Laci Jordan was always a very serious student. When the time came to choose a career path, she decided to study criminal justice. But she soon found that her calling was not in law enforcement, but art. Host Ashley C. Ford interviews Laci about her journey from interning at the FBI, to using her art to envision a world free of police brutality.
Read Episode 10 Full Transcript Below
ASHLEY [VO]: Hi, I’m Ashley C. Ford. And this is Into The Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s podcast about joy and justice produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.
ASHLEY [VO]: In 2018, The Lancet published a study that investigated what it called “spillover effects” of police violence against unarmed Black people.
They wanted to know if and how high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police affected the mental health of other Black Americans. Not just the families and communities of the people killed, but Black Americans generally.
And what they found was that police killings were the reported cause of a cumulative 55 million poor mental health days. In other words, the people surveyed said that yeah, news of these deaths caused feelings of anxiety or depression. Sometimes for days, weeks, or even months.
It’s not exactly surprising, since researchers for decades have noted that if you’re Black in America, you’re statistically much more likely to have encounters with police, and almost 3 times more likely to be killed by police than if you were white.
This isn’t new information to Black Americans; the knowledge that you could be stopped, arrested or possibly killed by police is a fact of our existence. It weighs you down, inhibits your movement and expression.
[MUX RING OUT]
What’s changed is that now, more than ever, the majority of Americans want police reform.
MUX (switch mood)
A recent poll found that in the wake George Floyd’s murder and the months of protests that followed, 50% of Americans support major police reform, and another 39% want at least minor changes to curb police brutality. And in 2021, Representative Cori Bush of Missouri introduced the People’s Response Act to the House of Representatives. If passed, the People’s Response Act would study alternatives to policing and fund things like non-carceral first responders and trauma-informed infrastructure. Which could mean fewer encounters with police, fewer arrests, and ultimately systems that don’t treat Black and brown Americans as criminals by default.
Ben & Jerry’s as a company has long-advocated for racial justice and has been vocal regarding the need to reform our systems of policing and public safety since 2016. They recognized that if we wanted to create safer communities, we needed to rethink some of our systems from the ground up. So naturally, when Representative Bush introduced the People’s Response Act in 2021, Ben & Jerry’s wanted to lend their support.
To bring awareness to the issue they developed a flavor called “Change is Brewing”, and set out to find the right artist to design the pint. They needed someone with the talent and perspective to visualize what a world would look and feel like for Black Americans free from the threat of over-policing. Someone with experience with the justice system who could take an abstract concept like “freedom” and make it visual. And luckily, they found her.
LACI: I just wanted to create like a, a joyous utopia for just black people, living their life, having a good time and not to worry.
And I, the crazy thing is I was like, it would be a normal world, but what’s not, what’s normal for other people, not for us.
ASHLEY [VO]: Laci Jordan is a multimedia artist and designer, but she didn’t plan it that way. Unlike many of her peers, she wasn’t one of those kids that dreamed of becoming an artist. That wasn’t even on her radar.
ASHLEY: Describe young Laci Jordan. Like what were you like as a kid?
LACI: Um, young Laci was more, very reserved, uh, very shy in a sense. I was just super quiet and I would just look at a lot of stuff and research a lot of things.
LACI: Like, I’m the friend where if you need me to snoop on something for your boyfriend, I can find out everything in like 30 minutes. 30 minutes. I can tell you who he was with, what car he was in, where they were at. Like, I’ve always been that person though. [laughter]
I come from a family, and especially like with my mom where it was like, yo, you not making any C’s. If you, in these extracurricular activities, you’re gonna be the best.
LACI: But then on the flip side, from just, like, my community and my family, I’ve seen a lot of people go in and out the system.
ASHLEY [VO]: When Laci was still a kid, her older brother went to prison for a minor drug charge.
LACI: But it’s interesting, cuz thinking about some of my first, uh, encounters with art, one of my brothers, he, he went, he went to jail for something that was like ridiculous. And he used to send me letters where he would draw over the envelope and I would respond and I would draw over the envelope and so that was just like our way of like communicating with one another.
Um, I don’t think I had freedom as a child. I, I, I don’t, I don’t. And that’s why I think that it took me so long to tap into the fact that I am creative. When I look at my childhood, it was, it was definitely more strict, more tight knit, but it, it, it didn’t necessarily feel free. Now that I look back at it as an adult, it wasn’t bad, um, at all, but it, it wasn’t like just this area where I felt like I was expressing myself.
ASHLEY: Do you have any experiences or perspectives on police presence in black communities specifically? Because I feel like there’s always going to be a tension there.
[SFX - Licensed through SoundQ]
[AMBIENT MUX - Piano/Bass]
LACI: I remember one day I was on my way to my grandmother’s house. And at this point I was in high school and I was driving and the police officer, uh, put his lights on, like, as I was pulling into the, into the street. And I was like, yo, I’m about to just keep going to my grandma house. Cause like I got, I just gotta go down a little bit more and turn into the driveway because, and it’s crazy cuz I remember this clear as day. I remember thinking that if you gonna shoot me, you gonna have to do it at my house. Like
LACI: Somebody gonna have to come outside and see this, which is crazy because I’m like, dang, I was in high school, like.
