Friday, 20 November 2015 19:28

Primer in Policy: from the boardroom to the community

2015 12 EbooletinAbove Right: ALI Fellows at the Smithsonian Latino Center Above Left: No Somos Inmigrantes by Jesus Barraza

Primer in Policy: from the boardroom to the community

A vital part of the work all of us do in the field of Latin@ arts and cultures that can, for several reasons, deliberately appear overlooked or under-seen has to do with how our individual practices influence and effectuate larger issues of policy. As it happens, the facts regarding our involvement with policymaking can be made less apparent when projected upon oversimplified or reduced portrayals of that activity. That is, through the idea that state, national, and international policies are only an effect of work between State representatives, governmental agents/agencies, lobbyists, foundation leaders or magnates of commerce. But what happens if we rotate that view a little so that the ability to influence policy is understood as a fundamental gesture and attitude that we can all access -that we can all possess and realize through the work we already do?

For many communities of color, our approach to policy has a lot to do with how we imagine that it gets made or built: are there specific individuals in our society who are solely responsible for it? Are policies the result and reflection of measures we decide upon only during election seasons? What’s the difference between public and private versions of policymaking? Is there a relation between the kinds of social engagement and activism we directly participate in and evolving policies?

Social Movements
Any insight into the histories as well as the contemporary features of our social movements can prove quite an advantage in broadening the field of policymaking because they (in many ways) are already an outcome of and a challenge to a wider institutionalized logic. For instance, dominant organizational and institutional layouts are guided by a kind of logic, one that consists of a nuanced internal culture -often embodied by its physical infrastructure- whose procedural model or administering is reflected by its external impact, by its effect. Because the organized and self-conscious mobilization of peoples has historically been a response to either political, justice-oriented, racial, or economic imperatives, our existing institutional networks have been called into that process: their function being either hailed or summoned to participate and legitimize the issue at stake or brought into question by that organized social body. In other words, emancipatory social movements –then and now- embody a political response and ethos often meant to address (and even alter) social stratifications. The forming of that response itself, at its most mechanical, is already a mobilization of social, political, and economic awareness: it’s an understanding of the existing state affairs struggling to take shape.

Recognized Government
Before we go any further, though, let’s consider policy to be generally understood as the activities and effects of any recognized government. That’s the classic take. Things get more interesting, however, when we look at the fact that our government shares a reality with other social forces that may not emerge out of a democratic mandate, like market economies driven/compelled by multidimensional corporations and a global civil order that we largely apprehend through INGOs and their remedial/relief work throughout the planet. And, lest we forget, beyond these forms of human organizing are a set of natural forces, the horizon of which yields not only an array of resources but also the potential for incomprehensible catastrophes, many of them man-made. In this scenario, any contemporary governing body –one that is in the service of public good- consists of national governments designed to administer the well-being of its people and institutions through the use of both public and private market sectors.

Now, what traditional summaries, like the one above, tend to underemphasize, though, is how the dynamic between the aforementioned entities/players/agents is itself a result of developing policies, which means the relations between those different social protagonists is constantly being analyzed, evaluated and translated to meet emerging or unforeseen needs. Simply put, the elements we’ve just described are all –each of them- far less simple or even stable and much more open to change or to fluidly integrating new behavior and ideas. And it’s that fluid tension between the state, our public/private institutions, globally integrated capitalism, and the philanthropic order which is the site of community engagement. So engage we do -through our manifold labor, through innovative ideas and thinking, through educating ourselves and others, through active participation in our market economies, and, on every election, through casting our votes. This vantage point allows us to see all too clearly how the production of culture, the production of arts, and the production of our communities is indeed always in conversation with the development of policies.

A further step in that direction could be to embrace the fact that –like anyone else- the work that we do as Latin@ artists, arts administrators, and culture bearers means many things to us. Sure, it’s a way of meeting general economic needs and expectations, but, it’s also a way of being part of a shared social experience and of building something that goes beyond our immediate or individual selves: it’s a way of making a better world out of what we found. Our current political economy really lends itself to thinking about our work this way by already drawing profound distinctions between material labor and immaterial labor and, even more specifically, physical labor and cognitive labor. In other words, sometimes we work to create things (art objects, cars, food) and sometimes to create experiences (entertainment, information, services). Either of these will consist of some combination of labor (physical/cognitive).

