Culture as an Organizing and Community Building Tool

“Art does not always benefit community organizing, but when it does, it is a powerful agent. At a time when many worry about the strength of American democracy, art should be supported to enliven the body, spirit, and community of our nation.” Peter Pennekamp
Throughout history, culture has played a monumental part in the visualization, motivation, and documentation of social movements. Culture is the basis for our beings as people- language, food, music, visual arts, dance, values and beliefs. For every people, every society, every generation, there have been individuals who spoke for the people, danced for the people, and documented the people's struggles with art from all genres. Music has often played a vital role in this process, inspiring and uniting people in movements around the world. In this country alone, generations of labor organizers and activists have been inspired by such songs as "Which Side Are You On" and "Solidarity Forever," and participants in the Civil Rights movement were inspired by freedom songs such as "We Shall Overcome," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," and "Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom."

Tufara Waller Muhammad, coordinates Highlander's Cultural Program and supports the work of the We Shall Overcome Fund. As a cultural organizer for more than 15 years, Waller Muhammad combines art and activism to help people deepen their relationships with each other, demystify complex problems, nurture and sustain their communities and strengthen their work for justice. She states that: “Every organizer should be using art and culture as a strategy to help people build bridges. I come from a school of Southern organizing where the organizers need to be invisible and the focus is placed on the people we work for. I come from a long organizing tradition that includes the Ella Baker Schools, and people like Hollis Watkins and Bernice Johnson Reagon, among others, where art and culture have always been a part of organizing. When I started working outside the South, the thing that freaked me out was organizing with no cultural or artistic component. I didn’t realize that it didn’t happen everywhere until I left the South. For me, the cultural piece is integral to organizing but for some people it is frivolous.” Today, in a time of cynicism, division, and lack of hope, we believe that collective cultural expressions can once again strengthen the ability of people to organize and struggle for justice. Consequently, the goal of our cultural program is to involve cultural workers in social justice efforts and to encourage cultural work in organizational movement building. 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. It is also about organizing from a particular cultural identity, community of place or worldview.

The Highlander Center is a residential popular-education and research organization based on a 106-acre farm in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, 25 miles east of Knoxville, Tennessee. Since 1932, Highlander has gathered workers, grassroots leaders, community organizers, educators and researchers to address the most pressing social, environmental and economic problems facing the people of the South.