A reflective blog post on the BLM Social Justice Project. Written by Natasha Knebelow, a student enrolled in Geog 464: Local Applied Studio course
In order to thrive in our cities. We must feel we belong and can see ourselves represented. Art helps people become in alliance with one another. I once heard from a previous professor the importance of identity being mirrored back to us in order to understand who we are. Jacques Lacan – psychoanalytical theorist and his concept of mirror phase. This idea that identity formation is formed as a young child when you eventually realize that you see yourself in the mirror looking back. However, you only discover your identity by seeing yourself reflected back to you. This realization that identity is shown to us when it is reflected is of vital understanding when we think of what kind of art we choose to display in our cities, and who and what it reflects. Is it inclusive of subcultures and minorities- those on the sideline? The BLM Social Justice Art Project is a small, but vital step towards a more reflective community in Abbotsford and abroad because of its power to connect people, while simultaneously allowing our differences to shine.
Art is used as a vehicle of transmission to discover, celebrate and transform our social issues and topics of division into opportunity and common ground; creating positive room for change, while connecting us to different people opinions and viewpoints. I would argue that art might just be the most powerful and unifying tool we have to connecting communities together, to celebrate one another’s differences. Collaborating on the recent project BLM Social Justice Art project allowed me to see how encompassing and absolutely vital art is to our communities. The event highlighted stories of vulnerability, courage and truth. It was a testimony to the transformative and powerful place art plays in our societies, if we will allow it to. This event was a product of many hard-working classmates; the talent and vulnerability and power of multiple BIPOC artists and the encouragement and guidance from mentors, professors and faculty.
Transformative urbanism is referred to, in Happy City, as a gospel of sorts, for the new city. In other words, “the city itself can be a device for happiness” based on its intentional design. (Montgomery, 2013).
One concept I took away from the entirety of my learning in this course is that our cities and our people need to pause and re-align our goals. When we really look at what the key factors of happiness are, it is not all we might think it is. It is the simple things. Places to connect with our neighbours: social cohesion through design. This means tactical urbanism, pop up patios, placemaking and design that allows for walkable spaces and areas of natural connection with people, including spaces of art and beauty that reflect back the diversity of our communities. Afterall, what makes someone important and valuable is not that they are rich, it is simply that they are like us, human. We have an innate desire to connect with others, as outlined in Happy City, and we are healthier physically and mentally when we are living in connection and have strong social networks. ( Montgomery, 2013).
People have already begun to recognize what their cities need, and through the origins of tactical urbanism, the people have bypassed the often-lengthy bureaucratic process, in order to come together to achieve change with relatively few resources and limited time. The results of these interventions have been widescale such as the competitions in Tel Aviv intricate children’s play spaces or gardens set up within 72 hours on a limited budget. (Mould, 2014). These examples of tactical urbanism demonstrate the transformative power people have, as well as the shift in the power dynamic that tactical urbanism can have. However, as of late, tactical urbanism has been utilized by governments in order to dismiss the original intention and rather is being adopted by town officials and planners to further gentrification or redevelopment plans under the guise of creativity to further neoliberal agendas. We must remember who the city is for, it is for the people and I believe the people have the power to influence,as has been widely demonstrated through tactical urbanism. When we remember that at its core, happiness in our cities is not found in an architectural aesthetic, it is found in within communities and family, within friendships and even strangers, (Montgomery, 2013). And as we lean into one another’s lived experience as a community, we have the collective ability to be united as a people; a community with differences. This is a force, when unified, that can have a beautiful influence on transforming communities to represent the real needs and reflect the true values of its members.
Likewise, there is so much potential and cataclysmic energy for social connection behind an event like the BLM Social Justice Art Project. It creates physical and emotional space for people to join together and to lean into empathy; that ability to really see the other person, from their perspective and listen. The event was a demonstration of the power of few resources, collective coming together and a short amount of time to pull off a transformative event. I am beyond hopeful to see how the determination and hard work of these artists will continue to influence our community as it remains on display at UFVs S’eliyemetaxwtexw Art Gallery (room B136) and moves through the landscape of local businesses.
As I reflect on my course learnings and the BLM Social Justice Event, it is crucial to understand and become aware of my own positionality in order to better understand and recognize “How my positionality recognize, honor, and/or problematize intersectional notions of difference” (Weingarten,2017) From the beginning of this course, I have been challenged to look my own biases, experiences, assumptions, and further analyze how my beliefs, ideology and worldview would impact my experience and contribution to the BLM Social Justice Art Project. It has challenged me to slow down and sit with myself. To become more aware of others lived experiences and to realize my experience of the world may limit me from understanding things fully. This is so important to meditate on, because the more we understand others, the more we understand the world. Montgomery refers to everything being inherently connected to everything. I believe this is true of people too, we are all connected and the more we can step our of our own shoes and into someone else’s, we can set aside limiting beliefs and gain a new perspective, (Montgomery, 2013). Incorporating areas in our city to include art not only brings vibrancy and life to our neighbourhoods, art helps us know and celebrate the diversity and crossing of cultures. In my opinion, empathy is the beginning to more successful communities. Because when we can hone in on the skills it takes to really listen to another’s story and experience, when we learn how to look at things through the eyes of another, we become more human and better equipped to be a part of a solution rather than the problem. If I have learned anything through this project, it is how much I can learn from those who are different than me and really how vital it is to do so.
Francis Heng, states that “Culture is not only beneficial to cities; in a deeper sense; it’s what cities are for. A city without poets, painters, and photographers is sterile”. When we look at our cities, and intentionally choose to include art in placemaking, we can level the playing field in an inclusive way “(Heng, 2013). Visual art helps people to access different patterns of thoughts and give people a voice beyond spoken words. Incorporating art allows people to share their thoughts in a way that doesn’t need everyone to work in words. It’s a process that tells a story and represents diverse voices in a vulnerable and authentic way. Art is transformative in a community, and can help create more diverse, equitable and inclusive neighbourhoods. This is so important. And that is why it felt incredibly honoured to come alongside beautiful artists form the BIPOC community and partner with UFV and Black Lives Matter to create the BLM Social Justice Art Project.
Firefly by Faria Firoz
So what are the requirements for happiness? “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality” the new goal, as posed by Penalosa in Happy City, is not to acquire more but, rather to understand how we define success and happiness. These, he concludes, are the true ingredients required in our communities to experience happiness. (Montgomery, 2013) In our recent Project, The BLM Social Justice Art Project, as our class partnered with BLACK LIVES MATTER, UFV, City Studio and other stakeholders, the reality of this quote was demonstrated. We were able to see how beauty, connection, equality, inclusion—were all realised and shared through the process of the diverse representation of artists from our local community and their powerful and transformative art. Highlighting the BLM Social Justice Art Project is a small step towards more reflective community in Abbotsford and hopefully abroad as the ripple effects of this event are felt heard and seen. One thing for sure is we all have a role in facilitating spaces like the BLM Social Justice Art Project, for a more just, inclusive and resilient cities of tomorrow.
Anthro Source. (2018)., City and Society: Public Art for an Inclusive City https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ciso.12153
BLM Social Justice Art Project (2021) https://www.abbotsfordblm.ca/
Montgomery, C. (2013).,Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design
Heng, F (2013) Youtube Video. Unknown link
Mould O. (2014)., Tactical Urbanism: The New Vernacular of the Creative City. Geography Compass.
Weingarten Blog. (2017)., What’s Your Positionality