pressed to read more than a few pages before you put the book down to listen to “Mississippi Goddam” (1964) by Nina Simone or Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” The plates and photos in the book bring the visual arts to life and locate them at the center of campaigns and actions. I would love to see a coffee-table sized version of this book, with even more inspiring images to draw us in.
Grossinger makes the point early that “Because politics and culture are inextricably linked, organizers and artist-activists are more likely to achieve lasting change in the body politic by working together. That sounds obvious, but until recently — as the field of cultural organizing started to develop beyond the work of the individual artist and as the organizing community has begun to open itself to new forms of collaboration — many activists and organizers had been selecting one path or the other. Many others are now merging their approaches to challenging power.”
This point is hammered home throughout Art Works: we will be more powerful if organizers bring artists to the strategy table and artists deploy their work in the service of social movements. This doesn’t always work, and Grossinger doesn’t spare a critical analysis of organizers and artists who don’t manage to find their strategic groove.
Most organizers know and appreciate the role of song and art in the civil rights movement, but Grossinger is clear that this is a continuation of the inseparable history of arts and organizing that comes from the creative resistance of people fighting against oppression and for a better life and world. He explains: “Art in all its forms — from visual art, including photography and film, to poetry, music, theater, and more — was not just an interlude but a contributor to politics, helping to shape the worldview and culture of those within and on the sidelines of the civil rights movement.”
Strategic organizers and artists see that their collaborations can move both the people directly involved in a campaign or action–and the people watching on screens. Our public meetings and actions are a form of theater, and who wants to go see a show that doesn’t have music and art? Mindful organizers and artists create political spectacles that encourage people to sign up and join in. People’s Action calls this potent brew a “joyful rebellion.”
Grossinger explores the ways many different genres of music (spirituals and freedom songs, gospel, jazz, blues, folk, rock and roll, etc.) and art (visual, performance, participatory, traditional, etc.) have played a critical role in specific campaigns and actions in Art Works. He shares the words of civil rights activist, photographer, and author Bruce Hartford, who said: “The songs spread our message, bonded us together, elevated our courage, shielded us from hate, forged our discipline, protected us from danger, and it was the songs that kept us sane.”
Anyone who was organizing in the freedom movements and into the 1980s will remember the role of photography and documentary film in people’s organizations. I remember the dark room downstairs in People’s Action’s old headquarters in Chicago, where shelf upon shelf were filled with stacks of films from actions and public meetings. Anyone who has been to the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee will appreciate the painstaking work of movement historians to document the successes and failures of movement organizers and artists for the past almost 100 years.
My own stories of art and organizing are not ones that will make it into many history books, though the work that People’s Action did with David Solnit throughout the financial crisis gave our biggest street demonstrations a dramatic visual impact. As we were closing in on the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010, People’s Action, Jobs With Justice, and SEIU organized an unpermitted street action in Washington, D.C. that blocked traffic at the epicenter of bank lobbying on K Street, then marched in the rain with extraordinarily high spirits to the U.S. Department of Treasury and Bank of America’s flagship branch, which is conveniently located — for them — right across the plaza from Treasury.
Solnit’s twenty-foot-tall tower of corporate power puppeting Congress made our message immediately clear. This made the action far more effective, as did the advance work that Solnit did to train staff and members how to make more engaging signs and stage them for better visual impact. His work with People’s Action started a year earlier with the Showdown in Chicago, a highlight being the kayak action down the Chicago River to deliver our message (“Bust Up Big Banks,” “Make Wall Street Pay”) to the American Bankers Association on the scenic side of their conference hotel, and continued after the passage of Dodd-Frank when we dressed up in Robin Hood costumes and built our own bridge to cross a literal moat to deliver our message at the JP Morgan Chase annual shareholders meeting in Ohio, where we demanded the bank stop lobbying against the implementation of financial reform.
People’s Action went on to work with a wide variety of artists, including an incredibly powerful action where Favianna Rodriguez helped People’s Action leaders create butterfly art we could wear into Senate office buildings so that Senators would see us lining the halls as they passed us en route to an important hearing on immigration reform.
The image of hundreds of people with butterfly wings and signs standing in silent vigil still brings tears to my eyes, especially knowing that the fight for comprehensive immigration reform and compassionate migration policies are nowhere near over. Art Works includes the backstory of how Rodriguez created the now ubiquitous Migration Is Beautiful poster, featuring a monarch butterfly whose wings contain human profiles, after a trip to Arizona and meeting with immigrant rights leaders and organizers.
Grossinger tells a parallel story about César Maxit who “conducted more than a dozen training programs for NDLON [National Day Labor Organizing Network] on how to cut stencils and create posters to extend their communications reach. In the absence of a local organizing center, he recalls conducting one of the communications trainings on the top of washing machines at a Georgia laundromat where organizers were meeting.”
More than a dozen years later, the grassroots leaders and organizers who were at these actions remember two things: winning the fight and their role in executing the spectacular visuals, music, and energy (highly creative chants) teams.
Grossinger explains why experiences like these are so powerful for people: “Artwork in the form of music, film, poetry, photography, painting, sculpture, and other genres has always helped shape narratives about racial justice. This is one reason why it is so critical for art and antiracist organizing to be interconnected.”
Arts and organizing, when done together in the way Grossinger describes, have the potential to tell stories that resonate in our hearts, minds, and guts, and move millions of people into action on shared values and interests in ending racial injustice and for a multiracial democracy and inclusive economy. Try doing this without a culture, narrative, and arts strategy at the center of the organizing and see how far you get moving people at the scale of the crises and problems we face.
