FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety
From the Guest Editor
Social Change Ecosystem Map. Image by Deepa Iyer, Building Movement Project.
A Will to Reimagine Community Safety
by Mallory Rukhsana Nezam
I could say that the killing of Michael Brown by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, changed my life trajectory as an arts professional, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. In fact, it was the local response—and the lack thereof—to Brown’s murder, from residents, business owners, policy makers, and creatives in my hometown of St. Louis, that forever clarified for me the capacity and the limitations of public art as an agent of change.
As an artist, I have used chalk, performance, sculpture, and writing to educate, disrupt, and honor. Yet what has interested me most has been understanding how I, as an artist and cultural worker, could help bring about tangible changes that would make the region safer for BIPOC folks and other marginalized members of my community. I’ve witnessed how public art can draw attention to issues of community safety, awaken empathy, mobilize a community, and even generate dialogue between people holding differing opinions. And yet I have also witnessed where such values and outcomes were not allowed, the rooms artists were not let into, the conversations that continued to happen behind closed doors no matter how potent the artwork or revered the artist. I desired to see artworks more candidly tackle the systems directly impacting community safety, from housing policy to environmental racism.
“I desired to see artworks more candidly tackle the systems directly impacting community safety, from housing policy to environmental racism.”
Despite the powerful work that artists and activists have achieved in St. Louis, a new report shows that from 2009 to 2019, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department was responsible for more killings per capita than any other of the 100 largest police departments in the nation.
Then, in May 2020, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, not far from the office of Forecast Public Art (the publisher of FORWARD). FORWARD hadn’t planned to address community safety in this issue, but as concern grew for the safety of the community, and especially for BIPOC artists and culture bearers within it, the publication changed course. Issue #3 is now devoted entirely to how public artists are addressing community safety.
To select the focus areas under the broad heading of community safety, I began listening for stories about how communities were achieving greater safety for people who have been left out of the mainstream state frameworks and systems of “public safety,” and who, in some cases, have been the targets of state violence. From there I began to discover themes and relationships between the projects. Our six focus areas—policing, criminal justice, community control, freedom from harm, gun violence, and emergency response—emerged directly from these stories and projects.
In 2021, it is a commonly held belief that something is fundamentally broken in our official and unofficial systems of maintaining safety. Many believe, on the other hand, that these systems are designed to work exactly the way they do: to privilege some people while oppressing others. Either perspective implies an urgent need for reform.
So what could “public safety” look like if reframed as community safety? What are the new systems we can dream into being, and what will it take to make them a reality? What could it mean to collectively acknowledge harm, to protect, to heal, to course-correct, to generate wellness? These questions can be asked in the States and beyond, and while this issue of FORWARD concentrates mainly on the US, its focus expands to include projects in other countries, too.
“And public art alone can’t solve the problems. Artists and culture bearers are part of a broader ecosystem of people actively working to transform a system that has been harming people—the same people—over and over again. ”
When I consider how change happens, I recognize an ecosystem of multiple contributors playing distinct but equally important roles, all of whom work together to transform something larger. (The Social Change Ecosystem Map by Deepa Iyer of the Building Movement Project is a great illustration of this.) In this network I can see artists in many roles, from experimenter to healer to builder and beyond. As we examine the brilliant projects we’ve selected to feature in this issue, it’s important to acknowledge that the work of public artists does not exist in a vacuum. And public art alone can’t solve the problems. Artists and culture bearers are part of a broader ecosystem of people actively working to transform a system that has been harming people—the same people—over and over again.
I hope this issue serves as a road map to show you how artists are leading the charge to retool community safety to center justice and healing, through processes that are no longer top-down or white-centered. Perhaps the stories presented here will make you curious and vigilant, but also hopeful—hopeful because, like me, you are noticing the increasing will to reimagine.
“..… artists are leading the charge to retool community safety to center justice and healing, through processes that are no longer top-down or white-centered.”
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.
Mallory Rukhsana Nezam
In her role as Forecast’s Communications Strategist and FORWARD Curator of Partnerships and Programming, Mallory’s cross-sector practice encourages confronting social barriers and systemic injustice. As an artist and organizer living in St. Louis, Missouri, when Michael Brown was killed in neighboring Ferguson, her experiences with community safety have informed her work as an artist and consultant.
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FORWARD: Issue #3
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