A few weeks ago I had the honor of joining a participatory art team working to integrate culture into CommonBound, a progressive conference on the new economy. Yes, you can assume I am a bit of a facilitation dork — getting excited about both a conference and the dubious field of culture integration. But stay with me.
It’s true that in certain circles there is a lot of talk about integrating arts into social change work and harnessing culture in service of our activism. But it’s mostly included as an afterthought and nobody wants to pay for it. When the talking heads on the plenary are boring, someone will ask: “Can’t we just get someone to sing a song?”
Of course, that’s a setup for failure, or at least a guarantee that the benefits of having arts and cultural approaches won’t be fully realized. However, if done well, integrating culture with common conference structures — or staff meetings, skill shares or organizing events — can become both metaphor and practice for the healthier, more fulfilling world we want.
I spend a lot of my time helping activists identify goals and effective tools and tactics for reaching them. Since this CommonBound conference was dedicated to moving away from extractive finance and towards reinvestment in our communities, it was explicitly anchored in values of economic, racial and environmental justice, and dedicated to building community capacity. It is on the front lines of the fight for economic justice that our mainstream narratives of individualism, consumption, privatization, xenophobia, racism, sexism and capitalism come crashing head first into the alternate set of values needed to underpin a world that provides for all of its people. Powering through to this new economy requires dismantling current cultural assumptions, and the means we engage to do this will determine in large part whether or not we are able to make the transition.
Using the conference as a platform for this work is smart. As a facilitator, I know intimately that good facilitation is an art, not a science — and that using interactive popular education formats is more than simply fun. It’s a way to use tools based on a commitment to collective liberation to equalize participation and open process. It’s facilitation as a tactic for morphing structures and process into tools for revolution. Sometimes it’s difficult to get groups to embrace this kind of process in a one–off workshop, never mind on a conference-wide scale, which offers a tremendous pallet — literally and figuratively.
There are so many benefits to intentionally using cultural work. Besides offering an engaging way to shift cultural structures and processes on the way to a new world, artists and cultural workers are often on the cutting edge of visioning our previously unimagined futures. And using creativity tools enhances our individual and collective capacity to envision and create positive alternatives.
Need to build group cohesiveness and fight the isolation and loneliness that can plague activists? Harnessing rituals and dedicating time for community-building activities can help. Want the world to understand your openness to diversity and a willingness to involve the whole person? Setting aside time in a schedule for participant contributions to events telegraphs the value of bringing your whole self to the work.
Here are 15 specific suggestions to get the most out of arts and cultural work during a conference. Some are fairly simple and straightforward; some take a bit more energy and commitment to make happen. Most can stand alone, but the big pay outs happen when a symbiosis is possible. This list is not exclusive but selective on cultural integration — there are a number of critical best practices for events that I have not mentioned, including effective/simultaneous translation, as well as the pacing of sessions and scheduling.
How much fun would a conference/event be that did all — or most — of this? Even utilizing a few of these ideas can put you and your organization squarely on the path to the future you are envisioning. As we reclaim arts and regenerative culture as part of the work itself, we also create vibrant practice ground for manifesting the world we want.
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