Justice Counts on All of Us
When you add your voice and your actions to situations that you don’t think involve you, you actually inspire others to do the same... to win the fight for equity we will all need to speak up and stand up... and we will all need to do that even when it’s hard and even when we feel out of place, because it is your place, and it is our place. Justice counts on all of us. ~Nita Mosby Tyler
Travel can mean a lot of different things to different people. Probably the most common definition includes people hopping on a plane and going somewhere distant and strange. But for me, travel is both simpler and more complex than that. Travel writing scholar Mary Louise Pratt (1992) identified “contact zones” as the places where people’s differences bump up against one another and drive fundamental cultural changes. I see contact zones everywhere, not only when I’m engaged in traditional notions of travel. Anytime I enter a space where cultural and community differences impact people’s behaviors and interactions, I’m engaging in a kind of travel. Sometimes the differences are more obvious than others — I might be on the other side of the world, or in my own neighborhood. Nonetheless, contact zones are ubiquitous — in airports, restaurants, workplaces, schools, and anywhere people of different backgrounds and life experiences interface with one another.
My first memory of being in a contact zone is when I was in kindergarten. I had a kind, smart friend, Carla, who had a lisp. I always sat next to her. One day, the other kids were being particularly harsh, incessantly asking her to say words they knew she couldn’t pronounce. I sat there seething, at five years old! I climbed onto the tabletop where I could tower over all my peers. I stood still, as tall as I could for a moment, and then I shouted, “STOP IT!!” at the top of my lungs. My memory ends there, but my mom always said I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I guess I naturally tend to empathize with people who have to live under unfair and unnecessary disadvantages. Fairness is a value I hold deeply.
Today, I’m a transdisciplinary creative practitioner — writer, designer, and visual artist. I'm determined to counter Richard Florida’s (2002) notion of an urban “creative class” that primarily acts as a turbine for economic growth. His popular vision reinforces neoliberal capitalist hegemony and encourages the transmutation of colonialist practices that increase inequality and disenfranchise already marginalized people (topic for another day). Instead, I use my creative energy to advance social and political change through hyper-local practices that prioritize people over profits. A fundamental part of my personal mission is to facilitate intercultural connectedness and social unity by drawing grassroots communities together and building on the unique creative assets each group brings to the table.
I like to consider how various artifacts people accumulate in public places speak, and what they say about their cultures. I’m fascinated with decoding myriad human-generated mark-making in the environment, including public art, buildings, roads, tunnels, and signs… petroglyphs, graffiti, and initials carved in aspen bark… forests burned, rows of corn, and victory gardens… stamps in concrete and words on paper. All of these diverse “texts” carry the residue of our belief systems and behaviors. I committed to studying the rhetoric of public art in about 2013, when I lived in Seattle. By 2015, I had embarked on a 12,000+ mile Public Art Road Trip to experience and learn about the ways local culture is communicated through a place’s outdoor, publicly accessible art. Phoenix, Arizona was one of the cities on my itinerary.
My first visit to Phoenix coincided with a sculpture conference I attended. Events were held at several locations in the downtown area, so I had plenty of opportunity to explore. I had been hearing outsiders disparage the city for so long, my expectations were low. But I was surprised. As I zigzagged my way around the old Roosevelt Row neighborhood (before it was gentrified), I found more art than I could’ve imagined. Most of it seemed spontaneous, like the area’s artists magically emerged out of nowhere to vivify the area where they lived. I was greeted with enormous multicolored walls and entire buildings that were covered — edge to edge — with images and messages about the local culture.
The mural that captured my heart that day is gone now, but when I saw it, I knew Phoenix would become my place, too. It was on the side of an abandoned building (the same lot is now a bougie apartment highrise), and it measured about 12 feet tall by about 20 feet wide. Artist Jesse Perry created a brightly-colored desert scene with rainbow skies, purple mountains. In the foreground, a smiling jack rabbit wearing a red shirt and blue shorts reclined in a pile of cactus. In one hand, he held a prickly pear taco. The other raised a wooden sign that said, “Welcome to downtown.” I was hooked.
When I saw a job advertisement at ASU a couple months later, I sent in my application on the spot. I moved to Phoenix less than a year later, and I wasted no time getting to know my new city. My first goal was to see more of the art, so I walked miles and miles around downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. I found a lot of municipally funded public art, but of course I loved the murals more than anything else.
