by Alessandra Wollner
From afar, Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens would look like a large-scale, photorealist portrait. But, come in a bit closer, and you begin see that the portrait isn’t at all what it appears. It’s actually a series of cells, multi-shaped and many-colored, that work together to create the effect of a single, unified image.
This, Burton thought, was the perfect metaphor for drag, an art form that blends and reinvents gender to surprise, delight, and challenge viewers who think they already know all about what they’re seeing.
Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens (KQIB) dives, er, straight into the lively drag scene of Columbus, focusing specifically on two drag troupes—the Virginia West “family,” mostly drag queens, and The Royal Renegades, mostly drag kings. KQIB also shines the spot on the real lives and questions performers live offstage—expectations and (mis)understandings of biological sex and sexual orientation, parenting, and gender as a non-binary choice. The film also devotes a good chunk of time to the mechanics of drag. Without giving too much away, it involves reams of duct tape and Ziploc bags of clippings from your last haircut.
Burton estimates she attended around 30 drag shows while making the film. She took a camera to all of them. In KQIB, you’ll see scenes from rehearsals, backstage prep, and live performances intercut with interviews of a handful of Columbus’ most well-known drag performers, including Virginia and Nina West, in and out of drag, as well as co-director of The Royal Renegades, Becky.
Burton very intentionally crafted a film with no narrator. She wanted the performers and community members themselves to tell the story, to give a sense not just of a the local drag community, but of drag’s greater significance.
“Imagine a stone dropped in a pond,” Burton said during our interview. “First, I wanted to answer the question What the heck is drag? Then, Well, what’s drag—and the LGBTQ world—like in Columbus? Then, I wanted to really blow audiences’ minds, to get them to understand the biggest picture, the outermost ring: sex, sexuality, and gender are three totally different things, which leads to the final question What does drag make possible?”
Mid-way through filming, Burton gave a TEDxColumbus talk titled “How Drag Made Me a Better Parent.” Burton’s main point was about the way making this film helped her see and understand the nuance and complexities of gender identity and performance in a whole new dimension. It was perfect, but also dizzying, for the mother of two young children just beginning to come to their own dawning consciousness about gender and sex.
KQIB is the hard-won fruit of five years’ labor. But, if you’re going to give yourself a five-year project, you might as well give yourself a subject that’s fascinating, entertaining, and really, really fun, all of which drag has in spades…and sequins and, on occasion, copious amounts of fake chest hair.
Burton’s production company Five Sisters Productions, which she co-owns with her four real-life sisters, is about to launch KQIB, and the good news is that it’s coming to a few theaters near you, and also some far.
The Cleveland International Film Festival will screen KQIB April 2 at 9:15 pm & April 3 at 11:15 am, followed by a special forum based on the film. Burton and her sisters will be in attendance, as well as most of the stars of KQIB and performers from all the groups filmed. More info here.
KQIB will also premiere in Columbus June 7th at 7pm at The Wexner Center, with a celebratory reception co-sponsored by Stonewall Columbus at 6 pm.
Other screenings include…
Buffalo, NY: at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival (BNFF) Sunday, April 17 at 2 pm with a Q&A with Burton, who is a Buffalo native.
The South: in the SouthArts Film Circuit April 20-28 to 6 cities for an audience engagement screening tour. Burton and her co-producer Ursula Burton will be at each screening for audience discussion after the film:
April 20, 2016: Williams Gymnasium, Oxford College of Emory University, Oxford, GA
April 21, 2016: Harrington-Peachtree Academic Ctr, Presbyterian College, Clinton, SC
April 24, 2016: Colleen O. Williams Theater, Winder Cultural Arts Center, Winder, GA
April 25, 2016: DP Culp University Center, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN
April 26, 2016: University Center Theater, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC
April 28, 2016: Jule Collins Smith Museum, Auburn University, Auburn, AL
Austin: at the Austin Drag Fest Friday April 29th
3:30-4:30 – Nina West (one of the main cast of KQIB) Dragcast Live, then:
5:00 – 7pm – Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens with Q&A following with Nina West & Burton
Oakland: at St. Mary’s College of CA May 4 at 3 pm with Q&A following with Burton
Alessandra Wollner is a third year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at OSU.
by Rashmi Nemade
Have you ever wondered what your thoughts look like? I mean, really look like—to your eyes. I don’t mean how neural connections look in the brain, but what it would look like if your thoughts were translated into something physical. What shapes, sizes, formats, colors and patterns would your thoughts take? And could anyone else make sense of it?
