Susan Erenrich Jan 2018

The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner

By Susan J. Erenrich

Susan J. ErenrichSusan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/Executive Director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series).  She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.

Dear Friends,

Welcome to The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner. This is the first of many monthly, multi-media columns that you will see during 2018. I am thrilled to be embarking on this year long journey to further explore this important topic. I look forward to engaging with fellow travelers, interested newcomers, and traditionalists in a robust discourse about this developing field in leadership.

It is true, that the practice of grassroots, collective, collaborative, horizontal leadership and the arts for social change has been around for quite some time. Throughout history artists have led bottom-up movements of protest, resistance, liberation, and emancipation. They have created dangerously, sometimes becoming martyrs for the cause. Their efforts ignited fires, awakened the imagination, and helped mobilize ordinary citizens, culminating in real transformational change. Their art has also served as a form of dissent during times of war, social upheaval, and political unrest. Less forcefully, perhaps, artists have participated in demonstrations, benefit concerts, and have become philanthropists in support of their favorite causes. These artists, however, have been overlooked or given too little attention in the literature on leadership, even though the consequences of their courageous crusades, quite often, resulted in censorship, black listing, imprisonment, and even death. That is, until now.

The notion of this form of people’s scholarship, that merges the two concepts together, has recently been granted a front row seat with the publication of Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change, which is part of the ILA’s Building Leadership Bridges series published by Emerald Publishing. This extraordinary volume examines the intersection of grassroots leadership and the arts for social change by exploring the many triumphs artists have garnered for humanity. History has shown that these visionary movers and shakers are true agents of change. The release of this groundbreaking book takes the first step in expanding the leadership footprint in this area.

With this column, the ILA is moving into its second act, providing space for members to continue our grassroots leadership and arts for social change exploration. Like the chapters in the book, invited column authors will help to shed light on this topic by providing readers with a mechanism to vicariously experience the work of these brave artists, reflect on their commitments and achievements, and continue to dream a better world full of possibility. I encourage ILA members to share any thoughts or questions evoked by a column through the HubILA discussion group and I look forward to on-going dialogue and debate.

Similar to the book, we will continue to write in an accessible and engaging manner and carry forward the stories about cultural activists, the role of the arts in social movements, people power, and community building, through the written word. In addition to the printed text, however, we will also provide audio and video recordings. It is another outlet for members to fully immerse themselves in the content. The first audio recording is from the weekly radio show I produce and host, Wasn’t That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation on WERA.FM in Arlington, VA. It is available at the top of this article for your listening pleasure. Even though the broadcast includes information concerning a Washington, DC book launch event in June 2017 at Busboys and Poets, which was sponsored by the ILA, it is still relevant because it is introductory programming for the BLB publication, Grassroots Leadership & The Arts for Social Change.

For those not familiar with the various grassroots leadership and arts for social change theoretical models, at the heart of this sojourn are the trailblazing writings of scholars, organizers, and artists, like Paulo Freire, Augusto Boal, Ella Baker, Howard Zinn, and Myles and Zilphia Horton, to name a few. To begin our conversation, and give us some common ground for the rest of the year, I would like to commence this inaugural column in The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner by sharing some examples of the intertwining of the arts in grassroots, social change movements and by defining a bit of terminology to enhance our mutual understandings.

Modern History Examples of the Arts in Grassroots, Social Change Movements

First and foremost, the intertwining of the arts in grassroots, horizontal, collaborative, collective leadership has historical underpinnings. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) incorporated songs into its organizing campaigns. It was one of the first modern singing movements, whose roots were firmly planted in a grassroots, horizontally-based infrastructure.

Fred Thompson, an organizer for the IWW and onetime editor of its newspaper, The Industrial Worker, discussed horizontal, transformational leadership in a 1957 article, “The Art of Making A [sic] Decent Revolution.”

“Our hope is that workers will build large and effective unions that are run by the rank and file; that the structure of these unions will correspond to the actual economic ties between workers, so that workers on every job will be in a position to determine more and more what happens on that job; and through a collective class-wide structure, decide what happens in industry as a whole. It is in this way, as we see it, that the working class can reshape its world into something consistent with our better aspirations and with the technical capacities mankind has developed.” (Kornbluh, 1998, p. 385)

Thompson also made his case for transformational leadership on a personal and societal level:

“If you look to the joint action of yourself and your fellow workers to cope with your problems, you move forward with time into situations where steadily you and they cut a larger role in life, where the decisions about your work are steadily more and more made by you fellows, where the product of your labor steadily redounds more and more to your benefit, where the world more and more becomes as you wish it.” (Kornbluh, 1998, p. 387)

Grassroots leadership and horizontal pedagogy is also, for example, at the heart and soul of the Highlander Folk School, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center. Launched in 1932 in Monteagle, Tennessee, the organization is a place where “average citizens can pool their knowledge, learn from history ... and seek solutions to their social problems” (Dunson, 1965, p. 28).

