strategies for social change

Adam Yauch, Activism & Fake Mustaches

Five years ago, my husband and I were going through airport security for our first vacation since having kid #2 when my phone started dinging. The news that Adam Yauch had passed away was coming to me in an avalanche of texts and calls, and it absolutely gutted me.

I sobbed as I went through security, as I got on the plane to Mexico, and as the plane took off…My husband suggested that I write something to our friends and the team from the Tibetan Freedom Concerts before we lost internet connectivity at the border. So I wrote a note on my phone with fat fingers and blurry eyes and sent it off at 35,000 feet (see below).

I re-read it today after I was interviewed on the 5th anniversary of his passing. I had referenced it when I said (again) that the Beastie Boys, and especially Yauch, taught me to always have fun — to work hard, to take risks, to help make the world a better place, but that you must have fun while doing it…and maybe even wear a fake mustache or a mullet wig. (Yauch LOVED disguises.)

Yauch in the Sabotage Video. 

Yauch in the Sabotage Video. 

I still get weepy when asked about him and our work together, or when I look at my wedding pictures (he was my maid of honor) — because I realize all of the things that I won’t be able to thank him for…A friend told me that the sadness won’t ever go away. He is probably right, so I am going to try to use it as a reminder to keep on doing the work that we started for nonviolence in the funnest possible ways.

Good thing I live in New Orleans now, where getting a fake mustache and mullet wig is really easy.

From a color slide I took of Yauch in Tibet (1995) after we attended a religious festival that devolved into tsampa-throwing battle. Tsampa is a barely flour and a staple in the Tibetan diet. Throwing it in the air during a festival is a blessing…Throwing it in each other’s faces after the blessing is fun.

From a color slide I took of Yauch in Tibet (1995) after we attended a religious festival that devolved into tsampa-throwing battle. Tsampa is a barely flour and a staple in the Tibetan diet. Throwing it in the air during a festival is a blessing…Throwing it in each other’s faces after the blessing is fun.

Yauch 5/4/12

It is an understatement to say that Adam Yauch changed all of our lives because he changed us so completely — through his music, his activism, and his friendship. Because his presence in our lives was so large, so shall be his absence. And also his legacy.

I find myself now remembering above everything else his tireless work for nonviolence & Tibet, and his amazing sense of humor. Those of us who were fortunate enough to work with him have likely never worked so hard nor laughed so much as we did when we were in his presence.

Yauch also changed what it meant to be an artist-activist. I admit that when I met him, I was skeptical of him and his interest in my work (I was a human rights activist studying & living with Tibetans in Nepal; he was the guy that sang “Fight For Your Right to Party”). But I quickly realized that he was an artist and an activist in the deepest sense of the words.

In the years that followed, he didn’t just produce and perform at our concerts for Tibet. He also went to conferences and organized workshops. He was deeply strategic — most of the time ;-), always passionate, and always welcoming. He believed in our team of inexperienced but determined 20-somethings, and our ability to do the impossible. And with that belief in us and in nonviolence, together we DID do the impossible. And what fun we had while changing the world!!

Yauch’s work for Tibet helped jumpstart and nurture an international youth movement for Tibet and nonviolence. The best example of which can be found in Students for a Free Tibet, our sister organization and partner during all of the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. That this organization and movement is stronger today than when the last Concert ended is a testament to Yauch’s vision, leadership, and belief in young people.

As sad as we all are at his passing, it seems to me that the best way to honor him is to continue his work.

To all of the people who worked on, came to, or were moved by the Tibetan Freedom Concerts, let’s keep up the work that we started there and remember his words:

“i know we can fix it and its not too late

I give respect to King and his nonviolent ways

I dream and i hope and i won’t forget

Someday i’m gonna visit on a free Tibet

Someday I’m gonna see us all joined as one”

…And let’s send lots of love, prayers, and laughter to Dechen, Losel, his parents, Mike, & Adam. We love you all!!

xo, erin

Five Ideas on Strategies and Tactics for Cultural Change

In the shadow of the new regime, as dark and overwhelming as it seems, I believe that we have an incredible opportunity to play offense, at least as far as culture goes. I say this because history has taught us that cultural change is the best avenue to lasting political change. And also because the promise of cultural strategies for social change isn’t just about laws that protect the rights of all people and the land, but a culture that believes that all people have rights, that resources are to be protected, and that it is all of our responsibilities to do so. It is this broad-scale cultural change, not just political change, that we most want and have an opportunity now to build.

Achieving this will take time and focus. And it will require us to build upon what’s working and  develop new, deeper and more nuanced cultural strategies and tactics than we currently have, particularly ones that can implement long-term, mass-scale culture interventions which feed into organizing and policy campaigning. Below are some of my ideas on how we can achieve this. Please consider this an invitation to spitball these and other big cultural ideas with me.

I have always seen cultural organizing like wildfires started by lightning. Just as a strike creates sparks only when the conditions are right (when it is dry and there is fuel to burn and plenty of oxygen), creating the right cultural conditions will similarly make it possible that future sparks turn into an unstoppable wildfire for change.


