Front Row Center Newsletter from the Greater Columbus Arts Counsil

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David Brown came to Columbus in 2009 with a huge dream – a crazy dream – a community choir that embraced everyone, anyone who wanted to sing.  People said he couldn’t do it.  It would never work.  Well, just four short years later The Harmony Project not only is thriving but it, and more importantly the people involved, are making a BIG difference in the community.  He laughs and shakes his head when he remembers naively thinking that Columbus might not be “diverse enough” for his vision of the project.

The Harmony Project, which has received project support funding from GCAC, has so many elements; it’s difficult to define it.  Is it an arts organization?  Is it a service organization?

Brown, founder and creative director for The Harmony Project said he gets it when people ask those questions.

“I guess if you want to define arts in a conventional way, we’re not really an arts organization,” said Brown.  “But nothing about art is supposed to be conventional.”

A better way to describe the non-profit organization, and as stated on their website is that The Harmony Project is the “art of community.”

Their mission is to transform the community through service and song and to provide meaningful opportunities for people to work toward performing at an artistic level they may have never imagined.  Anyone is welcome to the choir, regardless of their talent level, as long as they can dedicate time to volunteer – and they end up bonding through the collective experience of community service.

“Our goal is to unite neighbors and neighborhoods across cultural and geographical divides, socio-economic lines, all walks of life—to bring them together with music, to perform, work on their fears—or for whatever reason they choose to sing,” said Brown.  “It’s not enough to cross paths; we need to stop while we’re in that intersection and do something special so it’s a touchstone that we can keep returning to over and over again.”

In the process, members get to know others they would never have met otherwise, strengthening ties and building a more profound sense of community as the degrees of separation become smaller and smaller.

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The Harmony Project’s 200-member choir is as diverse as the neighborhoods the members are required to serve; Neighbors in Harmony, which focuses on service projects that connect neighborhoods and neighbors through tree planting, playground building and other beautification projects; Commons in Harmony – in collaboration with the Community Shelter Board – offers as series of weekly music classes and voice lessons for individuals who are transitioning from being homeless; and Harmony High School, a collaboration with City Year Columbus, is a weekly after-school arts service that fosters creativity and responsibility among 7th-12th graders at South High School.

To celebrate National Volunteer Week from April 21 to 27, Harmony Project united hundreds of local volunteers across Columbus in community-building projects. Harmony Project selected the Steetcar District of Livingston Avenue between Parsons Avenue and Nelson Avenue on the city’s south side as the focus of service after being inspired by ongoing Harmony Project programming at South High School and the City of Columbus’ focus on rebuilding the neighborhood.

“If we are beautifying the community by putting up murals where there were none before, greening the spaces by planting trees; painting storefronts and giving people pride in where they work; if we are bringing children together with teenagers and seniors, bringing together republicans and democrats, Christians and atheists, gay and straight, brown and white—all working together in unison – we’re creating harmony together which is our goal,” said Brown.

And at the end of the project, The Harmony Project Choir, local dancers and musicians, and many of those involved, will come together to celebrate their accomplishments in a performance, Peace, Love & Harmony, at the Southern Theatre.

“This has been such a far-reaching project,” said Brown.  “The Mayor’s been talking about South Side and Livingston Avenue and so that already resonated, but it’s when I started working at South High School on Thursdays and met kids who live in the neighborhood that I wanted us to do something special for them.”

When Brown mentioned to his class that they were putting up a playground at Fairwood Park, one of the students said “Why are you building a playground – do you know what goes on in that park?”  Brown is fully aware of the crime and problems the park has experienced and hopes this project will also be a lesson for the kids.  He told them they are building the playground because of what goes on in the park.

“I want to teach them that you don’t just walk away from the drama and the conflict; you get into it and do your best to make a positive change in some way.”

The Livingston Ave. & South Side Streetscape Project began with plans to paint storefronts, clean empty lots and put in the playground at Fairwood Park.

“We always try to collaborate and bring in partnerships that are as diverse as the members of Harmony Project,” said Brown.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital was totally on board, so I had my west bookend to the neighborhood; now I needed an east bookend.  I wanted a partner on either end so we could work from those places into the center of the neighborhood.”

Brown contacted Carol Folkerth, executive director for the Jewish Community Center (JCC), located in the neighborhood to talk about planting trees.  It just so happened that the JCC was looking for something special to do for their 100-year anniversary.  The Livingston Avenue area was once a Jewish neighborhood in Columbus, Brown learned after talking with Folkerth about the history of neighborhood.

“We planted 100 trees in honor of the anniversary of the JCC and the historic Jewish neighborhood– which is now being called the Livingston Streetcar District,” said Brown.

After getting the JCC and Nationwide on board, they needed to connect with the community groups involved in the area, like the Driving Park Civic Association, Deshler Park Association, Fairwood Park (located in Deshler Park), Livingston Ave Area Commission and more.

“We had so many meetings with residents that all live in the neighborhood!” said Brown.