The integration of cultural expression with a horizontally-led leadership-development training program, has been a component of the school’s curriculum since its earliest days. Zilphia Mae Johnson, a singer and musician who joined the Highlander staff in 1935, incorporated the arts into every facet of the program. The daughter of an Arkansas mine owner and graduate of the College of the Ozarks, she was determined “to use her musical and dramatic abilities in some field of radical activity” (Glen, 1996, p. 43); Highlander was the perfect venue. Johnson married Myles Horton, one of the school’s founders, in March 1935, about two months after attending her first labor workshop at the adult education center there (Glen, 1996).

Before she died in 1956, Zilphia amassed 1,300 songs from unions, progressive organizations, traditional Appalachian culture, and the South (Dunson, 1965). These songs played a significant role in the decades ahead: “We Shall Overcome,” which she co-authored with Pete Seeger, Guy Carawan, and Frank Hamilton, became the anthem of the American civil rights movement and today is sung around the world.

About three years after Zilphia Horton’s death, Guy Carawan, a folksinger from California, joined Highlander and revived the cultural program. He first visited the school in the summer of 1953 with encouragement from Seeger and, after hearing one of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s orations at a Boston church in 1959, was moved to call Myles Horton and volunteer at Highlander. Carawan told Horton that he knew some labor movement songs and could play guitar and banjo. Horton told him, “Come on down. We really miss the work that Zilphia did here” (Carawan & Carawan, 2010).

Highlander pedagogy served as the predominant training model for cultural activists who immersed themselves in civil rights work in the South. The Highlander work continues with the Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project, created to “strategically use art and culture to promote progressive policies with marginalized communities across Central and Southern Appalachia and the U.S. South” (Highlander Center, n.d.). Among the goals of the program are to help organizations expand the role of art and culture in their organizing and advocacy efforts, enrich the work of artists and cultural workers and organizers by providing a strategic opportunity to engage community issues and work with and learn from grassroots organizations, and to inspire people to develop cultural tools — including song, video, or other performances or works of art — that draw on local cultures and address community concerns (Highlander Center, n.d.).

One last example of a grassroots leadership and arts for social change on-going, global phenomenon is Theatre of the Oppressed and Theatre for Development. Theatre of the Oppressed, pioneered by Augusto Boal, and Theatre for Development, conceived in Botswana in 1973, are highly formed, arts-based systems connected to Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In both instances, Freirian concepts, with lofty goals for personal and societal transformation, use the performing arts as a catalyst for social change. Both systems were being developed simultaneously in different parts of the world. Since there are several articles in Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change on Augusto Boal, I’m going to allocate space in this first column to the work in Africa.

Ross Kidd, among the early pioneers of this work, was, at the time, a professor at the University of Botswana; Martin Byam, one of Kidd’s colleagues, and Jeppe Kelepile, a Botswana community counselor, were also project architects (Byam, 1999). The Theatre for Development idea sprang from a village colloquium held in partnership with the University of Botswana in which drama was used to accentuate community problems. Previous approaches to generate civic engagement had failed, so Kidd and the others opted to merge Paulo Freire’s methods with popular culture. The Botswana initiative was called Laedza Batanani.

Other universities in Africa introduced Theatre for Development projects in the 1970s, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The programs’ success was limited because they failed to fully include community members in decision-making. These projects also attempted to address local issues without establishing those issues’ links to a colonial past, leaving no real possibility for the development of critical thought (Byam, 1999). Laedza Batanani and the other projects deserve credit, however, for setting the Theatre for Development movement in motion in Africa and for being the first programs of their kind in the region to attempt to implement Freire-based participatory platforms for solving problems. Another highlight of this model was the integration of traditional indigenous art forms into educational practices. Kidd acknowledged shortcomings in these early commissions and recommended that future Freire-based popular theater strategies “dispense with taking plays to the people. The leaders should work to create plays with the community” (Byam, 1999, p. 45).

