USDAC: Reflections + Resources from an Act of Collective Imagination
Social imagination is a muscle. Amidst the crises of today, against the backdrop of the twin pandemics of coronavirus and systemic racism, it’s essential to exercise it—to envision a different way of life and structure of society, and to grow the people-power and public will to make it a reality. The work of envisioning a more just world and bringing it into being requires constant practice, unbridled creativity, and an active hope, grounded in relationship. And that’s precisely what the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) is here for.
The USDAC began as a seedling of an idea a decade ago and has evolved into an action network of more than 28,000 artists, activists, educators, and community leaders inciting creativity in the service of love and justice. As I transition out of leadership, I wanted to share some of the story of how the people-powered department came into being—and some of the resources developed along the way—in the hopes that doing so might offer inspiration for anyone looking to activate social imagination at this moment.
To tell the full story would likely take more time and space than I have time to write or you have desire to read! It would also be impossible; the USDAC is an act of collective imagination, and its story belongs to the many people who have nurtured it in different places and ways. The USDAC would not exist without hundreds of co-conspirators—and I am deeply grateful for the care, dedication, and contributions of so many beloved companions. (See “Gratitude” section below!) This telling is by definition incomplete.
Given the urgency and intensity of current crises, it feels strange to take a retrospective look at a body of work begun at a very different moment. And given the stories and voices that are most important to amplify and listen to right now, I’m wary of adding too much of mine to the airwaves. I offer these reflections in the hopes that they can serve as an accessible, annotated guide to key learnings and resources from the USDAC’s first chapter, helpful for anyone looking to infuse their justice work with creativity. Take what’s useful, leave what’s not!
A Poetic Gesture, Inspired Abroad
I certainly didn’t set out to start an organization.
Back in 2010, I was wrapping up a Fulbright in Bogotá, Colombia. Learning and working alongside their Ministry of Culture, I was inspired by the country’s robust public investment in cultural infrastructure — by the reach and impact of its casas de cultura (community cultural centers) and the demonstrable commitment to making culture and the means of creative expression available to all.
I wondered: why doesn’t the U.S. have a cabinet level department devoted to culture? When a quick web search turned up zero hits for the phrase “U.S. Department of Arts and Culture,” I wondered: why isn’t there even a public imagination for something with that name?
On a bit of a whim, I tracked down the printshop that made the broadsheets for bullfights that I’d seen pasted around Bogotá, and commissioned a couple hundred posters for this imagined entity. Upon returning to the States, I gave them out to friends and invited them to come up with their own Ministerial titles. It was a simple, poetic gesture—inspired by a Latin American country with a powerful vision for what public investment in culture should look like. And that was that. Or so I thought.
Tip 1: Beware the power of naming. There’s magic and power in a name. Certain strings of words have kinetic potential, like a ball at the top of an inclined plane. Once spoken, they’re set into motion and take on a life of their own. Choose wisely!
The Performance Begins
The words on this poster pointed to a deeper set of questions, wonderings, and possibilities that I couldn’t shake — and the trickster gesture led to an extended period of research.
If envisioned from the grassroots up, what would a U.S. Department of Arts and Culture look like? What would it stand for? How could it shift art and culture from the margins to the center of civil society, given their true value and support as catalysts for social transformation? What would it take to create a groundswell of momentum to create something like a Culture Corps — a program for large-scale employment of community artists working in the public interest?
Given my background in theater, the question of performance inevitably arose:
How might we perform a department — taking on the name of a government agency that does not exist, as a way to both critique the state and to imagine and enact the world we want?
By embodying this name, how might we build creative people-power to respond to the social and ecological crises of our times and to advance practices, narratives, and policies for a more liberatory world?
Between 2010 and 2013, as I spoke with dozens of artists, activists, and policy wonks—many of whom had been in this work for at least as long as I had been alive—it became clear that part of what was needed was connective tissue for community-based artists and cultural organizers across generations, geographies, and issue areas. In order to connect the dots, to create a whole capable of more than than the sum of its parts, the field needed an accessible and invitational hub for collective learning and action. This initiative would need to draw wisdom from past artist organizing efforts, weave with existing ones, and take a distinctly different approach so as to invite participation well beyond just the subset of people who see themselves as “artists.” A collaborative work of art itself, the people-powered department would need to invite everyone to see themselves as shapers of culture, policy, and society, as artists of the future.
