Notes on a Cultural Strategy for Belonging

Why a cultural strategy for belonging provides a unique opportunity for effecting change

A cultural strategy for belonging provides a unique opportunity for effecting change.

It has been said numerous times that culture is an essential site of change and power. This is due to the characteristics of culture that make it a unique location of social life. The Culture Group puts it this way; “Politics is where some of the people are some of the time. Culture is where most of the people are most of the time.”28 

Culture is pervasive and everyday. It permeates multiple spheres of life, even the political, where styles of speech, dress, orientation to conflict, and theories of change create the conditions of political engagement. Culture shapes worldviews and values. Culture can erase and silence, and it can be a source of healing and strengthening.29 Naming cultural aspects and elements that have shaped my own life helps me better understand my own perspective and viewpoint. This includes those that have perpetuated othering—unearthing the way that conceptions of individualism and success are shaped by my socio-economic position growing up in a white, middle class family. And it includes those that have expanded belonging—the emergence of new values, symbols and stories that reshape my worldview through organizing, house music, and science-fiction (to name a few).

In the following section I explore why a cultural strategy for belonging is effective and holds potential by looking at three characteristics of culture that can help guide and locate the work

Still from the Get Out the Vote video We Are California, a collaboration between the Haas Institute and California Calls. Video by Dominique DeLeon, 2018.Still from the Get Out the Vote video We Are California, a collaboration between the Haas Institute and California Calls. Video by Dominique DeLeon, 2018.

Cultures of “othering” are dynamic and contestable

Culture is constantly made and remade through the expression of symbolic forms and the negotiation of their meaning between multiple parties. The maintenance of dominant forms of culture require upkeep–often in violent, erasing and manipulative ways. This contestation happens through multiple elements that make up culture and provide insight into locations of cultural strategy engagement.

Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz outlines culture as: “A system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which [people] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.”30

Each of these elements are reciprocal and cyclical in their formation. Inherited conceptions are expressed through and embedded in symbolic forms; our interaction with and interpretation of symbolic forms communicate, perpetuate, and develop knowledge about and toward life; elements of this knowledge are disrupted or normalize and come to function as worldview. In further detail, these elements are:

Inherited conceptions. These are worldviews that come from the contexts of society, culture, community, religion, family and personal experience, and are shaped by socio-economic positionality.

Symbolic forms. Symbolic forms uphold and transfer the embedded information of inherited conceptions. These can take many forms, and also be material in their impact or structure. For example, money is a symbolic form of relationship that takes on different meanings based on positionality–do you see money as debt, power, obligation, love? These can take more direct forms as well. A mascot is a symbol that creates history and pride, but the meaning of it is shaped by the positionality and inherited conceptions of the interpreter–the name of the Washington professional football team, for example.

Means by which people communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge.  At its base, this includes the many forms of language used daily–body, verbal, written or visual. These forms of language construct the stories and symbols that make sense of experience and become the basis of knowledge. Stories and symbols are made collective through infrastructures in multiple spheres of life–from personal to educational spaces to popular media to government policies and practices. The knowledges communicated, perpetuated, and developed through these means are frequently in conflict with each other–for example how a child might learn about a union if their family is in one, compared to how they might learn from news coverage of a politician who is anti-union.

Knowledge about and attitudes toward life. The development of one’s knowledge is a continual process. As this knowledge comes to shape one’s attitudes towards life, it influences and reshapes worldview and inherited conceptions.

Each of these elements are locations of cultural strategy. Voting in the United States provides an illustrative example. In addition to being a civic activity that has real consequences on the political system and socioeconomic structure, voting can be seen as a symbolic form of belonging or exclusion. Historically in the United States, this symbolic line has followed laws and practices that shape participation based on gender, race, class, status, relationship to the carceral system, and language. Research shows that a voter’s inactivity is rooted in how they view themselves in the world and their ability to have impact through voting or other forms of civic engagement.31 In other words, a person’s worldview shapes their interpretation of voting as an act in which they will participate or not. This is further communicated through a variety of means that either reinforce or disrupt that worldview—non-responsive politicians, voter ID laws, poll taxes, voting restrictions on formerly and currently incarcerated people, youth, and immigrants on the one hand, and projects like the Cultural Ambassadors program and Blueprint for Belonging on the other.

