Gregory Burbidge

I am lucky enough to work for a service organization in the arts. The Metro Atlanta Arts and Culture Coalition is a regional nonprofit organization in Atlanta, and we spend our time collaborating with local governments, business & civic leaders, funders, and arts leaders for the purpose of supporting arts and culture across a ten county region.

The work we do offers us the tremendous opportunity to observe the field broadly, something most of the organizations we serve don’t have the pleasure of doing.

If I add to this lucky breadth of scope to Diane Ragsdale’s lens on community and her call to think big (to be “reaching exponentially great numbers of people” and not just “maintain our minuscule reach”), something new comes into the picture.

Three of the programs in our community that I have spent the most time talking to people about this year have had tremendous success at reaching further by having the right people building connections at just the right intersections:

Sunny and Krista @ On the Same Page

On the Same Page, based in Decatur, GA, is a city-wide reading initiative. There are examples of community building reading programs in other cities, but this is the model that clicked here.

A locally-owned bookshop saw the need to foster a community of readers, and rather than find a nonprofit to handle a reading program or look for their own profit-making scheme, they took the initiative to make a difference on their own.

On the Same Page had everyone they could find reading The Phantom Tollbooth…me and my little book club included. We all went to the screening of the movie and, later, to hear the author Norton Juster read and field questions from kids and adults alike.

When this idea of a community-wide reading initiative was first floated around, the bookshop manager met with the Rotary Club, who then raised enough money for every grade appropriate student in the Decatur School System eligible for a free or reduced lunch to get a free copy of the book. That’s a lot of books.

Successful partnerships followed, with the school system, community groups, and book clubs coming on board. Now, arts organizations are lining up to be potential partners for the next On the Same Page book.

The graduation and reading rates in Georgia are abysmal, and this is a targeted, tangible response to that challenge. Sunny and Krista are standing at the intersection of the humanities, the arts, the education field, and their own community. I still wear my wristband to let people know I’m On The Same Page.

Emmalee Iden @ the Atlanta Opera: Rabbit Tales

The Atlanta Opera has been around for over 30 years, ever since the Metropolitan Opera stopped touring to Atlanta. This year, however, is the first they commissioned their own opera, Rabbit Tales.

Rabbit Tales is a children’s opera based on the Br’er Rabbit stories by Joel Chandler Harris, combining the book’s animal characters and story lines from various Native American, African and Cajun folktales.

The partnership is collaborative effort with The Wren’s Nest, the historic house museum that was the home of Joel Chandler Harris. On the afternoon I attended, the lawn outside the museum was filled to capacity with a rare mix of demographics: children from a historically under-served community, exposing many of them to opera for the very first time, and traditional opera lovers who may not otherwise attend arts events in the West End.

The content of the opera had lots to say about story, history, community, nature, and the possibility of diversity.

Emmalee Iden recognized that the challenging history of the stories retold by Harris invites dialogue. Who would have thought that opera, the traditional punching bag as “elitist art,” would instigate a program charged with provocative community relevance?

And who would have thought a dialogue about diversity, historical memory, and trickster rabbits would have children talking about opera? This is no “miniscule reach.”

Collaborations & Intersections

These programs have been successful for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that these programs are authentic collaborations with their real community.

The Atlanta Opera is in Atlanta, so of course their first commissioned opera should be the tales of Br’er Rabbit. The Rotary in Decatur has a vested interest in their community, so of course they would come on board to help a bookstore get their community to read together.

Another common feature of their success is that they have the courage to read the intersections they find themselves standing on. Literacy and Community. Historic Renovation and Storytelling. Education and the Arts.

A third common feature of their success is that all three have been developed by emerging leaders, whether by chance or by necessity.

I think their success is absolutely tied to the fact that both programs have been developed by emerging leaders.

Every day I work in our region, I learn from the phenomenal established leaders around me, but I am also seeing some of the most exciting collaborative work springing from the spot where an organization has placed an emerging leader at the head of a department. Established leaders are often too cynical to think that these effort can work.

I’d love to hear others stories of emerging leaders standing in just the right intersection to make a giant difference. Please share them below.

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.