Nikki McComb’s work lies in the intersection of art and violence prevention. She is the owner of Art is My Weapon and the founder of the #ENOUGH Campaign for Gun Safety. Chanda sat down with Nikki to discuss the ripple effect of gun violence, holistic approaches to community work, and the healing power of art.
Souphak Kienitz 00:01
You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda, a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:14
Nikki McComb, welcome to Conversations with Chanda, it’s been a long time coming. But I figured it was timely as I attended the opening to your exhibit yesterday at the downtown library. And so I wanted to build on the energy of that exhibit to have this conversation with you.
Nikki McComb 00:32
Awesome, I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:34
You are welcome. So let’s talk about you first. So how do you describe yourself?
Nikki McComb 00:39
I think that I would consider myself to be a dedicated community artivist. I don’t like the word activist. I like the word artivist. I use it in that way. Because I think that art is the thing that created me to act into addressing issues that are in community and I come from community. And I’ve had many, many years of my own experience in community, which is what led me to doing the work that I do now. So I am a person that has deep rooted love and passion for change in community when it comes to youth and families. I’m one of those people that find out somebody needs something, I’m going to just really go hard to try to figure out how to help them, get other people to help them find the entities or groups that need to come together to resolve the issue to whatever the barrier is. And that’s kind of like what I’ve done, since I decided I wasn’t going to be a troublemaker anymore.
Chanda Smith Baker 01:41
So let’s talk about the troublemaking days, you don’t have to say nothing you don’t want to share.
Nikki McComb 01:48
That’s the truth is the reason why I’m, well I’m in the work that I’m in, like I made terrible choices when I didn’t have to, I made them based on loss of identity and things like that. I’m not a perfect person, but back then lost in your own skin is something that not everybody experiences. You know, I was adopted. I was of North African descent. So I was in a place where I didn’t really know who I was. And so I was seeking. Everywhere I went, I sought validation for either who I thought I was or who I wanted other people to think I was or even sometimes just trying to be what I wasn’t to fit somewhere because it never worked. You know, I have learning disabilities, like big ones. I’m dyslexic. When it comes to numbers I have, it’s called discalcula. I have the discalcula, I have dyslexia, I was actually diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder when I was younger. And I had to work really hard to make sure that I was able to overcome some of the obstacles that I had as a young person. And I got in trouble. And when I got in trouble, and I found out I was pregnant, then that’s the moment in my life where I was like, I can’t, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t, I can’t be trouble. Thankfully, I was so young. I wasn’t a teenager, but I was still, in my mind, not a full grown adult, but I got pregnant and that changed my life. It changed the decisions that I was gonna make. I immediately enrolled in school, I thought I wanted to be a beautician. So I went and did that. I went to school for human services, because I really wanted to help people. So I was kind of doing both at the same time, with no car, apartment with no furniture, you know, I didn’t have nothing. I was raising a kid, a baby, by myself with you know, little or nothing. And I had to figure out how to navigate services. And that’s kind of what led me into the work is me having to navigate for myself just built up a bank, a big bank of years and years and years of resources and services. Our kids are a day apart. Yes, just recently a day apart, like their birthdays were just the other days.
Nikki McComb 04:19
On Wednesday. She was due, my daughter was due on my birthday. And she was a week early, one day after yours. I wasn’t led to believe anything other than nothingness. Right, because I didn’t have it, right? I was adopted, the parents that I had were amazing, wonderful, I’d probably be dead if I didn’t have them. And I’m thankful that I had them. Because if I’d have been raised by my mother, I’d first certain be not alive. I think that if I had even just a small amount of guidance and identity, even if it was provided by them, through them doing research and learning, that I probably would have had different ideas of what I should be doing as a young adult or as a teenager.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:27
One day after my child. And so, you were a child who was not anchored to identity, and I want to touch on that a little bit because you know as we are in community, and particularly as we are talking about race, community, history, mental health, all of the things that are very topical right now, in terms of public discussion. One thing I don’t hear a lot about is how do we make sure that our kids have a positive self identity? And so you said that language and I’m wondering, how do you think that would have made a difference in your young life? Does that mean having exposure to people that look like you? Does it mean, having roots in where you came from? Does it mean understanding you as Nikki, woman, young girl? What does identity mean for you on your terms.
Nikki McComb 06:02
The elements that I missed the most, that I still, even to this day, is my roots to my culture. If I had been in my culture, I’d probably be Muslim.
