How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture: An Interview with Tracy Van Slyke (Part Two)


You cite Glenn Beck who said, “Culture is the lead. That’s the dog. The news is the tail.” What might progressive activists learn from the Right in terms of how to use cultural change as the “lead” in their efforts to reshape how the news frames public policy issues? Many on the Right also construct an argument that popular culture already reflects a leftist agenda, one they see as counter to traditional family and national values. How do we understand their very different perception of what’s going on in popular culture?

The right wing continues to complain about liberal bias in the news media and Hollywood because it works: It’s guaranteed to rile up their base and leave the targets of their attacks on the defensive. But the truth is that the Right is not suffering from a lack of access to pop culture. Just a few weeks ago, Donald Trump’s hosting of SNL brought in almost 10 million viewers and the show’s highest ratings in nearly four years.

Conservatives are expanding their coordinated influence beyond the news/media industry of Fox News, radio networks, and the online Breitbart News and Drudge Report. They are entering the realm of entertainment by building interconnected, long-term, political and cultural strategies. Reporting nearly $3 million in funding in 2014, the nonprofit Moving Pictures Institute is churning out films with far-right policy agendas. Projects like the comedy website WeTheInternet promote strategies for “freedom in film” to conservative think tanks, foundations, advocates, and organizers.

As I discuss in Spoiler Alert, right-wing commentator Glenn Beck (whose estimated earnings are around $90 million per year) is now throwing down with all his might in the culture sphere: He has three movies in the works; his internet TV network, TheBlaze, has more than 300,000 paid subscribers; and his online portal draws more than 25 million unique visitors per month. He even launched his own line of jeans after Levi’s produced an advertisement that he found too progressive.

Every piece of culture Beck touches has an embedded political and social agenda.

How do we make arguments that explain why the contents of popular culture matter without falling into the traps of traditional media effects or propaganda arguments? What assumptions are you making about how popular culture shapes or influences the ways we perceive the world? What room does your account allow for the agency of audiences to reshape popular messages to reflect their own agendas and interests?

The Hollywood storylines, the celebrities that dominate magazine covers and social media feeds, the multibillion-dollar sports industry, the individual and community experience of game play, the spiritual connections made through faith communities—these all exercise enormous influence on what people buy, how they vote, what social and political issues they support, and how they interact with their family, friends, and neighbors.

Popular culture reflects the complex, messy, and beautiful nature of our society. It is also the place to move societal change forward. In Who We Be: The Colorization of America, award-winning author Jeff Chang writes:

Here is where artists and those who work and play in culture enter. They help people to see what cannot yet be seen, hear the unheard, tell the untold. They make change feel not just possible, but inevitable. Every moment of major social change requires a collective leap of imagination. Change presents itself not only in spontaneous and organized expressions of unrest and risk, but in explosions of mass creativity.

For those who are fighting for a more just, equitable, diverse, and sustainable world, it is imperative to give people the experiences to read, watch, interact with that vision. And that’s where entertainment comes into play.

What really makes pop culture exciting is that it’s a two-way street. There’s an interchange between the industries that mass-produce experiences, content, and products, and the individuals they reach. Fans who create their own subcultures and networks, and artists who build and inspire their own communities, can and do influence popular culture beyond themselves.

The growth of digital platforms—Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube—is breaking the constraints of advertisers and traditional show formats. YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, and other platforms are boosting opportunities for storytellers, artists, and fans to experiment with content without corporate influence (which is not always ideal in the ongoing struggle for financing!) allowing them to push the boundaries in the stories they tell and how they tell them, as well as directly reach and build their own fanbases.

We can and must intervene and influence popular culture—to break down negative stereotypes, to introduce and inspire new portrayals and storylines, and to organize to change the infrastructure and decision-making systems that control access and creation of content. We, as changemakers, thought leaders, and organizers, can:

  • Work with and support the artists and media makers who are producing great values-aligned stories.
  • Support and expand efforts such as the Harry Potter Alliance to organize and work with fandoms.
  • Invest in experimentation, tools and services (like the ones Culture Lab offers) to build infrastructure that supports long-term culture change strategies in the progressive movement.

As you discuss how activism and creative might work together, a key insight is that “creatives think in terms of narratives.” What kinds of practices would social movements need to adopt to respond productively to the creative’s desire for compelling stories?

Both socially conscious artists and social justice organizers seek to change hearts and minds. From disrupting current internal biases to introducing new ideas to inspiring millions of individual actions, added together can make seismic political and social change.

Movements of people advancing social change are by nature cultural experiences, historically and around the world movements generate songs and heroes, symbols and fashions. But too often, organizers and changemakers think of narratives as a one-way message delivery tactic. Social movements are made up of people whose identities are more than just organizing hooks: worker, youth, women, people of color. They—we all—have complicated, rich lives. Advocacy groups have to do more to go beyond just thinking about the messages we want to relay, to connecting with the lives, identities, and interests of the people we want to reach. Those identities are often shaped, defined, and magnified through narratives and immersive experiences in cultural spaces. To both expand the number of people in our movements and to build the power of movements, we need to understand that narrative and culture is not a communications ploy. It actually is a fundamental part of organizing.

