Art, Politics, Spirit: Braided Activism for Culture Shift


This is the text of a talk I gave on 21 October at Bioneers. It was followed by presentations by Cynthia Tom, a Bay Area-based visual artist, cultural curator, founder of A Place of Her Own, and Board President of the Asian American Women Artists Association and Lulani Arquette, President/CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (and Catalyst for Native Creative Potential on the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture). As people entered the workshop, they heard a song called Familia, written by Cris and Israel Matos and performed by their band, Manicato, which Cynthia Tom manages. The message of the chorus sums it up: “Hey family, united we march without flags without borders but one voice.”

Let us begin.

Every community owes its existence and vitality to generations from around the world who contributed their hopes, dreams, and energy to making the history that led to this moment. Some were brought here against their will, some were drawn to leave their distant homes in hope of a better life, and some have lived on this land for more generations than can be counted. Truth and acknowledgment are critical to building mutual respect and connection across all barriers of heritage and difference. We begin this effort to acknowledge what has been buried by honoring the truth. We are standing on the ancestral lands of the Coastal Miwok people. We pay respects to their elders past and present. Please take a moment to consider the many legacies of violence, displacement, migration, and settlement that bring us together here today. And please join us in uncovering such truths at any and all public events.

The statement I just offered is just one way to acknowledge the people who lived on the land we are occupying today, and who were displaced by colonial and corporate powers. It is just one way to remember the legacy it is our responsibility to heal with just and loving words and actions. You can find Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment and more at the website of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture.

I want to mention another USDAC resource that is especially relevant here in Northern California where wildfires have forced evacuations and incinerated lives and homes, as in Houston, Puerto Rico, and so many other places experiencing civil and natural emergencies. Go to the USDAC home page and you can also find Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide, offering models, examples, ethical and practical guidance to artists who wish to place their gifts at the service of communities needing consolation and care, help in devising creative protest, and support in building resilience to withstand future onslaughts.

When Nina Simons asked back in February if I would organize a panel for this year’s Bioneers, I had no hesitation in choosing a topic. Regardless of the specific outcome of that struggle to protect sacred land, I knew that we had seen something at Standing Rock that pointed the way forward, toward an integrated way of being that is art, spirit, and social change simultaneously. In February, the last water protectors were being cleared out. Even in February, we’d seen enough of the new administration in its first month to fear what was to come. Today, nine months into the White House’s rampage of hatred and destruction, we have ample proof of how much easier it is to tear down than to build up.

What do we do with that information? I have a few thoughts.

I’d like to start by sharing a teaching from from the great teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Afterwards, he told the world: “When I marched in Selma, I felt my feet were praying.”

Rabbi Heschel wrote this: “This is the most important experience in the life of every human being: something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mystery waiting for him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.”

I am sensing the demand. And I am by no means the only one.

Whether the focus is cultural rights, climate crisis, racist policing, rape culture, rampant gentrification or many other things I could name, while it’s true that stopping the destruction—damming the torrent of hatred—is necessary and crucial, we have a larger and longer-term task, which is building up a social order of justice tempered by love. It is our task to create the container for full belonging, for full cultural citizenship which knows no papers or borders, in which each person is welcomed with dignity, respect, and equity. It is our task to counter the brokenness that prevents us from bringing all parts of ourselves—body, emotions, intellect, and spirit—into everything we do. It is our task to step across the barriers erected by the old order and show up fully where our gifts are most needed.

When we were preparing for this session, Lulani pointed out how the very language we may use forces our experience into categories that don’t do it justice. We fall prey to the habit of compartmentalization which has shaped the current social order, where it is not only in the interests of those who profit from our subjugation to divide us from each other.

Their project also requires dividing us from ourselves.

