Thursday, June 23, 2005

Creating A Progressive "Commons" In Philly

During the 2004 campaign, I became a full-fledged political activist, in no small part do to an organization called Music for America (MfA). The idea behind MfA was pretty simple- the best way to engage young people in politics is through culture. Culture is political, and our job as volunteers for MfA was to help other young people make this connection at the concerts we worked at.

I may be biased in my assessment, but what I saw working MfA shows was incredible. For the first time in my life I saw young people who probably wouldn't otherwise think or care about politics taking the time to ponder the political direction of the country. I saw kids not only accepting that politics matters, but embracing and getting excited by it. I saw the beginning of something which could have a huge impact on our nation- the cultural connecters and leaders converting their social spaces to political spaces, which I still feel can be our answer to the Right's politicization of their churches.

However, while working at shows all over Philly, I realized that there was a problem with the model of political organizing that MfA was basing itself upon. The culture which we were working through and with is under attack. DIY concert producers, who put on the small-medium sized shows that MfA worked at, find themselves in direct competition, and often open conflict, with the major entertainment companies such as Clear Channel and TicketMaster. These small companies, such as Philadelphia's beloved R5 Productions, find themselves in a precarious situation- not only do they have to compete with huge corporations, but they are constantly in search of places to put on their shows. And so, at just the moment when progressives are starting to pull together culture and politics, the culture itself is increasingly struggling to survive. (For example, in Philadelphia the last major independent venue, the Trocadero, recently signed a booking agreement with the large corporate House of Blues.)

Recently, I began working with a group called Cosmopolity, who are best known for brining us Drinking Liberally. One thing that we've been talking a lot about within this community is that in order to further the progressive cultural movement we need to create permanent physical homes, i.e. "Commons" or "Club Houses," where culture and politics can interact and thrive. In my first blog post on the Cosmopolity site I have proposed using Philadelphia as a test city for building these commons. Philly seems like the perfect place to start building commons- we have some great local show producers (and Sean Agnew happens to be a very politically minded- and a generally awesome- person), an emerging activist base, and connections to the national blogosphere. All that seems to be missing is the space.

My question is- do you think that working to create a space where art, music, and politics can interact and thrive is essential to the continued growth of progressive politics? If so, don't you think that Philly would be a perfect place to build a "Commons?"

8 Comments:

At 11:26 AM, Blogger DanielUA said...

Hell, yes. Hell, yes.

What a cool idea. I would encourage everyone to follow Alex's link if you agree, and let em know.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger ACM said...

My question is- do you think that working to create a space where art, music, and politics can interact and thrive is essential to the continued growth of progressive politics?

Geez, it would never have occurred to me that this is so. I know that music can intrude into places where people (e.g. students) are otherwise paying politics no attention. But once they've perked up their ears, is it music that will keep them engaged, or do we hope that they will start to look and listen for news from convention sources, connect up with activist organizations that would welcome their energy, etc.? Is the end goal of "Rock the Vote" efforts to inspire coffee house culture, or to make youth take politics seriously?

My knee-jerk response is to think that the art connection is a preliminary one only. But (a) I'm not really the target for such efforts, so I may not be the right person to judge, and (b) you may be imagining such spaces as continuing to appeal to (and find) new (unreached) ears, rather than bringing the already-intrigued together over time. I don't know whether that's a realistic goal or not -- are the uninterested likely to seek you out (since they are presumed apathetic about things political at the outset)? is there a large enough pool of people that can be reached only by such an outreach to justify a permanent effort, or will you eventually be just hunting down each year's freshman class? what "progressive politics" do you see yourself recruiting people for (e.g., what groups, what sources of information), or is it more about the inherent value of letting art and politics intersect (which seems like an issue for artsy ferment, rather than for political organizing)?

so, I guess my answer to your question as stated -- is such a space essential to the growth of progressive politics -- I'd say no. could it contribute? interest new groups? possibly. have value on its own? reinforce the value of both the artistic and political sides of its efforts? almost certainly.

not sure where this leaves things, but my two cents anyway.

 
At 4:36 PM, Blogger Rep. Mark B. Cohen said...

I have no idea whether or not progressive politics will follow from enhanced availability of venues, but I think the enhanced availability is a good idea regardless of any political implications. As a member of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, I know the desirability of growing the number and quality of performing artists in Pennsylvania and from Pennsylvania.

