The Kennedy Arts Center: A How To in Grass Roots Community Building
Many people know about the Kennedy Arts Center. Around since 2004, granted money by the City to help get it started, and providing art classes in a beautiful house on Montgomery Road, the Center is a visible success story for the “arts as engagement” movement. But understanding how an old home healed a neighborhood will provide a master course in grass roots community building. Let’s look at a timeline of lessons any citizen activist can take from this story.
Flexible Purpose Builds Movements
Simon Sinek has shown that “the why” of any personal, business or community project drives ultimate success. If you have a powerful “why”, people will buy your product or volunteer for a community project. In Kennedy Heights, the initial “why” had nothing to do with art—a small group of residents just wanted to save a beautiful old building on Montgomery Road (and prevent a self-storage facility from being built).
As this group networked to build support for purchasing the project, they quickly saw a community need that the house could meet—there were no recreation or community centers in Kennedy Heights. When a small group of artists got connected to the project, the idea of a community arts center emerged.
Many projects die before becoming a movement because leadership doesn’t adjust their “why” to inspire enough other people. In Kennedy Heights, they not only followed the needs of the community, but the gifts of new volunteers who joined the movement. This kind of flexibility allows a project to become a broader movement because 1) people support what they co-create, and 2) no one individual or group knows the perfect answer. Simply, there is latent wisdom in any community that takes time and many voices to identify.
Homogeneous Groups Can Successfully Launch Diverse Projects
Many know that Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Of course that is true in Kennedy Heights—but with some interesting twists. First, the focus of the small group can change as we’ve discussed above. Leaders hold their vision loosely.
Second, people with similar interests—affinity groups like preservationists and artists—usually get things started. Just because your core group of leaders is homogenous doesn’t mean that you can’t serve a larger community through your project (IF that is your intention and you are flexible). Indeed, a group of white people led the development of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center, a community service project in a majority African American neighborhood!
Many community or engagement projects get stuck because they want broad or diverse representation from the beginning—a laudable goal. But if your intention is to engage diverse people in defining how to serve their community, then don’t stop and wait; the Kennedy Heights Arts Center has proven that people can and will join a movement that benefits them and their community.
From the beginning the Center has provided art classes with a sliding scale fee, and has consistently reached out to partner with institutions that have diverse populations. But still, diversity has been hard to come by, but we will discuss that later.
A Volunteer Movement Can Find Serious Resources
One thing that Kennedy Heights proved with their Center is that volunteers can find resources in many places. Initially, the volunteers’ passion to save the home inspired the home owner, Mrs. Douglas, to delay selling the home to the developer. She needed the money, but her relationship with the leadership team was the key to her being patient with them.
Even with the homeowner as a committed partner, volunteers still had to raise enough money for a down payment. So they literally went door-to-door to meet residents and businesses–and they raised enough money from private sources to get $50,000 from the City (thanks for your vision, Mr. Tarbell).
Yet they faced one more seemingly insurmountable hurdle—no bank would lend them the balance of the purchase price because the house wasn’t enough to collateralize the loan. So what did they do? Found a creative local bank (Columbia Savings) that would allow a group of individuals to guarantee the loan. So the team went back to their donors and asked them each to put money into CDs that would be returned when the Center had built enough equity in the property to refinance. In the end, 40 residents put $1,000 each into a CD, which was returned to them, with interest, after five years.
You Don’t Need Staff to Be Successful
People who are new to community leadership, especially those from the for-profit corporate sector, think that they must hire full-time staff to take their passion to fruition. The Kennedy Heights Arts Center got completely up and running on four years worth of volunteer time. Many say that people don’t have time to volunteer, but people will volunteer for what they are truly passionate about. And if volunteers can’t sustain the initial years, is there really enough support for the project?
In Kennedy Heights, volunteers did a barn-raising-style rehab job on the house; applied for 501(c)(3) status; became board members; ran the books; offered the classes; did promotions; and conducted all of the outreach to the partners who fueled early successes.