Chanda Smith Baker 06:12
So I know that you’ve recently been able to connect with some of your biological family, how meaningful has that been for you?
Nikki McComb 06:24
Chanda Smith Baker 06:25
Nikki McComb 06:26
I have siblings who are 15 years younger than me, you know, 15, 14, 13 years younger than me, there’s three of them. And they each have expressed and explained to me, you know, how they were raised. And out of two boys and a girl in my culture, which is Egyptian Mali, culture, girls are sheltered, they’re not allowed to go out and do the things that boys do. When I talk to my little sister, because she’s my little sister, she tells me and I can see it, I see her not knowing about certain things, or even when she was at the exhibit. She said, I’ve never seen anything like this, I’ve never even been around something like this, I would have never known about anything like this, if it weren’t for you. She’s shared, you know how she was protected and sheltered in the home because my biological father was strict about that. The boys were the, they were, they went out and killed the prey and brought it home and they were boys, you know, girls are treated differently in in that culture.
Chanda Smith Baker 07:36
It’s really interesting to think about, people are often what we be reflective on what another experience might look like, or grieving something in their lives that they may not have had, right? Like, sometimes the grass is greener. But regardless of however you resonate with it, there’s always things that you can learn, right, when you sort of are able to reflect on what you have to what someone else has. And we often can do that in a family sense, like what you’ve been able to do. But it seems like it’s often harder to do when you’re talking about social issues, where how do you think about what someone else’s experience and what you haven’t experienced and how, by understanding it more deeply, you can understand yourself more deeply, you’re connected, we’re connected to each other. We met over the years, we’ve run into each other here and there. But then formally, you came to work at Pillsbury United communities.
Nikki McComb 08:29
So, I remember being, you know, obviously, we knew of each other because, you know, our kids were all in the same circles and community and you know, you were working in youth achievement. And still, even though you were director at a park, you were still working on violence prevention and violence prevention issues. So, and I was at a, I was at district 27, at Brend road, and I was just exhausted. I mean, I was exhausted from day in and day out, working with these young people that just, that I couldn’t, in that district, you can only touch them during the day. So you can only work with them, help them remove a barrier during a small period, and then they’re done. They’re gone. There’s nothing else you can do. And I wasn’t able to make a lot of the changes. I’ve seen you somewhere and when I saw you, you said oh, by the way, something something and I was like, “okay, I’m definitely looking at that.” And I looked at it and we ended up working there at Oak Park. And it was, it was super rewarding because Oak Park was like right in the center of the community, and it hadn’t been utilized the way that you wanted it to be utilized for quite a bit of time. And so I kind of just came in there and hit the ground running and I think a lot was done when I was there. I think under your leadership as the CEO of the organization. Some of the things that I was able to do there were really because of you.
Chanda Smith Baker 09:56
Let’s talk about that though. So a couple of things. One is when you say you just hit the ground running. You know I on this podcast and in these conversations, I’ve had many references to Tony Wagner. And I’m going to reference him again because he would always say, and he wrote a paper on this, that we began to over-professionalize community work. You know, when I hear that, and how you were talking about your former role of you can help people, but it’s between eight and two. But a lot of times the real work is after hours, it’s after the hours of organizations, it’s after the hours that schools are closed. And so you came in, and you were disruptive in a lot of ways. Because you saw a need, and you would go for it. And sometimes it would be within the compounds of a program. And sometimes it was not. Right? So let’s talk about that. Because I would be like, “Nik, you can’t do that.” You’re like, “Yeah, but like, this kid needs it. This family needs it, why can’t we do it?” And, you know, I think it’s important to have people like that in every organization.
Nikki McComb 11:01
I think that way. And so, you know, being there on a daily basis, and getting kids to come back through the building and working with families and working with the programs that were coming through Oak Park at that time to be at school and the state funded programs that were meant to serve families, the organization was taking on that role to do that. But then the funding program didn’t always give enough. So then me and the other people in Oak Park that were tasked to getting the job done, had to go outside of the job to get it done. So I did I definitely, Facebook, to be honest, was a huge help in some of the work that, there were times when somebody couldn’t pay their rent, and I went to Facebook and *doo-doo-doo-doo-doo* then rent was paid. It’s not traditional, but it worked. And then it became the buzz of what do you need? Go find Nikki at Oak Park, you need something? Yep, I can do it. I’m gonna find it. Which is probably a weakness of mine because I overextended myself a lot of times. And I never over promised but I did overextend. And that’s not always good to do.
