Laura Conrad Mandel

Be the Change: Using Art to Strengthen Community

Creative Team behind the Nature Nexus Tzedakah Box in the Be the Change Los Angeles Exhibit, 2023 (photo credit Doug Jenzen; used with persmission))

A conversation between social justice warrior Ruth Messinger and artist Caron Tabb in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a question: what does it look like to use public art to inspire and motivate social change?

The question blossomed into the Be the Change tzedakah inspired public art movement that has reached more than 60,000 viewers with the goal of sparking education and action towards justice. Since inception, 36 artists have created larger-than-life public art “tzedakah boxes” that share their vision for a more just world, directing viewers to action steps to make change through the art. With exhibits in Boston, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Orange County CA, and counting, almost 100 individual community groups across the US have participated in the Be the Change tzedakah inspired public art movement.

This impact has felt meaningful in many ways – but it’s in the dramatic rise of antisemitism in the US following October 7 that this movement feel even more critical. As we struggle to address and counter rising antisemitism across the country, Be the Change gives us the space to discuss antisemitism, racism, climate justice, and a host of other issues that weigh heavily on our world and communities. By creating a beautiful space that encourages critical thinking, Be the Change helps address the core issues that face our world right now. This movement is vibrant and growing because there aren’t enough resonant in-person public spaces for people to engage in civic dialogue. City after city we find this potential –

The Boston 2023 show had a successful three month showing in the iconic Fenway neighborhood, during which partners from ArtLab Everett, a community arts group, and administrators from the nearby school discovered the project. Art Coordinator for the city of Everett, Caroline DiCicco says, “It was like this project was made for us. We needed a way for our students to discuss important issues our community is facing and Be the Change couldn’t have been a more perfect way into conversations. It was a pretty monumental impact – not just for the kids, but for the teachers. It was amazing how every issue aligned perfectly in some way with their curricula!” A move to the park adjacent to Everett High School brought the show to students who would not otherwise have an opportunity to engage with art of this caliber and content – and exposed many of the students to Jewish culture or a Jewish person for the first time.

In Cincinnati, leaders of the ish Jewish cultural festival worked with Cincy Nice, a neighborhood organization on a mission to shift life in Cincinnati by adding more culture, more joy, more equity, and more creativity into everyday life. This shared passion for strengthening community connections across a Jewish and a civic organization made the process of creating this tzedakah box art an important tool through which the communities built the trust that is necessary to diminish hate and build stronger communities.

In Los Angeles, alumni of the Nature Nexus Institute collaborated with the Skirball Cultural Center to create an intricate “cabinet of curiosities” that highlighted the crucial biodiversity of the region. The students were proud to see their voices in this art prominently displayed in West Hollywood for three-months (see image above!), and for many, it was the first time they were exposed to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

And now, Jewish Community Foundation Orange County’s Weissman Arts in a first-time collaboration with the Skirball Cultural Center has brought a selection of the Los Angeles show, including the Nature Nexus box, to Orange County. The Skirball boxes will be complemented by four newly commissioned works, including one by illustrator and author Emily Bowen Cohen who’s addressing youth mental health, and brings the intersectionality of her Jewish Muscogee (Creek) Nation identities into the work. Bowen Cohen’s beautifully rendered box is paired with the Jewish Federation of Orange County and highlights their Teen Engagement & Wellness Initiative showing the importance supporting our youth. The Orange County version is on view through June 30, 2024. Visit the website to learn where you can see a box or check out programming.

From coast to coast, thousands of people have scanned QR codes associated with the art, driving them to leading activist organizations to learn more about the issues and to take specific and directed action steps.

In these hyper-divisive times, we need spaces to develop community connection, empathy, and understanding to create a more tolerant world. As project educator Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, President of Hebrew College says, “artists are the leaders we need in this moment.” And as Global Ambassador Rabbi Menachem Creditor says, “organizational alliances and connection building are crucial now more than ever. Hate is hate – and Be the Change is a beautiful way for us to come together, and to begin to build trust…”

The project started with Ruth Messinger’s wisdom, so I close with her wisdom: “Be the Change is the movement we need for these times, a coordinated effort to advocate for a better world, to seek justice, and to do so by following the lead of artists.”

About the Author
Laura Conrad Mandel is an artist, entrepreneur, mom, and founding Executive Director of Boston’s Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts). She currently serves as Chair of the Board of the Council of American Jewish Museums and as co-chair of the Boston Lyric Stage Advisory Council.
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