Imaginative Engagement
Another key to influencing policy lies in the overall way that we participate with institutions or organizations. Many times, the degree of that participation has to do with our role within the organizational or institutional infrastructure, but quite often it’s also determined by how we support activities, events, or programming as members of a surrounding community. The agency in such behavior comes about when we participate thoughtfully. Now, it merits clarification that a lot of the opportunities for organizational/institutional participation out there –whether artistic, social, or political in nature- consists in activities of following instructions. Those are exercises in obedience not participation. When we participate thoughtfully it means that, yes, we engage in an informed manner which, in the end, means that we engage in an imaginative rather than a prescribed manner.

To follow such thread, participation of that kind has been invaluable for arts organizations of color and is an irreplaceable element for their collective future. For example, when many Latin@ arts organizations that had emerged as a response to social inequities began to forge a deeper relation with government agencies and foundations in order to qualify for the types of resource support previously secured by more dominant or legacy organizations and institutions, we drew upon the further professionalization of skills, knowledge, and cultural practices already present within our communities. In other words, our organizations benefited from a thought-driven investment on behalf of employees, artists, advisors, and community supporters that to this day fosters their longevity. The drive to further professionalize our efforts also leads arts organizations of color to understand the powerful effects of engaging visionary, dedicated, and savvy board members that bring cross-sector knowledge.  This level of robustly activating the cognitive, material, and fiscal resources of our communities is at the source of our organizations’ regenerative capacities. It engages the unparalleled faculties of our artists, arts administrators, culture bearers, leadership, and donorship.

One example of such imaginative engagement would be the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), in particular their recent release of a USDAC Statement on Syrian Refugee Crisis. Now, it would take only a little bit of research on the USDAC for one to confirm that there is indeed no such departmental branch of our national government. The immediate conclusion is then that in reality USDAC does not exist, except for the fact that it completely does exist: it's both the effect and result of a collective affirmation, of an organized collaboration, and of a concrete response by a diverse range of agents/agencies to what is perceived as an absence in our shared cultural spectrum. Together, the participants of this organized entity address concerns, issues, and ideas that resonate with the sphere of contemporary artistic and cultural production. Through this platform, their statement "...calls on all artists and creative activists to use our gifts for compassion and justice, sharing images, performances, experiences, writings, and other works of art that raise awareness, build connection, cultivate empathy, and inspire us to welcome those who are forced from homes that are no longer safe."

Their statement, available for sharing online, ends with these lines:

 "We join together in affirming to all public officials and policymakers that a culture of fear and isolation cannot stand. We join together in applying our gifts to sustaining a culture of compassion and justice. We stand together with generations of creative activists in communities across the nation who have been envisioning and working toward a world of equity and belonging for all."

In moving through these ideas and examples that turn policy development into a more commonplace activity, one overarching feature does make its way to the forefront, and it has to do with how important it is that we begin from a place of interculturality. One of the most powerful things we can do is speak to the process of governance that we've just summarized as “policy” from a tradition of solidarity with and among distinct cultures. By doing so, we turn what generally gets approached through the context or lens of history (tradition) and invariably turn it into a practice. More specifically, we reoccupy the type of work widely regarded under the banner of social practice and untie it from the ameliorative measures that it can often be associated with, measures which tend to be in the service of streamlined models of assimilation.  The ability to speak from an intercultural position not only tends to clarify any historic gloss-overs on any subordinate culture’s historic development, but, in doing so, reveals an ongoing practice of solidarity between subordinate communities, one that is incredibly present today. An additional effect of intercultural work is that it also helps underscore agency and autonomy in our communities, which helps make our work less vulnerable to unknowingly being pawned or placed in the service of mainstream causes whose targeted goals may be less aligned with our own.



The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is a legacy organization investing in the Latino heritage of this nation. For over 25 years, NALAC has built a strong foundation for the promotion of Latino arts and culture and its advocacy efforts have advanced issues of cultural equity and raised the visibility and understanding of Latino artistic and cultural expression. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is the nation's leading nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to the promotion, advancement, development, and cultivation of the Latino arts field. In this capacity, NALAC stimulates and facilitates intergenerational dialogues among disciplines, languages, and traditional and contemporary expressions. NALAC serves thousands of Latino artists and hundreds of organizations representing a national and international community of multiple Latinidades; a network that crosses many cultures across the Latino Diaspora.

For more information visit our website at or like us on Facebook at


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