Chanda Smith Baker 12:19
Well, I mean, it’s interesting that you framed it that way, or it’s the limitations of how the system works, right, that doesn’t allow you to fully serve people under the conditions. I’ve sat on all sides of this, right. And I’ve been committed of like, what new angle can I find, but it definitely was challenging on occasion. And so I laugh about it. And there was a lot of good work that was done. And what Tony would say is that when he came and started at Pillsbury United Communities, and it was Northside Neighborhood Services. Actually, I think when he started, he was very much like youth workers were people that worked with youth. And they went out onto the Avenue, and they would find young people and they were connected to resources. And sometimes those resources would be within those organizations. And sometimes those resources weren’t, but their job was to engage you. And it wasn’t like this list of what you can and can’t do, other than make sure that these kids, their time is occupied, they’re safe, and they’re headed in the right direction. And I think that’s what he meant with over-professionalizing the work that we’ve put so many restrictions that sometimes we’re unable to serve people fully and completely, or we’re serving a piece of them and not holistically, and I think you do come at it holistically. I think it’s an advantage that we both have in terms of bringing in what we know we needed to what we try to provide to others.
Nikki McComb 13:48
I remember there were many times where where I would see a small child, I don’t know six or seven parentless that literally just wanted to eat. And it’s so simple to feed a kid, you know?
Chanda Smith Baker 14:03
Yeah. I also remember there was a time where we were navigating funding restrictions and all kinds of things. And we only got paid for kids that had applications and registration. And so the kids that needed the most don’t come sometimes with parents that will come in and fill out paperwork. And so we navigated a tension there between how we served the community. Because the ones that really needed it were the ones that were roaming around. That didn’t have someone that was sort of looking after them. That would just show up while we’re doing programming inside, they’d be swinging in the yard, yep, on the play equipment.
Nikki McComb 14:44
And I think there was a few times where Mr. Ed and I actually walked to a person’s house just to see, just to SEE if we could get somebody that was a stakeholder in that child’s life to sign just so we could let them in the building at least to eat a meal.
Chanda Smith Baker 15:02
Yeah. Mr. Irwin?
Nikki McComb 15:04
Yep. Mr. Irwin, Mr. Ed. Yeah, that neighborhood
Chanda Smith Baker 15:08
because we know each other so well, we got
Nikki McComb 15:11
Mr. Irwin, Ed Irwin. Yes.
Chanda Smith Baker 15:14
So when I came into Pillsbury United Communities in 2011, and I have shared as well that my first week of being the CEO, my cousin Christopher Miller was killed. Christopher Calvin Miller
Nikki McComb 15:32
Chanda Smith Baker 15:33
May 11, 2011 was killed. And I was one weekend to being the CEO. And as I’ve described it, I was at a career high really, and a personal low in a way that I don’t believe I’ve ever really had to navigate. Probably until recently, when my mom passed away, and that even felt a little different in some respects. And so the community is celebrating and I just want to just not wake up, right? It’s sort of what I was feeling. And so there’s so much more that I can say and what I’ve learned about myself there, but fast forward to Cindy Kent and Chris Conlon reached out to me about an exhibit that they saw at the Aspen Institute that came from New Orleans, Jonathan Ferrara, they met at Aspen at the Action Forum. And they said, “Chanda, you know, like, I would love for you to bring this exhibit to the Twin Cities.”
Nikki McComb 16:40
And Shanda said, “Nikki, help me!”