A cultural strategy for belonging works in alignment with the long struggle over expanding who controls voting, to also contest who controls the meaning of voting. This contestation of meaning happens in the production (what is the worldview being reinforced in the dominant narrative around voting?) and the interpretation (what is the worldview of the person interpreting the narrative around voting?).32

In decoding the meaning of symbolic forms, the interpreter’s worldview creates an understanding that is either consistent with that of the producers, inconsistent, or some hybrid variation of this. In religion, this has produced syncretic meanings, such as the embedding of indigenous stories, figures, and deities in the Catholic forms imposed by European missionaries in Central and South America. In his analysis of resistance and subordination in Southeast Asia, James. C. Scott also identified hidden transcripts, or meaning and communication that is hidden from people in different power groups. This allows people to perform an understanding in line with a dominant meaning through a public transcript, while also holding a different “hidden” interpretation as a key element of resistance.33 In relationship to voting, one way this might manifest is a worldview that is critical or distrustful of the political system, but also sees participation as a necessary act.

An interpretation that is inconsistent with the one the dominant producer intended, or the production of symbols and stories that hold different meaning, can contribute to reshaping worldviews. Nurturing these meanings creates opportunities for reworking the dominant narratives around voting. This can expand who sees themselves as a voter in order to build power around a strategic narrative of belonging and the policies that reflect economic and social belonging. In other words, although homeowners disproportionately vote at higher rates than renters, shifting inherited conceptions around voting can increase how many renters vote, and subsequently how tenant protection initiatives do at the polls or in the legislature.

Shifts in worldview are not enough alone, because these shifts will not be sticky unless also reflected in economic, political, and social changes. Contemporary organizing to lower the voting age, allow formerly and currently incarcerated people to vote, or keep polling places open and prevent people being scrubbed from voter rolls, are contemporaneous with ongoing efforts to shift who sees themselves as a voter. The double movement of systemic and cultural change are intertwined, reciprocal, and essential.

Cultures of belonging already exist in historical, collective and everyday forms

From below and from the margins, cultural expressions and forms, and the meanings and values they hold, can guide a cultural strategy for belonging. A cultural strategy for belonging builds upon alternative and liberatory forms of culture that people have developed before and within the dominant cultures of capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and other forms of oppression. These cultural practices and knowledge form through people loving and thriving, resisting and negotiating, acting spontaneously and keeping continuity, engaging ritual, tending memory, and experiencing grief and joy. As the Culture Group shared, culture is where most people are most of the time. But more importantly, these cultural forms are how people navigate oppression and what sustains people. Clyde Woods elaborates on the context of the emergence of the blues, and the power it held as a collective and everyday form:

“The blues emerge immediately after the overthrow of Reconstruction. During this period, unmediated African American voices were routinely silenced through the imposition of a new regime of censorship based on exile, assassination and massacre. The blues became an alternative form of communication, analysis, moral intervention, observation, celebration for a new generation that had witnessed slavery, freedom, and unfreedom in rapid succession between 1860 and 1875.”34

Arts manager and policymaker Roberto Bedoya offers another example in rasquachismo, a practice of Chicano and Mexican art movements that is combinatory, quick, reuses materials, and is often crude and direct. For Bedoya, the rasquachismo aesthetic of his Bay Area childhood barrio signaled a politics of belonging that disrupted a white spatial imaginary. He writes that the unique cultural spatial imaginary of Rasquache is in the “culture of lowriders who embrace the street in a tempo parade of coolness; it’s the roaming dog that marks its territory; it’s the defiance signified by a bright, bright, bright house; it’s the fountain of the peeing boy in the front yard; it’s the DIY car mechanic, leather upholsterer or wedding-dress maker working out of his or her garage with the door open to the street; it’s the porch where the elders watch; and it’s the respected neighborhood watch program.”35

The development of strategy in line with cultural forms like these can create social change processes that are reflective of people’s lives and experiences and widely accessible because of their everyday, collective, and historical character. They are also effective, having already worked “in situations of scarce resources and intersecting systems of oppression,” and so they, “tend to be the most holistic and sustainable.”36 The turn to strategy can take shape in many ways; the trespassing of poetry into a city council presentation for the Staying Power Fellowship, a healing space with multiple alternative modalities at the Othering & Belonging Conference, and the placement of a theater talk-back in an Oakland barbershop. Each build on, adjust or amplify existing forms of cultures of belonging.

Beginning to inventory and name the infinite traces and influences that we build on in our work is essential for valuing this history, creating continuity, and not losing that which has come before. It also helps to push away from the idea of individual cultural producers or geniuses acting on their own. Instead, we can recognize the specific lineages and histories (and often invisible labor) that goes into the collective and everyday forms of culture that provide essential wisdom for creating belonging.

Leading up to the 2018 Barbershop Chronicles perfor- mance at UC Berkeley, a community forum was held at Benny Adem Grooming Parlor, presented by the Haas Insti- tute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, Benny Adem Grooming Parlor, Africanity Love, Priority Leading up to the 2018 Barbershop Chronicles performance at UC Berkeley, a community forum was held at Benny Adem Grooming Parlor, presented by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, Benny Adem Grooming Parlor, Africanity Love, Priority Africa Network, and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Photo by Tim Shonnard.

