Creating a Healthy Community Arts and Music Initiative in Columbus, GA

Introduction

With the goal of finding a local healthy arts and music community initiative, I went looking for local programs because there has been at least one in every city I have lived, and because I am personally more interested in and committed to music than most other cultural activities.  Unfortunately, I was not able to find an arts and music-centered community-based organization.  There are less than a handful of non-profits, like the Springer Arts House for drama and musical theatre as well as the River Arts Center for traveling musical acts.  There are commercial chain businesses that specialize in music instruction, whether they be audio production or music instruction, and there is a music program in every public school in the local city and county.  However, there are no community organizations focusing on alternative (read: non-mainstream) arts and music.  Such an initiative should focus on the community that is not served by the conventional.  It would serve political minorities and youth interested in artistic and musical self-expression that no outlet other than the above, outside of public schools, offers.  Unfortunately, even the public schools are focused on conventional musical expression.  That isn’t enough.

How would I create a healthy communities’ arts and music initiative?  It could not be a one-person effort.  It would require the efforts of a myriad of individuals, neighborhood groups, community groups, some local government participation and even some local businesses.  Accordingly, this paper will be organized into the following sections:   Determining health indicators, specific steps, people that should be involved, and what information will be needed prior to beginning such an initiative.  While there are exceptional community toolkits available, some that I will consult for supporting ideas, the bulk of this healthy community arts and music initiative will be supported by the real-world asset analysis of Kretzmann & McKnight (1993) to conduct an asset-based assessment, rather than a needs assessments.  Specifically, it is necessary to determine what is already available in the community, rather than operate from a disadvantaged viewpoint of what is needed and already lacking.

Determining Health Indicators

Determining health indicators is a process of assessing community leadership, key businesses, and residents through observations, analysis, and queries of key individuals.  Without the space to evaluate every health indicator, I will only include the most necessary and logical.  Pertinent health indicators would include basic health needs (food, shelter, clean and safe water, education, safe environments), the residents’ degree of commitment to civic and associational life, the richness of the cultural life of the community (artistic, creative, and innovative elements), and the degree of equity and inequity in the community (Hancock & Minkler, 2012).

Are these needs being met?  After living here since April 2016, I have observed and noted a variety of details.  While basic health needs are at least minimally met, and food, shelter, water, education, and safe environments are present, that is hardly the measurement for a thriving city culture.  Neighborhoods may not be technically racially segregated, but they are economically segregated, and so are services such as education, food access, and safe environments.  Neighborhoods are both collective and isolated. Some residents communicate and others don’t.  Based on conversations with a few city residents, unless there seems to be a key issue that they are concerned with, there is little commitment to civic and associational life by most residents.  For city elites, there seems to be a different commitment.  While their participation is necessary to this initiative, they are not central.

The richness of cultural life also seems to be tied to domination by elites and those elites seem to ignore the remaining population outside of their immediate circle.  There is a historic theatre space, a civic center, a performing arts center, several museums devoted to the military, and a handful of mainstream art spaces. There is no record store, and for at least a decade there has been no alternative live music venue until a new multi-use space, the Estate, opened in September as an alternative music venue.  It is this space that shows promise and one that I hope to collaborate with.

What Specific Steps Should Be Taken?

The creation of a healthy arts and music communities’ initiative will require evaluating a wide range of community assets (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).  It would be wise to begin surveying the capacities and strengths of the community’s individuals,’ associations, local institutions, and possible local government liaisons. I would start with those in my immediate circle, the individuals who seem disenfranchised by the lack of cultural activities that speak to their needs.  I would branch out to the groups and individuals that utilize the Estate to discuss their skills, their assets, and their aspirations and to build relationships.  While I have a concept of what would be ideal, this isn’t my sole vision and others would have leading roles in community mobilizing.  They would be collaborating with me to reach and organize the wider community’s assets to share information and maximize them economically since I am a new resident and they are lifelong citizens.  After mobilizing and gathering the most broadly representative community for this project, it will be necessary to organize activities, investment, and resources inside as well as outside of the community to support a broad asset-based locally defined development of this arts and music initiative.