How commonplace is it to accept that we must leave large parts of ourselves outside when we enter the room? The life of the body is not welcome in the classroom—unless you count recess. Tears have no place in the boardroom, despite the many decisions made there that cause them to flow outside. As for the courtroom: the oceanic sense of connection to spirit that may arise at any moment had better keep its head down there. In this country, we are facing a gigantic case of fragmentation-induced historic amnesia and compulsive lying. Here’s how James Baldwin put in 1962, 55 years ago:

We know, in the case of the person, that whoever cannot tell himself the truth about his past is trapped in it, is immobilized in the prison of his undiscovered self. This is also true of nations. We know how a person, in such a paralysis, is unable to assess either his weaknesses or his strengths, and how frequently indeed he mistakes the one for the other. And this, I think, we do. (The Creative Process,” 1962)

This condition is not hard-wired into human beings. But it is encoded in the English language and the conventional habits of mind that go with it, obscuring the integral nature of the task before us—if only we can sense the demand. The demand I sense is to cease dividing us, each from the other, each from ourselves. I don’t want to be part of a left that does the oppressor’s work by treating the categories that shatter us as if they were real. I don’t want to have a million debates about whether art and politics mix, as if every creative action didn’t also carry information about who we are, what we stand for, how we want to be remembered. I want to remember the shining truth of Eric Ward’s words,

Race doesn’t actually exist but racism does. Race is a social construct, not a biological definition. White supremacy has conned us into believing that race is about biology. It’s not our job to codify racism in America. Our job is to destroy the concept of race, not reorganize it. When we reorganize race, we become agents of white supremacy.

Our job is reunify the parts of ourselves that have been shattered by a social order that sees fragmentation as an easy route to compliance, that takes us apart to make us easier to treat like machines. Our job is to to remember history, to dream a future that leads us out of paralysis.

All around us, we see shining examples of the demand for wholeness being met. When I think of the water protectors at Standing Rock joining in ceremony clothed in beauty, of the women processing to the water at sunrise, of the singers at the sacred fire, if someone should ask me whether these things are art, or spirituality, or politics, I have only one answer:


The planet and all of the life forms it supports are calling out to us. The capacities that will equip us to sense and act on the demand now sounding so strongly are reflected in the work you will hear about from our presenters today.

The culture shift now underway—despite formidable obstacles—is from a consumer society in which economic value is primary and everything that counts can be counted to a creator society in which all of us have our stories and all stories count. The work our wonderful panelists will share with you today points to a path of wholeness. As artists, they know that everything created must first be imagined, including the loving, just, and beautiful society, the full belonging we are trying to help into being. When we create or experience beauty and meaning, we are able to practice the two critical skills most needed to make our visions real: imagination, to see that that another world is possible and bring it into focus; and empathy, to put ourselves in one another’s places, to feel something of another’s truth and to be moved to just and compassionate action.

When undertaken with this awareness, these creative practices actualize the simple and profound message which is the DNA of every spiritual tradition. I’ll offer the Hebrew version: do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself. I sometimes feel that the Golden Rule could serve as a one-line public policy. Imagine if every policymaker was required to apply it to all public actions, putting empathy and compassionate action first. Senators and governors would have to send their children to the same public schools they deem good enough for the children of immigrants; their families’ medical care would take place in exactly the same circumstances as provided for those using public health facilities; they would have to live in the same public housing they prescribe for others. If the Golden Rule were actually applied, we could solve most of our problems overnight.

But how do we get there?

We know from the increasingly interesting findings of cognitive scientists that people make political decisions not by adding up facts and figures in a dispassionate manner, but by connecting issues to emotions, associations, stories, images, parables. We know that to change the world, we have to change the story. Those who carry a story that says their white skin entitles them to a position of social superiority will vote for the candidate whose story matches theirs. The new story needs to kindle imagination and empathy, enabling them to not just know, but to feel the consequences for all who are oppressed by that story. Those who carry a story that says the land and water are merely raw materials for profit will vote for the candidate whose story matches theirs. The new story needs to embody a long and encompassing view of the life sustained by Mother Earth, enabling them to see themselves in a kind of family relationship with others, not as owner versus owned.

That is why I am very glad to turn the floor over to these amazing storytellers, who will share with you ideas, experiences, and examples of braided activism in which art, spirit, and politics are indivisible. I invite you to listen with your whole being: to open your hearts and minds to what is being shared; to bring your awareness to what is being evoked in your body and the information that carries; and to allow the sounds and images you experience to erode the boundaries between us and within you. To take this opportunity ourselves that while each of us is unique, we are also one.

Familia,” by Manicato.


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