The Importance of Cultural Spaces

HeadCount operates by partnering with artists to help engage their fanbase and the live music scene. It's a good strategy. Studies show that peer to peer organizing is the most effective way to engage people in the political process, and who are more our peers than those who listen to the same music and live in the same culture as ourselves?

So what does that look like? Here at Head Count, looking from the top down, it means partnering with artists. It means finding a band with a commitment to our democracy and to making the world a better place, and help them and their fans fulfill that commitment at the ballot box. It's an organizing model based around an artist's geographically dispersed fanbase, united by their love of the music and desire to see change.

That's the view from the top down. It's a good model. It's what makes Head Count successful and has registered tens of thousands of voters. But it's not the only model for organizing around live music, and from the bottom up, the live music scene is anything but geographically diverse or based around individual artists. It lives in tight clusters centered around cities and more specifically the music venues within those cities. For me, it used to be the Wetlands Preserve in NYC - a great venue where, before it closed in 2001, the jamband and hip hop scenes mixed with environmental activism. These are the homes of live music for many. They can also be local centers for change.

This is the other model of music activism - using venues as the local focal point for social change - and there are a number of projects across the country doing just that.

Recently, WireTap magazine sat down with some of those groups as the final installment of a nine-part series on cultural activism. Here's a few of those organizations and what they have to say about a compelling question: Why Build A Movement Among Youth-Driven Cultural Spaces?

Shannon Stewart - The Vera Project - Seattle, Washington

I echoed a lot of what had been said, and added something of a social urban planning perspective, "I think about space -- like physical space -- and its role in cultural change and social change. For The Vera Project, I feel like the space was what was holding the possibility for there to be social change within that cultural community."

And of course, it's how you hold and shape the space that matters. In Seattle, aside from producing music, spaces like Vera also tackled mass voter mobilization efforts that changed the course of elections, community responses to sexual assault, strong alliance-building for youth rights and liberation, anti-war protests and anti-globalization organizing. Connecting young people through art -- and in a space that was set up unconventionally -- created a platform for people of different identities and communities to come together and tackle hard issues, alongside of nurturing new sounds, artists and aesthetics.

Lori Roddy: Neutral Zone - Los Angeles

Lori explained how she is trying to understand culture's function in her work, "I think [culture] is sort of a consciousness of the way that people think, the way they understand the place that they live in and the way that they interact with one another. It's the way they express their interaction or the way they sing, the way they write, or the way they perform. It's a way of internalizing and understanding the way things are. And to change that internal hegemonic perception of [culture] is a big piece, I think. Social change then to me is identifying more of the actual policies, practices, and laws. ... With that definition, the Neutral Zone is really functioning more on the cultural change [side]. It's raising the consciousness of young people, [affirming] that they are competent, capable individuals, that they should have ownership. They don't have to wait to be adults."

Gavin Leonard: Elementz - Cincinnati

Gavin went next. "So the crux of it is ... does the organization see itself as doing cultural or social change work? ... Probably, actually, neither. ... Our mission is to inspire and engage. You can't make cultural change unless you have a culture and are connected with people or, like I say to people all the time, that Elementz is this youth center that has street credibility and then pretty much all I do all day is figure out how to define street credibility." Gavin explained that street credibility is what helps an organization like Elementz get connected with young people, helps young people get connected to one another to create their own culture, and also connects them to the power to make change.

Kevin Erickson: Department of Safety - Washington State

Kevin Erickson from the Department of Safety in Anacortes, Washington, added, "Well, the Department of Safety in its founding was sort of operating on a lot of different levels. They wrote manifestos and deployed all this Marxist rhetoric, meanwhile maintaining a radical humility about their actual expectations about what they would be able to accomplish. Now, I think that we're permanently radical by virtue of existing where we exist and by doing the kind of work that we're doing in the place that we're doing it. I think it's indicative of the current state of cultural politics in America today [that] we have left rural areas out and the red states have been defined as cultural wastelands. [So] by putting together [an argument] that, 'No, actually the town you are in is valuable. You and your friends are capable of doing really good things,' it tends to break down that binary between social and cultural by really shortcutting the fundamental dynamic at work."

There is a lot more on the way that culture can bring about change, and the role that a physical space/community out of which to organize plays in that change. Go read the whole piece.