FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety

Art & Soul

Andrea Jenkins. Photo by Scott Strebble.

How artists can help us reimagine community safety

by Andrea Jenkins South Minneapolis, June 2021

Whether they are painting murals, playing music outdoors, documenting community histories, or carrying out projects aimed at engaging the community on specific issues, artists play a major role in promoting public safety—by collecting input, magnifying local voices, sharing safety messages, and promoting community healing. One challenge for artists in the immediate future is to help us, the community, have a conversation about imagining a world free from harmful policing.

Prior to May 25, 2020, the intersection currently known as George Floyd Square was only known as 38th and Chicago—an intersection where I, along with other community members, leaders, and artists, had poured well over 20 years of my life into improving living and working conditions. These revitalization efforts utilized the arts as a means to stabilize the corridor. Our overarching strategy centered local artists, women, and people of color and used anti-gentrification principles. These participating artists and culture workers were having a significant impact on improving community safety in the area.

“One challenge for artists in the immediate future is to help us, the community, have a conversation about imagining a world free from harmful policing.”

As an artist, I’ve seen that helping young people learn new skills and introducing them to art forms and new opportunities can promote public safety. For example, the nearby Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center had been engaging young people in learning new creative skills and then displaying their welded products in a sculpture garden at the Bahá’i Center community garden. As the literary artist on this team, I worked directly with these young people, guiding them to create poetry which they’d learn to convert into iron sculptures. The sculpture garden, which includes vegetables and herbs, is a respite on a busy urban street and has become an important anchor of safety in the area. Pillsbury House + Theatre developed a regranting program that supported the acquisition of awnings and planters, designed by community artists, that enlivened the streetscape and invited more small local businesses to incubate.

“As an artist, I’ve seen that helping young people learn new skills and introducing them to art forms and new opportunities can promote public safety.”

As a result, this intersection was experiencing a new era of economic development, and these arts efforts contributed to these outcomes. City Foods Studio developed as a small business incubator. There are three Black-owned restaurants and multiple other small businesses. It was a thriving community corridor.

Then, on May 25, 2020, the entire world bore witness to the public lynching of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, through the eyes of citizen journalist Darnella Frazier, who was awarded a Pulitzer special citation for courageously recording it. During the days of unrest that followed, the art that proliferated throughout the city expressed anger, frustration, resolve, and a desire for revolution. But it also called for love, peace, hope, and justice. The emerging symbols and images served as a daily reminder that change must come quickly. It spurred folks to action and brought attention to one of many critical issues of our time: the deep racism embedded in our public safety system.

Ricardo Levins Morales says of this poster on their website, "RLM made this poster in 2015 after the police murder of Jamar Clark, across town from our studio in Minneapolis.... While the city has a reputation among well-off whites as progressive, the track record of its police behavior shows otherwise. In 2021 we updated the text on this poster with the names of some of those murdered or assassinated by police in Minneapolis in the years since Jamar Clark: Justine Damond, Thurman Blevins, Travis Jordan, Chiasher Vue, Mario Benjamin, George Floyd, Dolal Idd, Winston Smith. We remember them." Art by Ricardo Levins Morales / rlmartstudio.com

“Artists can help us see new ways of transforming public safety.”

Artists can help us see new ways of transforming public safety. Creators like Ricardo Levins Morales have been inspiring social justice through vibrant poster art. He collaborates with social movements like MPD 150, a people’s project evaluating policing, to offer a powerful method of visualizing, communicating, and inspiring people. Performance artist and filmmaker Sha Cage can touch hearts from the stage using poetry, community open mic nights, and dialogues to bring people directly into her performances and respond to current events. There are filmmakers like Daniel Bergin who document neighborhood history in ways that build community pride and neighborhood safety. Bergin, who projects his films outdoors, creates safe community gatherings in which audiences can experience stories of their own community. Because people of all ages don’t always know the histories of the places they live in, his films help to create those connections and preserve history. If people have a better sense of context, they treat communities differently. These artists and others open our imaginations, creating pathways for us to reimagine public safety.

Systemic racism is at the core of many of our problems as a society, and until we address this, it will hold back our efforts to improve the safety of our communities. As a city councilor, I called on my colleagues to declare racism a public health crisis as we passed an important resolution in the city of Minneapolis. Until we name the problem and begin the difficult work of becoming an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-transphobic society, we will continue to have disparities in every aspect of American life for Black and brown communities. Through efforts like the City’s truth and reconciliation workgroup, we can begin the process of developing ongoing analysis, advice, and policy implementation to create initiatives that recalibrate the unbalanced wealth equation that currently holds down marginalized communities. Artists can help us imagine and implement this transformative vision.

“Systemic racism is at the core of many of our problems as a society, and until we address this, it will hold back our efforts to improve the safety of our communities.”

Justice that contributes to and sustains public safety requires building affordable housing that supports the people who live in it, not just the developers who aim to profit by it. We must develop and train folks for green living-wage jobs that sustain our community while building wealth. We must assist with home ownership opportunities to build wealth for now and for the future. We must invest in small businesses and support their efforts to serve the community. Lastly, we must commit to creating a fitting and worthy memorial to all victims of state violence. A memorial to those who have suffered injustice, paired with a center for anti-racist training, could serve as a vessel that holds our collective narrative and supports healing. In all these efforts, artists, with their ability to imagine and embody a better world, have a crucial role to play.

Watch a reading of “A Requiem for the Queers: or Why We Wear the Color Purple” by Andrea Jenkins on Transgender Visibility Day, 2021, as she speaks to the power of awareness to affect social and policy change.

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.

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Bio

Photo by Scott Strebble.

Andrea Jenkins

Andrea Jenkins made history in 2017 as the first African American openly trans woman to be elected to office in the US. In addition to representing Ward 8—home to vibrant and culturally diverse communities as well as George Floyd Square—and serving as the vice president of the Minneapolis City Council, she is a writer, performance artist, poet, educator, and transgender activist. Jenkins previously served on Forecast's board of directors.

A Chicago native, Jenkins worked for 12 years as a policy aide to two members of the Minneapolis City Council and subsequently served as the oral historian for the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota Libraries, documenting the lived experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming people in the Upper Midwest and the United States.

A poet and artist as well as a public official, Andrea is the author of the poetry collection The T Is Not Silent: New and Selected Poems (Purple Lioness Productions, 2015) and a contributor to the acclaimed anthologies Queer Voices: Poetry, Prose and Pride (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2019), A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016), and Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015).

Jenkins holds a bachelor’s degree in human services, a master’s degree in community economic development, and an MFA in creative writing. She is the recipient of many awards, including a Bush Foundation Fellowship.

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FORWARD: Issue #3

Community Safety

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