November 12, 2011

Community organizing and indie theatre

A while back I mentioned an interest in combining theatre with community organizing. For a variety of reasons, November has been the month where I've committed to learning more about community organizing. I'm taking part in the Audre Lorde Project's Daring To Be Powerful community organizing workshop, and I'm really enjoying myself and sensing a lot of growth.

My work with the Audre Lorde Project is a natural continuation of what I've been doing with the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond.  With the People's Institute, I've developed the ability to analyze power structures and root them in real history. With the Audre Lorde Project, I'm learning how to apply that analysis in a way that reflects and serves QTPOC (queer/trans people of color - pronounced "Cutie Pock") communities.

This community organizing aspect of my artistic journey is particularly striking because, in my opinion, theatre is the most communal of the arts. It is the art form most intimately connected to where, when, and with whom it happens. You can tell a lot about a community by the theatre it creates.

As this communal element becomes a bigger part of who I am as a theatre maker, it becomes increasingly important for theatre to become the vanguard for exposing, examining, and transforming the power dynamics within our communities. Part of being able to do all that is creating methods of discourse that truly allow for the full participation of the community.

Yet as a community, theatre tends to be more reactive than proactive. We react to what the NEA is doing. We react to this or that theater's decisions. We react to this or that critic's statements about The Ultimate Truth About The State Of All Theatre. We react to this or that article or book being published. And I'm thinking, "Shouldn't this be the other way around? Shouldn't we be telling them what needs to change? Shouldn't they be listening and responding to us?"

Then again, how would they do that? It's not like we're being invited to fully participate in conversations about things that affect us (To me, this is what differentiates the Haves from the Have Nots - see HowlRound). And it's not like those things are receiving sustained effort and attention. As a result, it seems that we're having the same conversations all the time, and we're starting from ground zero each time we have these conversations. No matter what the discussion is, we always have to deal with
  • Denial that there is a problem
  • Refusal to believe things can change
  • Disbelief that we, collectively, have the power to make those changes
  • Unwillingness to act even in small ways
So what we have are stimulating discussions with brilliant people that never seem to lead to concrete action. We lack for nothing: not vision, not knowledge, not resolve, not know-how, not resources. Look at what we actually accomplish! Look at how much time and energy and brainpower we've put into doing the work we do just for the love of it. We're not powerless. We're not lazy. We're not stupid. We have the ability to make things very different for ourselves and our communities, but we seem to keep doing the same old thing.

Allow me to go on a bit of a tangent and explain different ways to work for change because without it, what I say after this won't make much sense. There are 4 basic aspects to working for change. They are:

  1. Service - focus on individuals and respond to immediate needs
  2. Advocacy - work with representatives to change policy
  3. Activism - mobilize individuals to increase attention about issues
  4. Organizing - community members change power relations to address root causes

Because of what I've learned from the People's Institute and the Audre Lorde Project, I've come to understand that what theatre needs now is organizing. When I talk about organizing, I don't simply mean doing things in an orderly fashion. I'm using the Audre Lorde Project's definition, which states that organizing is:
a strategic process for building people's collective power to achieve self-determination and justice
Political action is one of the more overt forms of community organizing, but there are many ways that it can be applied. Of course, just waking up one day and saying, "We should organize!" just doesn't work. Organizing efforts need to be guided by solid principles. In my experience, having clear, explicit principles for action cuts down on a lot of dysfunctional bullshit that makes dealing with some organizations a real pain in the ass. The Audre Lorde Project outlines a few organizing principles:

  • Self-determination - those directly affected by the problem decide what should happen and are in leadership
  • Power - build a base of people/community power; make changes in power relations
  • Justice and movement building - in line with justice for all oppressed people
  • "We" not "I" - broad base of community members; act together based on shared vision for change
  • Direct action - actions that directly take on those in power; using our voices, minds, bodies, and creativity in numbers for empowerment
  • Address root causes - address underlying causes; address the ultimate reason for a problem ("-isms")
Of course, this is just one group's set of organizing principles. How could we refine them for the indie theatre community?

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