After the killing of George Floyd, Amelia Brown started a petition to declare racism a public health emergency. She also seeded art.
In just six days, she collected 153 art boxes, filled with paper, paint and handmade pieces, handing them out to children. Each box came with a note: "Art helps us connect," it said, in part. "Art helps us heal.
"Art helps us stand together and fight for justice."
Brown believed that. No matter the crisis — a hurricane, a pandemic, a police killing — she believed that art was the key to responding with force and compassion, knitting together communities and lifting voices not often heard.
The founder of Emergency Arts, Brown died of a heart attack Jan. 16. She was 41.
"Our city and community lost a true beam of light," Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison wrote. "Amelia Brown worked at the city [in the office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy] but she offered so much more than her work — one of those rare personalities that lifted the spirits of any room."
Growing up in White Bear Lake, Brown was always learning, always laughing, said her mother, Anna Rabbers-Brown. She advocated for her parents, who are deaf, navigating a world designed for people who hear.
"She had to become very fierce very fast," said Brown's partner Nicholas Pawlowski.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she served with AmeriCorps, joined the WorldSmart Leadership Program and traveled the world — to New Zealand, India, Japan and elsewhere — immersing herself in community and culling lessons from each place she landed.
"She left things better than she found them," her brother, Lambert Brown, said. "She had the ability to do that wherever she went.
"She did that across the nation and across the world."
During her years in New Orleans, she witnessed how the arts helped rebuild after Hurricane Katrina — how music or a mural could aid a neighborhood's recovery, crossing generations and language barriers.
"Serving in New Orleans helped me develop a deeper understanding that emergencies can lead to opportunities," she wrote in an essay published by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. "One of the most precious opportunities is to rebuild community with people gathered around an emergency who were once strangers and become family."
Brown designed her own master's degree from the University of Minnesota, mixing arts, emergency management and community development. She founded Emergency Arts, consulting with groups across the world. That business became "the living embodiment of her way," filmmaker D.A. Bullock said, "healing, deep, resonating soul work."
Brown was a program manager with the city of Minneapolis and a board member with Springboard for the Arts. She shaped the nonprofit's emergency relief fund, which became even more vital last year.
George Floyd's death at the hands of police further galvanized Brown's work against racism, which she called "a human-caused, chronic, systemic intersectional emergency with acute shocks." Her petition, which drew thousands of signatures, helped lead to the City Council declaring racism a public health emergency.
Artists are on the front lines of two crises — the COVID pandemic and systemic racism, she told the Pioneer Press in June. "So many artists are transforming our city right now. We need the infrastructure to support them."
At a celebration of her life, City Council Member Andrea Jenkins read "The Hill We Climb," the poem Amanda Gorman recited at the inauguration Jan. 20. It had been a day Brown had looked forward to, but never saw.
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • Twitter: @ByJenna