Fiction for Organizers
Organizing and the Arts
We know the arts are key in activism, raising consciousness, mobilizing, sparking ideas. They’re central in animating, informing, nurturing, inspiring, documenting, promoting, and unifying social movements.
Music has been a pillar of activism forever. Singing and chanting together to lift spirits and strength, and to inspire solidarity, unity, and courage. Not to mention conveying calls to action and tell stories of movements and admirable individual activists. Likewise, many movements integrate visual arts in murals and posters, leaflets and newsletters, into which activists pour huge amounts of time, creativity and energy in the daily course of their struggles. Memorable banners, posters and puppets serve as key visual focal points of movements. Innumerable gatherings, choruses and workshops center around movement music.
Performance–dramatic, moving, humorous, chilling, plays a key role in conveying movement messages: dramatic “die-ins,” banner-hangings from bridges and tall buildings, giant puppets heading up demonstrations, symbolic quilts with hundreds of contributors, creative mass use of symbols–such as, lately, laying out pairs of shoes of frontline healthcare workers and the body bags nurses or the body bags on sidewalks. Street theater and mime troupes have been key participants in movements in many countries.
Dance is less common, but is becoming a great way for people to make a collective, visual point, as well as to show emotion together in a uniquely compelling way.
Art in organizing is not only for gatherings or events; activists and organizers create leaflets and newsletters all the time, demonstrating the essential role of art and design in everyday organizing. Not only the art itself is central, but also the process of making it. Painting banners and signs, creating and practicing songs and chants for activist events, and more, all help encourage participation in ways that are accessible, inclusive and fun, and provide key moments of collective work and community-building.
Alongside such participatory creativity, social justice movement-building also incorporates highly crafted art work: professional-level murals, documentary films and photography, music and theater. Taking more time, resources and expertise, these works have an important place in movement-building, particularly in making movements accessible to the broader public and countering mainstream, dominant narratives painting social movements in negative, distorted ways.
What about Literary Arts?
Activists write a lot. Much of this writing tends to be nonfiction, but it is becoming more common to bring poetry and spoken word directly into organizing. Since the nineteen sixties, theater has also gained ground in consciousness-raising and organizing, with Theater of the Oppressed and talk-back theater being examples, as effective tools for recounting personal experience of oppression and resistance, and for re-imagining empowered responses, rehearsing actions ahead of possible confrontations with authorities, and more. Activists engage in listening projects, story-telling, cooperative games, and collecting personal narratives in support of movement building.
But what of fiction? Is there a place in social justice movements for novels, short stories, oral storytelling, plays, story-based video games? Unfortunately, as far as I know, at this time fiction and creating fiction aren’t really “a thing” in social movements, the way other art forms are.
I think movement fiction should be a thing. Fiction is ideal for opening windows into our reality in all its depth and drama. It is also effective at bringing up for discussion stereotypes about activists–including internalized ones that invade our colonized minds, without our awareness.
Fiction enables people to share experiences and knowledge in ways that are enjoyable, involving, intriguing, compelling, enlightening. Creating fiction collectively is a great way to share experiences and ideas and increase mutual solidarity and understanding among participants, not to mention the satisfaction of creating a cool and useful piece of literature together.
But taking the raw material of activist stories–even stories beautifully told by skilled story-tellers–requires crafting in order to turn them into works of fiction. As with other forms of art, the creation of elaborated fiction–feature films, novels, plays, TV programs, video games, etc.–requires skill, time and resources to develop compelling, multi-dimensional fiction that depicts activists in all our diversity, showing the joys, dilemmas, relationships and risks of movement building.
How to do this? Well, bringing it up has to be a start. Asking folks for examples of fiction in movement-building. Encouraging discussion of this art form. After all, if we’re to beat the Beast bearing down on us, pushing us ever closer to the brink, we need all the tools we can lay hands on.
Fiction in Movement Building
- By humanizing activists and activism, exposing and countering the stereotypes that aid in our marginalization and oppression, and can be used to get people to overlook, condone and commit violence.
- By showing actual activist settings and situations, and genuine portrayals of activists engaged in what we do, with authentic details and depth.
- By opening up windows and doors into our world. Isolation and marginalization is perhaps the biggest danger we face. Getting people to notice and pay attention is a major preventive measure as well as the best way to guarantee solidarity and encourage more people to become active.
- By fostering understanding and empathy within the activist community.
Even more intimate than empathy, fiction actually brings the reader and viewer into the minds and bodies of the major characters. Once you identify with somebody, it is much more difficult to condone the mistreatment of that person. It is also harder to let disagreements reach breaking points, that is, it can also help us identify more consciously and sympathetically with ourselves as activists and as a community, and explore contentious subjects personified by fictional characters who tackle our real issues in realistic ways, which can provide avenues to discuss them without directly attacking one another.
How can fiction help organizers and activists do their work?
- As vehicles for organizers to think about and talk to other organizers about the full range of activist life as depicted in fiction.
- As a means to delve into difficult issues within the activist community without naming, blaming or shaming; using instead fiction that truthfully represents reality, so organizers can wrestle with it. “Case studies” are very common in activist events to look at issues. We’re talking about going further and looking at the ins and outs of a full fledged story, whose characters we care about and identify with. Through fiction it’s possible to experiment with trying new ways of confronting very difficult situations safely.
- As a way for activists to open windows into their world and the issues they deal with.
- As a means to disseminate stories of their reality and invite others to join with them.
Okay, that’s all cool. So how is Protect Our Activists helping activists and organizers incorporate fiction into movement building?
- Neighborhood Novelists collective fiction writing.
- Stories of our People–SOOP story collecting and creating.