LACI: High school. And I literally pulled into the driveway and was like, I mean I’m at home now. So like, luckily my family was able to come outside and be like, what you, what you doing to my child?
Even moments like that. I could just recall like, dang, like this is messed up. Like and I don’t think I knew how to communicate it, but it was just like, people need justice and help. And I feel like I had the balls to be in that profession where I was just like, yo, I’m a little tough. Like I said, I have all brothers. I’m rough around the edges. Like, I’ll fight. Like, I’ll do all these things. And so, um, That’s sort of what led me down that path.
ASHLEY [VO]: After the break, we’ll hear about Laci’s journey — from a straight-laced, by-the-book, FBI-bound college student — to a multimedia artist who envisions a world without police violence. Don’t go anywhere.
ASHLEY [VO]: After graduating from high school in Huntsville Alabama, Laci Jordan enrolled at the University of Alabama. She had always done well in school, and figured she might want to be a lawyer or maybe a criminal investigator someday.
ASHLEY: So you decided to pursue a degree in criminal justice. Describe what you were learning in college about the justice system. Like what were you learning that you found interesting and, and surprising or challenging?
LACI: The best way to sum it up is I learned how deeply rooted in racism and injustice the system is.
You’re in these rooms. Um, you’re, you’re listening to the things the teachers are saying and their opinions on things. You’re looking at the room and seeing how people are in agreeance of things. Where it’s like, “no, I think this person, an eighth of weed person should be locked up for life.”
I just remember moments where I would challenge people. And you could just tell that they didn’t even really think that thought all the way. It was just something inherently that came from like their parents of things that they deemed as wrong or whatever.
And I’m like, yo, this is, this is way deeper than I thought.
ASHLEY [VO]: By the time Laci started to seriously reconsider her path, she was already approaching graduation. In fact, she’d accidentally been on track to graduate early, thanks to a ton of AP credits. Her academic success led her to THE internship for criminal justice students: The F-B-I.
[MUX (FBI FUNKY FUNK!!)
LACI: During my internship, I did, I did a lot of different things from like, answering the phones cuz people call the FBI all the time and you know, make threats or I mean, and 99% of it is like, BS, but you have like the one drunk guy that calls like every Thursday and it’s like, I’m gonna, whatever that he’s like really not gonna do.
So I started there and I went into different areas like surveillance, which is literally somebody sitting in a car for hours and days at a time looking at a subject. Um, which I, a lot of people that do that live a very lonely life.
And that was something that stuck out to me of a lot of people who I interacted with didn’t seem to have good personal lives.
And It was just, it felt very like, limiting.
ASHLEY [VO]: Laci had always had a pretty specific idea of the kind of life she wanted for herself, which was tied to a very conventional type of success. But her internship with the FBI really solidified for her that wasn’t the right fit.
LACI: I needed to have that experience and that education if for nothing else, because it taught me how to stand up for myself and it taught me how to stand up for people. Like if, if I’m go in a grocery store and I see somebody like getting bullied, it just, it taught me how to speak up because remember childhood Laci was very like quiet and not really saying nothing.
And so I think what, what criminal justice taught me, was that in order for me. to feel like I am in a area where I can like serve, especially when it comes to areas of justice, that I have to speak up.
ASHLEY [VO]: Laci’s internship with the FBI concluded without incident, save for one moment. She was working with an agent to create a floorplan for an upcoming sting.
Turned out that Laci was familiar with the software the agent was using; it was a graphic design program she and her roommates had played around with. Using it again now clicked something in her.
When the time came to decide whether she’d stay on the path to graduate early, Laci, still enamored by the design software she’d used to make floor plans for sting operations, wanted any excuse to get to play with that software again. She decided to pause, and signed up for an art elective.
LACI: like this clothing, textile design course…
ASHLEY [VO]: And another.
LACI: like studio classes where you’re like building things hands on…
ASHLEY [VO]: And another.
LACI: like a photography class or so...
ASHLEY [VO]: By the time Laci did graduate in 2011, she had two degrees: criminal justice, and digital media.
[MUX (RING OUT)]
ASHLEY: So what was your earliest design work like?
LACI: It was stuff that was rooted in a sense of play and freedom. And when I look at my work now, its rooted in a lot of like the colors are, are things that are very like playful and like bold. And tying this together in real time. I think it goes back to that original thought of not feeling that freedom necessarily as a child. And so now I’m able to express things in, in different ways.