Five Ideas on Strategies and Tactics for Cultural Change

1. Stop talking about issues in order to win on issues. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in cultural strategies we may need to develop a strain of the work that stops talking about issues altogether and starts focusing on narrative leverage points--the cultural concepts, cues, and assumptions that sit at the intersections of issues and at the heart of our individual and collective worldviews. These are concepts like “difference”, “opportunity” and  “participation” or the cultural definitions of “family,” “work”, “equality” or “public” that tap into our values and core beliefs. These ideas aren’t defined by the issues that the social change movement has divided ourselves into, and yet, they are vital to every single one of our issues--how can we win on race, immigration or gender or sexual orientation if we don’t first transform ideas of “difference,” let alone “identity”? How can democracy survive much less thrive and authentically represent its people without creating a culture that expects and encourages participation? Furthermore, narrative leverage points are personal, collective, and aspirational--focusing on who an audience wants to be, not just who they are. Strategies that address these leverage points are focused on creating hope, imagining possibility, and priming participation in the intended audience itself.

2. More focus  on audience, and audience-matching. In my two decades of working alongside the entertainment industry, the words “audience” and “fans” are spoken with as much regularity as “justice” and “funding” in the progressive movement. In the cultural realm, everyone is trying to build or expand an audience. Everyone is trying to understand and even serve their audience better.

The reason that audiences are critical is that they are active and willing participants in a cultural product or community. To better understand this, consider that being a fan is a likely determinant of who you vote for and what party you align yourself with. In fact, according to an article in The New York Times about the 2016 presidential election, TV audiences were a more precise predictor of who a person voted for than how an individual voted in past elections. In other words, what culture a person consumes and what audience they belong to correlates to how they think and act, and especially vote.

Audience-matching is a strategy that I have used in my work with musicians. In it, we seek to work with the artists and creative projects whose audience is those we wish to engage. If Evangelical Christians are the most moveable on climate, we should be working with Christian rock bands and others that appeal to this demographic. If baby boomers are the biggest obstacles to marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights, then artists that were popular in that era are key to that work. Most artists have a sense of their audiences, but commercial artists and projects have actual data. Adding this cultural and audience affiliation information to the voter files will help us track and use these strategies and tactics better. Additionally, employing behavior change and user design techniques in our campaigns (in which we start where the people we are trying to engage already are, and / or create user profiles) will help us work with new audiences in deeper and more effective ways.

3. Think of cultural change as a long game. In 2013, Ari Wallach wrote an article for Wired where he described the limits of short-term thinking for the deeper social and political changes we need. He argued that we need “a framework for long-term strategy -- one that is visionary yet goal-oriented”--that can guide us towards addressing issues like climate change, equity, etc., which cannot be achieved with short term strategy. In it, he asked what change do we want in 15 years, and then asked us to develop strategies to achieve it. I believe that culture is what he called a “longpath strategy”--to be most potent, it requires much longer lead times than traditionally allowed for in the grant-making that fuels our movements. Some of our society’s most “disruptive” technologies and companies, like Apple, Facebook and Uber, were given at least seven years to prove they were successful by their funders. The work of disrupting worldviews needs to develop a similar timeframe. In addition to rapid response that we’re already doing, cultural strategists, organizers and funders need a longpath view of culture that starts with what we want to see in terms of shifted perceptions in 15 years, and then gives ourselves the runway to achieve that shift.

4. Provide more creatives with more support and strategies. Many culture-makers responsible for the content that is consumed by non-voters and conservatives today consider themselves to be progressives. They often segregate their beliefs from their work because they lack the strategies, tools, and support to integrate the two successfully.  In my experience and work with artists and others in the entertainment industries -- to help them weave social change into their creative and business practices-- I have found that a minimal amount of effort to encourage and provide support has always been enthusiastically embraced and has led to leveraged change-making that isn’t reliant on the nonprofit sector for resources. A combination of encouragement and showing them the research and science behind what works and what doesn’t with cultural strategies is key to turning them from potential allies to powerful ones. Fortunately, this is an easy task given the growing network of creatives wanting to do something to resist the new regime, and even more powerful if we provide simple support and strategies to those creating for the audiences we are seeking to change.

5. Create multi-year, multi-lateral cultural campaigns around narrative leverage points that lead into organizing and policy efforts. These types of campaigns would focus on engaging like-minded artists and creatives who already create for the audiences we seek to engage. Using the research on what we know works, these professionals would inject expanded narrative themes intended to shift their audience’s perceptions into their existing works. They could also create new cultural projects and interventions (e.g., film or TV scripts, songs, music videos, visual art or ads, etc.) with this kind of content. Multiple creative outputs that appeal to the same or similar audience would be deployed in order to reinforce the messaging. After a period of, say one to two years, during which the intended audience was “primed” with this cultural messaging, organizing and policy efforts can then do what they do best--translate people power into real change and into laws.