Notes on a Cultural Strategy for Belonging

What and How - Attributes and Essential Practices

In the work of social, economic, and cultural transformation, what are the unique attributes of a cultural strategy for belonging? How are these attributes made real in practice? As an artist, researcher, organizer and educator engaged in cultural strategy, I seek to create processes that access what the surrealist, anti-colonial writer Aimé Césaire called “poetic knowledge” or “experience as a whole”.12 This is essential for expanding our collective, sustainable efforts towards justice and belonging through insisting on the inherent humanity of all people and concern for the earth and all living creatures. Cultural strategy can–and should–expand our epistemology by making knowledge that is generally excluded from social change, essential to research, advocacy, organizing, and living. This knowledge is frequently delegitimated because of who is producing it–queer people, poor people, Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, people with disabilities–or the form it takes–folk knowledge, family stories, belief systems, songs, experiences, emotions and expressions. In the opening lines of the essay Poetry is not a Luxury, Audre Lorde explored how the quality of analysis that comes from poetic knowledge is essential:

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt.”13

The attributes of a cultural strategy for belonging can shift the quality of our analysis. This changes the possibilities and boundaries of belonging through new forms of scrutiny, research, and creation. This bears on both the process and outcomes of social change efforts.

Attributes of a Cultural Strategy for Belonging

The following 12 attributes of cultural strategy are a palette. These attributes clarify the unique contributions of a cultural strategy for belonging. They can also guide the development of cultural strategy projects. At a minimum, these can be assessed against the needs of a project that is looking to integrate cultural strategy. Ideally, this assessment occurs early in the analysis of a need or problem as a way to shift the “quality of light” of analysis. Each attribute is generated from an analysis of case studies of our work at the Haas Institute, as well as art and cultural projects that have inspired this work.

For a workshop on working with these and additional examples related to each attribute see the Appendix.

1. Insisting on humanness

James Baldwin wrote, “The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”14 When the forms and functions of this world are defined by profit, violence, consolidation of power and othering, we are left with a dwelling place at the edge of collapse, one where humanness is narrowly defined and widely delegitimated.

The vulnerability, subjectivity, fragility, and sacredness of an insistence on the dignity and humanity of all people undergirds an authentic belonging. Politics, research, and law can lack the agility to convey or acknowledge the complexity of this humanness. Humanness makes things complicated, imperfect, and slower. Without attention to all of these parts, we stand the risk of creating limited solutions that force us to exclude parts of our selves or our communities in pursuing statistics that reflect progress. For example, the push for prison reform for “good” criminals is predicated on a solidifying of the image of “bad” criminals, flattening their humanity and the history that has produced the prison system. People don’t identify or see themselves in statistical terms or a politically convenient dataset—art and cultural strategy can keep our work insistently human, which means we are strengthening belonging through process and outcome over the long-term. People see themselves in the work and so they return–again and again. This focus on our shared humanity adds urgency and relevance to campaigns and narrative change efforts.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (Hana), 2001-2003. Chromogenic print and laser print mounted on board; variable San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase © Emily JacirEmily Jacir, Where We Come From (Hana), 2001-2003. Chromogenic print and laser print mounted on board; variable San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund purchase © Emily Jacir

Emily Jacir

Born in Palestine and holding a US passport, Jacir used the power of movement afforded by her citizenship to perform simple, intimate tasks for Palestinians living in exile. She asked Palestinian people in exile, “If I could do anything in Palestine for you, what would it be?” Jacir then carried out these actions and documented them with simple snapshots. Here, she was asked to, “Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you see on the street.” The work uses these intimate exchanges to bring an intractable global political issue down to the level of human longing and connection–and reveals the power of her US citizenship as well. The acts are not overtly political, but they reveal, in very human ways, the disruptions of life that come from displacement through colonization.

Based on the Gary family story, 1952

1935 Federal Housing Authority Loan Underwriting Manual: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” 2 Photo: Richmond Independent, March 5, 1952

Dear Ciera,
We write this with a longing heart
the journey you are embarking on
is one of horrific tradition
and our life is your testimony
is your roadmap to justice
is your proof of the matter.
We write because we admire the stories
unfolding amongst these pages,
you might call us blown away
by their honesty and the fact
that the fight has yet to cease
in this beloved city.
Listen, Richmond was the home
we fought the hardest for.
We made a home in between Kaiser shipyards and a war zone,
one Black house on an all white block.
Against ghostly men,
out for Black blood, we,
a mass of races gathered
weaving together our place of refuge
and now we pass the torch
through this letter.
If you stand your ground long enough,
you might see the shadow of the cross burning
on our lawn, as it fades away.
Don’t grow weary.
This story is merely a symbol, a note,
perhaps a scriptures all the more,
saying that this too
shall pass.