ASHLEY [VO]: To me, I look at Laci’s art and I see work that is bold, colorful, and unapologetically Black. The palette is bright; she often uses yellows, pinks, and oranges in unlined, color-blocked shapes. Her portraits are declarative and quietly defiant. Like the one of the Black girl with space buns and cherry red sunglasses with a lit blunt in her mouth. Or the one of a Black girl wearing braids and a bright red bikini, looking over a beautiful ocean view speckled with sailboats, surveying her kingdom. Laci often creates portraits of women peeping over their sunglasses, giving you a look like ‘alright, my earbuds are out, you’ve just interrupted my favorite song so this had better be good’. Be sure to check out our show notes for links to Laci’s work so you can see what I mean.
Laci just has a knack for elevating the mundane and making it look magical.
[AMBIENT MUX - by Chris Mann]
But art often reflects life. Sometimes Laci’s art is an outlet for sorrow, and outrage.
ASHLEY: Do you remember first making visual art in response to injustice?
LACI: I don’t know if this is the first one, but it’s the first one that I thought of was, uh, like a illustration I did of a white man holding a gun.
And I think it was like, “stop killing us” or something.
And I think that was the beginning of merging the criminal justice background to art.
ASHLEY [VO]: This was in 2016, after 37 year old Alton Sterling, known to his community in Baton Rouge, Louisiana as “CD man”, was shot to death by officers. They claimed he was wielding a gun while resisting arrest. In response, hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Baton Rouge chanting “stop killing us”. And a few days later, Laci posted a piece of art to her instagram with the same caption.
Laci, like me, and so many Black Americans, felt the spillover effect of Alton Sterling’s death, and others.
And then there was Breonna.
LACI: I remember crying while doing that because I was just like, to be honest, I was just tired. I mean, I’m still tired, but like, especially in 2020, everything that was going on around that time, it was just like, I wanna, I wanna create a picture of her that to me feels beautiful.
ASHLEY [VO]: Laci’s portrait of Breonna Taylor went viral in 2020, reaching millions of people on Instagram. If you were online at that time, there’s a good chance you saw it. It’s an illustration of Breonna’s face in a slight profile, her hair coiffed and expression inscrutable. The backdrop is bright pink and Breonna is flanked by beautiful, vibrant flowers. At the top of the portrait are the words “Say her name”, which became a slogan associated with her death.
It was through that portrait that Ben & Jerry’s found Laci’s work. The company had been in the process of developing their new flavor, “Change is Brewing” to support Representative Cori Bush’s legislation to fund alternatives to police on a national level. In order to get the message out, they needed a pint design that was not only eye-catching, but meaningful. So they reached out to Laci.
ASHLEY: So when a company like Ben & Jerry’s reaches out to you to design their “Change is Brewing” pint, I know that the prompt that they came to you with was “create a world where black communities feel safe and free, where the community is invested in and not over-policed,” which to me is like, oh, utopia, [laughter] And then I’m like, I it’s almost like my imagination stops. Like I’m like, it is so hard for me to imagine that kind of freedom and you turn it into something visual. You give people the opportunity to see what oppression has limited their ability to imagine. How does that feel? What does that feel like?
[FX - Busy restaurant and city noises - feet walking on pavement]
LACI: You know, again, going to the idea of utopia of like, if I was just to go outside and not have to worry about turning my music down, when the police rolled up next to me or whatever it is, like, how would that look?
Like, I just imagine going and like walking down the street, sort of like in a park, like Dr. Suess style, where it’s like, you see a person like taking a picture of their daughter running, like living her best life, not worried about the things that are going on in the world. You see a like, mother and son who are just like having an intimate conversation, you see a couple just embracing and just feeling love. And I think the main words that I could think of are like love and freedom.
LACI: I said this in an interview when we, when Ben and Jerry’s released the, the first pint, which was like, “I’m no like Laci Luther king”, like, and I, I stand by that. I’m not, I’m not gonna debate you down on stuff because I end up saying something wrong or like just something like, just crazy. [laughter]
I have learned that I can express myself through my art and I always quote Nina Simone, where it’s like, it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.
I wanna create things that are rooted in like joy and rooted in like how I want the world to look, um, and sort of a form of like escapism, which that can be good or bad, but like, we, listen, we need escape. We need it.
ASHLEY: I love that. Laci, thank you so much for your time. And for this conversation, it’s been amazing. Getting to do this.
LACI: Now this is, this was the best, um, like interview slash podcast. I’ve done in a very long time. You made me think about a lot of stuff internally where I’m like, whew, this is, this was good. I needed this.
ASHLEY: [laughter] You made my day
ASHLEY [VO]: Laci collaborated with Ben and Jerry’s for a second time, this time on behalf of voting rights. To learn more and take action at Ben & Jerry’s voter resource center at action dot Ben Jerry dot com slash vote. And keep your eyes peeled for the reissue of “Change is Brewing” featuring more of Laci Jordan’s original art.
ASHLEY [VO]: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and A-B-F Creative.
This episode was written by Bethany Denton, with production help from Ken Miles.
The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Bethany Denton, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.
The team from A-B-F Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia [Bi-seg-lee-ah]. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann, original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions. [SFX licensed from SOUNDQ and Epidemic Sound]
The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.
I’m Ashley C Ford. Thank you for listening.