Writer and long-time community cultural development leader Arlene Goldbard joined the effort as a core collaborator and helped develop a statement of values. Numerous other collaborators contributed visions and rolled up sleeves. Finally, amidst the federal government shutdown, in October 2013, I put on a tie and—in character as the Deputy Secretary Norman Beckett—announced the launch of the USDAC with a performative “press conference” at the Imagining America convening in Syracuse, NY.
A few days later, the conservative pundit Glenn Beck, denounced the USDAC on his television program, knowing full well that it was not a government agency. “I guarantee you,” Beck said, “with what they have just started, if you don’t have an equal and opposite reaction, then in five years the country is gone, with no chance of resetting.” Game on.
In 2014, the ensemble grew as we were joined by a group of Founding Cultural Agents—a skilled cohort of committed community-based artists and organizers who began preparing to host Imaginings in communities across the country. Our ranks also expanded with an esteemed National Cabinet — experienced practitioners and policy-makers, claiming titles such as Minister of Revolutionary Imagination and Urban Alchemist. All volunteers, with a shared desire to build momentum for transformative cultural practices and policies at both local and national levels, we began dreaming in public, making the road by walking.
As Bernice Johnson Reagon of Sweet Honey in the Rock once said: “When you begin to imagine and act as if you live in the world you want to live in, you will have company.” And sure enough, beginning in the summer of 2014, thousands of people participated in arts-based dialogues and events hosted by USDAC Cultural Agents all across the country, envisioning community futures infused with culture and bringing creative strategies to fights for housing justice, climate justice, racial equity and more.
Tip 2: Go the rout of intergenerational collaboration. At the early stages of conducting interviews for the USDAC, I spoke with Baraka Sele who said, “I don’t want to be a part of any movement that doesn’t have at least four generations involved.” Amen! It’s not easy, but intergenerational collaboration helps make sure you’re neither reinventing the wheel nor getting stuck in old ways. If the team designing a project spans generations, the participants you attract will too.
Tip 3: Performance creates power. Got an idea that feels a bit too audacious to actually take on? Nothing like an alter ego to make the impossible a little more possible. Ironically, sometimes when you take yourself less seriously, people may be more likely to want to be involved. While we’ve never intentionally tried to deceive anyone with our name—(“not a government agency” disclaimers abound!)—USDAC Cultural Agents have had success in getting meetings with city officials that hadn’t previously paid heed...
Civic Ritual and Serious Play
Subsequent cohorts of Cultural Agents expanded the performance, each forming a learning cohort to support local cultural organizing. Imaginings continued nationwide, leading to new collaborations between social justice and arts organizations, and to new arts collectives, community initiatives, and USDAC Field Offices and Outposts, hubs for ongoing local organizing aligned with USDAC values.
Cultural Agents worked to create an expansive sense of “we,” ensuring that USDAC events represented multigenerational and multiracial cross-sections of community. We made clear that this was not a special-interest project for artists, but that we all create culture and that one did not need to be an artist or a U.S. citizen to be a “Citizen Artist” with the USDAC. As more people raised their hands to step up and play, we created invitations that anyone anywhere could say yes to:
- In 2015, we developed the People’s State of the Union a new civic ritual, that invited individuals and organizations to host local Story Circles, sharing first-person stories reflecting on the state of our union. Participants posted stories online to inspire the collaboratively composed Poetic Address to the Nation, performed live and broadcast nationally. This civic ritual—rooted in the principle that democracy is a conversation, not a monologue—has continued annually ever since, with participation in all fifty states and Puerto Rico, and Poetic Addresses developed in partnership with the The Public Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the Poor People’s Campaign.
- Later in 2015, we dispatched hundreds of Emissaries from the Future to create pop-up Imagination Stations and activate social imagination in public spaces nationwide as part of #DareToImagine.