Ciera-Jevae Gordon

In a Richmond, California city council meeting in 2015, a councilmember who opposed rent control implored the audience to not listen to the few dozen community-member testimonies that were shared that evening. Instead he asked the public to pay attention to the facts that he had presented as the only valid form of expertise in deciding how the policy should be evaluated. In response to this and other dominant narratives around housing challenges in Richmond, the Staying Power Fellowship was formed, a cultural strategy project focused on housing and belonging in Richmond, co-created by the Haas Institute together with community members in Richmond and three local organizations. Out of that program a cohort of Richmond-based fellows developed a series of poems based on interviews with residents who had been impacted by the housing crisis. These poems were read at city council meetings and housing workshops throughout the city. In one piece, Staying Power fellow DeAndre Evans, referring to data presented on housing displacement in Richmond, posed the question: “How many of us aren’t statistics?” A selection of the poems was compiled together with visuals and facts about the history of housing injustice and published in a booklet entitled Walking Testimonials (see excerpt on this page). This work serves as an urgent reminder, rendered through culture, that the question of housing can’t only be encapsulated in statistics and surveys–it includes histories of place, words, smells, sounds, temperature. The book of poems was distributed alongside an accompanying research and policy report published by the Haas Institute. By giving equal footing to resident stories and experiences, the project insists on a human frame, which gives texture, complexity, nuance, and power to a vision of belonging, particularly when one’s ability to be seen as human and as belonging has been systematically denied.

2. Reclaiming cultural memory

At a conference on housing justice in 2019, scholar Laura Pulido articulated the importance of understanding a “cultural memory of erasure” as an element of organizing history.15 Reclaiming cultural memory provides strength, sustenance, and vision. It also produces an archive of injustice that can help orient and ground requirements that would make structural belonging real. In the Bay Area, Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is an organization led by urban Indigenous women. While reclaiming and returning Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land to Indigenous stewardship, it also acts to powerfully underscore the reality of contemporary Ohlone presence and combats the erasure of Ohlone history as the first inhabitants of that land. Artists frequently act as alternative historians in compelling and transformative ways that create spaces for learning about these histories, such as Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Slavery to Mass Incarceration and National Memorial for Peace and Justice (focused on racial terror lynchings) or Dread Scott’s 2019 reenactment of the largest slave revolt in US history through a multi-year community-based process.

Photo by Stevie Sanchez, EastSide Arts AlliancePhoto by Stevie Sanchez, EastSide Arts Alliance


EastSide Arts Alliance is a cultural center rooted in the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland that hosts hundreds of events each year, classes, as well as other cultural, political and arts programming. For the past 20 years, the center has hosted the Malcolm X Jazz Festival in nearby San Antonio park. The festival celebrates diverse elements of Black cultural production and their relationship to liberation struggles over time. The work expands popular understanding of the contributions and legacy of Malcolm X as well, who saw culture as, “an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle,” and that “we must recapture our heritage and identity if we are ever to liberate ourselves and break the bonds of White supremacy.” The festival reframes and grounds the cultural heritage, identity and legacy of jazz, blues, and hip-hop and cultural production more broadly as an essential element of Black liberation, while creating a yearly, positive gathering space for the San Antonio Neighborhood and Oakland more broadly.

3. Articulating and validating alternative and marginalized value systems and ways of knowing

Against Euro-American attempts of Native genocide and slavery and plantation system, Native people and enslaved Africans used ritual, culture, and art to reaffirm systems of value that articulated belonging–to the earth, to history, to each other, and to collective futures. Cultural theorist and writer Sylvia Wynter frames how rituals and dance served as ways to reestablish human connection to earth against the extractive plantation system.16 Across numerous colonial contexts—Maori healing practices in New Zealand, Candomblé in Brazil, and the Sun Dance across North America—ritual practices were banned, reflecting the power that they had to disrupt and reject colonial narratives and practices aimed at their dehumanization. Practices like these continue to emerge and produce radically different visions of value and belonging despite the presence of violent, dominant value systems.

