Imagining Democracy

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The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) is an action network of artists and activists, launched on both local and national levels in October 2013. Through the power of arts and culture and a cohort of volunteer Cultural Agents that leads USDAC social change at a local level, USDAC hopes to cultivate the imagination needed to “build a more just and vibrant world”. In Tucson, Southwest Folklife Alliance’s Executive Director Dr. Maribel Alvarez and TPAC Executive Director Roberto Bedoya are members of the USDAC Cabinet along with 27 other national arts leaders. Tucson Arts Brigade founder Michael B Schwartz was part of USDAC’s founding cohort of 2014 cultural agents.

Arlene Goldbard

Arlene Goldbard, U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC)

Directing the citizen-led, policy-oriented leadership group of cultural organizers is Arlene Goldbard, who serves as the “Chief Policy Wonk,” and presides over the USDAC’s National Cabinet. Arlene responded to BorderLore’s questions about cultural citizenship and quality of life:

Culture as Component of Citizenship

USDAC National Cabinet

“Cultural citizenship” doesn’t require legal status or passports. Instead, it describes an aspiration. In a society founded on full cultural citizenship, we all feel welcome. It is recognized that culture is the sum total of all our contributions, and every community’s roles are acknowledged and valued. In a condition of true cultural citizenship, people want to know each other and build community together. Instead of living in a state of contingency, where some have power and the rest are the objects of that power, the right to culture enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights is embodied throughout public and private sectors.

How do we know these things? Lived experience is a powerful research tool. Pose this question to a roomful of people: who feels at home, who feels a deep sense of belonging, participation, and equality in this society? In my experience, very few hands will be raised. We have a great deal of work to do to bring about full cultural citizenship.

Policy Initiative

The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture is promoting a “Cultural Impact Study”—analogous to an Environmental Impact Study — before interventions affecting a community’s cultural fabric are approved. Common examples would be tearing down a longstanding neighborhood to make way for a new freeway or sports stadium, as has happened in so many cities.

Since the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, federal projects require an environmental assessment — and if that shows possible negative impact, an Environmental Impact Study — to be prepared and considered before approval, modification, or rejection of the proposed project. This is one of the most powerful and influential tools of environmental policy because it forces us to consider the impact of our actions before we take steps that might do damage.

Right now, for example, if a local authority is asked to approve the destruction of homes, parks, and businesses in a long-lived neighborhood, NEPA mandates research into environmental harm such as possible destruction of endangered species habitat or potential pollution. If negative impact is found, the project can be disallowed or steps to mitigate the impact can be required before anything can be approved.

But what about the impact on cultural fabric? What about the sense of belonging, the sites of public memory, the gathering-places, the expressions and embodiments of heritage cultures that would also be destroyed? Every community should be authorized to assess, study, and act on these too. Requiring a CIS is good example of how to make the intangible concrete.

Sampler of National Actions

ImaginingsThe USDAC isn’t a government agency, but a national action network of artists and cultural workers mobilizing creativity for social justice. In fact, we like to say we’re not an outside agency coming in, but your inside agency coming out.

  • Imaginings: Imaginings are art-infused public dialogues, where people envision their communities twenty years from now, when the transformative power of art and culture will shape all public and private systems. Since 2014, they’ve been hosted by USDAC Cultural Agents in small towns and large cities across the U.S. Although communities may be very different in scale, geography, and population, we find that when people dream together about their communities’ future, they highlight similar aspirations. Without a doubt, the chief dream has to do with equity, inclusion, and justice: across the U.S., people want to live in a future in which everyone is embraced, where social goods are equitably shared, and where our differences lead to deeper knowledge and connection, to cultural richness. Displacement is also a huge common ground. In fact, it was the focus of the Imagining that took place in New York City in June. While “placemaking” may be a current buzzword, people are deeply invested in placekeeping, community development that values the cultural fabric woven over many decades, that prioritizes enabling the people who are rooted in a neighborhood to remain there, helping to shape and share in improvements.
  • People’s State of the Union: The USDAC also sponsors National Actions such as the January 2015 People’s State of the Union, with story circles in more than 150 communities gathering people’s stories about the state of our union at the grassroots. Immigration and cultural citizenship were key themes in the stories collected, and also in the Poetic Address to the Nation created and shared by poets from across the country. As the sonnet written by USDAC Minister of Poetry and Language Protection says, “To State the Union Is to make the Poem that Heals.” Here are a few lines from the section written by New Mexico poet Tanaya Winder:

    For the ones left behind, left looking, endlessly searching,
    for the murdered and missing, in the cities in which we loved

    (and love) you. We won’t forget. To demand for you
    action, words, a poem that ends in your lives mattering, too.”

  • DareToImagine: DareToImagine will build on the foundations (of these story circles and art-infused public dialogues). Taking place October 10-18, along with dozens of partner organizations, we’ll dispatch “Emissaries from the Future” to create pop-up Imagination Stations in public spaces nationwide. Through a range of creative activities, Emissaries will engage passersby in exercising social imagination, envisioning the world we wish to inhabit and—looking back from the future—celebrating the work we did to bring it into being.  The resulting texts, images, videos, and more will all be uploaded to an online platform, yielding a crowd-sourced vision of the future, inspiring art, policy, and community action. We invite BorderLore readers to enlist as Citizen Artists (it’s fast and free) to be sure they have the latest information on how to take part!

All of these actions serve a powerful public purpose by engaging people of all ages, backgrounds, locations, and identities in asserting the right to social imagination and taking steps to make their dreams into reality. Together, the visions and actions they surface inform the work of the USDAC in putting forward concise, accessible, and powerful ideas for policies and initiatives that help make cultural citizenship and cultural democracy lived realities.


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