Hull On Earth is a column by journalist and man-about-town, Shelton Hull. It appears irregularly in Void Magazine and on Voidlive.com.

The phrase that pays these days is “civic engagement”, a term that’s sprung into the popular lexicon during a year defined by widespread activism. People who aren’t typically politically active are now, while those who already were, find themselves busier than ever. One such person is Shawana Brooks, who for years has sought to formulate a fusion of art and activism here in Northeast Florida. Brooks has perfected that formula in 2020, and the benefits accrue to all those in her sphere.

Shawana Brooks and Roosevelt Watson III, at their home and outdoor art space 6 Ft. Away Gallery. Brooks’s initiatives include Color Jax Blue and a partnership with San Francisco based Art + Action. || Photo: Marc Mangra

The driving force behind the 6 Feet Away Gallery, as well as the Color Jax Blue mural project, Brooks’s initiatives drew a lot of press, both locally and nationally. All of which brought her to the attention of Art + Action, an organization based in San Francisco. “They do a lot of different, significant things,” she says. “With their help, Jacksonville joins a national campaign to bring in artists from all over the country to do billboards in areas that needed more advocacy and awareness related to the Census this year.”

Art+Action’s expansion into cities outside of San Francisco was based on real-time Census data (2020 Census self-response rates can be found online) in addition to Hard to Count maps that showed which communities and zip codes were at risk for undercount, according to the group. Art+Action has since launched initiatives in Philadelphia, Miami, Tampa, San Antonio, Brownsville, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston.

Jacksonville’s participation serves as an expansion of Art + Action’s Come To Your Census campaign, which offers information about the impact of the 2020 Census in eye-catching ways–to drive home that message, the Come To Your Census campaign enlists the help of local artists from each community it partners with.

The US Census takes place every ten years. It is ostensibly a straightforward head count of the US population, with an intricate breakdown of the diverse demographics in our country, but it encompasses much more than that. The results of the census will greatly influence things for all of us, from the distribution of federal dollars for social programs to the gerrymandering of congressional districts. It’s always very important to how our country will function in the decade ahead, but even more so this year.

Marsha Hatcher’s work appears on the Art + Action Come To Your Census billboard off I-295

Studies have shown that each person not counted in the census amounts to an estimated loss of $2,000 for their respective community, amounting to roughly $20,000 over a ten year period (until the next census). An accurate count secures critical funding for hospitals, healthcare, first responders, essential emergency services, affordable housing, food assistance, schools, child care, public transportation, road repair, and more.

Typically, the deadline for completion of the census is October 31, but it’s been pushed up this year to September 30. The current pandemic situation also complicates what is already a pretty complicated endeavor.

In August, with support from the Ford Foundation, Art+Action hosted an open call for artists in Florida and Texas for the ‘Come To Your Census’ outdoor public media campaign—selecting 12 artworks to be displayed on billboards in the two states.

Key artists Come To Your Census initiative in Jax are painter Marsha Hatcher and photographer Toni Smailagic, both of whom are part of the Color Jax Blue project. Their artwork has been used on two billboards. Both are visible from Interstate 295–Hatcher’s three quarters of a mile north of Blanding Blvd, Smailagic’s a mile and a quarter south of 103rd st.

An image by local photographer Toni Smailagic found its way onto this billboard on I-295, encouraging Jax residents to fill out the 2020 census.

This project fits nicely into the broader aesthetic agenda being advanced by Brooks and her colleagues, one that has gained increasing support within mainstream institutions like Art In Public Places and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville (a fellow partner in the Art + Action Come To Your Census campaign).

The connection between these organizations demonstrates, yet again, the value that art can have as a catalyst for social uplift, in this community and others all around the country. “It just shows, again, that there are more ways to utilize artists for healing,” says Brooks, “and to be able to express social commentary that is necessary to create dialogue and help make our neighborhoods better.” It doesn’t end in November. We have only just begun.

The deadline to fill out the 2020 census is September 30. It’s 9 questions and takes 10 minutes. Click here to fulfill your civic duty.  

To learn more about Art + Action and the census click here.