Gathering, Mount Mackay, Fort William First Nations, Thunder Bay, Ontario, 1992 Photo: Michael Beynon. Image Courtesy of the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for Arts and CreativityGathering, Mount Mackay, Fort William First Nations, Thunder Bay, Ontario, 1992 Photo: Michael Beynon. Image Courtesy of the Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

Rebecca Belmore

Anishnibekwe artist Rebecca Belmore’s sculptural work–a larger-than-life megaphone–creates the opportunity for witnessing and participating in alternative forms of communication and knowledge through inviting First Nations people to speak with the earth. Installed at different locations, the megaphone reorients forms of communication and the framing on who/what is able to communicate. Represented in this work, the curator and writer Jen Budney pinpoints the importance of speaking and listening to country/land/earth in Indigenous communities and how this is reflected in ritual and artistic practice.17 The work shifts human relationship to the land as one of dialogue rather than ownership through use of ritual and symbol.

4. Shifting and democratizing concepts of expertise

In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released The Message, one of the first rap hits. Though not with the language of public health researchers, in the song Flash speaks about the relationship of toxic stress to the social determinants of health. He raps, “The bill collectors, they ring my phone / And scare my wife when I’m not home / Got a bum education, double-digit inflation / Can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station / Neon King Kong standin’ on my back / Can’t stop to turn around, broke my sacroiliac / A mid-range migraine, cancered membrane...” It would take at least two decades for public health to begin seriously discussing these same ideas. While Flash may not have been invited to perform for the World Health Organization or publish his work in journals, his analysis and expertise was made public through music.

Building on the radical pedagogy of educator Paolo Freire, theater artist Augusto Boal developed theater exercises and forms that sought a dialogic relationship between performers and audience, and used theater as a way to develop understanding of and action upon the world.18 Cultural strategy frequently subverts the traditional pathways to expertise, too often held through infrastructures and institutions built on systems of oppression. Art provides forums and mediums that can circumvent traditional rubrics of expertise, and entry points for more people to express their truths as valid contributions to our understanding of the world.

Climate Curious. Photo by Ghana Think Tank, 2017.Climate Curious. Photo by Ghana Think Tank, 2017.


The premise of Ghana Think Tank is simple: ask experts in the third world to solve problems in the first world. The infrastructure of the project flips historical and paternalistic development models on their head, reframing concepts of expertise and the need to take leadership from the global margins. In the project pictured below, GTT surveyed residents of Williamstown, Massachusetts about their concerns with global warming, and then shared those concerns with think tanks that GTT convened in countries already deeply impacted with the effects of global warming. These experts conducted a series of discussions and planning sessions to devise responses and recommendations. Many of the answers reflected the need for people in Massachusetts to lessen their global footprint as a way to create a sustainable planet. The photo here is based on advice from Moroccan experts who advised Williamstown residents to begin to search out new, sustainable food sources as cultivation of protein sources like beef get harder. In developing this practice, crickets were served at the gallery opening.

5. Trespassing across sectors and silos

Building on reflections made by the artist Rick Lowe about the potential for artists to be trespassers across many domains, scholar Shannon Jackson reminds that, “It is of course in that trespassing that art makes different zones of the social available for critical reflection.”19 Sectors, disciplines, issues, and other silos prevent us from accessing the holistic imperative that is central to belonging. Structures that reward a narrow version of success in academia, the nonprofit world, and much professional practice reinforce these silos. For artists and cultural workers, who have less entrenched structures of success (and rubrics of measurement), they have a unique ability to move between and across these divides. In their movement, artists and culturemakers create profound connections and potentialities. This trespassing requires attention to symbolic overlaps and a willingness to challenge normative approaches.

Potholder - Wages for HouseworkPotholder - Wages for Housework


Though not an art project, the organizers of Wages for Housework (particularly the NY Committee) employed cultural strategies to advance their critique of the devaluation of women’s labor and the intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy. Through these processes they sought to revalue housework by bringing it into different frames of analysis. These techniques included the widely distributed zine Tap Dance, renting a Brooklyn storefront for public conversations and women drop-ins, selling Wages for Housework-themed potholders (pictured), and frequenting supermarkets and laundromats as the “shop floors” for home workers.

