FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety
When the Whole Person Is Welcomed
VOICES 21C, a Boston-based ensemble, collaborated with Q—a formerly incarcerated student of the author's who was abused as a child by a drug dealer and entered gang life as a teen—on his spoken word story, which portrays the profoundly unsafe world of prison life. Video courtesy André de Quadros.
The arts can be a powerful means of calling attention to injustice and to the need for inclusion and safety
by André de Quadros
This past year, in every facet of life, we have been challenged to search for and interrogate embedded privileges and long-held consolidations of power. As an artist, I am committed to the practice of considering the current or conventional loci of power, and uncovering the ways in which the arts can be a catalyst for building safety within community and fostering identity formation. In doing so, I am also aware of how the arts have routinely been used to reinforce harmful conceptions of whiteness, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and much more. Just as the arts have been used to hold us in the status quo, they can be a powerful means of calling attention to injustice and to the need for inclusion and safety.
To illustrate what the latter may look like, let me turn to a couple of examples from my own practice. A student of mine named Q was sentenced to prison in Boston after being abused as a child by a drug dealer, entering gang life as a teenager, and then serving a series of previous sentences. VOICES 21C, a Boston-based ensemble, collaborated with Q on his spoken word story, which portrays the profoundly unsafe world of prison life. Through the process of making art, Q found a voice and told a story that may not have been possible without that creative process.
Below, you can find a recording of Q's performance with VOICES 21C, along with artwork by Wayland Coleman, another incarcerated former student and current activist. Both of these pieces eloquently show how music and visual art can be a way to break through racialized oppression.
Boston-based ensemble VOICES 21C collaborates with Q on his spoken word story. Through the process of making art, Q found a voice and told a story that may not have been possible without that creative process. Video courtesy André de Quadros.
Looking beyond our borders, we see the ongoing refugee crisis. In my own family, we fostered two Afghan teenagers who had fled their war-weary country, where any semblance of safety had been extinguished, arriving in Australia without documents after surviving hazardous ocean journeys. While the refugee crisis has been with us for centuries, our awareness of it is continually heightened as we witness the breakdown of civil societies around the world.
When you go to the Mexico-US border, as I did with my colleague Emilie Amrein and Common Ground Voices / La Frontera (a cross-border arts project), you see this heartbreak and trauma firsthand. Among the people who have survived their journeys towards our border are those housed in a shelter for transgender forced migrants. Just before the pandemic, my colleagues and I led arts-based storytelling workshops where trans asylum-seekers told their stories of survival and hope for a safe, equity-centered life. Through these creative means of regathering and proclaiming their whole selves, they were able to begin reclaiming a sense of who they were—something that is often very difficult to do after the journey across the border.
VOICES 21C performs Forced Migration in early March 2020, prior to pandemic shutdowns. Photo courtesy André de Quadros.
When I first came to the United States as an immigrant about two decades ago, I was told, “Don’t go out for a walk at night; you might get mugged!” We have come to think of community safety as protection for the privileged, as an assurance that privileged people can walk the streets in peace and have houses that don’t get burgled. Rarely has the idea of safety been construed to mean protection for those who live on the streets of almost any major city in the United States or elsewhere, for those abroad who are fleeing from US drone attacks in their villages and cities, or for the African American men and women inside the US prison system. After the brutal murder of George Floyd, one of my incarcerated African American collaborators pointed out that there are no videos to show the ruthlessness that people in prison are subjected to, and the lack of protection that the system affords them as human beings.
During the last two decades or so, I have developed a heightened sense of “un-safety,” as so many communities experience it. Distinct from the acute situations in most marginalized communities indicated above, we might also experience "un-safety” when we no longer feel able to be our whole selves—when revealing our religion, sexual orientation, or any other aspect of our identity can guarantee systemic exclusion. Instead of thinking of safety as the absence of physical threat or violence, perhaps we might think of it as a space where the whole person is welcomed.
“Instead of thinking of safety as the absence of physical threat or violence, perhaps we might think of it as a space where the whole person is welcomed.”
Gradient Cover, artwork by Wayland Coleman, another incarcerated former student and current activist. Image courtesy André de Quadros.
“... the arts have routinely been used to reinforce harmful conceptions of whiteness, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and much more. Just as the arts have been used to hold us in the status quo, they can be a powerful means of calling attention to injustice and to the need for inclusion and safety.”
When the Iraq War was at its peak, I co-directed Aswatuna, an Arab choral festival that brought together community music groups from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestinian East Jerusalem. The Iraqi group traveled for this project while bombs were literally raining down on Baghdad. Jordan was the only safe and politically welcoming country where these five groups could meet. It was deeply touching to witness how segregation by political borders could be overcome by people making music together. The convening around music allowed the participants to foster Arab identity, share stories of longing, and cultivate a community. For a few precious days, participants experienced safety that was not solely the absence of falling bombs, but also ample access to food, sanitation, and basic security.
As we witness the rise of ethnonationalism, right-wing supremacy, and direct violence against the weakest people of this world, we must work hard to build a world of liberation and freedom, where safety is broadly understood as a basic human right. The arts can provide a unique way for people to be safe, whole, and welcomed. As the great American philosopher Maxine Greene said, “The arts cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world.” As community artists, we cannot rest until justice is served and safety is assured for all.
André and colleagues with Common Ground Voices / La Frontera led arts-based storytelling workshops at the US-Mexico border, where trans asylum-seekers told their stories of survival and hope for a safe, equity-centered life. Photo courtesy André de Quadros.
“The arts can provide a unique way for people to be safe, whole, and welcomed. As the great American philosopher Maxine Greene said, 'The arts cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world.'”
FORWARD conversation series panel
The Role of Artists in the Future of Community Safety An intimate discussion with Andrea Jenkins and Dr. André de Quadros about improving community safety and the unique roles artists play. One of the most pressing and precarious issues worldwide is community safety, and artists have long been integral to community safety efforts. Moderated by guest editor Mallory Rukhsana Nezam, this panel featured Minneapolis City Council member and poet Andrea Jenkins, as well as ethnomusicologist and human rights activist Dr. André de Quadros. This event took place on Thursday, September 16, 2021.
Please consider a donation to make events like this possible.
Dr. André de Quadros, Professor of Music, Boston University
A conductor, ethnomusicologist, music educator, writer, and human rights activist, André is a professor of music at Boston University. He has worked in over 40 countries on projects with prisons, psychosocial rehabilitation, refugees and asylum-seekers, and victims of torture and trauma.
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FORWARD: Issue #3
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