Living at an Intersection

Hello GIA and thanks for welcoming me into your community!

The Talk Back Series marks an important milestone for me — my very first blog post!  This happens to be mildly ironic to me since I am neither an artist nor a grant-maker.  I have spent the last decade, however, thinking about the power of art and culture when it intersects with the best ideas in academia, civic and political engagement, and issue-based advocacy.

A little bit about me:  I began my career some 20 years ago in academia – political science to be exact – in the field of Black Politics.  In the course of teaching about the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, I began to reflect on the ways in which ‘indigenous institutions’ like the church and college campuses served as mobilizing hubs for community engagement.  Feeling nostalgia for a ‘Movement’ like the ones in which my parents came of age, I began to ask — where are the indigenous institutions of today?  What organizing bodies could potentially mobilize hundreds and thousands of young people and marginalized communities to collective action and issues of social justice?

Sorting out those questions led me to consider culture — namely, Hip Hop culture — as a modern-day indigenous institution capable of moving, mobilizing, and possibly inspiring the next generation into action.  What interested me about Hip Hop at the time was that it was not only a place where authentic representations of a community’s lived condition were being communicated, it was also a place where those representations and ideas were being connected at the speed of light to a wider audience and, quite possibly, transforming (some might argue reinforcing) perceptions about who those communities were.

While I am sure many will challenge the notion of Hip Hop as an art form, as relevant or even authentic given the influence of corporate commodification today (and I am long since out of the demo(graphic), as they say, and cannot even begin to comment with any real authority about the current state of Hip Hop), I do believe that then and now — one of the most amazing parts about Hip Hop culture is that it maintains a very organic infrastructure that supports the delivery of ideas and messages.  This infrastructure was (and still is) as important as the very ideas that were and are being communicated.  It is no accident that Hip Hop is nearly 30 years old and its artists are still driving American and global popular culture.  I believe that is because it has innovated, and continually improves upon, a very nimble infrastructure that keeps its ears to the ground and adapts to maintain relevance.

Thinking about how to organize that infrastructure, how to harness its power for communication and message delivery, and how to invest in supporting that infrastructure around social and political messages is what drives me intellectually and practically every day.

Sometimes that means working with artists; sometimes that means engaging executives or the branding and marketing community, but most often that means engaging the everyday folk that make that infrastructure viable and meaningful in our daily routines—the barbers, the beauty salon owners, the DJs, the program directors, the blogosphere, and the youth pastors.  I have worked in this space in a variety of ways – as an academic, as a Political Director to Russell Simmons, as Executive Director of Citizen Change – the organization that ran the ‘Vote or Die!’ campaign under the leadership of Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, and for many years as both formal and informal advisors to other artists and organizations who believe in the power and the intersection of arts and culture.

I hope over the coming two weeks to share with this blog community many of the exciting possibilities I see on the horizon that can emerge when we, as a broad social justice community, are intentional about connecting our direct service work with cultural practices — a strategy that will allow us to have more expansive conversations within our own communities and among those with whom we wish to build support.

As I sat this weekend to craft my initial thoughts, I took a look around the GIA website and came across GIA ED Janet Brown’s Saturday blogpost on business models vs. good business.

‘The issue of new business models is a topic with which I am losing patience. To me it’s a “red herring” actually, when we should be discussing new product delivery models that engage more audiences, both young and old, utilize technologies and update the organizational structures and attitudes that may have worked forty years ago but are not working today. These are huge issues of leadership, boards of directors, management, community relevance and understanding audience trends.’

I couldn’t agree more.  For me, intersecting art, culture, and social change means finding those new product delivery models — or the indigenous institutions of today.  Hip Hop and more broadly popular culture may not have been in the back of Brown’s mind as a product delivery model when she wrote this — but it sure was when I left academia and started practicing in this world.