Using the Arts for Social Change

When I was growing up in the 60s, one of the first calls for social action I heard was from President John F. Kennedy during his inaugural address. His words inspired us then and they still move many to action: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s words so inspired people that many joined the newly organized Peace Corps and served people in countries all over the world. Inspiring words, grand actions.

At the same time that many were joining the Peace Corps, another man rose up to inspire Americans to take action for the cause of civil rights. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King inspired people of all races in the United States to work for civil rights and the right to vote without undue obstacles like literacy tests. I remember marches all over this country and TV screens filled with protestors sitting at lunch counters waiting to be served, a bold act when restaurants all over the US were segregated and prohibited Black customers. I remember the March on Washington and the Selma March, with its awful violence. I remember the bravery of the non-violent protestors who took the blows of the billy clubs and the forceful torrents of water from fire hoses. And King’s words ring out for all of us when we still fight for civil rights and justice, especially for people of color: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

My early models for social justice were men who could command a stage. Men who could lead thousands and whose faces filled the television screens and magazine covers. Men who could inspire marches and action by thousands, even millions of people. In my teen years, I saw men leading marches against the war. Men taking over college campus buildings. Men burning their draftcards. Again, my models were out in the streets, marching and challenging the Vietnam War.

And yes, there were women in the social justice movements of the 60s and 70s. But they all seemed to play a secondary role and they certainly weren’t out leading the movements. Until I became aware of the Women’s Movement in the early 1970s. But much like the men, the women gave speeches and participated in marches and demonstrations.

So when I decided to take an active role in a social justice movement, I marched and demonstrated. I registered voters and wrote to my legislators. I was on the front lines of organizing the Nuclear Freeze Movement in the 1980s and was an active participant in many marches opposing the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. But despite millions of people all over the world demonstrating against those wars, they rolled on and still continue. I was utterly devastated when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and the news media almost cheered the horrific bombing campaign called “Shock and Awe.” And I haven’t marched since then.

But I still care deeply about many social and environmental justice issues. How can I be an activist if I don’t march or demonstrate or staff phone banks? My early years would have me believe that those are the only options open for participating in social change movements. But I discovered another tool for change when I suffered a severe depression and had to pull back from all of my many activities. I discovered the power of using art for change. In my case, the power of poetry and theater as agents for social change.

Performance art in Madrid, Spain
Performance art in Madrid, Spain

Why is art so powerful? Think about the furor over Diego Rivera’s murals in the Rockefeller Center when he worked to create his masterpiece called “Man: Controller of the Universe.” The images of working men in dire circumstances caused such controversy with the Rockefellers that Rivera eventually destroyed the original mural in New York and later recreated it in Mexico. Rivera wasn’t giving speeches. He was using pictures to criticize the excesses of capitalism.

Billy Holiday sang Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”, a song about lynching that got her banned from clubs all over the US. Lorraine Hansbury used her own experiences and the work of her father to integrate housing in Chicago when she wrote and produced her play A Raisin in the Sun. A play still relevant today and performed all across the US.

What do all these artists have in common? In my mind, I see them as the ones who can inspire and feed other activists, offering sustenance, like cooks who feed the workers when they come in from their shift at a job. In their own ways, they took stands and used their gifts to work for social change. They used their art. And that art still speaks to us and inspires us today.

What about you? Maybe you’re not an artist or someone who wants to march and protest. We’re not all called to do those things. Mother Theresa reminds us that we can all contribute when she said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Go out and do something with love.

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