As an artist, you have a tremendous amount of power. Strangers seek you out voluntarily to learn lessons on the intangible, such as love, friendship, honor, and justice. If you want to use your powers of connection and translation to not only share a perspective, but also mobilize your audience for social change, you’re on the path to artivism.
There are many artivists successfully using their talents to raise awareness and make change. Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, a work by renowned Anna Deavere Smith, invites the audience to learn about and respond to the inequities of the school-to-prison pipeline by engaging in an audience brainstorming and action session. Black Lives Matter protesters used the power of song to interrupt the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at the end of intermission with a Requiem for Mike Brown. Just this summer, a pair of New York artivists shared a performance art piece on Wall Street to protest and raise awareness of the Puerto Rican economic crisis.
One of the most effective ways to give your artivism greater impact is to incorporate methods of social change from other disciplines. There are many fantastic resources on how to create your show or individual artistic protest effectively. This article draws from the community organizing and policy advocacy world to offer 4 ways you can harness the energy cultivated by your piece to drive your viewers towards action.
1: Know the Origin Story
Dig deeper into the issue your art seeks to portray. Doing background research, will not only enrich your artistry, it will also inform your advocacy. Identify the origin of your issue and get your audience to help you grasp it at the root. This process is known as a root cause analysis. Defining the root cause answers the question: why is this happening. Applied to an everyday situation this would look like: The cheese went bad. Why? The fridge wasn’t cold enough. Why? The power went out. Why? The building super shut off the power for a few hours. Why? And so on. A pro tip is to ask the question why at least five times before concluding you are near or have arrived at your root cause. This process takes time and research when the issue is complex.
You can begin this work by talking to the community most affected, examining your own experiences with the issue, and researching through articles, books, and reliable internet resources. Once you know the origin, you and your audience are more prepared to combat it and discuss possible solutions. Consider sharing the root cause in your piece or providing handouts highlighting the origin to your viewers.
2: Have an Audience with Impact
If you want to change the status quo, don’t just preach to the converted. Once you’ve identified the root cause of your problem, make sure the people perpetuating and affected by this issue are in the audience to hear your message. In the advocacy world, these are referred to as your stakeholders. This may be a matter of performance location and/or deliberately advertising to specific people, agencies, corporations, or organizations by leaving promotional material at relevant locations.
3: Show the Audience Their Power
Your audience may be moved by your message, but feel unsure of how to act on what they’ve learned from you. Make them aware of the power they carry:
Political Power: Get the audience engaged in the political process. While they are not well advertised, there are many ways, beyond voting in a presidential election, that people can get involved in their democracy and speak directly to government decisionmakers on the local and federal level. Here’s just one:
Relational Power: Everyone has their own circle of influence. Help your audience identify their circle in relation to your issue. For example, if your piece is about a topic related to public schools, let them know that superintendents, teachers, students, and parents all have a role to play in bringing change. The more specific you can be, the better. In community organizing, this is part of a process known as powermapping. If your audience members know someone in a position of power related to your issue, they can share with them what you offered through your piece. This can be done in person or through social media. Members of your audience might even be in some of those roles, especially if you created an audience with impact as discussed above.
Consumer Power: Every dollar spent is a vote of support for that product or company to stay in business. If your root cause analysis leads you to a certain corporate policy or insidious corporate structure, educate your audience on how they can stop supporting that company with their dollars. For example, if you want to encourage people to stop supporting companies affiliated with Trump, you might direct them here. Likewise, if your audience’s dollars can make a positive impact, make sure to point them in the right direction.
4: Help Them Carry Your Message to the World
The viewers of your piece may feel inspired and want to remember the information and spread the word. Help them do it! Provide handouts that offer information on the root cause of the issue, key decision-makers, statistics to support your message, start a hashtag, or create a website. You can also give them an object that is symbolic of the issue you shared, and ask them to give the object to a friend or stranger.
The most important thing is that these steps are tailored specifically to the message and artistic genre that you are sharing. How can you help the audience act on your message?
Rebecca Kelly Golfman is a social justice educator and activist dedicated to using art as a tool for social change. Visit rebeccakellyg.com for artivist consultation services and rights-based racial justice workshops. Rebecca has a degree in Theatre Performance from Wagner College and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Connecticut School of Law. She is a co-founder of the NYC Artists of Color Collective, an Adjunct Professor at Wagner College teaching Race, the Arts, & Activism, and a Joker with Theatre of the Oppressed NYC.