To strengthen and expand our movements, organizing groups and changemakers can:

Shift from thinking about people’s love of entertainment as a waste of time to recognizing the immense value of reaching and engaging people through narrative and culture: whether it be high-concept art or commercial escapist pap. You know the Cyndi Lauper song, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? Well, yes. And so does everybody else. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, United States and Canada theatrical releases totaled $10.9 billion in 2013. In addition, 227.8 million people—68% of the population of the U.S. and Canada—attended a movie in a theater at least once in 2013. Meanwhile, according to Nielsen’s March 2014 cross-platform report, overall time spent watching TV in households that own TVs was 155 hours and 32 minutes per month. The average adult spent 5 hours and 4 minutes per day watching TV, and 32 minutes per day watching time-adjusted TV via live streaming, video on demand, DVR, and mobile devices. And just a couple years ago, YouTube reported that more than 1 billion unique visitors access the platform every month, and users watch over 6 billion hours of video every month. Many of the millions of people consuming cultural content have also become cultural producers—making videos via YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat, creating and distributing their own music, self-publishing their own books. If we actually start to take “fun” seriously, we can influence and inspire the narratives that are being created and consumed across different pop culture and entertainment sectors.

Invest in learning more about the cultural intake and production of the people, communities, and networks that they want to reach, engage, and activate. Culture is not a one-size-fits-all muumuu. Individuals, communities, and networks have different and overlapping cultural interests. For the communities and networks that we want to reach, dig into learning about what they are watching, playing, listening to, and reading. What fictional characters resonate with them? What conflicts on nighttime soap operas are they talking about with their friends? What videos are they watching on their phones and sharing on social media? What are their spiritual practices? This knowledge can offer amazing insights into the narratives and cultural spaces that influence and matter to them. And then we can take that knowledge to help us find the right artists and influential media makers to support and partner with in order to shift hearts and minds. As I write in Spoiler Alert: ... [T]o expand to new and targeted audiences, and to insert ourselves into the cultural conversation, we need to think about the kind of stories that they would relate to, be excited about, and want to be a part of. Even the world of wrestling is doing this. Perkins Miller, former Executive Vice President of Digital Media for the WWE, said a brand must tell a story. “We’re in the business of telling stories, 52 weeks a year. When our talents get out there and our fans watch their stories, they just flock to Twitter to continue the conversation.”

Learn how to build strong relationships and working partnerships with artists and media makers. Working with RaceForward and JustFilms to bring together filmmakers and advocacy groups, we found that there are “natural alignments between organizers and storytellers that play to each other’s strengths. But right now, both groups lack the deep understanding of each other’s work that’s necessary to effectively move the needle on social issues.” Artists who have worked within social movements point to the need for advocacy groups to change how they typically engage artists. Payment is important, but in a generative collaboration that goes beyond a transactional “communicate this message for us” approach. Collaboration also means we can’t try to control all the outputs. (This maybe the hardest thing for an organizer to do.)

In terms of compelling stories, advocates need to provide access to real stories and people, not talking points. Favianna Rodriguez and the CultureStrike network teach the importance of seeking and supporting artists from within the communities we are organizing for and with, and the need to bring creatives to the table from the beginning and throughout a strategy and campaign process. Beka Economopoulos of the strategy shop Not An Alternative, suggests: “If you are mapping out campaign strategy and messaging, and you have options between different tactics and one lends itself to more visual messaging and storytelling of what’s happening within the culture—go with the cultural and visual strategy. This allows us to develop a multimedia, multipronged campaign that plays out across media and on the ground with grassroots pressure.” (There are other specific artists’ recommendations in the Spoiler Alert chapter on collaboration with creatives.)

Overcome fear of pop culture by connecting with strategists who can provide trusted analysis. I’ve heard from political organizers who are worried they’ll “get it wrong” when trying to hook to culture and it might backfire. But just as there’s people in the progressive movement who are really skilled at figuring out how to, for example, move a policy through legislation, there’s a growing number of cultural organizing specialists who can co-create strategies that allow a campaign to authentically hook into the cultural and narrative worlds of the people we are trying to reach.

It’s been interesting to watch, and participate, over the past 15 years as this emergent community of practice—”cultural strategists”–has been asserting itself (ourselves) more clearly as a defined component of  the public interest, social change ecosystem. There are more and more examples of funder conferences, peer networks, reports, and the like that indicate that “culture change” may be becoming a “field.” In the year since “Spoiler Alert” came out, I started the Culture Lab at CEL and we launched a series of research, training, and tool-building projects. I’m also really excited about new initiatives from leaders like Bridgit Antoinette Evans (now a Nathan Cummings Fellow), Andrew Slack of Harry Potter Alliance and now the Star Wars Dark Money Campaign Rebel Alliance, Rashad Robinson, Color of Change, and Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations, projects like Halal in the Family and LadyPartsJustice, among many others.

I see 2016 as a year when progressives will be increasingly hooking into pop culture—so we soon should have even more evidence about the practices and models that are worth replicating.

Tracy Van Slyke is the director of the the Culture Lab at Citizen Engagement Lab. The Culture Lab works to increase the ability of social change organizers to engage people by tapping into the energy, creativity, and reach of culture. Through an iterative, experimental approach, it develops the services, knowledge-building products, and relationships that help changemakers design and evaluate cultural strategies that move systemic political and societal change. As an Opportunity Agenda fellow in 2014, she wrote the report “Spoiler Alert: How Progressives Will Break Through with Pop Culture.” Van Slyke was previously the director of the New Bottom Line, an alignment of economic justice organizing groups; director of the Media Consortium, a network of independent media outlets; and publisher of In These Times magazine. In 2010, she co-authored the book Beyond The Echo Chamber: How a Networked Progressive Media Can Reshape American Politics (New Press).