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For the playground, Harmony Project needed to raise $50K to make it happen and raised about $10K through fundraising and sponsorships. They ended up getting the rest of the money by applying for a grant through the Ronald McDonald Foundation, who happened to be funding 12 KaBoom playgrounds across the country.

Looking for any other projects in the area that they could put some people power into, Brown contacted Al Berthold, executive director for the Neighborhood Design Center, knowing they do a lot of work in the area.  They pulled together a team to beautify the corner/intersection of Livingston and Nelson where a streetcar sculpture by John Sunami was being installed.  The project was funded by a Chase 200Columbus Neighborhood grant, a program managed by GCAC. There was no problem making it happen, with the help of the Design Center, Lowe’s, Capital University students from the Empathy Experiment and 50 volunteers who planted perennials—and because Harmony Project made an ongoing commitment to maintain the corner, it eased neighborhood leaders’ fears about the expense involved with keeping it up.

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In addition to lot cleaning, storefront painting, mulching, playground building and tree planting, five artists designed 10 murals for the “Peace of Art” project.  The murals, all to be displayed along Livingtson Avenue, were created to represent a streetcar window, echoing Sunami’s new streetcar sculpture.  Each artist created their own streetcar interpretation, projected and numbered the murals, and color coded paints and brushes so volunteers could easily help to paint by number.

“It was thrilling for the volunteers,” said Brown.  “Suddenly they’re an artist and they may have never painted before and here they are helping to create a beautiful mural for public display.”

Though the projects are always lots of hard work, Harmony Project members are always eager to give.  Brown said he has a simple philosophy about making sure volunteers are not completely burned out and remain engaged.

“Make it simple.  Make it meaningful.  We create projects that someone can easily step into.  They can show up, give for two or three hours and at the end of their shift they can stand back, look at it and see what they’ve done.  That sort of helps with our culture of instant gratification,” adds Brown with a chuckle.

Brown said the process of planning the project with the many different neighborhood associations and groups and residents has been amazing to watch unfold.

“You assume these folks would know each other.  All of the groups we worked with were within a mile of one another and many had never even met!” said Brown.  “Like Rufus, the pastor at the church across the street from Fairwood Park.  At one of the meetings we were talking about the artists who would be working on the murals.  One of them is Hani Hara, who lives in Bexley.  Rufus, goes ‘Hani? You mean Abe?  We went to school together!’ They had not seen each other in years, so now they are reconnected through this project.”

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And now, after many weekly meetings, the people in the neighborhood associations know each other’s names; have each other’s numbers and emails.  They have a new coalition so that when Harmony Project steps out of the picture, they can get together and make things happen.

By bringing folks down to the Streetcar District neighborhood, Harmony Project hopes that people will get the chance to meet not only the residents, but also the independent business owners.

“When you meet people in person, it stays in your mind.  Hopefully the ripple effect will happen – those who’ve volunteered will now come down and support the businesses—the great little family restaurants, independent businesses,” said Brown.  “We talk about how ‘local matters’—supporting your local businesses.  The South Side may not be polished and clean, but these folks have that independent spirit just like you see in the Short North, the North Market; just like everyone else who’s trying to make a living.”

And in the end, the choir and everyone will all convene at the Southern Theatre on May 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m. each night for a live choir, music and dance performance to celebrate the project and the connections that have been made—called Peace, Love & Harmony.

“Thanks to funding from GCAC, we are able to pay 18 dancers from Thiossane Institute and a 15-piece band of local, professional musicians to perform with us,” said Brown.

All music and dance Harmony features, according to Brown who works with the dance companies and works on the music arrangements, hopefully symbolizes or is a metaphor for what they’re doing; a reinforcement of their mission.

“It’s a great mix of music and dance—it will be a real party atmosphere.  We have vintage Kook & the Gang—Love and Understanding.  The song Takin’ it to the Streets,” said Brown.  “I arranged a gospel version Bob Dylan’s I Shall Be Released, Annie Lennox’ Little Bird along with beautiful choreography.  We’re not afraid to lean into the whole ‘love thing.’ We have to tell each other we love each other a little more.  We don’t have to live or worship or whatever the same way.  But we can work the same way and get something done.”

The festivities May 15 & 16 at the Southern Theatre will open with a premiere of the project documentary From the Stage to the Streets.

“We always film what we do and every concert opens with a short documentary,” said Brown. “We film our rehearsals, service projects—everything.  So they get to either see themselves on screen, the audience gets to sort of meet the people on the screen; and so when the curtain goes up, there are the all the folks right there on stage.  The audience is already hungry to see those who have inspired them.”

To find out more about The Harmony Project, go to harmonyproject.com.  You can also see dozens of photos of their work on this project on their Facebook page.  All of their mini-documentaries and other projects are posted regularly on YouTube.  Be sure to look for a time-lapsed video soon of the 275 volunteers building the Fairwood Park playground from scratch!

To learn more about GCAC’s Project Support and other types of funding available, go to gcac.org/grants-services.

Images courtesy of The Harmony Project and Livingston Avenue Area Commission.

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