- In early 2016, the USDAC created a SuperPAC (A Super Participatory Arts Coalition) to amplify participatory public projects that activate agency, inspire meaningful dialogue, and embody what democracy actually looks like.
- In 2017, the USDAC marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s groundbreaking Riverside speech with #RevolutionOfValues. A free Toolkit and wide range of partners urged people across the U.S. to stage public readings and other events for this day of creative action.
Throughout these and other experiments in distributed creative action, we learned how to craft invitations that anyone could take part in and adapt to local contexts. From ten year-olds creating Imagination Stations in their front yards, to social justice organizations hosting Story Circles, to educational and cultural institutions, large and small, creating public programming with our resources and calls-to-action, the performance of the USDAC evolved into a widening network of civic participation and creative action. Each initiative was designed to spread creative methodologies and to spark or support ongoing, local relationships and organizing, within the supportive context of a translocal network.
Tip 4. People want to be be a part of something larger; invite them in. Over time and through experimentation we learned to craft generative invitations, supporting participants with detailed guides, generous technical assistance, and ample room for customization to local contexts.
Tip 5. Make it fun, not business as usual. Harnessing the power of serious play, our small team continued to make up titles and enact a faux-governmental agency, reminding ourselves and others that reality is up for grabs and that change is sometimes more possible when it’s more fun.
Growing, Gathering, and Moving from Play to Policy
Throughout all of this serious play, we were listening to visions and needs emerging from community-based practitioners around the country, and developing resources, guides, and policies in response. (A rich account of the USDAC’s first two years and the policy ideas emerging from community dialogues can be found here.)
In partnership with brilliant practitioners and value-aligned organizations, we hosted online salons on: creative placekeeping, commemorative justice, artist jobs corps, cultural organizing for migrant justice, and more.
We created free guides and toolkits on cultural policy, ethical artistic response to crisis, Indigenous land acknowledgment, art and public health, arts-based community dialogue, creative action for a Green New Deal, and more.
And we saw the ripple effects of our work, as cultural, educational, and civic institutions — many of them much larger than the USDAC —began to implement and embed our materials in their programs and policies. From universities to city governments to museums and theaters and beyond, we saw the adoption of practices and principles articulated by the people-powered department.
As the network grew, so did the expressed desire to gather in person. One week after the 2016 presidential election, the USDAC hosted its first national gathering, CULTURE/SHIFT, in St. Louis in partnership with the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis. With some two hundred people gathered, we launched our 10-point policy platform, Standing for Cultural Democracy.
In the introduction to the platform, Chief Policy Wonk Arlene Goldbard writes: “we describe ten ways to advance toward cultural democracy, a social order which embodies and affirms the right to culture in every aspect of our public and private policies; welcomes each individual as a whole, creative person; values each community’s heritage, contributions, and aspirations; promotes care, reciprocity, and open communication across all lines of difference; and dismantles all barriers to love and justice.”
We also discovered how much we needed each other at that moment, to share song and strategy, poetry and policy, ritual and next right steps. Though many of us had never met in person, it felt like a family reunion. Here’s how I put it in welcome remarks for that gathering:
Together, we’re standing for the right to culture, spreading creative tactics applicable across movements, building momentum for cultural democracy, and performing possibility. Possibility can be just as contagious as fear—and is a lot more fun to be around.
Dreaming in public, we make the road by walking, and we play in the creative tension between what is and what could be.
And I think that’s one of the characteristics that brings us all together here. We are tightrope walkers, dancers along that thin line stretched between the world as it is and the world as it could be. As artists and organizers, we bear witness to the present while also bearing prophetic witness to that which might exist. And, through the power of our stories, our songs, our relationships, our acts of heart, we invite others on that tightrope with us.
“CULTURE/SHIFT 2018 was infused with ancestral invocation and healing, participatory song, pop-up play, tools for making change on a neighborhood, city, and state-wide level, policy deep dives, movement and embodiment, calls to action, delicious food, cultural strategy, radical imagination, deep connection and listening, and raw honesty about both the grief and fear and the hope and possibility of these times.”
