In Defense of Policy Advocacy

By Yolanda Hippensteele, Media Democracy Fund

What a delight for a cultural policy geek like me to read all the brilliant discussion generated by this braintrust.


Among the thoughts I have swirling, many are constructive and complimentary.  But the most visceral (and perhaps the least constructive) is to shout "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" in response to Chris's post, which suggests we stop investing altogether in the goal of expanding involvement of the arts community in policy advocacy. 

All due respect to Chris, (and to Nathan, who I believe would agree with everything I'm about to say), that's a really bad idea.  

Consider the results If the arts and public interest community were to pull out of  the key cultural policy advocacy efforts of today.  No doubt we'd see disastrous effects as the media industries that lobby for deregulation would get their way, and arts appropriations for a politically inactive constituency would certainly be sliced.  We'd see:

Local music and film with no audience at all as monopoly owners block independents from radio and TV

Arts of all kind with no online audience as an Internet controlled by gatekeepers with the authority to censor blocks or or slows down whatever web sites the Internet providers don't like or whatever they find competitive with their own content offerings

Reductions in quality, quantity, and scale of independent artistic product as federal, state, and local funding for arts is cut

Abolition of arts programs in public schools when the policy mandates to keep them in curricula disappear

Disappearance of rural and low-income communities from the arts as public subsidies (and Internet connections) that once brought them to traditional and online arts spaces fade away

And the list goes on....

The simple fact is that there are lobbyists working smart and hard on behalf of telecom/cable industry supremacy and on behalf of budget-slashing and, in general, on the other side of every issue we care about.  So if arts and culture advocates aren't there to counter their arguments and remind policy makers of the constituency that supports creativity and cultural expression, well... we'll loose most of what we've gained so far in the past decades through policy advocacy as well as other efforts in cultural/market/technology change.  

Sure, advocacy is hard work.  Sure, there are challenges.  But crying "it's too hard" doesn't feel like a good reason to just hand our nation's communications infrastructure over to the control of profit-hungry industries.

Chris makes the point -- with which I whole-heartedly agree -- that artists and the arts sector can best employ their talents at working to change social norms and social architecture, and that resources would be well-spent on creative work to change the way lawmakers or the public think about cultural policy.  

Nobody is suggesting that we should force every painter and breakdancer and sitar player and web developer to abandon their craft in order to spend the rest of their years walking the marbled halls of Congress in a three-piece suit (Though Helen's post is great to read.)  What we're suggesting is that artists, arts administrators and culture lovers should be made aware of how policy decisions impact their lives, and they should be encouraged and assisted in lending their voices (or paintbrushes, or sitars) in those debates, either directly with decision makers or in public opinion, in whichever ways are most strategic for their role. 

At their best, these education and advocacy efforts rely on the work of organizers, communicators and policy wonks to track laws & regulations, distill them into layperson's terms, create messages, educate and organize their arts & audience constituencies.  And at their best, those efforts require resources to pay people to do the work.  While Chris may argue that " the arts community is in no real condition today to affect the outcomes of current policy making," I'd argue that it's a chicken-and-egg problem.  Without adequate funding, arts and public interest advocacy groups don't have the staff time to develop creative expressions about cultural policy, train cultural workers in advocacy tactics, engage their audiences, create strategic alliances, and all the other tactics that would increase their efficacy in shaping policy and public opinion.  

The type of sweeping policy and cultural change we'd all like to see is possible through strategic, creative work over a long period by many individuals, grassroots and national organizations working in coordination.  We just need a bigger arsenal. These days, we're sending our heroic advocates to battle heavy artillery with slingshots and paperclips.  (The Media Democracy Fund, a foundation collaborative supporting many of these efforts, can unfortunately attest).

I'd love to see what kind of seismic shifts the arts and public interest sectors could do around cultural policy if given the resources --and the encouragement -- to really give it a try.  

For sure, regulations and legislation ain't the only way to bring about change.  But they are far from inconsequential.  We should be talking about these strategies as Both/And propositions, not Either/Or.  

July 21, 2010 6:26 PM | | Comments (1) |


Testify, Yolanda!

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