Because of the work of community organizers, educators, cultural workers and concerned people, we have language to describe and codify Street Harassment.
As a girl, I did not have the words or framework to describe what was happening to me when I walked to school or hung out with my friends. As a teen, I did not have the terminology down pat but I relished in the newly discovered power of using my voice to say “No!”, and now as a woman, I am well versed – I have the words, framework, voice and community to back me up and support me when street harassment strikes. I’ve been featured in documentaries on Street Harassment and have even made art/ritual/story out of these experiences.
Two months ago, in broad daylight, I was grabbed by a man I offered help to. Two weeks ago I was almost grabbed by a man who obstructed my walking on the sidewalk. He wasn’t able to grab me so he threw something at me. After both incidences and some surface-level processing, I naively thought, “But I’ve made art about this! I yelled in the street with signs about this! Why did this happen, again?”
After some deeper reflection I began to think broader about what it means to make issue-driven art/ritual/story that invites audiences to question root causes. When our art is a tool to process experiences AND build power + shift ideologies that maintain systems of oppression…things change. If we don’t intentionally make those connections, we miss a robust opportunity to deepen analysis and move people toward a place of action.
Dr. Kimberly Richards from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond gave me an analogy gift that I use all the time when talking about getting to the root of an issue…
Imagine you are down at a river bank and you see a baby in a carriage coming down the river. Shocked, you pick the baby up out of the river onto dry land. You go back to the river bank and you see two more babies floating down the river. You go to get them out and up ahead you see more babies making their way… you are doing a good thing saving these babies, but did you think to see WHO IS PUTTING THOSE BABIES IN THE RIVER?
How do we turn what may seem like isolated incidences and experiences into levers that shift public opinion and policy?
Cultural Organizing 101
The strategic use of art and culture to move progressive policies and practices in marginalized communities. – Tufara Waller Muhammad (Tufara is AMAZING. Read this beautiful, resource-rich conversation between Tufara and Javiera Benavente about arts and culture in Southern organizing)
Cultural organizing means putting culture, including its concentrated expression — art — at the center of a social and political organizing strategy. – Roadside Theater director Dudley Cocke
Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational and community context of its practitioners. Cultural organizing is about placing art and culture at the center of an organizing strategy and also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, and community of place or worldview. – Arts and Democracy Working Definition
A Working List of Cultural Organizing Principles:
o Values multiple ways of knowing and being
o Reconceptualizes power and power relationships
o Prioritizes the centering of a creative process to address change
o Addresses the issues people face in their communities
o Moves people toward a place of action
o Develops new leadership
o Is based on the lived experiences of those participating
o Deepens Analysis, i.e. gain knowledge, engage with theories of social change & liberation
o Allows participants to bring their full self
o Confronts oppression and privilege
o Involve whole communities in a transformative process
o Process and outcome are valued equally
o Real emphasis on listening and story-telling as a method for generating knowledge and understanding
(via Arts & Democracy)
A few days after the incident, I saw an anti-street harassment ad in a Washington, DC Metro station. I felt a wave of emotions… seen and validated in how I pushed my harasser away and yelled…angry that it happened… reminded that those weren’t isolated events. Because of that visual reminder, I am even more likely to call out a harasser in the moment. This ad campaign was not happenstance. Law makers and gatekeepers did not wake up one morning out of the blue and decided to make this happen. Over time and space community organizations, educators, cultural workers and concerned people rigorously engaged in the principles listed above to make this happen.
StopStreetHarassment.org offers some background on those organizing efforts.
On behalf of that girl hanging out with her friends, that teen finding voice and the woman who may really need to see an ad like that one day, thank you.
Artists and organizers (and all the hybrids in between) I challenge us to continue to apply these principles to our work and ways of being in the world so shift (continues to) happen.