Chanda Smith Baker 16:42
Help me figure this out. Because I was fascinated by it, but really actually motivated by personal reasons. Because I had been sitting in grief for five years, for four years at that moment. I think when it came, I couldn’t quite get to a place where I felt whole, right, like knowing that there was always going to be a hole, h-o-l-e in my heart, right? But I couldn’t, I didn’t feel whole with it with the W. And so I was thinking through this, and I’m like, well, maybe if I bring this, I can park this in some sort of way and feel like I’m making a little bit of a difference and elevate the issue around gun violence. And we decided to approach it a little bit different, which Jonathan lost his mind over. But eventually, he was convinced that it was the right thing to do. And we put some pieces inside of Pillsbury House and Theater. And I’m sharing this story, because in the story, we decided that we needed to take care of kids, because there was pieces that could be triggering, for lack of a better word. There were images of guns. Right? There was this big piece that sort of was an automatic weapon with this big half circle thing that came back with the idea that when you shoot, what goes around comes around, that was really what was embodied in this piece of artwork. And it was it was massive. And we sat it right when you came into Pillsbury House. And what happened out of it were these amazing stories of these kids that were coming in after school, and they were sharing how they had found a gun in a park. Or they knew where their parents had hid their guns, they had handled a weapon. And what we realized is that we weren’t having conversations despite the increase of gun violence, and accidental deaths, and suicides in our communities. We were not talking to our kids about guns, for instance, in the same way that we did around stranger danger or around sex education. And it was really illuminating for me. Gabby Giffords came to part of it. And I’m sharing a piece of this history and evolution because when we did the opening, and we were at Public Functionary was where the rest of it sat. It did more for me than what I thought it would do for me emotionally and it lit a fire under me in terms of what we should be doing around public safety.
Nikki McComb 19:22
Yeah, definitely. Weren’t you also, when all of this, when you entered Pillsbury, weren’t you also dealing with tornado?
Chanda Smith Baker 19:30
I was dealing with the tornado, the tornado hit two days after Chris’ funeral. I cannot really envision a harder way to enter into being a leader of an organization but I imagine mine is not the most challenging, right? There was just so, there’s so many components in this because I remember Nikki looking at when I got the role, like what happens when you’re leading an organization when you yourself are impacted by the things you’re trying to change.
Nikki McComb 20:01
Chanda Smith Baker 20:02
I could find nothing. I’m like, “Oh, I’m gonna write this! I’m gonna write this book.” Antonio Cardona, I used to tell him, “I got a book, I got the name of it. I’m gonna write about what I learned and what I needed during that time period.” But I remember at the public opening for that exhibit, Guns in the Hands of Artists, that we had been trying to do a gun buyback so that we could do something similar. And at the time, Betsy Hodges was the mayor. And at that event, she approved our gun buyback, I think it was an emotional decision, but thank God she did. And she did it in front of an audience and we were able to move forward and decommission artists, and then eventually it moved into Art is My Weapon.
Nikki McComb 20:51
Yes, it did. That was, uh, and in all actuality, I think that the buyback that was, that took place, if I remember correctly, I probably have maybe four pieces left from that original buyback, which, to me, speaks volume as to how far a few weapons taken off the street and decommissioned can go. And 11 volumes of Art is My Weapon has been executed.
Chanda Smith Baker 21:28
Wow. I remember when we did it. It seems so dumb now. But as soon as we said that, we were doing a gun buyback, I had a number of people that were calling my office, and they were not all friendly.
Nikki McComb 21:41
Chanda Smith Baker 21:42
And I had people that were actually leaving me voicemails of them firing off guns and a lot of very strange things that should have been more intimidating than they were. I’m sure it was because I was navigating so many other things that I just didn’t really feel afraid of whatever it was. The day that we did the gun buyback, remember the guy who pulled up in the pickup, he was buying the guns?
Nikki McComb 22:10
Now I wasn’t at that location. But you guys, I remember you guys calling me and saying and those guys show up. They show up. And it’s like, really?
Chanda Smith Baker 22:21
A little creepy.
Nikki McComb 22:22
Chanda Smith Baker 22:23
It is. One the one thing I also remember was the grandmother that showed up with the revolver in her purse. And she said that she was scared for her grandsons and would we buy the weapon that she found?
Nikki McComb 22:37
Didn’t you have to like go get gift cards just for her because weren’t we like,
Chanda Smith Baker 22:41
We had ran out of money. I went to the cash machine. I went to the cash machine can just took money out of my account, bought a gun and then gave it to the police there to decommission the weapon, she needed to pay a bill. To me this is how community works in sometimes you see it in formula, right, and reports but a lot of times it’s the things that happen between the bullet points that you agree to do. That is where the magic happens and where innovations occur. And so we did this gun buyback and I know for you all that are listening. Honestly, we’re going back and forth between 2011 and 2016 in the conversation. So this is around 2016. And we decommissioned those weapons and then gave them to artists. And the difference between guns in the hands of artists and this is that we gave them to anyone that had a desire to create. And so the original artists that came around, they keep reminding me because I remember them, there were people that someone lost someone because of a mass shooting.