6. Bridging across divides and differences

In a Haas Institute paper she wrote on the role of mind science in narrative change, the Perception Institute’s Rachel Godsil notes that, “Our brain serves a social purpose, connecting us as creatures in a larger community through interwoven stories...Stories form the basis for empathy and for figuring out acceptable or unacceptable social behavior.”20 When art tells stories, it can bridge what may appear to be insurmountable interpersonal divides. Stories can transcend physical and material boundaries, including national borders, the walls of prisons or neighborhood dividing lines. Art can often create an infrastructure for the exchange of stories and experiences that would otherwise be impossible. For example, in La Piel de la Memoria, artists Suzanne Lacy and Pilar Riaño-Alcalá created a mobile museum on a bus that consisted of objects loaded with personal memories. The objects were collected from individuals living in different areas of a neighborhood that had experienced ongoing violence between them. The bus then traveled between the areas as a way to reflect the shared impact and stories of these communities. Stories like these strengthen connections within and across communities that are essential for building power, for healing, and for including stories of lives too often rendered invisible.

Post-show dialogue with members of WIS- DOM and the Prison Ministry Project in Madison, Wisconsin, April 2016. Courtesy of Julia Steele Allen.Post-show dialogue with members of WISDOM and the Prison Ministry Project in Madison, Wisconsin, April 2016. Courtesy of Julia Steele Allen.

Julia Steele Allen

The play Mariposa & the Saint is an intimate look at solitary confinement. The play was developed by two friends who met through California Coalition for Women Prisoners as a way to help one of them through her time in solitary confinement. When the play was finished, the co-writers decided to use the play to support solitary confinement reform and abolition movements across the country. After each showing of the play, event organizers worked with local people in the place the play was performed to enter a dialogue, with the post-show conversation having equal time as the play. In many places, audiences were largely sympathetic, which strengthened local organizing bases, but didn’t bridge the conversation to people who weren’t already in favor of, or mobilized against solitary confinement.

As the tour continued, the organizers began to seek out relationships with audiences who were also family members or friends of their sympathetic audiences–legislators, judges, and students studying to become jail guards. These connections supported a second tour for audiences who weren’t immediately sympathetic to the work. The emotional power of the work allowed it to bridge the otherwise reactive political stance of many of its audiences and support the campaigns to reform/repeal solitary in places that otherwise were closed off to the issue.

7. Convening and connecting coalitions, movements, communities

Culture can provide wide and inclusive entry points. It can also provide an opportunity for gathering and can retain people in a process or project when other means might not. Even when people may not agree politically or ideologically, art can provide opportunities to work towards shared goals and understanding. For example, the People’s Kitchen Collective uses food as a medium to literally set tables for dialogue, convening, celebration, and organizing. For 20 years, the Allied Media Conference has used an expansive definition of media, and not a focus on issues, as the central organizing medium of the conference. This entry point has led to the launching of numerous national networks of ongoing political influence. In an interview, Civil Rights activist Dorothy Cotton described the movement as a, “singing movement” and shared a story about a young man dropping his work and jumping a fence to join a march (and the movement for the rest of his life) because he was so drawn by the music.21 Artistic and cultural projects can also be explicitly political, serving to provide unifying symbols and language, as with the visual work of Emory Douglas for the Black Panthers. Across many more contexts, art can function as connective tissue and a welcoming entry point.

Pepón Osorio and the Bobcat Collective

reForm Fun Day at Fairhill, May 1st, 2015. Photo by Tony Rocco.reForm Fun Day at Fairhill, May 1st, 2015. Photo by Tony Rocco.

In 2013, Philadelphia closed 24 schools, including Fairhill Elementary in North Philadelphia. Osorio, an artist and professor at nearby Temple University wondered how the closure had affected the surrounding community (schools like Fairhill were planned at the center of neighborhoods) and slowly initiated a process of reconvening those connected to Fairhill. Over nearly three years, Osorio worked with a collective of teenage alumni and his Temple students to organize a series of public events including a Fairhill Fun Day (modeled on a school tradition) which reconvened 800 former students and employees for the first time since 2013 (pictured here), and a class reunion. The collective also spoke at public meetings and interviewed decision-makers and stakeholders about the closures. The project culminated in an installation that repurposed many of the materials left in the school and spurred on the efforts of the collective as they connect with related efforts around school closures in Puerto Rico.

8. Activating and provoking emotion

Perhaps the most commonly-held understanding of art’s impact and power is that it can spark emotions that range from joy to fear, sadness to rage, reverence to nourishment. This might be experienced intimately when reading a wrenching poem alone or, as was the practice of Martin Luther King, Jr. to call Mahalia Jackson on the phone to listen to her sing in times of his own despair. It might occur in public forms such as the 2014 People’s Climate March which included massive artistic production and coordination or in the joyful and inspired response to Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther. The emotive and affective power of art is one of its most tenacious and compelling attributes, if not also one that is most subjectively experienced. For many, it’s not hard to imagine a poem, song, movie, painting, poster, or performance that has transformed how we see the world and turn to for energy, inspiration, a good cry or laugh.

