|"Make a sticky note of your civil-liberties dream of the future"|
The last workshop at the American Civil Liberties Union national conference was coming to a close. After hearing Harvard public policy professor Marshall Ganz speak about leadership, organizing, and the ACLU, I had only one question. I nervously walked to the microphone stand, reviewing my note one last time. After waiting a few minutes or so for the others to ask their questions, I asked: “What is your take on the arts and philosophies versus the sciences and data of activism?” Looking back, I can see that everything I have done politically inside and outside of the conference could be brought back to that single distinction.
Almost a year ago, I was tired of sitting around, uselessly arguing on the internet, waiting for something to happen, so I organized three ACLU of Virginia fundraisers and started a People Power campaign in my city, gaining almost three thousand dollars, and attention from the statewide ACLU staff. Just a few weeks ago, I was granted three VIP passes to the national ACLU conference in DC. Last month, my family and I checked in and began our three-day journey, starting with initial training workshops. I attended “Turn Up the Volume by Building a Local Activism Machine,” where Pete Hackeman, Jessica Ayoub, and Nicholas Pressley discussed why and how we recruit volunteers. For the most part, like all “why’s,” this class was philosophical and artistic, but much of the “how” used activist-related science. Most of this workshop had the general theme of more is done with more people. “What we can do as an individual is not enough, but what we can do as a group, as a team, as a movement is something else,” Hackeman said. This idea lives comfortably in the center of the Venn diagram between political arts and sciences: the numerical advantage being the science, and the teamwork philosophy being the art.
Out of the speeches and discussions that followed, many focused on the science, or the “what” of politics. Some of the “what's” included DC congressional representation, redefining the criminal justice system, Puerto Rican statehood, fair wait-staff minimum wages, rescinding voter disenfranchisement, enforcing a stricter rule of law, and maintaining the free press. All of these would be useless in mobilization or campaign without the “why,” and vice versa. The science cannot exist without the art to defend it, and the art without the science has no legs to stand on. The arts that stuck with me most were primarily from author and civil rights lawyer, Bryan Stevenson. The most important of those arts was about proximity to the people you serve or disagree with. “It is in proximity,” he said, “that we begin to understand the world.” With more arts, he rightly noted, the world dramatically benefits when we fix the broken rather than destroy them. He continued to speak about changing narratives, having hopefulness, and understanding the necessity of discomfort. Later that night, I witnessed a live Fake the Nation podcast, where the members discussed serious “what” topics, such as Puerto Rico, Israel-Palestine, and artificial wellness, and added the art of humor to create an equilibrium. This equilibrium, while noticed in many other sections, stood out the most in this. Imagine how little ground this podcast would make if it dully attempted to convince people to fight for the rights of Puerto Ricans. But with the science and the art, with this perfect activist equilibrium, their advocacy has taken off. In between the workshops, plenaries, and meals, the leadership lounge was open for any other chosen attendees to participate. A casual leadership and criminal justice discussion by Bill Cobb led to some exciting mixes of the arts and science. “There’s a king and a fool in everyone; whoever you talk to will reply.” Cobb used this example of the arts to better explain the sciences of mass incarceration. If you invest in schools, you will get scholars, and if you invest in prisons, you will get prisoners.
More arts and sciences came from first transgender Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, in the workshop “Advocacy Secrets from Inside the Capitol.” I entered somewhat late due to the leadership lounge, but I experienced enough to know that the “how,” which consists of both science and art, was the general priority of this meeting.
The Art of this workshop was based around a simple philosophy: the less powerful an official is, the more likely they are to listen to you. Power, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean wealth or government level, but how many people speak to you about issues they care about. The sheriff, although he controls more jurisdiction, is spoken to less than a delegate or board member. And even though I did not learn it at this conference, the philosophy “think globally, act locally” came to mind. Both of these philosophies, while carrying out or just in general, must have science to work. A more idealistic thought came into play when Roem began speaking about student forums. Amidst a round of applause, she proclaimed, “You’re never too young to learn, and never too young to teach!”
Somewhere in my insufficient free time, I managed to make it to an action center’s People Power leaders’ discussion. I created the People Power Facebook account for Richmond a long time ago, and it hasn’t gained much traction. This discussion though was of philosophy and data. The philosophical art was focused on getting others involved in your cause through motivation, along with the science of the call team, text team, and translation team. I know first hand that the call team, just like all activism, is useless without the art of the grassroots volunteers, and equally meaningless without the miles and miles of a data-filled spreadsheet. Back at the last workshop, waiting to hear from Marshall Ganz, I thought about going back to my seat. That’s when Ganz told me that I’d asked a fantastic question and that he would answer it first when going through his list. I could say that the other people in the room, especially my parents, were equally astounded. He spoke about the head and the heart, how they depend on each other, without one, the other collapses. Then he said a few simple words that inspired me to write this post and will be the basis of all my future activism: “It takes the head and the heart to move the hands.” Note: the article can be found here.