This type of inquiry can be called physical thinking. It’s what the intercultural and interdisciplinary team of Norah Zuniga Shaw, William Forsythe and Maria Palazzi has been working on for almost a decade. In 2009, this team published a screen-based work titled Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced. Using dance as a starting point for visualizing thought, the team data-mined the choreography of William Forsythe. The deep dive unearthed alignments, cues and themes that are repeated and fragmented and recombined.
Zuniga Shaw shared this work in her 2009 TEDxColumbus talk “Animating Choreography.” As she explains: “It’s like an ecosystem. There are patterns and agency: there are animals and plants that abide by a day-night cycle and those that do the opposite; there are elements of the ecosystem that are synchronized by seasons and temperatures, while other parts are unaffected; and there is simultaneous complexity in parts of this ecosystem as well. They all coexist together and, yet, separately. It’s a complex structure.”
In Forsythe’s dance, One Flat Thing, reproduced, there are multiple performers dancing around and interacting with multiple tables (the flat thing, reproduced several times) and each other. To capture data of the dance, the team used video of a performance and interviews with the dancers. The interviews capture data about cues given and received during the dance and the flow of interactions that result. The video shows visual patterns, for instance an arc created by arms and then by a head, then again by feet, emerges as one motion at different times in different directions by different bodies. The similarity is the arc, the complexity brought by changing times, body parts, directions, etc. This teasing out of a complex structure is how a simple aesthetically pleasing movement becomes a complex ecosystem that can be examined for deeper understanding of relationships and visual counterpoint.
The results—the ecosystem of this dance, so to speak—are shown in a fluid, discovery-based website which can be explored by both novice and expert. The data are showcased as alignment annotations, cue visualization, concept threads, movement densities, 3D alignment forms, motion volumes and performance architectures, among other visualizations. Artworks in their own right, they are absolutely beautiful and captivating interpretations of the dance. Essentially, the data flows from dance to data to visual objects also in motion.
In 2014, Zuniga Shaw published a companion book Synchronous Objects: Degrees of Unison. In it, she writes, “This just happens to be dance, it could be mathematics, it could be architecture, it could be the movement of pedestrians on the city streets or the patterns in the tree canopies above our heads. What else might this dance look like? A storm of themes, a cacophony of difference, a polyphony of relationships, systems of organization, degrees of unison, patterns emerging and receding, isometries, fleeting forms of agreement.”
Since its 2009 launch at the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Synchronous Objects project has toured as a hybrid exhibition/workshop/lecture event to numerous sites in Europe and Asia with producing support from the Goethe Institute.
Zuniga Shaw is currently collaborating with Maria Palazzi and choreographers Bebe Miller and Thomas Hauert on a project called Motion Bank: TWO. The two choreographers work separately, yet both use improvisation and engage directly with the nature of human consciousness and how the dancers work with their habits, tendencies, impulses and memories in action. In isolating their working strategies, Zuniga Shaw and her collaborators bring the viewer into a direct encounter with the dancing mind and the thinking body—hence, the term “physical thinking.”
So, it’s possible to do more than just wonder what your thoughts look like. Simply develop a physical manifestation of whatever you’re thinking of and then tease out the visual counterpoint. Simple…or complicated. Either way, it’s an extraordinary exercise that can take you into much deeper thinking and awareness.
Rashmi Nemade is principal at BioMedText, Inc.