Nikki McComb 23:51
A lot of the artists that are still, they had worked yesterday. Matter of fact, one of the original artists that witnessed the shooting when he was just a child, create—he and I created a piece together that was in that first exhibit that was a child. My part was a photo of a child sitting at a table with gun parts that he actually painted and put on this child’s table with teddy bears and so on and so forth. Painted the primary colors yellow, red, green, you know, the things that we want our kids to learn when they’re young to play with. These primary colors are the solid primary colors that children are supposed to play with when they’re toddlers and that’s how they learn their colors. And so he was just witnessed the shooting when he was young and and he has been a part of Art is My Weapon since you and I met with him before the exhibit went, even took place. John Schuerman is who I’m talking about. He and probably Shawn Garrison, who has been there from the very beginning, Mike Klein, Kyle Folcan, Betsy Alwin and Nini, there’s a lot of the artists that that had worked in this recent show, and they’ve had the same, George Roberts, who lives right, you know, homeless studios lives right in community. And you know, a lot of them have had work continuously. Most of the work, you know, they take it back and they preserve it. And then whenever the next exhibit comes around, you know, the work is available, but they also create new work. So, there’s artists that have been involved since since we laid those gazillion parts on the floor in the Pillsbury, in Oak Park, basement for them to sift through and choose something to create with. What does it mean to decommission a weapon? So it’s changed, when you organize the one—that you organize at Pillsbury, the decommissioning and deconstructing was maybe two parts. So a revolver might have been just cut into two parts inoperable, a rifle might— the stock might just be cut off and the trigger disengaged, a lot more whole pieces were left. Now after participating in receiving weapons from one in 2020, and one here just recently, they go down so far, that it’s almost dangerous to dig in the box. Because the metal, you know, there’s so many tiny little metal pieces. And when artists come and pick their weapons out, they their hands are black, because because there’s so much residue from the decommissioning.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:41
Are they doing that because there’s concern about people rebuilding the weapons or using parts or?
Nikki McComb 26:46
Rebuild concern, and sometimes when they’ve showed me pictures of sometimes when you open some of those weapons up and make them inoperable, there’s really sharp springs and pieces in there that we used to get. And they’d be like in a side bucket, they don’t include those anymore. So we’re getting small pieces of metal that came from one chunk, it’s very different, they also handle the decommissioning very differently than they did then.
Chanda Smith Baker 27:16
When, how do you—so I know that you’ve had a core group of artists, and we are really grateful for them, and bringing the art to us. But you’ve also had new artists that have come on board. So how do you find or how do they find you, the new artists?
Nikki McComb 27:33
It goes both ways. Sometimes they find me just by seeing a post or seeing something on the Art is My Weapon Facebook or Instagram. They might sometimes on the news, because of some of the programming that I’m doing in the schools, they’ll see it. But there are often times where I just straight out recruit for artists that are working in multiple mediums. And so it could be a recruit, or it could be they find me, I typically don’t turn anyone down, ever. Even if it’s a theatre artist, I try to figure out a way like, like Joe Davis, who was, you know, there, he’s done things before with Art is My Weapon. I just think that inclusion is important.
Chanda Smith Baker 28:13
We started Art is My Weapon, really it was a personal way for me to heal. When I was looking at the art, there was something that spoke to me, particularly a piece from the original show in New Orleans, I think it was called The Play. And it was in a box. And I could be making pieces of this up, but you can go find it, you know, for the listener, but the essence of it was this—is that when someone is shot or killed, it touches, you know, at least 200 people, then it spreads like a plague, right? So it’s every child that person went to school with that, remember as though he was in my class, you think about it. You know, it’s where the parents worked and they’re like, “oh, man, I’ve worked with their mother. I go to church with their grandmother. They used to be the kid on my school bus. That was my kid on my football team. He used to be in my dance class.” Like it hits and it moves and there’s a vibration of that pain that stretches out and gets more intense, the more proximate you are. It made me think of Christopher and how many people showed up in community to support our family and to acknowledge his life as he left this earth that he touched.
Nikki McComb 29:34
Chanda Smith Baker 29:35
And this is not something that we are not proximate to whether or not you are immediately proximate is one thing, but certainly we have seen or have the option to see live death on social media, with some of the police incidents we’ve had witnessed and watched. The news stories when there have been mass occurrences in our communities across the country. We have a pandemic related to violence, that has been longstanding. And some of us have been hit hard by that. What has Art is My Weapon done for you and the families that have been impacted by violence? Do you hear from them? Have you included them?
