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Will Democracy Survive in the 21st Century? Why Progressive Leaders Need to Know About Cultural Organizing

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The survival of democracy is not a question I had seriously considered until I attended the celebration of the 75th birthday of the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee. But when Mike Clark, a former Director of Highlander, posed the question, the light came flooding in. It is a real question that may be answered in the affirmative or not.

Mike Clark listed five indicators for the future of democracy: 1) treatment of the poor; 2) education of youth; 3) free flow of information; 4) response to internal and international dissent; and 5) care of the environment.

Given these indicators, an affirmative answer to the question of the survival of democracy in the U.S. began to seem like wishful thinking. But, thankfully, Highlander gave me new hope, joy, and courage to say YES!.

Even before going to Highlander, I believed in the power of cultural organizing. After my experience there, I am more convinced than ever that cultural organizing is a key to the future of democracy in this county.

So what is cultural organizing? Basically, according to writer and activist Caron Atlas, it is "placing culture at the center of an organizing strategy." So what? Because, as Atlas writes in the Grantmakers In the Arts Reader, "What is different are the values, principles, and vision for the future (and definition of whose future) that lie at the heart of the organizing."

Values, principles, and vision make all the difference. Highlander has known that for a long time. Cultural organizing is one of their core strategies. Highlander transformed "We Shall Overcome" into an anthem of hope. Guy and Candie Carawan, longtime activists there, continue to sing out about the unity and joy of making music together.

I participated in an all-day Cultural Organizing Institute at Highlander that stimulated my thinking, challenged my assumptions, and made my heart sing with new hope for the future. "Cultural organizing is not a set of strategies. It is a way of life, " observed Amelia Kirby, an Appalshop filmmaker and one of the institute leaders. "We must move beyond single issue organizing to advocating and living for an integrated set of principles."

Organizer Pancho Arguelles agreed, adding, "It is important to bring your whole self for cultural organizing, including your language. The revolution won't be English only."

Talking about values means recognizing the power of money and class in this country. "We need economy schools," said former Highlander Director and Appalachian scholar Helen Lewis. "We need a vision of a moral economy." We also need to work together. As Lewis said," Justice and sustainability requires collaboration."

Cultural organizing means recognizing gender equality, too. Youth activist Elandria Williams put it oh so succinctly: "Sexism rots your mind."

I believe that cultural organizing can help revitalize and unify movements for peace, equality, and social justice in this country and around the world. Like Suzanne Pharr, former Highlander Director and GLBTQ activist, I see a great longing for peace and justice here and now. As Pharr eloquently observed, "We must build on this longing and focus on transformation, as well as struggle. We must remember what we wish for and what we want to be. How do we work in collective ways and find the courage to act? Collective action must be infused with joy and hope."

"Where is the movement now?" What can we do now? An afternoon Cultural Organizing Workshop organized by Caron Atlas explored these questions and offered practical strategies for movement building centered on democracy and social justice. "We can talk about integrity, love, sharing, loyalty, brother/sisterhood," said Matt Jones, a SNCC Freedom Singer. "We can stand for the truth. If you stand for truth, people will stick to you. Focus on those who stick to you. Don't worry about those who don't. We need to recognize that 'the movement' has changed. It is being redefined. That doesn't mean there is not a movement now. It just means the movement has changed."

Based on my experience at Highlander, I urge all progressive leaders to claim the power of cultural organizing. Organize around core values, beliefs, and principles to end poverty, provide all youth with quality educations, ensure a free flow of information, respect internal and international dissent, and protect the environment.

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