Arts and Activism

From the Census to Social Justice: Activating the Message


This fall, the United States is undergoing two major democratic processes wherein citizens are called to participate: the 2020 national census and a presidential election. These are occurring with a backdrop of the pandemic, a racial justice reckoning, and here on the West Coast, a record-breaking fire season. We all need hope and connection, and to build community-based agreements and solutions.

Enter the arts. The best way to activate calls to action? Create a visually compelling campaign that highlights an element that brings people together. Need to learn about people in your community of different ethnicities or backgrounds, or educate others about your own? Seek out their music and cultural arts traditions or share yours. Need to find joy or momentum when change or action feels difficult? Write and read poetry to discover other experiences, viewpoints, and ways to cope.

These are a few basic examples to illustrate that arts and activism are naturally intertwined, because activism is–at its core–effective communication, which is synonymous with every art form. Whether a Black Lives Matter street mural or a poster memorializing Native American environmental activism, the message is proven to be best received and most effective when delivered via the arts.

Next step, provide actions. To avoid artwork or events that are only performative (activism done to “increase one’s social capital rather than because of one’s devotion to a cause” – learn more here), there must be calls to action or ways to move the cause forward attached.

To learn more about organizations that are intentionally doing work at the intersection of arts and activism (including a link to the guide pictured in the header, above) and for resources and toolkits, see the resources below.

Locally, read about a newly formed group of activists, SCAPE (Sonoma County Artists Propelling Equity), in this August 2020 Press Democrat article “New Santa Rosa mural spotlights women activists fighting for equality,” and visit Petaluma Art Center’s DEEDS: Art as Action, which is a collection of arts projects “intended to activate and inspire” participants and viewers with a call to action to vote in November 2020. 



The following organizations are examples of those intentionally working on social justice and social impact projects through utilizing arts collaborations.



The following guides are samples from Americans for the Arts’ Arts + Social Impact Explorer tool (vist the Explorer for a total of 26 different topics). Each easy-to-read guide includes arts impact data (usable in campaigns, grants, making the case for arts strategies), messaging tips (samples copied below), and examples of organizations and projects that support arts and social impact. 

  • Civic Dialogue:  Civic dialogue is when communities discuss issues, policies, and challenges in people’s lives, communities, and society. The arts are a powerful facilitator for positive dialogue and engagement.
  • Community Cohesion:  The cohesion of a community is what binds residents to each other and to their locality. Community cohesion is vital in creating a common vision for a collective future. When differences arise or cohesion weakens, the arts help bring people together.
  • Diversity, Access, Equity & Inclusion:  The pursuit of equity seeks to improve conditions by addressing systems that can create equal opportunities for all. The arts bridge divides, open dialogues, and create understanding—and all three of those tools are essential in working toward diversity, access, equity, and inclusion.
  • Immigration:  Immigration—the permanent migration of a person or community—can be a disorienting and challenging. The arts’ ability to preserve heritage and tradition and to encourage communication across barriers can ease the journey.
  • Political Activation:  An enlightened, politically activated citizenry is essential to the functioning of our country. The arts inspire enlightened politically activation, increase involvement, and drive higher rates of voting.