Photo credits for Synchronous Objects and Motion Bank:Two: The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company
Did you know that there are 10 active TEDx events in our community? Eight are represented in the above picture from our first-ever Central Ohio curatorial team gathering. We are thrilled to support these and other TED-like initiatives in town, helping to connect more people to each other and to ideas worth spreading. For the first-time, we’re publishing (and updating) a comprehensive list of all the TEDx events around Ohio, particularly those in Central Ohio.
Note that we are quickly approaching the TED conference viewing events. And, we’ve set the date for TEDxColumbus 2016 for Friday, November 4th, so mark your calendars! Nominations for speakers will open in April. We’ll keep everyone updated through our digital channels.
The 2016 guide to TEDx events in Ohio
TED is broadcasting live its opening conference session to cinemas across the country. In Columbus, you can take in this event at one of 6 theaters: Easton, Lennox, Polaris,Crosswoods, Stoneridge, Pickerington or Georgesville. Find details and purchase tickets ($12.50) here. http://www.fathomevents.com/event/ted-2016-dream-live
Official local viewing site for several speaker sessions of of the 2016 TED Conference at Westminister Thurber, 645 Neil Avenue (Learning Center). No registration required. Come as you are!
1pm – 5pm
11am – 6pm
$15 – $30
This 5th Annual event driven by a large team of OSU students attracts nearly 1,500 attendees to Mershon Auditorium / Wexner Center and features faculty, staff, students and alums of OSU as speakers and performers.
$25/ Adults; $15/Students
A third-year event organized by students at New Albany High School at the McCoy Center for the Arts.
(Elementary with Cols City Schools)
Columbus Museum of Art
Curriculum based event for 3rd-6th graders in CCS
Whitehall City Schools / City of Whitehall
Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to be notified of the event details.
by Alessandra Wollner
“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Susan B. Anthony told New York Times reporter Nellie Bly. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
That was back in 1896, when feminists called bicycles “freedom machines.” At the time, for women at least, bikes were kind of a big deal. They offered mobility and ushered in an era of vastly less restrictive ladies’ attire. Bloomers, y’all.
But somehow, as the years revolved, bike culture became the provenance of dudes. Dudes wearing caps with tiny bills, walking bowlegged on ripped calves. The era of Susan B.’s freedom machine may be over, but a bike-powered women’s revolution is alive and well in the work of Jess Mathews, who gave a 2013 TEDxColumbus talk about the integral role women play in creating bike-friendly cities.
On the day that I met Jess Mathews, she rolled up on Suzette—that’s her Fuji hybrid—with a copy of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please in a wicker basket attached to the handlebars, also tricked out with a hot pink little bell. Suzette’s pedals are electric raspberry blue, her saddle striped down the middle with leopard print fleece. Laminated cards with pictures of bikes twine through the spokes of her back wheel, and stickers for various causes wrap her peach sherbet frame. It’s a bike lovingly customized by a woman as free and untrammeled as they come. No doubt, Jess Mathews is the kind of bicycling woman Susan B. would rejoice to see.
Jess has always been vocal about women and biking, lobbying the local government for infrastructure that makes women and children feel safe to ride. And though she is fiercely dedicated to this work, it’s just a spoke in her wheel. One speed out of ten. A single stop on a long and comprehensive tour to transform Columbus into a leading center not just in bike friendliness, but in the creative and civic-minded use of city streets.
Because Jess’ work ranges all over the city, I asked her to tour me through the sites of her greatest successes, and take us through Columbus’ best examples of bike-friendliness and worst instances of bike-indifference. On bikes. Duh.
A number of places we pedaled by were sites of the Columbus Parklet Project and Open Streets Columbus, both initiatives under Transit Columbus, which “champions an integrated public transportation system for the people of Central Ohio to improve the safety, health, environment and economic vitality of the entire Columbus region.” The organization launched both Open Streets and Columbus Parklets in 2015. “I’d been talking and dreaming about these projects for four years,” Jess explained as we cruised down Grant Street through a golden October afternoon. “Then finally, this year, it all just came together in a beautiful way.”