However, I don’t intend to create this organization from scratch.  There are already fine examples of nonprofit organizations that we could model this initiative, based on the specific needs of the local community, after the arts- and service-centered WonderRoot in Atlanta (wonderroot.org) and ABC No Rio in New York City (abcnorio.org).  In the case of WonderRoot, they are aligned with several local, regional, and national arts nonprofit organizations. Being local to Georgia makes them ideal but it is also a much larger community.  ABC No Rio is more of an anti-authoritarian arts collective, surviving most of their history on donations from individual supporters locally, nationally, and internationally.  They have recently begun to rely on additional sources of funding, but they have stayed true to their anti-authoritarian roots.  It is ABC No Rio’s challenged history that makes them ideal for comparison study; given that Columbus’ elite has a history of not supporting alternative ideas, especially art and music.  Presenting such an initiative to city elites and the local government will be a challenging, but not impossible, process.

Contacting WonderRoot and ABC No Rio and researching their successes will be the next step, part of the background research to find parallels to their success and how to apply them to this initiative.  It may involve scheduling time to visit Atlanta and New York City to discuss the ideas planned for this initiative and explore their facilities, discuss their challenges and successes, as well as their initial planning process to determine what worked and what didn’t.  They may also act as spiritual advisors during the process, and there may be several trips during the planning stages as well as trips to similar initiatives in other cities.  Contacting and planning exploratory visits with WonderRoot and ABC No Rio will not be the end of the planning that must accompany the successful completion of this initiative.  (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993) include plans for mapping the capacities of individuals, groups, associations, institutions (from public to private to economic), fundraising, and putting it all together successfully.  There isn’t enough room here to include all of their available asset building and analysis tools, but for this initiative it is a primary resource.  There are also additional virtual tool kits available, including the Community Tool Box (Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2016) that will be utilized if I am able to implement this initiative.

Who Should Be Involved?

The first people that should be involved are obviously the people directly and personally affected by such an initiative, the children, the youth, the parents, fine artists and musical artists, the Black community, other peoples of color, the parents of children and youth, and youth and children themselves.  They should all be directly engaged in the process.  After preliminary research and assets assessments of affected populations, the mayor, Teresa Tomlinson, would be the next point of contact.  Because she is primarily interested in local culture to generate tourism dollars, she would be the obvious first person to consult.  Columbus is a former industrial town, a current military city (and the largest employer), and it retains its conventional tastes, though the tourists may not share those conventional tastes and interests and neither do those citizens existing outside of the conventional elite.  To determine what city initiatives and funding may be in place to facilitate this project, the mayor is ideal for a few reasons, and after meeting, maybe several more.  Politically, she would be able to help promote the initiative to local and external tourism boards, initiate meetings with conventional arts and music organizations and city elites.  She would be able to help further the idea of our initiative that we want to work with current arts and music organizations and elites rather than against them to begin a revitalization of Columbus as an Arts and Music city instead of a Military town with a few arts and music attractions.

There are local businesses that will either be logical partners or ideal for collaborations during the creation of our alternative music and arts initiative.  In fact, with disparate individuals, groups, and businesses involved, the initiative may logically begin on small scale as a cooperative while gathering support, ideas, information, and surveys from the affected population.  Two businesses are ideal, and gathering places for local alternative artists and musicians, the Estate, the alternative music venue, and Fountain City Coffee located downtown.  Consulting with the owners to explore ideas, explain the initiative and brainstorm ideas for other possible businesses that would make for ideal collaborators.  In fact, the Estate may make an ideal meeting space until another space is found.

It is precisely during the exploration of ideal collaborators within and without the city, that the tools for mapping of assets, available in Kretzmann & McKnight (1993) and the Community Tool Box (Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2016) should be used to determine the strengths and resources of everyone involved.  While this initiative is for city citizens that have no outlet for creative expression and seem to be neglected and ignored by city elites, this initiative is not meant to exclude anyone.  In fact, the exploration of these skills is meant to determine the natural wealth that the community possess.  While some fundraising may be necessary, it is the wealth within the citizens, whether local, government, business or elite, that will make the difference between failure and success.  Instead of assessing needs, administering band-aids, we are assessing skills, assets, and resources and solutions to create a vital organization that contributes to the vitality of the community.