I knew I had to get involved right away. I went to public meetings and meetings of local arts organizations. I reached out to all my new colleagues, who are also artists and designers. I applied and was invited to join Phoenix’s Arts and Culture Commission. I started following local artists on social media. I sent lots of DMs and invited people to coffee so I could get to know them. Jacqueline Novogratz (2010), founder of the global anti-poverty organization Acumen, is right when she calls on us to “live lives of immersion,” to live with, honor, respect, and collaborate with people who are different from us. This is what I’ve been working towards for the past five years. Not only have I lived a life of immersion, I’ve made lifelong friends and social connections with people across the city, from almost every background I can imagine.
What I love about traveling and practicing my craft in Central Phoenix, where I now live, is that I’m already embedded here. I live here. The people I collaborate with also live here. We are all invested in making this place the best it can be, not so our property values go up, but because this is where we want to remain grounded. So, in every situation, I already have something in common with my collaborators. But — it’s harder and more time consuming to build relationships in communities that I’m not a part of. This is especially so because I’m not only a middle-aged, middle-class, White woman, but I also work at one of the biggest universities in the U.S. Both of these identifiers automatically make me suspect among some of my neighbors, and it’s easy to imagine why. So, I work hard every day to be the outlier — the White woman that continues to pleasantly surprise my Black and Latino and Indigenous and Asian friends. Being there, always being there — being immersed — isn’t optional; it’s the first step on the path to meaningful social change.
In 2018, I had an opportunity to (1) use my privileged position to empower others, and (2) to serve my new community in a profound way. I organized and hosted the first Phoenix Mural Festival, and it countervailed entrenched colonialism in the broader worlds of arts and culture. According to the National Endowment for the Arts (2019), from 2012–2016, less than 25% of arts and culture workers in the U.S. were non-White. Meanwhile, the inaugural Phoenix Mural Festival hosted 85 local artists, 55% of whom were people of color.
At the 2021 festival three years later, more than half of the participating artists identified as female, and another half were non-White. As the festival's director, I stayed behind the scenes. We dedicated an entire weekend of the event to a celebration of Hip Hop culture. I invited my friend House, who is a Bboy, hip hop history teacher, and co-founder of the Furious Styles Crew, to curate the celebration. Worth the Weight came out to host an exciting hip hop dance battle, along with DJs, and merch from a local hip hop store. We were given access to a 1,500 square foot wall facing a public pedestrian path along Phoenix’s Grand Canal for a collaborative mural by more than a dozen graffiti writers from all over the city. The mural reads: Love Fights Back, and is an invocation of love in the face of injustice. During the event, aerosol artists were working on scaffolding and scissor lifts, music was playing, and visitors crowded around to watch. I was one of the only White people there.
Everyone was having a good time — laughing, dancing, painting, and recording for social media. Then, out of nowhere, we noticed a Phoenix Police SUV driving up the “no motorized vehicles allowed” sidewalk towards us. Everyone got quiet; a bunch of people walked away. My heart pounded, hard. I had instigated this event, and sadly, my first thought was, “It’s up to me to make sure no one gets hurt.” I walked up to the drivers’ side window to talk to the two officers — cops tend to stay inside their vehicles, perhaps to intimidate people on foot (here’s another essay idea!). I welcomed them to Phoenix Mural Festival and told them about the Love Fights Back initiative to fight for social justice. They nodded, and continued to drive straight through the middle of our staging area.
In retrospect, I wished I had invited them to get out and help us paint the mural. I think when I’m eighty I’ll still beat myself up over that.
Acumen (n.d.). Our Manifesto. Accessed from https://acumen.org/manifesto/
Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. Basic Books.
National Endowment for the Arts (2019). Artists and Other Cultural Workers: A Statistical Portrait. Accessed from https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Artists_and_Other_Cultural_Workers.pdf
Novogratz, J. (2010). Inspiring a Life of Immersion. TEDWomen. Accessed from https://www.ted.com/talks/jacqueline_novogratz_inspiring_a_life_of_immersion
Pratt, M.L. (1992). Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Routledge.
Woodruff, J. (2017). Has Urban Revival Caused a Crisis of Success? PBS News Hour. Accessed from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/urban-revival-caused-crisis-success