Campo Santo

Kerner Commission at 50 Conference, organized by the Haas Institute, 2018. Performed by Campo Santo members Delina Patrice Brooks, Britney (Brit) Frazier, Ashley Smiley, Dezi Solèy. Text organized by Evan Bissell and Sean San José (Campo Santo).Kerner Commission at 50 Conference, organized by the Haas Institute, 2018. Performed by Campo Santo members Delina Patrice Brooks, Britney (Brit) Frazier, Ashley Smiley, Dezi Solèy. Text organized by Evan Bissell and Sean San José (Campo Santo). Photo by Serginho Roosblad.

A twenty-minute performance by the Bay Area theatre collective Campo Santo reading the text of the Kerner Commission and two other documents; W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and the policy platform from the Movement for Black Lives. The power and skill of the performers created a strong emotional connection to the three documents and provoked a standing ovation. The performance of the texts, the layering of the language and addition of elements of song and repetition revealed the ways that the artistic tools transported the written pieces that are primarily viewed through analytic lenses into an emotional, heart-space.

9. Disrupting the dominant worldview through interventions of worldviews from the margins

Disruptions of a dominant white supremacist worldview are an everyday occurrence. The impossibility of existing as an “Other” under a worldview that seeks to erase the “Other” makes these disruptions unavoidable and inevitable. In the context of poverty, anti-Black racism, and transphobia, these disruptions are met with especially dangerous and violent responses on the part of, or protected by, the state–responses that have catalyzed the Movement for Black Lives.

Recognizing the power of the margin for its radically different viewpoint and insisting on the value of oneself and worldview, artists and cultural producers have long held a role as critical interventionists. These critiques can be subversive, such as Goya revealing the degeneracy of the aristocracy in his royal portraits or Basquiat’s crowns on energetic and deconstructed figures. These interruptions can also be implicit in form, like Zora Neale Hurston rebuffing attempts to “clean up” her dialect-based writing or Gloria Anzaldua’s bilingual, genre bending text Borderlands/La Frontera. Disruptions of worldview can also be direct, as with Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds’ public remembrance of Native murder in Minneapolis or Code Pink’s citizen arrest of Henry Kissinger for war crimes. And they may also take the form of radical presence; as with Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s mytho-hybrid identity constructions or Greta Thunberg’s weekly climate strike protest outside the Swedish Parliament building. Importantly, these interventions don’t just disrupt, but simultaneously express and demonstrate radically different worldviews.

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do (Muni Bus installation), ink on vinyl, 1990Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill, Greed and Indifference Do (Muni Bus installation), ink on vinyl, 1990

Gran Fury

In the midst of the AIDS crisis and government inaction, Gran Fury formed out of the direction action group ACT UP as an 11-person collective. It created a series of public works that directly raised the issue of homophobia,misogyny, and racism in the discussion of AIDS relief, while also celebrating different expressions of sexuality in direct ways. Its works challenged myths and narratives about the relationship between sexuality and AIDS, while also serving to raise the profile of LGBQ issues and presence. Alongside the bus ads (pictured on this page), the group created the iconic pink triangle symbol (as an inversion of the Nazi symbol for queer people), and numerous posters that offered scathing, witty, and emotional critiques of public officials, companies, and religious leaders who were blocking relief to people impacted by AIDS.

10. Building the space and means to imagine, play and envision alternatives

Equal to the ability of art to offer critical insight into dominant narratives and systems, is its ability to envision alternatives. Rachel Godsil writes that, “He who defines reality holds power.”22 For people excluded from social power, art and culture are forms of power that allows one to redefine the radical possibilities of reality. Activists and designers Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine frame culture as a “policy of the irrational” that allows us to move beyond the rational and agreed upon to create deep and transformational change.23 Building on this, the writer adrienne maree brown reminds that, “all organizing is science fiction,” because organizers are engaged in the effort to create a world we haven’t yet experienced.24 A key radical potential of art lies in its capacity to untie itself from the pragmatic confines of political debate and act outside traditional forms of social power. Not only about re-envisioning, art can also reinforce and reflect worldviews. Parables, folk-tales, and other stories have long been principal means for expressing worldviews and meta-narratives.

Borrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border), Ana Teresa Fernández. Performance at Tijuana/San Diego Border, 2011. Photographed by the artist’s mother Maria Teresa Fernández, courtesy of artist and Gallery Wendi NorrisBorrando la Frontera (Erasing the Border), Ana Teresa Fernández. Performance at Tijuana/San Diego Border, 2011. Photographed by the artist’s mother Maria Teresa Fernández, courtesy of artist and Gallery Wendi Norris

Ana Teresa Fernández

Born in Tijuana and living and working in the United States, the artist traveled to the Mexican side of the border to complete a performance piece that imagined a gap in the border wall. Fernández painted the columns of the border wall to match the sky so that it looked like a section of the border had suddenly been removed. In this way, the piece moved beyond the slogans of “no borders” to allow us to see no fence, and momentarily, inhabit a world rooted in belonging that transcends national borders.

11. Making complex concepts more accessible

In many ways this is the most immediate potential of arts and culture, illustrated in the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. While art can effectively illustrate existing ideas, and not only through visuals, it can also support a process of inquiry that makes complex systems and concepts more accessible and takes the work of research, policy development, organizing, beyond more narrow or singular conceptions of expertise. In social change organizations, communications staff are often tasked with taking up the bulk of the work to translate research-driven, academic, or insular language in forms and ways that will reach and move a wider variety of audiences. This work takes place through forms such as editing, design, multimedia, and storytelling. By collaborating more intentionally with artists and culturemakers and educators who understand critical pedagogy, this work can be especially critical to creating deep, authentic ways of communicating that avoids and resists techniques that are superficial or too closely derived from a corporate, profit-driven model of defining identity.

Video design and illustrations by: Abby VanMuijen ( Text written and narrated by Ananya Roy, 2013.

Ananya Roy and Abby VanMuijen

In a video viewed nearly one million times, Professor Ananya Roy narrates an illustrated video that challenges assumptions about welfare, while illuminating the ways that government systems support wealth accumulation and wealth protection for the rich. The video uses playful illustrations to make otherwise abstract concepts concrete and meaningful. The novel form also pushed Roy to think of her writing and communication in a new way, as the backbone script for a visual story. By using an accessible infrastructure (YouTube) and an accessible form (an illustrated video) the video has greatly broadened the reach of her work on this issue, as much of academic research requires university affiliation or paid membership to access.

12. Expanding the reach

Art and cultural strategy allows our work to be in cultural spaces that people trust, refer to, and draw inspiration from. Art can happen in popular culture, it can be public, it can exist in and speak to different cultures, and it can appeal to different literacies, languages and learning modalities. At the Haas Institute, our work targets a variety of decision-makers as well as movements and impacted communities. Arts and culture can strengthen efforts to connect with under-reached people, hard-to-reach people, and those not politically or socially engaged. We’ve built on the work of those in popular culture to explore intersections and overlaps with themes and topics of the Institute. This includes leveraging the power of popular media narratives by hosting Tarrell Alvin McCraney (writer of Moonlight) as a keynote speaker at the Othering & Belonging Conference for example, and hosting free film screenings and dialogues around Black Panther and the 20-year anniversary of Gattaca. These efforts expand reach and create opportunities for narrative shift. This broadening of audience should be viewed through a targeted universalism approach–reaching which audience will bring benefit to everyone or be most widely accessible?

Reaching targeted populations requires new ways of communicating as well as the infrastructure for promoting the work. Rashad Robinson of Color of Change describes the need for an expanded infrastructure to advance progressive change efforts, “through social and personal spaces that aren’t explicitly political or focused on issues, but are nonetheless the experiences and venues through which people shape their most heart-held values.”25

Photo by Emmanuel Mbala, The crowd at a Melbourne screen- ing of Black Panther, doing the Wakanda greeting. 2018Photo by Emmanuel Mbala, The crowd at a Melbourne screening of Black Panther, doing the Wakanda greeting. 2018.


The most obvious form of expanding reach is through popular culture—TV, movies, music, sports, gaming and more. In recent years, popular culture has engaged and represented a wide range of issues that expands and complicates the cultural mainstream. Oscar winners Moonlight and Coco, and chart-toppers Lizzo (with her body-positive lyrics) and Lil Nas X (with both his country hit and coming out as gay) are only a sampling of new producers, themes, and cultural representations that are taking mainstage. These works, among others, tell stories that disrupt a single dominant narrative and cement a plurality of narratives in the mainstream. These representations and works also offer opportunities for new discussions and with new audiences, as evidenced by the number of discussion groups and articles that have engaged the contradictions and possibilities of Black Panther or Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Ongoing engagement around this work, and stronger relationships with cultural producers and cultural workers, such as the work of Harness an organization that supports action and engagement by celebrities with organizers, is essential for narrative saturation and the shape of those narratives and cultural forms in popular culture.

