My brother Ricardo likes to say that there are two kinds of organizers, those who understand that storytelling is at the center of all good organizing, and the ones who haven't figured it out yet.
It's been a deep frustration to me for most of my activist life, that so many movement organizations fail to understand the power of art to change the way people perceive the world. The purpose of organizing is to change consciousness, to change what people imagine to be possible, so they can go out and make it happen. Radical artists are experts in changing culture, challenging official stories, exposing suppressed truths, creating culture that brims with possibility. We know how to listen to stories and how to tell them.
But much of the time, we're called upon to sweeten up a dry polemic, publicize and illustrate campaigns we're not asked to help design, perform at fundraisers, and make the poster for the event. Art is seen as a "tool," not a core strategy of transformation. Most of the time, artists aren't brought in for serious discussions about how to change beliefs, how to shift people and win them over, how to open up new avenues.
One obvious sign of this is the shortage of thoughtful slogans, chants and songs at protests. What we write on our signs, chant in the streets, and join our voices to sing should be composed with our strategic goals and deepest values in mind, and honed with all the artistry of which we are capable, so they can do their real job: change consciousness, and move people to think, feel, question, act. Artists need to be among the core strategists of all our movements, shaping our work, not just decorating it.
Last fall, I got to spend the weekend with around forty mostly Jewish artist-activists who came together to do just that. Jewish Voice for Peace invited us to the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut to create the organization's Artists' Council and start mapping out the work of changing the dominant narratives about Israel/Palestine, and also about Jewish identity in the 21st century.
It was an intense and joyous few days, spent grappling with how best to apply both our artistic talents and our political insight to the interwoven tasks of supporting Palestinian liberation and challenging the right wing domination of U.S. Jewish life. It's the kind of group every smart movement should be convening, and I've been agitating for something like it for decades.
Many things happened there which will lead to a lot of inspiring work in the coming months, and hopefully years, and I look forward to telling you about it.
For now, here is my contribution to a more thoughtful protest culture, the marchable, singable song I wrote, which I unveiled at our Artists' Council retreat. Like many of the songs I grew up on, its a recycled tune with lyrics remade for the moment. The structure is simple, the chorus easy, and anyone could make some verses of their own. I wrote it for Jewish leftists like myself, who need our own songs. It's to the tune of Florence Reese's classic union song, "Which Side Are You On," written during the bitter mineworkers' struggles of 1931 in Harlan County, Kentucky. Florence herself borrowed the tune from the hymns and ballads she grew up on, as I grew up on her song. Feel free download the lyrics. Stay tuned for the music video.
Justice, Justice We'll Pursue
Justice, Justice We'll Pursue by Aurora Levins Morales is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.auroralevinsmorales.com.
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