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Meet Mallory Nezam of Justice + Joy

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mallory Nezam.

Mallory, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
When I was a kiddo I used to write and direct plays in the neighborhood, I set up a community school, drew blueprints for new cities and ran a small ‘corner store’ where I sold my artworks. An entrepreneurial, creative mindset has been in my DNA from the get-go.

Growing up in a community of mixed races, ethnicities, languages and religions exposed me to the normalcy of diversity at a very young age — my dad’s family is Indian Muslim and my mother’s Irish Catholic. In my childhood, difference and change were the constant. We grew up with limited means, which forces you to both be resourceful and to also notice inequality. It wasn’t until a research grant in college that took me throughout the country of El Salvador that I began to synthesize my social activism with my community arts practice. Shortly thereafter I began creative community organizing in public space using artwork.

After graduation moved to Spain where I started a youth theater troop that taught English through theater using a theater background I’d developed throughout my youth and high school. After the success of the theater troop, I was eager to head to Paris to continue my art practice, but a worsening injury forced my back to my hometown of St. Louis. After living in a more community-oriented European city filled with public transit and public art, this moves back to St. Louis amplified the social isolation, divisive built environment, and underutilized public spaces.

In response, I started St. Louis Improv Anywhere in late 2010, a guerrilla performance collective that facilitates playful social engagements amongst strangers in public space using subversive comedy and invisible theater. This collective grows to produce over 50 interventions and host 3 annual city-wide events. The most recent layer of my practice has been an effort to deepen the impact of my work. Living in St. Louis during the death of Mike Brown shed light on the larger systemic issues at play that my performance work was not impacting. This was a major turning point in my practice.

After initiating artistic responses through the Mirror Casket, #ChalkedUnarmed and various initiatives by our collective STL Artivists, I decided to leave St. Louis and joined the new Arts & Culture Team at Transportation for America, a program of Smart Growth America. Here, I focused on supporting the work of arts and culture inequitable transportation solutions in communities around the country.

Most recently, I began a Masters in Art, Design and the Public Domain at Harvard University while serving as the Arts & Culture Fellow at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in the Boston region, and spent the summer as PolicyLink’s Research Artist-in-Residence. My work now centers on the ways in which arts and culture strategies can impact equitable urban planning and policy outcomes.

Has it been a smooth road?
Moving to another country was hard. I think when I was 22 I considered myself invincible. After trying for months to get a job out of college during the recession, it wasn’t happening. I waited tables, saved up and packed my bags for a 6-week journey to Eastern Europe. While I was here and job in Spain came through unexpectedly and I took it. But I think being this young, not being able to create a deep connection to the community, and being so far away from friends and family was ultimately more challenging than it was fun.

I spent a lot of time alone, which isn’t something I like to do. I wish I had grabbed the experience by the horns and squeezed out every ounce of it, but I couldn’t shake off the fact that I was in unfamiliar territory and really carving a path alone. Ultimately, the experience taught me a lot about what I want to dedicate my time towards, and what I value in a place I live.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Justice + Joy story. Tell us more about the business.
With my independent practice, I’m working to bring justice and joy to the same practice. This means creative solutions that increase collective well-being and create greater conditions of equity. I work with policy organizations, non-profits, civic agencies, and private companies to develop a variety of arts and culture programs that increase well-being, facilitate hard-to-have conversations, and bring artists into unprecedented collaboration with non-arts entities.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
I see the urban/community planning world shifting to include more voices in the planning process, although I think this change will be slow and may not happen everywhere. The looming challenge of gentrification and displacement in nearly every city in the country still looms but there are many people in the sector organizing to think through solutions to this challenge.

I definitely see the public sector beginning (keyword: beginning) to embrace art and cultural practice as an intrinsic component of the voice of their citizens, as well as a critical element of what connects people to place. Again, this won’t happen overnight, but having witnessed some successful partnerships, I feel hopeful that we might begin to support the building of communities that are more cultural representative of the people who live there.

Lastly, as my work is deeply cross-sectoral and collaborative, I think many fields are becoming less silo-ed and more collaborative which I think will help yield wiser and more imaginative solutions to the problems we face.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Josh Nezam, Noah MacMillan, Wendel A. White, Dave Moore, Sara Swaty

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