Four Essential Practices

There are numerous ways to activate cultural strategy. In the emergent work of a cultural strategy for belonging at the Haas Institute, we’ve identified four essential practices. These practices align process and outcome by balancing questions of leadership, knowledge and cultural production, and power, with questions of cultural strategy’s relationship to other change strategies.

1. Cultivate vibrant and diverse forms of cultural practice that support the growth of leadership and practice of those directly and deeply impacted by systems of oppression

This means building the power of people involved in the work by expanding notions of expertise and developing capacity and skills for long-term engagement and leadership. It also means highlighting and amplifying existing leaders who work primarily in the space of culture. This practice is deeply informed by critical participatory action research and Freirean pedagogy with a focus on art and culture as methods of research and analysis.26

Kerner@50 Student Art Collaborative, Nikko Duren, Kiana Parker, Dulce María López, and el lee Silver. Not pictured Ashley Holloway and Lulu Matute.Kerner@50 Student Art Collaborative, Nikko Duren, Kiana Parker, Dulce María López, and el lee Silver. Not pictured Ashley Holloway and Lulu Matute.

In 2018, the Haas Institute hosted a conference on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission, a special presidential commission investigating the causes of racial uprisings across the nation in 1967. For this occaions, we commissioned original pieces from practicing professional artists in visual arts, poetry and performance whose work engaged the core themes; Damon Davis, Chinaka Hodge, Campo Santo, and Sadie Barnette. The conference also created the opportunity to facilitate a five-week intensive process with six undergraduate students to engage with the themes of the conference through the creation of collaborative artistic and cultural work. Through research and design processes they engaged the history in deep and personal ways. Their resulting creative works, which took the form of sculptural installation, mixed-media visuals, film, and a public presentation, expanded the conference learnings through additional forms of analysis and interpretation that brought in the power of symbols and broaders understandings of gender, immigration, and more.

2. Amplify the knowledge, insight and vision that comes through culture and cultural production and create containers and experiences where this knowledge, insight and vision can be expressed and understood on its own terms

Cultural forms and practices hold insights and knowledge in the form that they were created, and they can have highly specific audiences. When we are not the creators or even the intended audience, we can work to develop understanding in that original form, not as a translation. Illuminating practices, narratives, stories, frames, and symbols in their original form can provide important insight in developing systems and practices that are more reflective of the needs and experiences of a complex society and strategies for change. These multiple ways of knowing and expressing hold the transformative potential of a cultural strategy of belonging as an epistemological shift. At times, this means respecting and trusting the opacity of cultural practice and knowledge (trust is not, of course, uncritical acceptance). Anti-colonial philosopher Édouard Glissant defined this “as a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, a right to be misunderstood if need be.”27 The act of uncritical translation or extraction of a functionalist knowledge can flatten, destroy, or misrepresent.

Nile Project, Aswan Gathering, 2013. Photo by Reto AlbertalliNile Project, Aswan Gathering, 2013. Photo by Reto Albertalli


The Nile Project, co-founded by Mina Girgis, who is now a Senior Fellow at the Haas Institute, uses a process of cross-cultural, international musical collaboration to address water distribution and resources in theThe music invites cultural and environmental curiosity within the region, providing a metaphor for and practice of government and economic collaboration around the river. The project uses the unique process of musical collaboration developed by Girgis (master classes, musical “dating”, small group collaborations, arrangements and rehearsals) as the template for exchange and dialogue between scholars, students, and government workers across national boundaries. This process creates a radically different environment for discussion and a container for relating across difference–musically, politically, nationally and professionally.

3. Align with efforts for material, political, and social change

This means strengthening research, policy, and organizing projects through the knowledge, insights, and practices that arise within cultural strategy and creating opportunities for deep integration. It also means strengthening cultural strategy projects through the tools, knowledge and insights of other change strategies.

Staying Power Mural, Richmond, California. Co-led by Sasha Graham and Evan Bissell, 2017. Photo by Evan Bissell.Staying Power Mural, Richmond, California. Co-led by Sasha Graham and Evan Bissell, 2017. Photo by Evan Bissell.