Jess, the project lead, and a very dedicated team of volunteers launched the Columbus Parklet Project outside Dirty Frank’s Hot Dog Palace on 4th and Cherry last summer for a 30-day trial. Parklets—sidewalk extensions providing more space plus amenities—help people understand that streets are more than byways from Point A to Point B. Streets are gathering places, Jess says, and using them as such makes for healthier, more vibrant cityscapes.
“That first parklet was a huge success,” Jess tells me as we straddle our bikes curbside in front of Dirty Frank’s, where the parklet once stood. On its heels, The Columbus Parklet Project installed a second, permanent parklet in Franklinton during this summer’s Urban Scrawl festival. A third parklet, hopefully permanent, will go in front of Café Brioso on Gay Street in Spring 2016. Jess explains all this as rush hour traffic whips by to our left and my stomach churns. But Jess believes that streets should feel safe for riders and pedestrians alike. We stay put.
This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Jess’ activism: it’s doggedly honor-bound, her convictions stronger than Everclear. Jess Mathews rides in whatever clothing to prove women don’t need special “gear” to get on a bike. She takes whichever street to prove there’s no need to feel cowed by the presence of cars. Interestingly, Jess rarely wears a helmet, so strong is her belief that city streets should be safe enough to ride without them. “All ages, all wages, all stages,” Jess says, a mantra for who should feel comfortable on a bike, and who streetscapes should be designed to serve.
Which brings me to the other big project with Jess at the helm: Open Streets Columbus. Open Streets is a national movement that shuts down stretches of city street for a day. People—on bikes, blades, and two feet—have the run of the asphalt, at least for awhile. “It can transform cities,” Jess says, “it’s an incredible petri dish that can get people reengaged with their cities, using streets the way they should be used.”
The first Open Streets Columbus happened Sept 13th on Rich Street downtown. The second followed the next weekend on a section of 4th between Main and Broad. Among other carless wonders, the Open Street events featured PoYo (pop-up yoga), a human-sized Scrabble game, and some impressive bike dancing. Jess and her team have a third Open Streets in the works for the same 4th Street location in 2016, with a possibility of adding a second event if funding comes through.
I wasn’t in town to see either Open Streets, but I did make it to this October’s 2 Wheels & Heels ladies bike night. Jess plans and leads these rides the last Wednesday of every month to get women hooked on freedom machines.
Because some serious rain had eased up just hours before this month’s ride, this 2 Wheels & Heels was intimate, only six women. But that was OK. The ride fell on the cusp of Halloween, and we were a band of witchy, bike-straddling, suffragette superheroes Two women showed up in onesies (ok, one was me, in leopard print). In solidarity with the ride’s namesake, the other onesie woman, an astronaut in an orange jumpsuit with pink hair, rocked a pair of black heels.
For this ride, Jess planned a six-miler dedicated to testing some newly installed infrastructure—a series of two-stage left turns along Spring Street, and the new bike lane on the notoriously busy/scary/bike-unfriendly 4th St corridor, a route Jess irritably called “a f-ing joke.”
Jess is passionate, but she burns a quiet fire. “How did that feel?” she asked the group after we’d ridden each new piece of infrastructure. The women agreed: we were glad to have a chance to ride these new facilities with a guide. That way, we actually understood how to use what was meant for us, especially those somewhat abstruse but very helpful two-stage lefts. As we spoke, Jess listened quietly, intently.
Larry Smith, famous six-word memoirist and TEDxColumbus alum, loves Jess’ fervor. “Jess is great at what she does because she’s 100% convinced her ideas are gonna work. Her total faith is what makes her stuff happen.”
Although 2 Wheels, the parklets, and Open Streets are up and spinning, they still require buckets of sweat equity—a whole bunch of hustling, organizing, coordinating, volunteering, recruiting, speaking out, showing up, and riding, riding, riding.
As Jess told me outside Dirty Frank’s, “I know people will get behind this once they see all it implemented later on down the road.”
Or, more aptly, the street.
