December 20, 2018

5 stories that show how the arts can help communities thrive

Artists and their collaborators are bringing communities together to honor the past, build bonds for the future, and heal in the wake of tragedy.

Wooden stars decorated and distributed through the nonprofit Stars of HOPE offer messages of peace and love for communities that are grieving. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Looking back at all the stories we featured in 2018, it’s clear that art wields a unique power to affect change by connecting people in deep and meaningful ways. Whether it’s reflecting a community’s own values in surprising ways, or instilling hope and confidence in the next generation, these were five of our favorite community art programs from the past year. Projects like Stars of HOPE delivered love and kindness to survivors of the Pulse nightclub shooting, while the innovative Young Storytellers program helped young people unlock their creative potential by connecting them with Hollywood mentors.

Art delivers hope and kindness in the wake of tragedy

The Pulse nightclub shooting was an unthinkable tragedy that shook the Orlando, Florida, community, and the world. In this article, survivor Josh Garcia described how hand-painted stars delivered to his office in the wake of the shooting provided a glimmer of hope during a dark time. Shortly after that day, Garcia joined Stars of HOPE to help the organization continue delivering its hope-inspiring art pieces to first responders, survivors, and community members. “No matter how old or young, Stars of HOPE is a project that allows you to take action and let others know they are not alone,” Garcia said.

"The button symbolizes our people and the struggles that we have overcome," said Jeremy Houston, owner of Miss Lou Heritage Group & Tours. Photo courtesy of IDEAS xLab

Turning buttons into tangible memories of slavery and liberation

A visit to the cotton fields, plantation homes, and a former slave market in Natchez, Mississippi, helped Hannah Drake feel a connection to her ancestors who were forced into enslavement in the American South. The buttons of slaves unearthed in an archeological dig were particularly moving. “Even something some would consider insignificant meant the world to me,” she said. “It was not just a button, it was a reminder that my ancestors were here, they existed, and they wouldn’t be forgotten.” Those small artifacts inspired her to create Button Soap, bars of handmade soap with buttons embedded inside to give people a tangible reminder of slavery and liberation.

Residents of Smoketown, one of the Louisville’s oldest African American communities, celebrated new billboards with positive messaging as part of the One Poem At A Time project. Photo courtesy of IDEAS xLab

Replacing toxic advertising with positive messages

Hannah shared another project with us, one that injects messages of hope, history, resilience, strength, love, and worthiness into her community. Project HEAL launched the One Poem At A Time, a campaign in Louisville that replaced negative and predatory advertising and billboards in the Smoketown neighborhood with positive images and messages depicting residents and lifting up their voices. “One Poem At A Time worked because communities that have been marginalized want to be seen and heard,” Hannah explained in her essay about the project. “It is essential to make sure the images that we see every day within our community are uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring!”

Las Vegas nonprofit Dream Believers teaches kids confidence through music. Photo courtesy of Jamie Wexler

Playing music instills confidence in struggling children

Jamie Wexler saw firsthand how music can have a profound change on children with learning disabilities. The veteran singer, musician, actress, and entertainer taught an orchestra class at a local school where a young man with high functioning Asperger’s syndrome learned to play the violin, building confidence and connections with his classmates. That experience led Wexler to create Dream Believers Music and Performance Patronage to give struggling kids the chance to express themselves through music—one student even landed an audition for America’s Got Talent. “Even if it’s hidden inside of them, I believe that everyone has the ability to teach and inspire each other,” Wexler said.

Young Storytellers mentors are professionals in the entertainment industry; they work with students to help them write their own stories. Photos courtesy of Young Storytellers

Empowering young people through storytelling

The art of storytelling is a compelling and powerful medium that can engage people in surprising ways. Young Storytellers teaches storytelling to underprivileged students in Los Angeles by connecting them with mentors from the entertainment industry. Actors, writers, and creative executives work with the students to help them produce a short script that is then performed live or on film by professional actors. In this Q&A, Bill Thompson, the executive director of Young Storytellers, described what inspired him to help young people find their voices in this way. “When these students walk down a red carpet at the performance of their story, to a standing ovation from their peers, teachers, and families, it can be a transformative moment in their lives,” Thompson said.

Travis Marshall

Travis Marshall is a Los Angeles-based freelancer writer who covers health, wellness, and lifestyle issues.
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