When Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston director Jill Medvedow heard that Milwaukee County had declared racism a public health crisis, the news made her pull her car to the side of the road. When the broadcast ended, she made a call to bring this declaration to the ICA — and on Oct. 10, the ICA held a forum discussing the impacts of racism on public health.
The evening featured panelists from the art, journalism, and public health worlds. The four panelists were Nicole M. Brookshire, the Director of Milwaukee County’s Office on African American Affairs; Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; Steve Lock, an artist and professor at the Pratt Institute; and Jeneé Osterhedlt, a culture writer for The Boston Globe.
Moderating the panel, Medvedow began the discussion on works of public art that have been used to highlight historical social injustices. This introduction set the tone for the panel which sought both to talk about racism and to present steps people could take to dismantle it.
“Words have the power to bring us to the edge of action, but tonight my hope is to have concrete actions, to focus on collective action,” Medvedow said.
Ferrer, using a PowerPoint full of statistics to substantiate her claims, argued for the necessity of considering racism a public health crisis. Ferrer described racism and discrimination as the most important determinants for the health of an individual and that, as a result, racism should be treated as any other public health crisis.
Next, Brookshire spoke on the issues of racial inequality that affect the health of Milwaukee County — the Wisconsin county with the highest concentration of black residents.
“You will have seven years taken off of your life just living in a specific area,” Brookshire said.
Brookshire brought up other racially-driven disparities, such as that Milwaukee is the second least healthy county in Wisconsin and that the black infant mortality rate is 13.1 per 1,000 for black infants but only 4.9 per 1,000 for white infants.
Lock and Osterheldt then described the role of art in fighting social justice and their own roles in creating that art.
“I am an artist,” Lock said. “The artist is the person in society who can manifest what people are thinking. I am not expressing myself, but my culture.”
Lock described the work he had done as an artist, including his piece the “Three Deliberate Grays for Freddie (A Memorial for Freddie Gray),” an art installation on the exterior of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum meant to address race and violence in America.
Osterheldt also underscored what she viewed her job as a creator to be.
“It’s to hold the space. It’s not to be a voice for the voiceless. You have voices. It’s to attack the system that create the voiceless,” she said.
The panel was especially relevant to audience members Nandini Choudbury and Lucy Burriss. Choudhury is a public health social worker and Burriss is a teacher. While Choudhury’s work directly involves racial and social justice, Burriss saw how important it was for her as an educator to come to the panel.
“I teach English as a second language and many of my students are people of color coming from all across the world. Even though I only have a small role in their lives, I want to be able to understand what else is going on in their lives because that has the ability to affect how they learn and how they work effectively,” Burriss said.
The two also suggested similar ideas on what concrete steps could be taken to dismantle systems of racism and improve public health. They believed that community organizing was integral to taking steps towards change.
“The system is not broken. Racism has been placed within these systems since the dawn of time, so in order to do that, you need to take that out, destroy it, and rebuild it. I think community organizing and working with each other and with white allies can go a long way ... I think that is such a salient point, that the power is in our hands. I think we’ve just forgotten that and I think we need to reclaim it,” Choudhury said.
When discussing how contemporary art could be used as a tool, Choudhury emphasized the medium as the message.
“When there are no words to be spoken, when words are difficult to articulate and put on paper, art does that so beautifully,” Choudhury said. “When you are trying to express complex and multifaceted topics like racism, public health, art, and environmental justice, art can bring all of those things together in an image, in a scene, in a movie — in a way that words can’t do.”