Mallory Nezam on #FergusonNext: Time for St. Louisans to Break Out of Cultural Isolation

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Mallory Nezam organizes and designs public-participation art experiences and is founding director of STL Improv Anywhere and creator of the Poetree Project. - COURTESY MALLORY NEZAM
  • Courtesy Mallory Nezam
  • Mallory Nezam organizes and designs public-participation art experiences and is founding director of STL Improv Anywhere and creator of the Poetree Project.

As an artist and cultural producer who focuses on work that encourages people to engage with strangers in public spaces, I have witnessed a lot about how we relate to people who are different from us, and how apparently rare these enriching encounters are.

Through STL Improv Anywhere and other public-art initiatives like the Poetree Project, I've spent the last four years in St. Louis creating opportunities for people to connect with strangers. In doing so, I have seen wonderful things happen. It is clear that St. Louisans — whether or not they know it — crave these encounters, soaking them up like dried plants in the spring. People seem to be surprised that they enjoy them. People seem surprised that other people care about them, and that connectivity is not limited to people just like you.

I chose to invest in creating these opportunities for connection, because after moving back to St. Louis after five years away, it struck my how rare these moments are. In other places I've lived, spaces were designed for me to spend the majority of my day around other people — all types of people. This changes you. If your world was singular, it becomes multiple. Different ways of living are not concepts dished to you from your television; rather, you are integrated with them. People share the city and their lives together, not apart.

Yet with a car-centric infrastructure, suburban sprawl and few areas built for pedestrian culture, much of our St. Louis lives can be spent in selective cultural (and physical) isolation. And we suffer for this. Ferguson brought it bubbling to the top.

I'm talking about culture, a cultural shift that I believe has to be brought about through the education system, and through infrastructure and opportunities designed to bring people together rather than compartmentalize them. And though this cultural shift is the root, the soft stuff has to be protected and maintained through legal and policy reform, and a more equal distribution of resources.

You know who lives within a legal framework, who interprets laws and policy? People. Culture is the lens through which the legal jargon, the confusing grand-jury protocols and policies are interpreted. We have to massage out the pressure points of a culture of fear and isolationism. Because at the end of the day, if I cannot see you as equal to me, then it doesn't matter what the laws are. People will still treat each other poorly and maneuver around the subjective space of the laws.

In the end, people talk about peace. Is peace the goal?

Is it possible to have "peace" if not everyone is experiencing that peace? I argue that peace is a communal state of being in which all participating human beings are allowed to be fully realized and respected, a pervasive cultural shift we must all make together, from the ground up.

Read more solutions from Riverfront Times' #FergusonNext contributors.

About this project: Riverfront Times asked a diverse group of contributors — policemen, rappers, shop owners, clergy — to tell our readers where they see solutions to the region's deep-rooted troubles. It's part of our #FergusonNext collaboration, in partnership with the Guardian's "US Opinion," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's editorial page, the St. Louis American, Ebony.com and Colorlines. Go to www.fergusonnext.com to see what our partners are doing and to join us in our attempt to answer the question, "No justice, no peace — what now?"

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