A few years after the Botswana experiment, the Kenya Kamiriithu Community Education and Cultural Centre did just that. It was the first program to produce plays from the ground up — a radical departure from the programs sponsored by government officials or institutions of higher education. Kidd praised the Kamiriithu Theatre for Development model in a 1982 article, nine years after he and his colleagues carried out the Laedza Batanani in Botswana:

“Popular theatre in the Third World often claims to be a tool of protest and struggle and a means of social transformation, but rarely does it challenge the status quo in a significant way. Too often it becomes as marginalized as the peasants and workers it represents, with little real impact on the society as a whole. One significant exception has been the popular theatre work of the Kamiriithu Community Educational and Cultural Centre, a peasant and worker-controlled organization in rural Kenya.... It’s a concrete example of what a people’s national theatre should be – accessible to and controlled by the masses, performed in their languages, adopting their forms of cultural expression, and addressing their issues.” (Kidd, 1982, p. 47-48, 59)

Getting on the Same Page With Terminology

Now that I’ve provided a few examples of grassroots leadership and arts for social change initiatives, it is important to define some of the terminology that will be espoused in the various issues of this corner. Among them are social change, social movement, civic engagement and community building.

First, social change is defined as a slight shift, an alteration, or a reversal in the status quo that brings about institutional or systemic change. Social change is embodied in new laws, procedures, and policies that alter the nature of institutions and, in time, the hearts and minds of people (Collins & Rogers, 2000). Therefore, social-change projects and the artists and cultural activists who spearhead them address the root causes of problems rather than the alleviation of symptoms. In most cases, the goal is systemic change.

A social movement, on the other hand, is the shared activity of individuals, nonprofits, and other social organizations to mobilize citizens at all levels of society to influence politics broadly and, ultimately, to achieve genuine social change as it concerns the rules, processes, and practices of society, the market, or the government (Riker, 2001). As with concepts like cultural activism and social change, scholarly analysis of social movement terminology and praxis is controversial. T. V. Reed, director of American Studies and professor of English at Washington State University, notes that “more than 50 years of scholarly analysis has not generated an agreed upon definition of social movements”; he argues that this is “less of a problem than one might think, since both ordinary folks and ordinary scholars, though they may argue about borderline cases, know a movement when they see one” (2005, p. xiv).

It’s important to note the intricate relationship between artists and social movements. They are encased in what French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu coined the “cultural field” — a “social space where cultural texts exist in relation to each other and in relation to texts in other social, political, and economic fields” (Reed, 2005, p. xvii). The artist and the arts are the key force in shaping, spreading, and sustaining a movement’s culture and, through culture, its politics. The songs, sculpture, poetry, literature, dance, film, theater, and murals become personal and movement narratives, or a “bundle of stories” that “contribute to the construction of a group’s ‘idioculture’ and are among the interpretive materials from which movement narratives are fashioned” (Davis, 2002, p. 54).

Additional vocabulary worth mentioning includes “civic engagement” and “community building.” Civic engagement refers to the commitment to participate in, and contribute to, the improvement of one’s neighborhood, community, and nation. There are many ways in which people participate in civic, community, and political life and, by doing so, express their engaged citizenship — from proactively becoming better informed to participating in public dialogue on issues, from volunteering to voting, from community organizing to political advocacy. Civic engagement may be either a measure or a means of social change, depending on the context and intent of efforts (Korza & Bacon, 2010, p. 11).

Cultural activists spearheading civic-engagement initiatives are the ones who instigate, agitate, and serve as allies to indigenous communities. Their victories, no matter how small, culminate in real transformational change.

Furthermore, community building refers to “the process of building relationships that helps community members cohere around common purpose, identity, and a sense of belonging, which may lead to social or community capital” (Korza & Bacon, 2010, p. 11). The strategies and tactics of cultural activists engaged in community building are the cornerstone of civic, social, and community change.

My Wish…

My wish for this column, like the special BLB Volume on Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change, is to go beyond the classical thinking in the field of leadership studies, to expand the boundaries, build bridges, and invite more stakeholders to the table.

I hope you are inspired by the forthcoming written narratives and audio/video companion pieces spotlighted throughout this corner.


Byam, L. D. (1999). Community in Motion: Theatre for Development in Africa. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

Carawan, G., & Carawan, C. (2010). [Unpublished manuscript notes].

Collins, C., & Rogers, P. (with Garner, J.). (2000). Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Davis, J. (2002). Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Dunson, J. (1965). Freedom in the Air: Song Movements of the 60s. New York, NY: International.

Glen, J. (1996). Highlander: No Ordinary School. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Highlander Center. (n.d.). Programs. Available online at

Kidd, R. (1982). Popular Theatre and Popular Struggle in Kenya. Theaterwork Magazine, 2(6), 46-61.

Kornbluh, J. (1998). Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr.

Korza, P., & Bacon, B. S. (2010). Trend or Tipping Point: Arts & Social Change Grantmaking. Washington, DC: Americans for the Arts.

Reed, T. V. (2005). The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism From the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Riker, J. (2001). The Nonprofit Leadership and Democracy Curriculum: A Guide for Strategic Analysis, Participatory Research, Civic Action, and Effective Advocacy. Washington, DC: Union Institute.