I would welcome a chance to meet with people from Cosmopolity and other places sharing similar interests, to see what governmental programs might serve their needs.

Philadelphia has made a lot of progress in improving cultural opportunities for our residents, visitors, and tourists, but we are no where near where we ideally would be.

 
At 4:40 PM, Blogger Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg said...

But once they've perked up their ears, is it music that will keep them engaged, or do we hope that they will start to look and listen for news from convention sources, connect up with activist organizations that would welcome their energy, etc.?

Both. The first thing to understand is that culture is politics, and so if the culture is strong, and the cultural leaders are willing to politicize their spaces, then the politics will follow. But- the politics will also hopefully keep people engaged. The key thing to remember is that you're not really looking to make political junkies out of everyone. Instead you're looking to enable political junkies to talk with their peers in a friendly setting about the issues that affect us. Some people will get really siked by the political side and want to get more involved (like myself), others will simply decide to go vote, which is also important (and the #1 most effective way, by far, to change someone's political beliefs and actions is to have a friend or peer ask them to do so). And yes, groups like MfA are all about tying kids into the broader political scene, giving them a variety of fun and/or inventive ways to get involved, and pointing them to alternative media sources (for example I had no idea what Daily Kos was until MfA, and thought blogs were just for people to write about their love life). But again, the culture has to be there first, then activists like myself can swoop in, and with the help of the cultural leaders, "turn this motha out" (so to speak).

Is the end goal of "Rock the Vote" efforts to inspire coffee house culture, or to make youth take politics seriously?

I guess I don't know what you mean by a "RTV effort" but I would say no, this isn't like RTV other than trying to connect politics and culture. First- RTV only pops up once every four years, but culture happens all the time. If people think that politics is just going to the voting booth every four years, then we're in trouble. Second, RTV is "non-partisan" meaning they usually tell you "go vote" but don't really give you any reason to. With MfA the key was to try and get kids to see how politics effected their lives (for example the threat to live, independent music posed by the RAVE Act, or the extremely high costs of tuition). And how tightly is our culture connected to large corporate culture (which MTV is) in our every day lives? That's why I think that Sean's group is a perfect org. to start with in Philly. They're already fighting the corporations that would love nothing more than to squash all culture that they aren't packaging and selling to you.


My knee-jerk response is to think that the art connection is a preliminary one only.

And I'll ask you- why do you think progressive politics has declined so broadly and deeply over the past 30 years? IMO it is because it has lost it's connection to our real lives. I'm not saying that art is directly connected to politics, but the culture surrounding the art and artists certainly is...

you may be imagining such spaces as continuing to appeal to (and find) new (unreached) ears, rather than bringing the already-intrigued together over time.

Yes and no. The artists are the ones who will bring in new and unreached ears, and the politics can bring together the already intrigued. If you look on R5's site you'll note that they don't really have a problem attracting people. I can't remember many of Sean's shows that I worked at which weren't packed. I'm sure that there are some, but he really puts on the best shows.

are the uninterested likely to seek you out

Uninterested in what? We are looking for people interested in culture. Once they find the culture then we inject politics. It may take more or less time depending on the kid we're talking about, but if it seems cool (and hanging out with the bands and the cultural connecters is most definitely cool) and if they see it on a regular basis then we'll have a big impact.

is there a large enough pool of people that can be reached only by such an outreach to justify a permanent effort

Yes. Just think about the thousands of kids who go to these shows every year (I believe MfA was at shows with well over 100,000 people across the nation). Now imagine a space that served these shows, plus some other shows, plus maybe had a bar and coffee shop, or a game room, or something. The point is- the demand for the space is already there, so why not build (or lease) it and connect it closer into politics from the ground up?

what "progressive politics" do you see yourself recruiting people for

Things I can think of: WalmartWatch, working against the Drug War, working for more openess in the city, or any other political issue that is going down in the city. The key for MfA was variety and self selection. There are enough issues, and issue groups, that you can allow people to choose issues that matter to them. The key is to tie in whatever small issue into the broader progressive movement, which will only happen if the efforts are sustained over a good period of time.

