(Re)Imagining Community Safety

This past December the NYPD orchestrated a ‘work slow down’ that revealed that most everyday policing practice amounts to taxing people of color in low-income communities through quality of life violations.

Having spent the last 15 years doing cultural organizing and healing work in response to mass criminalization the truth about policing was not new to me but it occurred to me that many people might just be discovering this fact for the first time.. Maybe this is a critical moment to engage people in the conversation that practitioners of transformative justice have been theorizing, analyzing, and experimenting with for well over a decade: alternatives to policing.

So what does it take to get people to imagine a world without police? This is not a new inquiry. Again community organizers have been engaged in this work for some time on many different levels and in communities across the country; much of this work led by queer folks of color have created alternatives to calling the police in order to survive and combat state violence and marginalization.

So the conversation is not new but by no means is it over. In fact, it’s more urgent than ever.

In January I began teaching a winter term course at The New School on the intersections of community art practice and transformative justice. It was a course idea I proposed a year ago. I wanted a reason to explore the ways artists were thinking about community accountability, prison abolish, challenging state violence by working with communities to envision new possibilities for how we create safety in our homes and neighborhoods. By the time January 2015 rolled around the course was more urgent than ever. The questions more ever present. I deployed my students into their communities with a few simple questions:

community is...accountability is...

What makes you feel safe?

Do police make you feel safe?

What resources does your community have or need to be safe?

They came back with a range of responses which of course differed based on the age, race, gender, class, citizenship status of the people they talked to. We shared the results of these interviews with a small audience at The New School. What I thought was most interesting was when asked about what made them feel safe most people talked about the people close to them-relationships, recognition in space, visibility. Not police. Yet the moment the word police was introduced imagination shut down. Suddenly our conditioning kicks in and we remember to give deference to the security force we’ve come to expect and depend on.

There’s a concept called the Constructivist Principle, which suggest that we create the world through the words and metaphors that we use. What we focus on becomes our reality and that reality is born out of the meaning that we make from language. 

So when invited to facilitate vision boarding process at the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturday for Harriet’s Apothecary. I knew that this would be a perfect opportunity to revisit the project in a new way. What if we ask people to create an irresistible vision for community safety? How might they respond? Questions posted around the table, images pre-cut from magazines, colorful crafts paper, glue sticks, and a wall 7 x 5 feet waiting for their collective visions of community safety.


            What does it taste/feel/smell/look like to feel safe in your neighborhood?

            What words, symbols, images, represent wholeness in a community?

Who in your neighborhood makes you feel most connected to the place and seen?

What would it look like for EVERYONE to be safe in your community?


BK Museum Community Vision Board

As the 10,000 museum visitors traveled around the various healing stations being held by Harriet’s Apothecary healers and volunteers dressed in white our vision tables were never empty, there was a constant flow of folks coming in, sitting down, creating intricately thoughtful boards, beautiful visions, adding them to the large collective board, fusing them together on that wall. People of all ages, races, and gender expressions created a vision of community safety. 

I understand that it takes a lot to even get here: to be able to imagine community safety when the right to feel safe in your body as been stripped taken away by state agents. I know because I’ve been there and the journey back home to myself is a privilege I don’t take for granted. I want us all to get there and then I want us to create a world where we live in healthy, safe, supportive communities free from all forms of violence; where we are accountable to ourselves and each other.

I’m not quite sure what is next for this project but I’m actively seeking thought partners, visionaries, healers, and artists to join me on the journey. Let’s build.


Email me at piper@create-forward.com