You DO Need Outreach
As mentioned before, the all-white leadership knew they had to tackle the diversity issue if they wanted success in serving a diverse community. They also knew that some people wouldn’t feel at home in a stately old mansion that offered fine arts classes. So the Center leadership sought out diverse community partners to build its board and fill classes with different types of people (reaching out to all the local schools was a great start). More importantly, the Center partnered to offer classes AT the low-income Hilltop Apartments complex. Going TO people engages them better than any marketing.
The most powerful outreach came from how the Center handled its annual “Artist in Residence” program. There’s no better example than the year Terry Boyarsky brought choral music to the community. Rather than just teach a series of classes, Terry structured her month around a final community concert where students of all ages (separated by age into smaller, more intimate groups to build relationships and to match skill levels) would come together to showcase what they learned together.
Staff and several volunteers recruited African American and other churches to participate, along with schools and people from other institutions. The concert attracted huge numbers of diverse people because each small group of singers co-created their own experience and invited their friends to attend.
Ellen Muse Lindeman, the Center’s director since 2008, participated in a choral group and knew that friendships were formed during that month-long process—but after a few years she wondered whether those friendships really mattered. But several years later while waiting in a grocery line, Ellen got a big hug and long conversation from one of the other women in her choral group.
Change Starts with Heart—and Art IS Heart
After that hug at the grocery checkout, Ellen knew in her bones the power of art to transform communities. So often community activists come together around an issue or a project. Then they do things together (clean an empty lot) or plan to take systemic action (the Poverty Collaborative), but they never really open their heart during these important aspects of community change.
But the real change starts when we experience what some call “radical empathy”: Why would I ever vote against my own interests if I don’t know you and your circumstance? Why would I ever work hard on a collaborative effort if I don’t deeply feel for the others not like me?
Art always starts with heart; even if we are just watching it together (we should really begin City Council hearings with poetry or live music, followed by conversation about what that artistic experience meant to us as individuals). But when people create art together, a whole other level of connection and relationship emerges. The Center has looked to create more communal artistic experiences like Terry’s residency.
Put Your Mission in the Center of Community
Collective art experiences are great, but the community really starts to shift when those experiences are connected to a larger community effort. The Center helped organize a parade for Kennedy Heights’ Centennial Celebration (recruiting many students and hosting an end-of-parade celebration that included activities for everyone). One could argue that this is beyond the “arts” part of their mission, but it certainly meets the community-building aspect (even if they didn’t get paid, they found the volunteer and staff time to do it).
After two people were shot in a park that borders Kennedy Heights and Pleasant Ridge, people in both neighborhoods wanted to “take back the park”. So the Center helped organize community activities in the park that summer. On one such night, Charles Miller brought a bag full of hand drums and other percussion instruments, and with a little coaching everyone was playing together. Ellen describes being “enveloped viscerally” by the rhythm, which felt to her like the beating heart of the community, healing them all.
Through the Centennial Celebration and summer drum circle in the park, the Kennedy Heights and Pleasant Ridge communities began to see the benefits of working together. The Center has since worked with both communities to put on a joint holiday celebration—a progressive party with carriages carrying residents up Montgomery Road from Pleasant Ridge to the Center, where the main party awaited.
Grow in Visible Ways that Clearly Benefit Everyone
All of these experiences have helped Ellen and her board look toward the future. They see music as essential, but their space was limited. So they are growing like they started—by expanding into a former Kroger building that can host big events, have sound-proofed rooms, and dedicated studio space for artists. The building is next door, on the key gateway corner of Montgomery and Kennedy Roads. People will see the expansion and know that it helps the whole community—both because of what happens on the inside and how it looks from the outside—and they will feel good about it, not just because they understand the good being done, but because they have a personal experience of that work.
And that’s what art does—heals people and communities by connecting them in ways they can feel. Those feelings stick with people more than issues or ideas or slogans or volunteer jobs well done. Communal art feels good, which brings people back with minimal effort (no recruiting calls needed to get people to show up for the drum circle). Without a formal plan and by following the community’s passion, the Kennedy Heights Arts Center has become an example of community transformation from which we can all learn.