The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to know the terrain and use it to your advantage. No longer does this require navigating the mountains of Cuba with a rifle on one’s back, as today’s political topography is one of symbols and signs, images and expressions. From small community organizations to international NGOs, the School for Creative Activism works with activists looking to broaden their base of appeal and the effectiveness of their work through employing creative processes and using cultural resources. Our training helps these organizations meld tried and true organizing techniques with the avant-garde practice of creative activism. The SCA is not just about “better messaging” or adding slick graphic design. Our goal is more effective organizing. Our curriculum updates the activist tool-kit through the reimagination and reconfiguration of tactics, strategy, objectives and goals in such a way that creativity and culture factors into every plan and every action. In a weekend long workshop, we offer a broad-based education focused on the organizers and the cultural landscape upon which they operate. We teach a framework of overarching principles, perspectives, and skills of creative activism that they can apply to develop their own campaigns. Invention is required: we don’t just provide a set of cool tactics, we teach a proven methodology for developing creative campaigns. Steve Lambert is a practicing political artist and Stephen Duncombe is a recognized cultural theorist, and we have experience in professional teaching, grassroots organizing, and the arts. Our influences are a mix of all these experiences and the research around them.
In our model training, the instructional timeline is compressed – we teach our curriculum in two and a half days. We’re not opposed to learning from “tradition” and using what we know from standard university teaching. A great deal of our trainings takes place through collaborative, “hands-on” workshops, where we work together in imagining goals, planning stategies and devising tactics. But we also believe that in order to work together effectively we need to have a common knowledge base, and in order to convey this information efficiently we use a more traditional lecture and slide format. Since we’re often working with professional organizers it helps to be able to meet them on some safe, familiar ground. However, we also push the boundaries as far as we can over the course. For example, after a long day of instruction on the history and theory of creative activism, we get out of the safety zone of activist culture, taking immigrant rights workers on field trips to a comedy night, having Occupy Faith organizers compete against each other in a game of Monopoly, or spending a night at a sports bar with anti-segregation activists. The lesson they learn here is that activists have to leave the domain they are comfortable with if they ever hope to communicate their message to, and work effectively with, a wider audience.
Our participants are generally experienced activists who are looking for new ways to approach their work. We try to create new groups of collaborators at the same time, so the activists may not all be from the same organization. To create a more creative dynamic, we often include a few local artists among the activists as well. To date the SCA has run training sessions working with local artists and Open Society Foundations organizing partners in New York, North Carolina, Texas, Illinois, and Massachusetts, as well as East Africa and The Netherlands. In the coming year sessions are planned for the United States, Scotland, and Russia. You asked a few specific questions we want to respond to: Questions of funding are important. For both of us, this is the most uncompromised work we do and having autonomy, in that regard, from our funders means there needs to be some barriers between money and our curricular decisions. For this reason, we decided when we founded the school to never do this work for businesses. Charging tuition can bring income and a level of “investment” from students, but this can also exclude the very organizers that we want to work with the most. So far, we have been able to win grants from Open Society Foundations and others so that all participants’ expenses (food, lodging) are covered and they are paid a small stipend for committing to the training. Paying the participants honors their time and commitment to the course. This is a core principle for us. Accreditation is not important to us. We teach the same topics in the SCA that we do in our respective universities because we feel this perspective is critical to understanding culture and citizenship. However, in the SCA we’re able to teach these ideas exactly the way we want – over the course of the weekend, with active practitioners, and without committee meetings or getting signatures from administrators. We work with the people we believe will benefit most – not college students, but experienced activists. And activists don’t really care about accreditation either (though we do have a ritualistic graduation ceremony where we play music, drink champagne and award a diploma).
Stephen Duncombe teaches at NYU and Steve Lambert at SUNY Purchase. Having one foot in these institutions while running an independent school gives us some latitude for our independent pedagogical endeavors, but also improves our teaching within these schools. Ultimately, we don’t want to feel that we need to go elsewhere to teach what we think is most important, and we’d like to bring the SCA into our university classrooms. This, however, raises the question of the purpose of the classroom versus that of the SCA. We don’t have any set goal in our college classrooms other than creating more inquisitive, creative and learned students. We strive to foster the same qualities in the participants in the SCA too, but there’s an important difference. We believe art and knowledge is always instrumentalized – it is unavoidable – it’s just a question of how and for whom. The SCA was created for the express purpose of helping activists to be more effective in challenging power and changing the world. The goal of the School for Creative Activism is, in a word, revolution.