by Kaylyn Webster
If we know that knowledge is power, why is it that only 10% of eighth-grade Black boys in the U.S. are proficient in reading? We have to encourage our youth to READ!
– Art 4 Change
“There is no return to a system that over‐policed, over‐incarcerated, and under‐delivered.”
Almost a year ago last Spring with the new coronavirus looming over an ill-prepared nation, a group of Los Angeles residents met to discuss its probable effects and impacts on underserved people in the communities they live and serve in.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, “Members of the group, called the Civic Alliance, which describes itself as … a nonpartisan group of businesses working together to build a future where everyone participates in shaping our country,” foresaw the dire implications for low income and marginalized communities of color. The group drafted a report entitled No Going Back. The report makes suggestions and details these problems with one focus being combating anti-Black racism.
The report deals with the many faceted problems faced by already stressed communities made worse by an unprecedented crisis. According to the report:
“Prior to the stay-at-home public health directive, civic boosters promoted Los Angeles as a metropolis that was confronting its problems and making progress. Local and state governments enjoyed budget surpluses, unprecedented investments were committed by Angelenos to respond to homelessness, and access to health care and high school graduation rates were at historically high levels, while unemployment and crime rates were at celebrated lows.
But behind this glossy view of LA, a closer look at the data would have revealed a very different reality, where decades of structural and systemic racism resulted in significant social, economic, and racial inequality. Just a few months into a global pandemic, the cracks in the broken systems have become gaping holes, widening each day. Today, the calls for systemic change are loud, consequential, and urgent.”
Before COVID-19, the underserved communities of Los Angeles struggled under a host of problems which threatened to overwhelm the resources allocated to fight them. Including a growing and chronic crisis of homelessness. In an article in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Homelessness jumped 13% in L.A. County, 14% in the city before pandemic” stated:
“Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to curb homelessness, the number of people without a home in Los Angeles grew last year for the fifth time in the last six years, officials announced Friday. And that was before the pandemic.
The double-digit increases reported in both the city and county reflected the status in January, when the annual count was taken, and before the novel coronavirus thrashed the region’s economy, raising the likelihood of a new wave of people losing their homes.”
Aware of these issues the Civic Alliance, community members, and others created a lengthy document. Out of that process, No Going Back initiatives have taken root. One offshoot of the No Going Back coalition, No Going Back LA, has sponsored a project which allows local artists to produce public art—murals which have the dual benefit of providing much needed work to struggling artists in addition to providing beauty, interest, and pride to communities in desperate need of it. One such featured artist is Nycole Owens.
Owens, in association with Alley Gallery, was commissioned to create a mural in Pomona.
“[We were] asked to highlight how COVID has affected me. And so, what I wanted to do was [project] sic just hope and optimism so that we don’t go back to where we were,” according to Owens. “So, after this change in human history there’s a new way going forward. So that’s what that was. No going back.”
The mural itself, a kind of informal tryptic, depicts two landscapes bracketed by butterflies. Both defined by trees. One tree and its surrounding scenery is blasted and dead, the other tree and scenery vibrant and full of life. Both panels centered by a beautiful masked Black woman fist raised.
“Her fist is raised. [It] represents just being strong,” Owens said, discussing the symbolism of the work. “The mask is for safety and then her lungs are also the tree. I wanted to highlight we’re connected to nature, connected to the environment The butterflies represent—hope, change, transformation. They are also a symbol of movement for immigration. . . going from one thing to another. Yellow represents moving freely in the community and the monarch butterflies migrate every year to Mexico. I wanted to throw that in since they have so much symbolism.”
Owens went on to describe the trees.
“The dead tree represents racism, oppression, classism and sexism. Like a lot of bad -isms, the negative ways you can change, sort of like, we don’t have time for it. And then on the other side there is supposed to be a magnolia tree and I picked that [because it] tracks with my Grandma’s favorite.”
When asked how her work brought together the community in this time of isolation, Owens stated, “One thing that I’m really appreciative for is the location… right next to a high school. When I was painting there [were] people across the street. They were giving away meals at the high school. The high school students have messaged me and said, ‘I love seeing it every day. I can’t wait until school opens up so I can walk past it.’ Inspiring younger generations is everything.”
She also commented about the people driving along the street and seeing something colorful and declaring, “‘0h, wow! That was cool!’ That’s what’s’ really important.”
“So, I just hope in that quick second, whatever people have gone through that day, [it] takes their mind away from their problems.”
Building Community Digitally
Mural by Karina Vasquez
On Feb. 1, 2021 No Going Back L.A. hosted a virtual program “to discuss the role public art can play in eradicating anti-Black racism.in all its forms.” No Going Back L A. focused this project on promoting the voices of female artists.
The program featured poetry, music, and discussion as well as the opportunity to hear from featured artists. Prior to the date, host and content Curator Lucas Rivera discussed COVID’s impact on the community, the event, its importance, and what he hoped would be achieved.
“I feel like COVID has really highlighted the discrepancies in communities of color. It’s affecting our communities a lot worse. Even access to vaccines, access to hospital beds, things like that. COVID is highlighting a lot of things that have been there for a long time but maybe weren’t really brought to our attention,like regular everyday things that we’ve been kind of programmed to maybe just let slide. It has really highlighted a lot of that as far as an opening act for social justice, [the need for] more equity, and helping everyone to have a better footing for living.”
When discussing the project and the upcoming forum Rivera stated “[W]e want to go back to that perspective. Let’s make some noise and make sure there’s a visual representation of what that noise is, and make sure they speak to the heart of the Earth . . . why did the pandemic happen?
That is one conversation that we will have. [There will be] some amazing speakers and nonprofit executives who have been doing right by the artists who painted the murals and paid for them to talk about their work and what No Going Back means to them.”
Rivera further stressed, “We want to really focus on the fact that No Going Back is about making sure that we lift these voices, and we tell the world that we cannot go back. We cannot go back to the way things were.”
Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is a student and history buff— a grandmother, a parent, a sister, an aunt and lover of people, animals, plants, and the planet.