FORWARD: Issue #1: Public Health

Social Exclusion and Isolation

Social isolation—which happened before the coronavirus pandemic and is more acute now—damages health in many ways.

Month after month of social distancing have underlined a vital fact: healthy civic life thrives on social connection. While some people have felt more connected through technology during this time of distancing, more have felt the pain of isolation. Especially those already marginalized. When the pandemic ends, many things will still separate people from each other and from the opportunities, connections, and resources they need: their geographical location, their level of ability, a marginalized identity, illness, stigma, and more. Social isolation damages health in many ways.

In one study of unhoused people, sex workers, people with substance use disorders, and incarcerated people, the mortality rate for the men was nearly eight times the average; for women, nearly 12 times. When disasters strike, isolated people are the most vulnerable to harm and the most likely to die. Substantial social isolation in communities can inhibit their development, while making cooperation for positive change harder.

Here the arts make a difference by creating opportunities for people to get closer to one another, be more connected to the place in which they live, more likely to take part in civic life and contribute to the common good. One of the most important ways artists, architects, designers, and their community-development allies do this is by using their skills to reveal and elevate the lived experiences of those who have haven’t been heard, seen, or understood by their neighbors or by society in general.

Scroll down to learn about art projects that address isolation and exclusion.


A Month of Concerts and Digital Performances to Knit Detroit Together in a Pandemic

Location: Detroit, Michigan Artist Role: Musicians, Performers

Audience members observe from a distance while Cuttime Simfonica and The Urban Requiem Project perform. Photo by Trilogy Beats, courtesy Sidewalk Detroit.

ABOVE: Audience members observe from a distance while Cuttime Simfonica and The Urban Requiem Dream perform. Photo by Trilogy Beats, courtesy Sidewalk Detroit.

Social distancing, quarantine, staying indoors, and other measures to stay as protected as possible from COVID-19—for those whose lives allow it—have left so many people yearning for the kind of connection that makes civic life thrive. Last summer, a Detroit arts organization decided to take action against isolation.

NOW: FUTURE brought a month of live, mobile, socially distanced pop-up concerts to Detroit neighborhoods, along with theatrical and dance performances on Facebook Live and other digital platforms. The program, run by the equity-and-community-focused arts organization Sidewalk Detroit, featured Detroit-based Kresge Artist Fellows and Gilda Award recipients in a celebration of connection and the knitting together of community fabric in a time of distancing.

Headlining the Neighborhood Concert series, held in a different Detroit neighborhood each Friday between July 24 and August 15, were the Cuttime Simfonica/Urban Requiem Project ensemble, which celebrates Detroit’s industrial past in music; prominent r&b singer Thornetta Davis; singer-songwriter Britney Stoney; and jazz bassist Marion Hayden with percussionist Tariq Gardner, performing a musical-visual work entitled “The Living Room Shed and Other Black Spaces.”

Online, Detroiters (and everyone else) could tune in to an ensemble performance called “Unboxing Care” by A Host of People, in which the performers used the “unboxing” format popular on YouTube to reflect on compassion in a time of trouble; Erika “Red” Stowall’s “Quarantine Chronicle,” a choreographed exploration of household rituals during lockdown; and dancer/choreographer Marsae Mitchell’s “Reflect.Black.Times,” which interprets songs by, and interviews with, legendary vocalist/activist Nina Simone.

The project also held a pair of online panels to allow artists to share their stories of this moment and to discuss the kind of future they want for their community. The first one, featuring a younger generation of artists, kicked off the month’s events; the second, on August 6, invited seasoned elders of the Detroit art scene. The result was a multi-generational vision of the future of the creative community in one of America’s most iconic cities.

"Sidewalk Detroit is encouraging artists to explore what it means to shape their narrative, presently and for the future."
- Sidewalk Detroit

Cuttime Simfonica and The Urban Requiem Project perform. Photo by Trilogy Beats, courtesy Sidewalk Detroit.

An viewer watches performances by The Living Room Shed and Other Black Spaces. Photo by Trilogy Beats, courtesy Sidewalk Detroit.

Britney Stone performing. Photo by Trilogy Beats, courtesy Sidewalk Detroit.

Britney Stone performing. Photo by Trilogy Beats, courtesy Sidewalk Detroit.

A Trailer Where Women Released from Incarceration Can Spend Their First Free Night in Safety

Location: Oakland, California Lead Organization: Designing Justice + Designing Spaces Artist Role: Design Cost: $240,000 per year to run the trailer once it's in full-time operations Partners: Five Keys Schools and Programs

Transitioning formerly incarcerated people into life on the outside is crucial in helping them transform their lives and avoid reoffending. The transition begins the first moment they’re outside prison walls, a time of vulnerability, especially for women. Deanna Van Buren, an architect noted for her work designing spaces in which offenders and their victims meet for restorative justice, led a team from her firm, Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS), in creating a unique safe space for recently freed women.

The Women’s Mobile Refuge Center is a trailer will allow women who have been released in the middle of the night (a standard practice) to spend a safe night and prepare themselves for the next phase of their lives. Besides providing safety and shelter at a time when they might otherwise be approached by pimps or other predators, the Center will serve as a drop-in-center to which they can return for support from nonprofit organizations. DJDS and its partner, Five Keys Schools and Programs, are currently in talks with local service providers to set up a deployment schedule for the trailer in the Bay Area.

The project began in spring of 2016 with a workshop at San Francisco’s County Jail #2, in collaboration with Five Keys staff and students. During these sessions, 60 women explained what they wanted in such a space. Van Buren was surprised to learn that they didn’t want a place to sleep. “They wanted to get their hair ready, get a change of clothes, contact their caseworker. They did want comfortable furniture they didn’t have in jail—a Barcalounger!”

Although the trailer has not yet been deployed, DJDS and Five Keys have received a lot of positive response from community members, says DJDS Architectural Associate Shelley Davis Roberts. The most important result they are looking for is “whether the trailer makes women feel safe and supported during what is a very difficult transition,” she says.

"The nature of our work calls for insight and empathy brought from an artistic approach. Having a designer involved in all of our projects brings a level of customization that you can't get from industry-standard materials, fixtures, and furnishings."
- Shelley Davis Roberts, DJDS

Photo by Emily Hagopian.

Photo by Emily Hagopian.

Photo by Emily Hagopian.

Photos by Emily Hagopian.

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FORWARD: Issue #1

Public Health