FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety
A child interacts with puppeteer Barrington Edwards at a SERC (social emergency response center) temporary pop-up. Photo by Nabeela Vega.
During emergencies, the arts help partners prioritize healing and prevention
Beyond mitigating the harm that disasters can do to arts institutions, artistic practices, and livelihood, art and artists can play a vital role in rethinking how a community can address an emergency. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen both the vital need for, and the impact of, emergency support for the arts sector, from national efforts like Artist Relief to local initiatives like The Luminary’s Futures Fund in St. Louis, which offered a fund for at-risk independent art spaces as well as emergency grants for artists in the area.
Artists are pushing us to reflect upon and refine our definition of emergencies. They have historically shed light on urgent issues in oppressed communities, just as artists during the AIDS crisis revealed its severity to a national audience. (Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove tells this story in her essay in FORWARD #1: Public Health.) Similarly, artists such as the late Amelia Brown (whose visionary work and legacy are celebrated below) have been leaders in naming racism a public health crisis and advocating for immediate action. In this way, artists play an essential yet often unacknowledged role in pressuring the dominant culture and its institutions to declare states of emergency in places that have been overlooked.
Artists play an essential yet often unacknowledged role in pressuring the dominant culture and its institutions to declare states of emergency in places that have been overlooked.
When emergency response is myopic, the underlying harms that may perpetuate crises remain. The creative vision of artists engaged in emergency response can help communities use moments of crisis to address the root causes of those harms and better prepare for the future. As Amelia Brown explained in the International City/County Management Association’s Public Management magazine, “Emergencies are intersectional,” and recognizing and tackling these intersecting challenges can help communities prevent future devastation. Through her work with her nonprofit organization, Emergency Arts, she showed that, as she put it, “Acute emergencies often reveal existing conditions and increase institutional and systemic inequities.” The acute event called Hurricane Katrina, for example, revealed endemic inequities in housing and transportation. We also see this in the current COVID-19 crisis, which revealed how health disparities are connected to labor and housing inequities, among other problems. Artists have helped local governments, emergency managers, aid providers, and private entities deepen their understanding of underlying causes and explore imaginative new ways to address crises.
The projects featured in this section address the intersecting issues that lead to an emergency moment and focus on healing—from the trauma of the acute incident, of course, but also from the chronic ills caused by neglect of larger systemic problems over time.
Social Emergency Response Centers
Temporary pop-up spaces responding to “social emergencies” with art and activism
Location: Various cities; online in 2020/21 Artist Role: Art workshops and facilitation Partner Organizations: The Kellogg Foundation, and many local organizations across the US Cost: Varies
Najma Nazy'at speaks in SERC a story circle. Photo by Joanna Tam.
In a time of what can feel like constant crisis, Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI) aims to name today’s societal crises for what they are: emergencies that require the same urgency of response as natural or man-made disasters. This understanding motivated the creation of community-driven Social Emergency Response Centers (SERCs) in 2017, in collaboration with local activists, artists, and community leaders in cities across the United States. The point was, as the organization puts it, to respond to “state-sanctioned violence against Black communities, gentrification, violent ICE raids and rampant Islamophobia, privatization, environmental devastation, and more.”
Design Studio for Social Intervention provides partner organizations with a SERC kit, which offers four guiding questions as a framework for using the centers to meet the community’s needs:
● How will your SERC provide nourishment for the mind, body, and spirit? ● How will your SERC provide collective and individual healing opportunities? ● How will your SERC welcome and protect people’s whole selves? ● What information will your SERC provide?
In 2020, however, DS4SI was faced with a new emergency in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. With in-person gatherings off the table, the organization had to reconsider how to bring people together in new ways. DS4SI launched its first fully online, worldwide SERC, offering an online schedule including talks by movement leaders on politics in Latin America and Black and Indigenous food issues, virtual yoga classes, a “Radical Recipe Share,” and other creative offerings.
A youth drummer participates in a SERC drum activity, led by The Genki Spark. Photo by Nabeela Vega.
Diagram used to design SERCs. Image courtesy DS4SI.
SERC kit poster. Image courtesy DS4SI.
Finding the creative possibilities within emergencies
Location: Minneapolis, MN, and elsewhere Artist Role: Mobilizing artists and designers to support community safety and healing after trauma Partner Organizations: Minneapolis’ Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, US Department of Arts and Culture, and more
This issue of FORWARD, on the theme of Community Safety, offers us the opportunity to remember a beloved friend and colleague, arts activist Amelia Brown. Amelia believed that art and artists should be integral to emergency response and relief efforts. Again and again, she responded to local and global crises with the vision and creativity art brings, from petitioning to have racism declared a public health emergency in Minneapolis to organizing in cities like New Orleans and Christchurch, New Zealand, in the wake of natural disasters. She worked in Minneapolis’ Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy and at the nonprofit US Department of Arts and Culture, founded Emergency Arts, served on the board of Minnesota-based Springboard for the Arts, and more.
Amelia Brown. Photo by Dan Marshall.
“Emergencies not only create new problems but compound existing issues. They also offer opportunities to create new solutions.”
— Amelia Brown
Like many of the artists, activists, and leaders featured in this issue, Amelia believed racism was "a human-caused, chronic, systemic intersectional emergency with acute shocks." In an essay about art in emergency response, Amelia wrote, “Emergencies not only create new problems but compound existing issues. They also offer opportunities to create new solutions.”
Her work to redefine emergency and bring necessary urgency and creativity to today’s most devastating social problems will resonate for years to come.
Amelia Brown founded Emergency Arts.
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FORWARD: Issue #3
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