Art can sometimes be seen as a luxury, a sign of a society with lots of free time. When it comes to social movements, however, art is not a “nice to have;” it is an integral part of civic engagement and social change (see: the Heidelberg Project, the V-day campaign and the AIDS Memorial Quilt). Creative work makes intangible problems visible and real, transforming an idea into something you can see and feel.
This is the belief at the heart of The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. The organization has developed an impressive network of artist-activists, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, musicians Jasiri X and Thao Nguyen, comedian Negin Farsad, and MoveOn.org and Upworthy founder Eli Pariser, all of whom have found brilliant ways to work at the intersection of arts, activism, and social justice.
IVY sat down with the Executive Director of Opportunity Agenda, Alan Jenkins, to hear his insights on art and social justice, the changing landscape of opportunity in America, and how you can make a difference.
I went to law school hoping to have a career in social justice, and I’m lucky to have accomplished that goal. What I saw as a civil rights and constitutional lawyer, though, was that legal and policy victories can be wiped away if the public doesn’t understand or support them. I saw many potentially helpful policies go unenforced, and commonsense solutions ignored, because those of us working for change had not communicated why they mattered or built public support for upholding them.
I also saw that we’d neglected the important role of arts and culture in reaching and inspiring audiences for change. Arts, artists, and culture have been crucial to virtually every successful movement for social and policy change in our society. Think of the role that Marvin Gay, Mahalia Jackson, and Sidney Poitier—not to mention Jackie Robinson—played in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s. Or the role that shows like Will and Grace, Glee, and Modern Family have played in building support for LGBT equality. Even historically, works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, and Silent Spring, were crucial to policy and culture change on slavery, workers’ rights, and the environment. Those dynamics are just as true for the struggles for economic opportunity, criminal justice reform, and inclusion of immigrants that are at the forefront of today’s public debates. We believe that cultural works and strategies are one essential element for change.
That understanding is what inspired me to co-found The Opportunity Agenda.
What’s are the best lessons you’ve learned in your career?
One lesson I’ve learned is that people interpret the world—including facts—very differently based on their own experiences and values. Early in my career I thought that if I could just convey the facts, it would be enough to move hearts and minds and policy. It’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. That’s related to the second lesson I’ve learned, which is: learn to listen. You need to possess some level of cultural fluency, which means being able to speak another person’s language and being able to put yourself in their shoes. It’s one of the most important skills that we can have.
As individuals, we can seek out communities that are different than our own. We can choose to be in situations where we’re the minority. That’s something I strive to achieve with my kids.
It’s an increasingly diverse world but as a society, we don’t always embrace that diversity as one of our strengths. I live in Montclair, New Jersey, where we have a voluntary magnet program for our schools. Whatever neighborhood you’re in, your kids go to a school that brings together people from all across the town, from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. That’s a very important value for us as a town. It’s why we moved there.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t let yourself get promoted out of a job you love. I’ve turned down many jobs that seemed like the next thing in a logical career profession, because they didn’t speak to my aspirations and dreams. I’ve never regretted it.
What is something you believe in, that few other people believe?
We’re now in a moment where our country is poised for transformative change. Despite the toxic politics that we see in Washington, Americans are ready for a new American story that’s rooted in some lasting ideals of opportunity and community.
I think our nation’s history has been a struggle between the idea that we’re all in it together, and the idea that we’re all out for ourselves and that our society should be a competition among its members. I think people are rejecting that second idea in a way we’ve never seen before.
How can IVY members best support you?
We work with professionals as volunteers, as spokespeople, as steering committee members, as donors, and as pro bono service providers. In fact, we couldn’t exist and thrive the way we have without that effort! We are always looking for partners and volunteers in the arts, entertainment, advertising, legal, financial, and other sectors. And our efforts at creative storytelling and advocacy can always benefit from new voices and perspectives.
To learn more about the Opportunity Agenda and get involved, connect with Madifing Kaba, IVY Member (NYC).