The Haas Institute’s Staying Power Fellowship convened a group of Richmond residents who were members of local community organizations to develop public art projects and narratives that addressed the housing crisis. In the eight-month process, they derived analysis from the intersection of personal experience and structural forces. The fellows designed research processes that shaped arts-based outcomes and cultivated their skills and leadership capacity through the process. The resulting artistic outcomes were developed by the fellows but also closely tied to and informed by the change efforts of the organizations and policy research around housing needs in Richmond carried out by the Haas Institute. Fellow Sasha Graham envisioned and co-led a process to develop a “know-your-rights” mural that celebrated the history of community organizing for the passage of two tenant protection laws and clarified key aspects of the laws. The production of the mural triggered an inquiry into the city’s implementation of one of the laws by local organizers and lawyers, which led to a year-long process of rewriting the policy and creating the structures for implementation, which had otherwise been dormant.

4. Make social and cultural change into a new “common sense.”

This means that cultural strategy efforts must also simultaneously engage strategic communications and narrative change work. Together, these efforts move through multiple spheres of life—the everyday, the political, the economic, and the cultural. It also means building the infrastructure for sharing and amplifying the work at scales and duration that begin to shift worldviews.

The “Making Belonging: Culturemaker Panel” at the 2019 Othering & Belonging Conference. The panel featured a conversation among four cultural leaders coming from different sectorsThe “Making Belonging: Culturemaker Panel” at the 2019 Othering & Belonging Conference. The panel featured a conversation among four cultural leaders coming from different sectors, from left to right: author Jeff Chang, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, actor Dawn-Lyen Gardner, and NFL player, philanthropist, and author Michael Bennett. Photo by Eric Arnold.


Since their inception, the Othering & Belonging Conferences have included an array of people working in cultural fields–playwrights, athletes, actors, dancers, and essayists to give compelling and evocative presentations on their work, alongside scholars, advocates, lawyers, funders and more. In 2019 the conference included the development of learning tools that employ arts-based teaching methods. This curation and approach allows for the trespassing of culture into a space where the audience is predominantly from the non-profit, government, academic, and philanthropic sectors. In this way, through major platforms, we present multiple, simultaneous ways of re-coding symbols and reframing narratives of belonging. This strategic communications and cultural strategy approach recognizes how an intentional integration of arts and culture elevates an interconnected, dual movement of social and cultural change and speaks to the power of stories and narratives that are crucial to influencing both. It seeks to connect personal, emotional, and professional understandings in ways that reveal continuity in this “common sense.”

  • 12. Robin DG Kelley, Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 9.
  • 13. Lorde, Sister Outsider
  • 14. Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948- 1985. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), 315.
  • 15. Notes from Laura Pulido’s presentation at the Housing Justice in Unequal Cities Conference, hosted by the Institute on Inequality and Democracy, UCLA Luskin Center, February 1, 2019.
  • 16. Carole Boyce Davies, “From Masquerade to Maskarade: Carribean Cultural Resistance and the Rehumanizing Project,” in Katherine McKittrick, ed., Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 213.
  • 17. Jen Budney, “Other Ways of Knowing,” in Franklin Sirmans, ed., NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 38.
  • 18. Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed, (London: Pluto Press, 2000).
  • 19. Shannon Jackson, “Living Takes Many Forms,” in Nato Thompson, ed., Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 93.
  • 20. Rachel Godsil. “Mind Sciences and Creating New Narratives: The Fight to Define Who We Are,” (Berkeley: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, 2016) https://haasinstitute.berkeley. edu/mind-sciences-and-creating-new-narratives
  • 21. Dorothy Cotton. “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails.” Video interview from Thread&id=aint-scared-of-yourjails
  • 22. Godsil, Mind Sciences.
  • 23. Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine, “Cultural Tactics,” Design Studio for Social Innovation, 2016 https://static1.squarespace. com/static/53c7166ee4b0e7db2be69480/t/5786671abebafb1f79b0e8b2/1468426015449/ ds4si_CulturalTactics.pdf
  • 24. adrienne maree-brown, “All Organizing Is Science Fiction,” Arts in a Changing America (blog), March 1, 2016
  • 25. Rashad Robinson. Changing our Narrative about Narrative: The Infrastructure Required for Building Narrative Power,” (Berkeley: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, 2016), https://
  • 26. For a more detailed discussion of this, see: Evan Bissell, “Insistent Humanness in Data Collection and Analysis: What Cannot be Taken Away—The Families and Prisons Project,” In Creating Social Change Through Creativity, 113- 133. (Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018) 113-133.
  • 27. Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays, (New York: Random House, 2016), 148.