Nikki McComb 30:24
Absolutely, they are the reason that I honestly do any of this. The exhibits are, it started, as you know, the exhibits because, as you mentioned, starting it, because of a thing that personally affected you, I have not personally been affected by gun violence. But I, personally am moved by those affected by gun violence, because of the nature of my inner spirit, it just, I just, I needed to do something using the skills that I have, and the skills that I have are creativity and art, creating, cultivating and mobilizing, and so I really wanted families that I personally knew or that worked with closely on some other things that I was doing in community to understand and know that their voice should and needs to be heard. And I gave them outlets to do that, by involving them in also, these are people that would have never sat down and said, “Oh, I can make art,” you know, involving them in something where they had the opportunity to use their hands and their hearts and their minds together while talking about their loved one, to actually create something that they would in the end either have taken part in ownership of or that they would own themselves, or that would be on display for others to see them work through their pain in their coping. So whether or not it means working with a young person that violated probation, or had a gun charge and that’s why they were on probation, or had been shot, at risk to be shot, or whatever the case was. I invited those young people through community partners and corrections and in community organizations to work with me and Chicago Fire Arts Center to learn how to work with metals and build and talk about their experience with a weapon, whether it was as a perpetrator, a victim, or a survivor. And these are people—they were in the same room. So survivors and family members of victims got to hear from juveniles that may have been charged or may may be on probation, or whatever the case was. And they actually together—out of gun parts with the direction of Heather Doyle at Chicago Fire Art Center— built benches that are placed in different places in the community, that tell the stories of how these families and these people that worked on them were affected by gun violence. So there might be a bench that has six different people’s hands on it youth all the way up to a 60 year old woman. And it tells their story of their experience in building the bench. And it’s in its place in a space that’s open to community where if they desire they can go to my website and get a lock from partisan my weapon right whatever name on it, if they lose someone to gun violence, they can go hang it on the bench in one of the locations.
Chanda Smith Baker 33:33
Which you can find that on artismyweapon.org.
Nikki McComb 33:36
Chanda Smith Baker 33:37
When I transitioned out of Pillsbury United Communities, I don’t even know if you acknowledged that I was leaving being the CEO, what I think you said is “what are you gonna do with Artist is My Weapon?”
Nikki McComb 33:50
I did it after you left! I was like, “what—lady?”
Chanda Smith Baker 33:56
Never mind what you’re gonna do. But what about this, this body of work? What about this body of work? And so, I appreciate the origin story is important to me. Because whenever I think of Art is My Weapon, I see it as the way in which I’m honoring the life of my cousin. It felt deeply personal, but I was just part of the launch. You’ve led the growth. It’s yours. I just have a small piece of that history of taking what was guns in the hands of artists moving it through my pain and the energy of what was happening around me. The same weekend I was inspired, right, art is about inspiration and it inspired me to think about what does the chapter look like here? And then it moved under under you to its own thing. And you have taken and shepherded and you have grown it. And what you said is that there’s been now 11 exhibits across the city that has showcased work. What I remember as young as an artist is young, he’s 10 years old.
Nikki McComb 35:01
Chanda Smith Baker 35:01
Nikki McComb 35:02
Just turned 17.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:04
Nikki McComb 35:06
He just turned 17.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:08
And he had amazing work and perspective. And what I love about it is that it’s not just for those that see themselves as artists, it was it was for those that needed a creative outlet that can be along those that are indeed artists, right as a career, it spans generations. It spans neighborhoods, it spans the realities of what violence looks like whether or not it’s on the neighborhood block. Whether or not it was in someone’s home, whether or not it was someone who harmed themselves.
Nikki McComb 35:42
Chanda Smith Baker 35:43
And I think someone said it yesterday at the opening of the exhibit is that, you know, no matter how it happens, we all understand pain. We can all understand loss. And so you have a new exhibit that was supposed to take off and then the pandemic hit. But now it’s very excitedly Downtown at the Hennepin Library, do you want to say anything about that?
