Rebuilding in Times of Uncertainty

The only way to hear another’s story and to truly see their reality, is to be assured that our own stories have been heard, that we have been seen. Social isolation drives a stake deeper into the systemic social divisions that already exist between us, wedging ever wider the yawning gap between our reality and that of “others.”

Malcolm Jenkins Narrative

Months of coronavirus isolation have provided a stark window into how isolation affects an individual and a community. We are living what happens when people are cut-off and feel they have no control over their life: hopelessness prevails; children fall behind academically and emotionally; a scarcity mindset stokes protectionism and hoarding; anger and frustration simmer and then boil over.

Fear, powerlessness, and uncertainty have become unwelcome, familiar feelings. With the sand perpetually shifting beneath our feet, we find ourselves quagmired by the overwhelming tidal wave of disillusionment, division, and disenfranchisement. We can’t stay here. We need to take a deep breath, set our course, and keep moving forward so inertia and negativity don’t suck us in.

You might wonder where exactly we are supposed to move forward to, being in the middle of a pandemic and the wheels clearly coming off the cart and all? While everyone is focused on the loss of now, on this period of sacrifice and challenge, we have to constantly remind ourselves that this is a finite moment in time; that great opportunity comes from overcoming adversity; that history is full of stories of struggle, resilience, and hope.

There is SO MUCH WORK to be done to move our society toward being more whole and equitable. As a country reckoning with a heightened awareness of our divisions, how do we do better?

The way to begin to heal is to come together, solving the issues of isolation and racial division through deliberate, intentional connection and engagement. North Brookfield, a rural community of 4,800 in central Massachusetts, is spearheading a regional creative arts program – ROAR (Rural Opportunity through Art and Restoration) – to do just that.

The Brookfields region has been wrestling with its identity and isolation for twenty-five years. As with many rural communities nation-wide, un- or underemployment, intergenerational poverty, depression, and drug dependency have permeated the region. Small businesses that were the life-blood of small town centers were decimated as retail was sucked outward to major highways and big box shopping centers. Health care and social supports are difficult to access. Though Vibram continues to manufacture shoe soles locally, employment and advancement opportunities have declined. Isolation here has become status quo.

The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House (“Friends”) have worked for over a decade to preserve their community’s vacant town hall, an architectural masterpiece and once “the center of everything.” The deteriorating building’s location in a small, isolated community has meant that a traditional commercial use would be challenging, if not infeasible. Two years ago the Friends contacted Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF), a Boston-based preservation organization, to help them with the puzzle of how to sustainably occupy the building.

AHF collaborated as a thought-partner, helping the Friends to recognize that renovating the Town House could catalyze change in their community and throughout the region, but only if complemented by additional economic development efforts. AHF recommended repainting the building, a small, empowering act that proved transformative in garnering broader support. The repainted Town House caught the attention of many area residents and was the catalytic spark that ignited a partnership with local recording company Long View Entertainment. Long View worked with the Friends to envision the building as an art and music center for at-risk rural communities.

ROAR, an expansion of Long View’s award-winning after-school program, will partner with Boston’s Berklee College of Music to offer educational and cultural programming featuring music, writing, storytelling, audio and video production, art, and theater click here for program offerings). Creative commerce education will build life skills, foster change, and inject energy – and hope. The program, anchored in a centrally-located historic structure that is meaningful to the community, will address from the inside-out the impacts of social isolation that divide and perpetuate separateness. ROAR will also provide work experience for Berklee students, infusing artistic talent from beyond the region and tearing down the rural-urban divide.

How does this help to heal? Data shows that tight family and community social networks can shield people psychologically from the stresses of having lower incomes, lower educational levels, or generally stressful living conditions. Dr. Tony Iton, from the University of California Berkeley, found that the social vulnerability resulting from poor schools, housing, transportation, and lack of access to healthy foods creates incubators of chronic stress that reduce life expectancy by 15 to 20 years as compared to higher income, healthier environments.[1] While Iton’s research primarily focuses on the inner city, poor rural areas face similar issues and outcomes. Meanwhile, a January 2019 National Governors Association report showed that rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations experienced higher incomes, population growth, and greater well-being and social inclusion than rural counties that lack performing arts institutions.[2]

Arts programing aimed at connection and diversification addresses both the turmoil boiling in our streets and economic vitality in distressed regions. In fact, the 2019 Massachusetts Rural Development Policy Plan highlighted “encouraging dialog and partnership between towns and regions; forming strong partnerships with regional academic institutions; developing youth leadership programs; redeveloping and reusing vacant industrial sites; growing local jobs and leveraging local assets; devoting more money to education; developing tourism and hospitality services; and promoting racial diversity”[3] as best practice. ROAR is all of these things.

ROAR at the Town House is piloting a replicable model that can be applied in other communities, not only in the Brookfields’ region but across Massachusetts and the nation. According to the New England Foundation for the Arts, “The creative economy is a powerful engine of growth and community vitality. A thriving cultural sector leads to thriving communities.” Creating a regional hub at the North Brookfield Town House will address downtown economic depression as well as rural social isolation.

When the world stopped, the arts, in all its forms, entertained and comforted us. It broke the barriers of quarantine and isolation by drawing us together. Now more than ever we need to be brought together to tell our stories, to be heard and seen, and to listen and learn.

All photographs are by Jason Baker @ jasonbakerphotography/

Footnotes:

[1] Iton, Dr. Anthony. (November 4, 2016 You Tube). “Change the Odds for Health,” TedX San Francisco, https://youtu.be/0H6yte4RXx0.

[2] Rood, Sally for the National Governor’s Association. “Rural Prosperity through the Arts & Creative Sector: A Rural Action Guide for Governors and States.” January 2019.

[3] Rural Policy Advisory Commission. Rural Policy Plan. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. October 2019, pg. 22.

 

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