 
At 12:59 PM, Blogger ACM said...

wow, thorough and civil set of answers. very intrigued -- as I say, it's something I'd never thought about. still not sure I'd use the word "essential," but I like your idea that politics needs more interfaces with "everyday life." certainly music, arts, and hanging out are things that many see as integral to their lives in a way that they sometimes forget other things also are (wages, healthcare, and the rest). using one to create an opening for the other has to be good, even if only a portion of the audience picks up on it...

 
At 1:01 PM, Blogger ACM said...

oh and...

I have no idea whether or not progressive politics will follow from enhanced availability of venues, but I think the enhanced availability is a good idea regardless of any political implications.

I also agree with this, but that wasn't what he asked originally. I support arts at all levels, wish there were more venues and more kinds of music and art available. but the leap from there to ongoing political efforts is a rather different perspective (and could involve the connections and resources of new and different groups, if the link can be made convincing)...

 
At 2:25 PM, Blogger Prank Monkey said...

Alex covered a lot of what I would have said, but I'll see if I can augment his response, as I agree with all of it.

First, let me clarify about the scope of MfA during the 2004 election cycle:

We were involved in 2,445 concerts between October 2003 and November 2004. This accounted for 2/3 of all politically conscious music events during the election. These shows were attended by an estimated 2 million people - far more than the 100,000 Alex mentioned. AT these shows we distributed 1.5 million of MfA's "issue cards," political material designed like club fliers which specifically tied political information to the lives of 16-30 year olds at music events.

So I'm pretty confident when I say that the scope of MfA's reach, and the number of people who can be influenced in this fashion is large. And as Alex noted, these people are coming for the music - this is a community that never dries up. There will always be youth culture, underground culture, music scenes, etc. Unless, that is, independent venues are shut down and Clear Channel takes a sudden dislike to MfA's presence in its venues.

On the issue of RTV - I'm in total agreement with Alex. MfA and Rock the Vote are nothing alike. You can read my thoughts on this - as well as how/why MfA works - in detail here and here (the first link is rather lengthy - much to long to post here).

But in a nutshell - RTV is employing a broadcast medium - they are essentially just an advertising blitz (Choose or Loose) coupled with a few shows and street teams that crop up around election time. Name recognition allows them to register a huge number of people online, but as Alex said - they only register people to vote, they don't give them a reason to vote. It is very difficult to link turn-out to RTV numbers. I'm not a big enough ego maniac to say that the roughly 4 million person increase in voters 18-25 is due solely to MfA - currentpolitical circumstances had a lot to do with it as well, but I think you'll agree that the scope of these projects is large and highly significant.

Like I said,not much to add to Alex's thorough post and response. I'd just reiterate that while mixing culture and politics appears like a soft-sell with little of the results that organizers typically regard as tangible, that is exactly the way that the right has been beating us. They've had their views reinforced in church, or by their friend sittingon the barstool next to them and repeating what they heard on Fox News. It's the one on one contact from within the community that is goingto change people's minds and get them to jump to the nextlevel of participation. We need our own system to allow people to reinforce theprogressive views of their friends and neighbors. We need our own system offering different levels of participation. Setting up at concerts is a great way to do it.

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Phillionaire1 said...

Sorry for the late comment, i just saw this post.

What I think the mixing of art and politics does is help form a "critical mass" in people's minds. A big part of the political disengadgement of so many people is the feeling that "onthing is happening, no one is organized and no one is doing anything." Obviously, groups like MFA, Cosmopolity, etc., are doing things, and if we networked to a greater extent, the whole progressive movement would benefit from this.

As one other comment stated, political junkies are made, not born. Until I got involved with Billioniares For Bush, I was only involved with local Greens. Now I made the actual leap to activism, but it didn't happen till I meet, face to face, others so inclined as myself. I was a sculpture major, not political science.

-TM

The Rotunda in University City has a lot of events where art and politics mix.
"The Foundation is a community gathering place for the promotion of arts and culture. This center seeks to bring together the Penn student community with the people of West Philadelphia and the greater Philadelphia area. We work from the belief that art is a catalyst for change, and that arts events can lead to the formation of meaningful Penn-West Philadelphia partnerships."

http://www.foundationarts.org/foundation.htm

 

Post a Comment

<< Home

Free Web Counter
Unique Readers