Archived videos from dozens of sessions from our 2016 and 2018 convenings can be found here and here. These gatherings helped us see the widening “we” of the USDAC and showed the hunger for meaningful connection, story sharing, and strategy exchange among community-based artists and cultural workers.
What began as a performative provocation intended to “catalyze art and culture in the public interest and to cultivate the public interest in art and culture” continued to evolve as collaborators brought new visions and skillsets. Moving from play to policy, the USDAC grew into a public platform and action network — developing resources, relationships, and calls-to-action to meet the moment, shift culture, and build creative people-power.
Tip 5: Being nimble and responsive beats big and bulky. You don’t need to be a large institution to shift things at large institutions. You need good partnerships and an agile group of collaborators that can create timely resources to meet the moment. By inviting value-aligned partners to join in shared learning and action, you can spark new relationships and collaborations—and provide cover, connection, and courage for people looking to make change at much larger institutions.
Tip 6: Embolden and inspire, by helping people see they’re not alone. We created moments and spaces where folks could find like-hearted comrades—countering the isolation and exhaustion that often comes with being a voice for change within an institutional or community setting. Make watering holes where people can gather to quench the thirst for camaraderie, to share stories and strategies, and to find next right steps together.
Meeting the Moment, Passing the Baton
To state the obvious, this is a very different cultural, social, and political moment than when the seeds for the USDAC were planted. The whimsy of the USDAC’s early years feels farther away. At the same time, there’s more potential and need than ever, and we’ve built some agile, adaptive, and wide-reaching infrastructure for creative action and cultural organizing. Unencumbered by the kind of entrenched risk-averse, bureaucratic structures that keep many cultural organizations from taking bolder social action, the USDAC can and must escalate its dreams, pursuing a liberatory praxis in the face of climate crisis and ecological collapse, rising authoritarianism, white nationalism, a global pandemic, rampant income inequality, and more.
Now a translocal, intergenerational, intercultural network of 28K+ artists, activist, educators, and community leaders working across issue areas and media, there’s more potential than ever for the USDAC network to show up in creative ways to meet the moment.
So, what comes next?
We know that the power of this name comes when we subvert it to imagine what we wish governance could look like and stand for.
Given that frame, we’re asking:
What are we called to repair? How might the people-powered department develop cultural initiatives focused on repairing and healing past injustice and orienting to right relationship with one another and the more-than-human world. For example, how might the USDAC creatively amplify and activate the call for reparations and #Landback?
What are we called to remember? What projects, policies, and initiatives can we develop or support to create more pathways for remembering and accessing the ancestral cultural knowledge that can resource belonging, resilience, and resistance at this moment?
What are we called to resist? How can this network skill up and take collective creative action—in coalition and alongside other movements—to resist tyranny, extraction, and oppression?
What are we called to reimagine? How can we continue to support, connect, and amplify practitioners and projects that spark social imagination, inviting many others into envisioning and evolving new ways of being and structuring society. What about a People’s WPA (inspired by the Works Progress Administration’s jobs programs during the Great Depression) that uplifts creative practices of recovery and reimagining amidst pandemic — and makes the case for public investment in community-based arts and culture? What other public programs, civic rituals, and community institutions might we imagine that align with our highest ideals of equity, participation, and justice?
As we’ve often said, “the USDAC is not an outside agency coming in; it’s our inner agency coming out!” In that spirit, I hope you will join in shaping the USDAC’s next chapter. Where would you like to see the USDAC go next? You can be in touch with the team by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
After these many years as Chief Instigator, it’s time for me to move on. I am delighted to pass the baton to my brilliant colleagues and look forward to supporting and championing the USDAC’s work for many years to come. I am excited about the intentional shift we’ve been able to make to BIPOC leadership, and to the new visions and voices that our work will be activating and amplifying in the next chapter. This next chapter calls for bold vision, greater network connectivity, and a refined organizing strategy—all of which this small but big-hearted team is well-prepared take on. I trust that the people-powered department will continue to evolve to meet the moment with creativity and courage, and can’t wait to see where it goes next!
