“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
Low-income tenants at a public housing project in Rhode Island — many of them working mothers with young children — wanted an affordable day care center in their building. With petitions, pickets, and letters to the city council, they built up a steady drumbeat of pressure on the key decision maker, the local Housing and Urban Development (HUD) director. At a certain point they decided to escalate with direct action see PRINCIPLE: Escalate strategically. They occupied the HUD director’s office.
They didn’t just take it over with signs and shouting or a simple sit-in, however. They brought their kids. They brought their kids’ toys. They brought song books, a diaper changing table, and a fold-out crib. And they marched right into the HUD director’s office and turned it into a day care center.
They stayed for the whole day, and invited the press. Eventually HUD caved, and a permanent day care center was set up in the housing project.
This action succeeded because it was very human and visual and had an underlying logic that was impossible to ignore. It was led by those most impacted by the issue: single moms with moral authority in spades.
This action was, in essence, a sit-in, but it had quite a bit more going for it than your average sit-in. It wasn’t just disruptive, it was also constructive. The mothers didn’t just occupy the office and demand a day care center — they made their own. Their day care center may have only lasted a day, but it was a powerful and prefigurative statement. And by setting it up in the middle of the HUD office, they wielded the basic power of direct action: disrupting business-as-usual and increasing the pressure on HUD to meet their demands. It was both a barn raising and a sit-in; an act of mutual aid and a pressure tactic — and all the more powerful because of it.
What could be more an organic part of these parents’ lives than taking care of their own kids? They were completely comfortable with it, and needed to do it anyway. By the same token, having toddlers climbing around the office furniture was quite foreign to the business-as-usual habits of the HUD staff. It was messy and chaotic and made the target uncomfortable. Both of these dynamics helped shift power in the direction of the tenants, and made the target more willing to compromise.
Sometimes a protest can peter out because people don’t know what to do next. You get rebuffed by your target or the police and can’t figure out your next move, or you simply run out of chants, get bored, feel silly, and go home. But the set-up-your-own-day-care-center concept had a built-in theatrical logic and motivation that guided the whole action and kept it going all day. The tenants knew their roles well (they were simply playing themselves, the good parents they already were), and could respond naturally and “in character” to whatever action HUD or the police took, even if they were completely ignored.
The tenants wanted a day care center, so they made one themselves. They were the change they wanted to see in the world. This isn’t just good ethics, it’s good tactics, too. By walking their talk, the tenants demonstrated an integrity and authenticity that was not only empowering for all who participated, but also earned them respect from the public and in the press.