Nikki McComb 36:06
Yeah, I’m beyond grateful for—that the library have reached out they wanted to do it in 2020. And as you mentioned, pandemic hit, and then we were going to do it in ’21, and it just people just still weren’t safe enough. And ’22, same story. So ’23 came and the library called and said, “hey, it’s time.” And so Russell Johnson hands down like, normally this exhibit, I would have been there every day receiving artwork, organizing, coordinating, but due to a foot injury, I was not able to do that. But Russell Johnson, who is the Arts and Culture librarian, hands down, handled everything from communicating with the artists that I sent him to receiving the artwork to taking crazy calls for me after he was off, you know, to organizing and rallying people working with their PR person, Josh Yetman, you know, just put in a ton of work. Yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 37:08
What is the name of the exhibit?
Nikki McComb 37:10
It’s titled Unburden Yourself.
Chanda Smith Baker 37:12
Why that name?
Nikki McComb 37:13
So in 2020, through a partnership to do a gun buyback with Shiloh Temple and Wellspring Second Chance Center, the buyback was actually Unburden Yourself, get your weapon, bring it here, get rid of it, no questions asked.
Chanda Smith Baker 37:29
I like it. There’s so much symbolism to that, right, unburden yourself, get rid of the weapon. Unburden yourself in terms of holding grief is not a strategy.
Nikki McComb 37:40
Chanda Smith Baker 37:40
Right. It only increases your trauma, like how do you move it in community. And so we watched that happen yesterday, where you had how many artists?
Nikki McComb 37:51
The entire exhibit hosted 33 artists, the youngest was a 17 year old, who was the niece of one of the artists that’s been around for about four years, they came from Chicago, they come from Chicago every year, just to get their pieces, and then to work on their artwork, and then to come back for the exhibit. So it was her first exhibit, she was nervous and crying, and all of that, and I just kept reassuring her that she was doing something good. And her piece was like, spot on to what she, as a 17 year old, sees and relates to when it comes to gun violence in her community.
Chanda Smith Baker 38:31
There are some really powerful expressions, and people have varying reactions to it. I was there with my granddaughter, Nikai, and she wrote in the book, I don’t know if you saw it, but she wrote in the guestbook.
Nikki McComb 38:44
I haven’t seen the guestbook. But I was I wanted to be very intentional about asking you if she asked questions, or if she said anything to you.
Chanda Smith Baker 38:53
She did and what I found myself being was protective. So when you started talking, I moved into the corner, and I was sort of moving around and sort of trying to distract her a little bit because I didn’t know what she could hold or handle. And I sort of backed into a corner with no doors. So there was no way to really move around it. But I had asked her, I said, you know, “are you okay?” And she said, “this is an important conversation, and more kids should be having it.” And at first in the book, she said, Thank you, Nikai. And then she went back and you’ll see that she added some other language in there about what she felt, it wasn’t a lot, but she added more language in there. And it brought me back to what we did at Pillsbury House where we were having these conversations as though our children are not witness or they’re not thinking about them. And I even played that out a little bit yesterday, although there’s no real way for her to be removed from the public discussion, or reality of what this is in community or on television or on social media, or on the shows that she watches. That our young people are aware, it brought me back to those Pillsbury House young people that were so expressive in terms of how they felt and what were happening. And you had two other speakers for sure, that talked about finding a weapon, or being close to a shooting that impacted them in their childhood. And so, you know, from your experience for those parents and people working with kids, in community, would you have any insights that you would want to provide, in terms of how they should be thinking about the issue of safety and wellness and trauma?
Nikki McComb 40:39
Just like you mentioned, even when it comes to young people that are the age of Nikai—9,8,7—I feel protective. But I still think that having the conversations by asking them questions to gauge what they know, so then you know, what feels safe to say that can be a learning experience for them, and still give them information on a really soft, safe level, that might not traumatize them in that moment, so that they can avoid instances of guns that they might come across that that aren’t locked up. We don’t know what happens in every home, right? And so I think parents have to have the conversation, like us, you know, just like we’re having now but in a way, we know our kids, you knew, but you felt protective, right? You still wanted to protect, but you still had the ability to ask her questions to receive an answer.
Chanda Smith Baker 41:38
Yeah, no, I had my my older sons for sure. I remember them going to a session actually at the Fourth Precinct because I was one of those moms that like I wasn’t really down with toy guns, but water guns in the summer, Nerf guns outside, maybe. But I really wasn’t down with that. But I had them do a workshop that was held there to talk about the danger of toy guns, particularly those that look like real weapons and the danger of that. And I was very adamant about those things when they were little, almost ridiculously so. Richard Robinson, Jr. was there yesterday, he is a licensed and bonded security. He also teaches weapon safety here until I carry classes. And so the thing that struck me is that he is someone who sort of believes in your amendment, your rights, right to bear arms, yet, he understands the importance of safety. And as part of that conversation that I took from and that I guess we’re sort of winding around to is there a question that you should ask when your kids go to other people’s homes? And you know, do you have weapons? Are they locked up? I think he said you can go to his website and get free gun locks, is that correct?