Tip 7: Escalate your dreams! Times of heightened crisis call for heightened imagination. As Aurora Levins-Morales puts it in this powerful poetic call for radical imagination, “escalate your dreams!” In whatever you’re working on at the moment, ask yourself what it would look like to escalate your dreams.
Tip 8: Get out of the way. Know when it’s time for new leadership and vision! I had some of the chutzpah, ideas, relationships, and—let’s be honest—white privilege, to help get the USDAC off the ground. I believe that there are others who have the organizing chops, visions, and lived experience needed to bring it to the next level of impact—and I’m excited to see and support futures that I’d never even imagined. I’m also being called powerfully in some new directions. Letting go is a healthy part of the life cycle of any engagement; are there arenas in your life and work where stepping back or creating space could enable new and different flourishing?
This brief encapsulation of a decade of dreaming focuses more on programmatic activities than the inner workings of the USDAC. There’s another story to tell, another time, of the challenges, mistakes, breakthroughs, and hard-earned lessons in trying to get something like this off of the ground! One thing is for sure: an endeavor like this—with big aspirations and limited resources—is a labor of love that does not take form without the dedicated contributions of many.
Thank you to the hundreds of co-conspirators—colleagues, volunteers, mentors, supporters, partners—without whom the USDAC would not exist. I carry the awareness that there are too many to name here. For me, the most important part of this journey has been the relationships formed along the way; I am forever grateful for the opportunity to grow, learn, dream, and co-create alongside so many of you.
Thank you to core teammates and collaborators over the years, including: Arlene Goldbard, Gabrielle Uballez, Mo Manklang, Katherin Canton, Yvette Hyater-Adams, Devon Kelley-Yurdin, Harold Steward, Tiffany Bradley, Rachel Schragis, Jess Solomon, Yolanda Wisher, Kate McNeely, Liz Maxwell, Angela Miles, Tatiana Hernandez, Tannia Esparza, Ericka Taylor, Roseann Weiss. Each of your visions, contributions, and commitments shaped this body of work in such particular and vital ways. There is no USDAC without you.
Thank you to current teammates: Jordan Seaberry, Carol Zou, Raquel de Anda, Jaclyn Roessel. I feel so lucky to know and collaborate with each of you. I’m grateful to leave this work in such capable hands and can’t wait to see what you cook up next.
Thank you to supporters and partners, to the many volunteers, contributors, and thought partners named below on the page here, and to everyone who has participated in USDAC projects and actions. You have breathed essential life into this act of collective imagination in a thousand ways.
And deep thanks to the friends, mentors, and family members who have offered steadfast accompaniment and emotional, spiritual, and tactical support throughout this journey. I would not have been able to show up for this work without your showing up for me.
Together, we’ve imagined a people-powered department into existence, launching a powerfully creative, delightfully subversive, and appropriately agile force for good. I can’t wait to see where it goes next!
Annotated Resource Guide
Over the years, the USDAC has created dozens of evergreen resources to nurture creative action and community cultural development. Here are some links to help you find your way.
Free Guides + Toolkits: Draw from this robust library of guides and toolkits to nurture creative action in your community anytime. From hosting Story Circles and arts-based community dialogues, to ethical creative response to social and environmental crisis, to Indigenous land acknowledgment and more.
Resources for Cultural Policy: What would a Policy on Belonging look like? How about a Cultural Impact Statement—analogous to environmental impact statements, intended to mitigate the negative impact of proposed development on the cultural fabric of a place? Check out these and other templates and resources for cultural policy, including Standing for Cultural Democracy, our 10-point policy platform.
Videos: Catch glimpses of the USDAC in action over the years.
Recordings of Online Salons: Watch recordings of online presentations and dialogues on creative placekeeping, the poetry and policy of the Green New Deal, commemorative justice, and much more.
Blog: Explore stories of USDAC action and impact, through interviews, case studies, and highlights from across the country.
Statement of Values: Get to know our core values, and envision how to make them come to life in your community or organization.
Explore for yourself, and be sure to sign up for the mailing list if you haven’t already: www.usdac.us