Many organizations interviewed mentioned the importance of cultural exchange—the sharing of food, music, dance, and the spoken word—to finding commonalities and building relationships of trust across difference. Some, such as the Highlander Research and Education Center, which houses a Cultural Program, lift it up as a central piece of their work, vital to making social change.

Food—the sharing of cuisines, breaking of bread, and nourishment of bodies and souls—is a key component for many groups doing relationship-building work. Food can be used to break the ice early on, giving people time to arrive and begin to get to know one another. Conversations around food are non-threatening, easy exchanges to have, and when food from different cultures is presented, it offers participants an obvious starting point for engagement. The presence of good food can also be beneficial later on in a program, to fuel processing and healing, lighten the mood, or simply allow for organic small group conversations to take place in circles. Given the importance that food has in many cultures around the world, its incorporation into any cross-cultural dialogue can only be therapeutic.

Music and dance also have a way of increasing individual and group energy, bringing down walls, and inspiring change. They are often crucial aspects of cultural identity, and, for many, music underscores the memories of key life moments. Examples of how music and dance have been used by the organizations interviewed include:

At the Black and Brown Freedom School, a performance by Fruit of Labor, a singing ensemble whose music was born out of the struggle of organizing African American workers in the “Black Belt” region of North Carolina and the South, was followed by a performance of a Mexican dance group. “Music has a way of opening people up – the harmonies, tones, rhythms that move people,” reflected organizer Ajamu Dillahunt. Despite language differences, participants were able to engage with one another’s cultural heritage.

In Chicago, Gamaliel of Metro Chicago held a spring choir concert which brought together choir groups from churches across the south suburban community. The musical offerings were intentionally diverse, both in terms of the racial, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds of the performers and the languages of the songs performed. Organizers reported that the musicians of different backgrounds had considerable interaction during the reception following the concert.

In the 1990s the membership of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers was roughly equal parts Haitian, Mexican, and Guatemalan. While the organization emphasized commonalities of class with their saying “A worker is a worker is a worker,” this didn’t mean denying group identities: Some Haitian members formed a drum group, and the organization celebrated traditional festivals from the various cultures. “You were a part of each other’s cultures because you were a part of the CIW,” remembers co-founder Greg Asbed.

The spoken word can also be used in powerful ways to build cross-cultural bridges, as Jenny Arwade of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council shared. She recalls youth leaders creating poetry and other artistic presentations for a large-scale event that celebrated the Day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. These linked the struggles of immigrants and African Americans around common values and issues. The poetry was later used to open and frame an inter-organizational relationship-building effort called Lived Experiences.

Finally, the visual arts can also be creatively employed in intergroup bridge-building exercises. Tenants and Workers United in Virginia used Jacob Lawrence’s paintings on the Great Migration to facilitate conversation about the similarities between African Americans’ migrations within the U.S. and new immigrants’ movement across international borders. The Southeast Regional Economic Justice Network and International House hosted a photographic exhibit of photographer Ron Wilkins, “Journey to Black Mexico,” which chronicles the link between African and Mexican cultures and educates audiences about how the groups’ histories intertwine.

Resources related to cultural exchange

Drawing on a long history of using music to support organizing in the South, the Highlander Research and Education Center’s Cultural Program works to involve cultural workers in social justice efforts. It supports community groups around the South that seek to incorporate cultural work into their organizational movement building.

The Institute for Cultural Partnerships, located in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, facilitates opportunities for understanding among diverse cultures and communities. Its website features diversity trainings and initiatives, as well as a resource “marketplace.” In 1998 ICP published Refugee Arts: A Strategy for Successful Resettlement, a manual for refugee resettlement workers to help them identify practitioners of cultural and artistic traditions and connect them to resources. More recently they published The Art of Community: Creativity at the Crossroads of Immigrant Cultures and Social Services, which offers case studies as models to catalyze dialogue and inspire readers to learn more about the artistic and cultural traditions of immigrants and refugees within their own communities.

Artist activist Ricardo Levins Morales has created art for social justice for several decades to advance local, national, and international campaigns and movements. He and his work can be found at

Image: Tojosan,