What Information Is Necessary to Begin?

It will be necessary to gather information throughout the process to continuously assess progress, challenges, and issues as well as gather feedback from individual, group, and associational participants.  Kretzmann & McKnight (1993) and Work Group for Community Health and Development (2016) are ideal.  Additional resources may be consulted, including Homan’s (2012) Checklist for Action that includes the practical necessities of determining ideal collaborators, responses, the best way to approach them, what actions are necessary now to result in productive development later, and how to assess the effectiveness of an approach to refine future actions.

It will also be necessary to completely map community issues as well as the capacities and assets of individuals, associations, and local institutions (Kirschenbaum & Corburn, 2012; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).  Such a map will reveal the key players in the process and begin the building of relationships through the mobilization of individual capacities, “gifts,” skills and expertise of marginalized individuals, and the community’s physical assets.  It will also be necessary to determine who the capacity finders and developers are, those individuals who can see strengths and capacities rather than needs and a lack of resources.  They will be the community allies that can help mobilize assets for economic development and assist the initiative in gathering the largest possible representative group to build the initiative’s vision as optimistically and practically as possible.  Once these capacities have begun to be mapped, leveraging of resources can begin, and activities and investments, public, private, and non-profit resources can be accessed to strengthen an already mobilized initiative that has begun to move forward.

Another possible resource to assess what information is necessary to begin is the Community Tool Box.  It is quite detailed and includes several tool kits within that can be used to determine the most effective means necessary to accomplish the goals within a community initiative (Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2016).  These tool kits, in broad strokes, include creating and maintaining partnerships, assessing community needs and resources, analyzing problems and goals, developing a model of change, building leadership, writing funding grant applications, and improving organizational management and development.  The assessing community needs and resources tool kit, of particular interest to the launching of this initiative, offers an outline of beneficial assessment questions from describing the makeup and history of the community to provide a context for data collection and current community issues to describing the barriers and resources for addressing those issues, how they can be minimized, and how those resources can be accessed to address those issues.

Conclusion

While this exploration is not exhaustive, it marks the beginnings I would take to create a healthy arts and music community initiative in Columbus, GA.  Admittedly, the historical record of official and mainstream support of alternative creative arts and music is not strong in Columbus.  Historical creatives that hail from here eventually left and some current creative contacts are contemplating a move to a more creative and larger city.  But that still leaves the creative individuals and groups that remain that are not being served by the city at large.  While I would ideally like to begin and implement such an imitative that takes no more than a week or a month, I know that isn’t practical; given the history of Columbus and its current state.  A thorough exploration of the city’s health indicators, who should be involved and what information will be needed to move forward will be necessary to the initiative’s success.  In addition to ABC No Rio and WonderRoot, our model initiatives, there are similar-sized creative cities, Thomasville, Georgia and Asheville, North Carolina, that can act as model cities for a new city initiative once an arts and music initiative is successfully implemented.  There are also additional program initiatives that should be explored, including community educational initiatives that teach alternative musical histories of the drum, guitar, banjo, and other instruments.  In the meantime, there is work to be done to get there.

References

Hancock, T., & Minkler, M. (2012). Community health assessment or healthy community assessment: Whose community? Whose health? Whose assessment? In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community organizing and community building for health and welfare. (pp. 153-170). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Homan, M. S. (2012). A Checklist for Action. In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community organizing and community building for health and welfare. (pp. 444-448). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kirschenbaum, J., & Corburn, J. (2012). Community Mapping and Digital Technology: Tools for Organizers. In M. Minkler (Ed.), Community organizing and community building for health and welfare. (pp. 444-448). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kretzmann, J. P., & McKnight, J. L. (1993). Building communities from the inside out. Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications.

Work Group for Community Health and Development. (2016). The Community Tool Box. Retrieved from http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents

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