For the last three years, Kenda Zellner-Smith and her volunteers have been scouring Minneapolis’s streets and alleys, collecting discarded plywood boards used to shield neighborhood buildings during the protests following the murder of George Floyd. In all, Zellner-Smith’s Save the Boards organization has collected more than a thousand of these wooden panels now safely stored away as permanent reminders of those traumatic weeks in 2020.
On Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023, Zellner-Smith brought samples of her group’s extensive collection to the grounds of the Becketwood Cooperative for an outdoor exhibit as part of a day-long event, titled “Remember and Reflect: Street Art from the George Floyd Uprising.”
Zellner-Smith spoke to a group gathered on Becketwood’s front lawn about the origins of Save the Boards. “One day, I was driving through South Minneapolis and I happened to see a man discarding one of those boards,” she recalled.
“I remember asking him what was going to happen to it. When he told me the owner was probably going to auction it off, I felt anger welling up inside me. I couldn’t imagine someone profiting from George Floyd’s murder.”
Right then and there, Zellner-Smith decided that she needed to do something to keep the street art from the protests ending up on the scrap heap. The young activist went home and posted a photo of the board on Instagram, asking for help in saving others like it. The unexpected response to her post led to the creation of Save the Boards.
“People kept messaging me that they wanted to help,” she noted. Soon we had crews of people all over the city going out to collect the boards. “It was very gratifying to see the community coming together. A piece of me finally came back to reality after being in that dark place for so long after George Floyd’s murder,” she said.
Zellner-Smith said she didn’t have a long-range plan for Save the Boards when the organization was first created and she still doesn’t have one. “I don’t want to make a career of this effort. It is something that needs to happen. We may be custodians of the boards for now, but we don’t own them. No one owns them.”
Save the Board’s organizer goes on to say that the simple boards with a message scrawled on a piece of plywood are especially important to her. “They are not art with colorful flowers and butterflies so they are not going to be preserved. But they express the raw emotions of the protests more effectively them the colorful murals that get such wide attention.
“The boards don’t belong on the wide walls of a museum. They belong back in the community. The important thing is for us to use the boards, as we are doing today, to generate a dialogue about the issues raised by George Floyd’s death.
“You don’t have to see the big picture with these issues of social justice. You just need to keep picking up the pieces, and that is what I intend to keep doing.”
Lyn Pegg helped spearhead the Aug. 5 event as a representative of Becketwood’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “This was really a joint effort,” she said. “It brought our individual groups and committees at Becketwood together to handle planning, publicity and logistics for the event.
“We all felt this was something that Becketwood needed to do. Our cooperative is not a gated place for seniors. We are linked to the broader community around us. This event helped us strengthen those links.”