For Immediate Release: Create Forward Launches Mass Story Lab in NYC

For Immediate Release
Piper Anderson
Create Forward

Mass Story Lab: Designing A Future Beyond Prisons

RELEASE DATE, New York City - On June 29, 2016, Mass Story Lab will kick off a  national tour to 20 U.S. cities grappling with the impact of mass incarceration, starting with Mass Story: Rikers Island.

Mass Story Lab is an innovative art & design project by Create Forward that seeks to arm communities with creative tools to design solutions to mass incarceration.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1 in 36 adults is under correctional supervision. In 2015 when the Justice Department took the historic step of releasing 6,000 people from Federal prisons, the largest one-time early release of prisoners in history, it signaled the end of an era marked by tough on crime rhetoric and a ‘war on drugs’. Yet the federal system accounts for less than half of the U.S prison population and efforts at criminal justice reform on a state level continue to fall short.

“There are as many criminal justice systems as there are states. So if we want to change the systems then we need to give each a community a voice and platform to envision change.” Says, Piper Anderson, creator of Mass Story Lab.

Mass Story Lab is currently being incubated in the TED Residency Program in New York City. Known for the thousands of filmed talks given by innovators from around the world, TED is now incubating and supporting break-through ideas in-house through their 4-month TED Residency program. Piper Anderson is a member of TED’s first class of Residents who work out of the TED office and receive support to develop their ideas.

“I spent the last 15 years traveling the country using poetry, theatre, and community art projects to inform the public about the impact of mass incarceration on communities of color but it just never felt like it was enough.” Says, Piper Anderson, creator of Mass Story Lab.

Mass Story Lab brings together some of the best tools available to create empathy and cultural change from the worlds of arts and design; storytelling and design thinking. “Its time we give people the tools to actively design a world beyond prisons,” explains Anderson, who is also the founder of Create Forward, which delivers creative strategies for social change to activate the collective imagination.  Mass Story Lab is the first national initiative Anderson has developed under the banner of Create Forward.

The project will launch in New York City on June 29th, from 9am – 12pm at The New School 55 W 13th Street, with Mass Story: Rikers Island. To launch this ambitious initiative Create Forward has teamed up with national criminal justice advocacy organization, JustLeadershipUSA. JLUSA’s Close Rikers Campaign is calling for the closure of the country’s largest jail complex sighting decades of violence, abuse and mismanagement. The launch will be hosted at the New School in partnership with Humanities Action Lab (HAL). HAL produces public history projects to create dialogue on urgent social issues. Their most recent project is “States of Incarceration”.

At Mass Story: Rikers Island, ten people whose lives have been changed by Rikers Island will share their story, and audience members will then break into small groups to begin a imaginative ideation sessions to generate creative strategies to redesign justice.

Some of the stories you’ll experience at Mass Story: Rikers Island include:

  • Khalil Cumberbatch, who witnessed the senseless and brutal beating of an inmate by correctional staff to instill fear in the population.
  • Johnny Perez, was 16 years old when he was detained on Rikers Island. He recalls a feeling of helplessness and a culture in which survival meant a transformation from victim to victimizer. 
  • Ann Pastorasta spent several days searching for her son in the system before she was informed that he was sent to Rikers Island. “I kept searching on the internet and could not find Riker’s Island until I finally located a gray spot on the map.

These stories and many more provide a fuller picture of what Rikers Island represents in the lives of so many New Yorkers. Mass Story Lab aims to ensure that their stories drive a movement to build safer, healthier communities while eliminating that dark ominous spot called Rikers Island that is a blight on the New York City skyline.

Event Info:

Mass Story: Rikers Island

Wednesday, June 29, 20169-12pm

The New School 55 W 13th Street New York, NY



Reflections on the One Year Anniversary of CREATE FORWARD

Create Forward, the company, officially launched on February 9, 2015 but the Create Forward the idea began with a broken heart and a willing spirit Labor Day weekend 2014. I was on a personal retreat at Omega Institute, as a guest of the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. OWLC offers retreats to women leaders from around the world. A rare yet vital opportunity to rest and reflect on your leadership for a few days while staying in the beautiful Juno Cottage on the grounds of Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. It had been a long while since I had a break but I was also at a crossroads professionally and wanted to determine my next steps.  I wanted to make good use of the three days away to do some planning. Yet, once I walked into my cottage the full weigh of fatigue seem to descend upon me and I just couldn’t do it any more. I couldn’t keep doing, doing, doing without stopping a moment to check in with my spirit and make sure all this motion was in alignment with what matters most to me. In fact, I wasn’t sure I really remembered what mattered most to me.

What I needed more than anything was to be still and so I did nothing. I made no decisions that weekend. I did not plan and chart out my path. I just made myself fully available to the present moment. I meditated, walked the grounds, got a massage, sat on the porch, read, and rested. Then it happened: the end of the 2nd, I grabbed my sketchpad, and I wrote the word “INQUIRY and then the word IMAGINATION. I stayed with those two words and trusted that when the time was right I would know what it meant. I returned home having made only one decision about my career: I did not want to go to work for another non-profit. There was not one job out there that I was excited about applying for, which meant that I was going to work for myself. So I had one decision: I would work for myself, and I had two words: inquiry and imagination.

Two days later, I received an email from 651 Arts inviting me to facilitate a creative think tank that would be guided by a single inquiry question. And that is how Create Forward began to take shape:  Faith, listening to spirit, and saying yes when opportunities were revealed.

Five months later, I left my job and woke up on Monday, February 9, 2015 the founder and Chief Creative Strategist at Create Forward LLC. A year later and I stand in awe of what we’ve accomplished:

  • Designed and facilitated imaginative containers for dialogue, community building, and social change with 18 clients and partners.
  • Reached more than 3000 people through events, trainings, and performances.
  • Convened the first Summit on Youth Education at Rikers Island to question, challenge, and exchange best practices across organizations serving incarcerated youth. We centered the arts and social justice education in this convening.
  • Joined the Humanities Action Lab team as Community Engagement Strategist to design the “States of Incarceration” exhibit, which will travel to 20 cities and reach over 500,000 people in the next three years.
  • Received funding from North Star’s Let Us Breathe Fund and the New York Humanities Council to fund creative strategies dreamt up in our Forward Innovation Lab.

But most of all we built community and we believed, believed, believed in the radical possibilities of the collective imagination. Cheers to another year! Let’s Create Forward!

(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.


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