Nikki McComb 42:59
You can go there and find links to get them yes, you shouldn’t be able to go to any, technically, Range or police department and get free gun locks.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:07
Free gun locks. So they are like if you’re gonna be a gun owner, be responsible, and make sure that we’re keeping them out of our young people’s hands, because anything can happen. And we’ve seen those things happen. So as we close Nikki, the exhibit at the the Hennepin library runs until May 27.
Nikki McComb 43:12
May 27. Yes.
Chanda Smith Baker 43:28
The hours of the library you will be having and featuring artists talks and have other presenters perhaps throughout the timeline of the exhibit. And so people then should go, again, to artismyweapon.org to find out more detail and then for the hours of the exhibit, they should go to the Hennepin County Library website?
Nikki McComb 43:47
Yes, both of those are correct. There will be an artist talk scheduled closer to the end date. It’ll be all over artismyweapon.org, Art is My Weapon Facebook, Friends of the Hennepin County Library, Facebook, and the Hennepin County Library website.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:03
And then for those that have an interest in learning more and if you’re an artist, I will direct you also to the artismyweapon.org website to just learn more about the organization and its vision for the artists, the artists are not paid, they just come in and do this work. And so the way that they do get paid is that their artwork gets purchased and if there are donations made to the artists and to the organization, is that correct?
Nikki McComb 44:32
That is correct. They they do not get paid unless it’s previously agreed upon, or the exhibit is asked to be somewhere and they offer a stipend, but it’s usually very minimal. So oftentimes, you know the only way for them to gain financially is to sell their work and Art is My Weapon does not take any percentage of their work. Art is My Weapon does not only curate exhibits, right, so we most recently, in the last, I’m gonna say three and a half years, have delivered trauma informed care workshops using art to specifically help young people in school settings and adults in settings where they’re working with young people that are—either come into the hospital setting or into their school setting to understand and learn how to use different artistic methods, whether it’s an artist that I’ve asked, that’s an abstract artist or a sculptor or dance theater, whatever, they’ll come in and teach a coping method for that audience to work through or cope with whatever traumatic experience they may have had it primarily is the target audience is primarily those affected by gun crimes and violent crimes. Oftentimes, there’s you know, I don’t say no, I don’t turn people away. I try to use the creativity as best I can to serve anyone who has been affected dramatically.
Souphak Kienitz 46:08
And that’s Nikki McCombs, and our host, Chanda Smith Baker. Before we go, we want to remind our listeners that the 2023 exhibition, volume 11. Unburden Yourself is now open at the Hennepin County Central Library Cargill Gallery. If you have the chance, we highly recommend checking it out before it closes on May 27. It’s a powerful exhibit that explores themes of healing, empowerment, and resilience through art. Thank you again for listening on Conversations with ChandaClose Transcript -
Nikki McComb’s 2016 public safety campaign titled #ENOUGH used art as a catalyst for change and social disruption. Taking on the unsolvable problem of illegal firearms, Nikki uses photographs and video to reach people from the street level to the legislative arena and to help provide communities an outlet where they feel safe enough to seek help, empowered enough to give help, provoked enough to work harder to unify, and unified enough to make change collectively through art.
For 18 years, Nikki has applied her artistic interests and skills to working relentlessly for youth and family achievement in North Minneapolis and surrounding communities. In addition to being an art educator, she is the owner of Art Is My Weapon, an organization whereby local artists select decommissioned guns to then create new work for display to engage the public, community leaders, organizations, elected officials, the media, etc. in respectful nonpartisan conversations around gun violence that ultimately lead to greater public awareness, conscientious community action, and responsible solutions to reducing gun violence. Art is My Weapon was featured at The Minnesota African American Heritage Museum in 2021.
Nikki has developed The Healing heART trauma-informed care program using art to serve those affected by gun violence as well as heART Equity, a diversity, equity, and inclusion training for medical and community professionals working with those affected by gun violence.