Cultural forms and expressions can advance belonging despite asymmetries of power

Cultural moments, knowledge, expressions, practices and forms can catalyze change when other avenues of change are stagnated, closed off, unimaginable or heavily policed. This happens even in the case of social, economic, and political imbalances and repression, and ultimately can contribute to the ending of those imbalances. From punk to muralismo, slang to voguing, cultural forms create their own spaces of belonging and expressions of belongingness that seep across boundaries that are seeking to maintain exclusion and dehumanization. At times these “crossings” are co-opted and sanitized for dominant cultural audiences in pursuit of profits and the erasure of the people and contexts of their origination. But at other times (and also when co-opted) these cultural forms and expressions can build social, economic, and political power.

In part, this ability to move across seemingly impenetrable borders is possible because culturemaking cannot always be shaped or guarded by gatekeepers that reinforce the status quo. The irrepressibility of cultural expression is too organic and spontaneous, and frequently built on DIY or minimal infrastructure.37

In academia, media, law, politics, economics, and policy development there has historically been an intensive safeguarding and policing of who can produce knowledge, what knowledge is valued, how it is valued and what is made actionable. These sectors, which largely set and enforce social, political and economic systems, have tightly controlled infrastructure for the reproduction of experts, leaders, and workers and the broadcast of the work.

These gatekeepers undoubtedly exist in cultural spaces as well. At times this gatekeeping is a protective response to the erasure precipitated by cultural appropriation. But there are also those who attempt to shape the “proper” evolution of a musical genre, the visual style of a movement, or the acceptable forms of sexuality in film. Infrastructure is also a site of cultural gatekeeping: the owners of popular and independent media, publishers, grant-makers, radio hosts and their playlists, and curators and museum directors, among others.

The Hōkūle‘a double-hulled voyaging canoe, which since its first launch in 1975, has sailed over 140,000 nautical miles. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. Photo by ʻŌiwi TV. 2015.The Hōkūle‘a double-hulled voyaging canoe, which since its first launch in 1975, has sailed over 140,000 nautical miles. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society. Photo by ʻŌiwi TV. 2015.

Despite this, new forms and expressions of culture inevitably rise, often forged in contexts of extreme inequality and little-to-no infrastructure by people continually engaged in adapting to the challenges, expansions and conditions of everyday life. While difficult to track impact in linear or direct ways, and although not necessarily intended as cultural strategy, these cultural forms and expressions can build social, political, and economic power, while also shifting narratives and worldviews. Consider the global impacts of hip hop in comparison to its early infrastructure (a blank city wall as a canvas, a piece of cardboard as a dancefloor, reworked fragments of songs and daisy-chained speakers) and originators (poor Black, Puerto Rican, and Dominican kids in disinvested neighborhoods of New York). Or, after 600 years of dormancy, consider the way the first wayfinding (celestial navigation) voyage by Nainoa Thompson and crew, on a hand-built, double-hulled sailing canoe between Tahiti and Hawai’i, cultivated the renewal of Hawaiian culture, history and identity. Was it imaginable that the 1969 occupation of a defunct federal prison by Indians of All Tribes would catalyze such a revitalization of Native American political and cultural identity, and have such a long trail of impact? Was the mainstream uptake and breaking of political taboos around class and economic inequality assumed when the 99 percent began tent occupations around the country?

With these, and many other examples in mind, a cultural strategy for belonging recognizes that cultural forms and expressions can have sustained and material impact despite and within asymmetries of power.

 

  • 28. Culture Group, “Making Waves,” 12.
  • 29. Sen, “Cultural Strategy,” 2.
  • 30. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 89.
  • 31. Lisa García-Bedolla and Melissa Michelson, Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate through Get-Out-The-Vote Campaigns, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 15.
  • 32. . Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in: ed. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Media and Cultural Studies; Key Works, (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, Inc., 2006), 170-173.
  • 33. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).
  • 34. Clyde Adrian Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta, (London: Verso, 1998), 36.
  • 35. Roberto Bedoya, “Spatial Justice: Rasquachification, Race and the City,” Creative Time Reports, September 15, 2014, http://creativetimereports.org/2014/09/15/ spatial-justice-rasquachification-race-and-the-city/.
  • 36. Allied Media Network, “Network Principles,” Allied Media Projects, https://alliedmedia.org/about/ network-principles
  • 37. This is not to say that infrastructure doesn’t matter. See for example, Rashad Robinson’s important piece “Changing our Narrative about Narrative” (https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/changing-our-narrative-about-narrative) on the need for a better infrastructure and a better understanding of infrastructure or the Culture Group’s analysis of conservative attacks on cultural infrastructure in Making Waves. Despite this, many revelatory and revolutionary moments and movements of culture shift begin with makeshift infrastructure.