Grossinger goes on to describe how: “The vast array of art in all of its forms interacts with, builds on, and responds to demands for social change. While social movements can result in important policy changes, organizing alone is unlikely to produce long-term change if we are unable to touch the heart and soul of our communities and shift the narratives that maintain the status quo. Cultural organizing does that.”
The role of art in emergent strategy cannot be overstated. In the late 1990s, I was an organizer at what is now ONE Northside, one of the anchor neighborhood organizations in People’s Action’s hometown. We wanted to launch a campaign for affordable housing set-asides on the north side of Chicago, where gentrification was destroying communities. We didn’t start with public meetings or direct action: instead, we started with art and music-filled marches in Uptown that stopped at potential unaffordable development sites and shared our vision for a different community. We created puppets to march along with us that represented real people in the community.
As someone who is not formerly homeless, I would never have known the symbolic power of a puppet holding a key, but that is exactly what the then-homeless folks created in a church basement workshop following the food programs over several weeks. You may already know what I learned on that day: that many formerly homeless people come back to their chosen communities in shelter and food programs to share their success, and inspire their friends by showing folks the new keys to their home. That’s what having a home means: having the key to a space that is your own. So our puppets and their golden keys walked along with us, and people felt seen in ways that only they could have expressed through art and organizing.
Grossinger dedicates a chapter to the work of documentary storytelling and its relationship to social change. He observes that “Filmmakers and community organizers who strive to transform the political landscape don’t depend on the element of chance. They believe narrative change alone is insufficient to change cultural norms, institutional practices, and policy.” He describes how impact producers can work in partnership with organizers to “reach and unleash a wide variety of emotions.” He continues by noting that “If at the end of the film you don’t have a place to go with these emotions, then the emotional high is lost… Impact campaigns are designed to use film as a strategy to galvanize change and pull chance out of the equation. Intentionally, many filmmakers and organizers join the power of visual storytelling to shift narratives with the strength of community organizing to change power dynamics. Joined at the hip, these strategically designed campaigns increase the role of film, media, and television in aiding or (sometimes) propelling social change.”
An excellent example of this strategy comes from Jane Fonda about the making of the 1980 comedy film, 9 to 5, in partnership with 9to5, the National Association of Working Women. As described in my prior Social Policy review of Ellen Cassedy’s Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, a Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie (2022) and again by Grossinger, the film was intended to be a serious drama until Jane Fonda and her team met with women office workers from the 9to5 organization.
Grossinger describes how: “during one pivotal meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, Fonda and Higgins asked the secretaries if anybody ever dreamed of killing their boss?… One woman wanted to grind up her boss in a coffee grinder and then serve his grounds in a hot drink. At that point, it became clear that the 9 to 5 movie needed to be a comedy, a decision they believed could enable the film to reach women who might not be drawn to a “feminist” film.”
The 9to5 movement, bolstered by a Hollywood movie which became an unexpected hit, went on to change history and draw millions of women and men into the conversation about equity for women in the workplace and society. More recently, this level of collaboration between filmmakers and organizers can be seen in the work of groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Color of Change, and PopCulture Collaborative, whose funded projects in 2020 cumulatively reached over 100 million people. Grossinger quotes Ai-jen Poo, President of NDWA, who argues that “having cultural strategies embedded in a social movement means you can exponentially increase your impact in the real world, because you can leverage culture change strategies with others, and connect mass audiences to policy and technology solutions that are in motion already.”
As someone who is equally at home amongst funders, organizers, and artists, Grossinger challenges philanthropy for its longstanding support of arts divorced from politics, and even those “art for social change” funders who have not centered race, class, and gender in their grantmaking. In a message that is at the core of Art Works, Grossinger explains: “In the context of art for social justice, when all three players — artists, organizers, and funders — share common interests, and when trust between them develops, their overlapping work becomes more entwined, these partnerships deepen, and all three increase their capacity to reach their goals.”
Grossinger goes on to share the stories of Art for Justice and Constellations Fund whose work is informed by practitioners from both the art and organizing worlds, and avoids the pitfalls of philanthropic arts funding. “When cultural philanthropy collaborates with the communities it wants to serve and gives up some power and control, it often strengthens its work,” he explains.“By adopting a crucially important and necessary equity imperative, these funders can grapple with their troublesome past and respond more effectively to movements for social and economic justice.”
Yet art, and the narrative power it builds, can only go so far without a parallel and intentional organizing strategy. That’s why the afterword in Art Works, a roundtable discussion amongst organizers and artists about the relationship between art and social justice and how it informs people’s theories of change, is my favorite part of the book. Featuring Sonya Childress, Jasiri X, Josie Mooney, Shepard Fairey, Mel Chin, George Goehl, Michael Premo, and Aisha Shillingford, this conversation brings Grossinger’s insights into the here and now, and crystallizes an agitation that grew in me as I read the book from cover to cover.
Yes, Art Works is filled to the brim with inspiring stories and lessons for organizers and artists who see the opportunity to build more power and have more impact. But the real power of this book is in the way it builds Grossinger’s growing agitation, chapter by chapter. To Ken, it is not some nameless audience that needs to learn how to holistically bring art and organizing together, it’s you and me. And it’s not out of charity: we all need art to be fully seen and heard, and we all need organizing to feel the collective power that is humanity’s birthright.
As artists and organizers, we owe it to one another — and to the members of our organizations and the public — to meet at the strategy table, conduct our power analysis together, and do so in creative ways that will speak to everyone’s deep longing to be whole and free through collective action. Let’s get to it.
Grossinger, Ken. Art Works: How Organizers and Artists Are Creating a Better World Together. New Press: 2023.
This book review first appeared in Social Policy Magazine: Organizing for Social and Economic Justice (53,2).