Alessandra Wollner is a third year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at OSU.
by Kendra Hovey
When I first met Jim White, his TED Talk about racism and his conviction to end it and how—“educate, unveil, and eradicate”—had just hit one million views (now: 1,094,362). Titled “A Little Problem I Had Renting a House,” the talk beckons with the promise of a story, even as the reference is immediate: This is not a little problem; it’s big, persistent, and it’s killing people.
It’s also what Jim White and I have come to this coffee shop to talk about. And if a conversation about racism between an African American and a white American sounds more fraught than fun, you really should get to know Jim White.
I hadn’t come to this conversation expecting a policy solution. That’s not what Jim White does (though he should be training those who do). White is a management and performance consultant and co-author of A Better World. His solutions are personal and organizational, and necessarily so: How we function around race is connected to our values and beliefs, many absorbed more than chosen, based on experiences, culture, and media. For many, they are also intensely felt and come with all sorts of triggers and buttons.
“Don’t think because someone buys a cup of coffee you can sit down at the table and talk about race,” says White, referencing Starbucks recent misstep, “because there might just be coffee thrown all over the place.”
Racism and the threats to African American safety are urgent and demand action. But one message from Jim White is that we act with cultural competence. Another message, a very important message: cultural competence, itself, changes behavior, enables productive dialogue, and can bring clarity to actions that will better affect change.
So to increase our cultural competence we need to take stock of our personal beliefs, assumptions, and values, including our biases and cultural blinders. It’s what White calls our personal operating system (POS). We also acknowledge and try to be open to the POS of others. Being open does not mean adopting or agreeing or abandoning our own POS, it means: being open. Should other perspectives and histories add to our knowledge, we then update our POS, as needed.
For a good demonstration of cultural competency see Jim White’s talk. Pay particular attention to how he portrays the landlord and hotel clerk that turn him away, the Major who thinks he’s being helpful, but isn’t. These people are not caricatured or condemned. White shares their words and actions without ascribing intent, belief, ridicule, or judgment. They remain fully human, even as their actions are fully harmful.
“It’s not me, I like you people,” says the manager as he nonetheless denies Jim White a space in his trailer park. “We already have a negro family,” he explains, “and if I let you in, other tenants will move out.” As much as this may offend and reek of an excuse, the man’s actions are a direct result of legislation by the U.S. government. This historical fact is not contested, just forgotten.
We’ve done a “very, very poor job with our history,” says White, “had we really talked about slavery and its impact, we probably wouldn’t be having the discussion we are having today.” Education—knowledge of and empathy regarding the historical struggles of other cultures—is essential to cultural competency and to ending racism.
And, if we really understood the history, we could talk about race without “coffee thrown all over the place.” At his training sessions White always says, “There should be no blame, shame or guilt in this room.” None of us created the conditions under which we are living, he says, “we inherited this.”
He also says: “But if we’re going to move past it, were going to have to acknowledge it. If not, you will perpetuate it.”
The lived-history is in White’s talk. If you’d also like the facts: Legislative action severely limited African Americans’ access to the prime movers that propelled many other Americans into the middle class—the GI bill, education, housing.
- “Of the billions of dollars in the GI Bill for housing and education, less than 2% went to minorities”
- “We have black educational institutions, because most colleges excluded black folks. And companies like IBM and Xerox were not going to black colleges to find their employees and future CEOs.”
- “Redlining [a practice of the U.S. government] and blockbusting [tolerated by the U.S. legal system until the 1980s] meant that blacks could buy houses in the inner city, but were limited in suburbia.”
Our inner cities, our disproportionate poverty and levels of education were legislated into existence. Consider the impact of this today: After WWII, the average house in urban and suburban Detroit went for about $30,000, says White, “today, inner city Detroit is worth $20,000 maybe; Suburban: $300,000.”
The harm is not just economic. “Slavery, reconstruction, KKK, Jim Crow, civil rights, job discrimination, mass incarceration, black kids being shot by police: trauma has been continuous,” White explains, “black folks have never been able to get away from it.”
Understanding this is essential, not to explain or excuse, White says, but so people can do whatever healing they need: “You can’t deal with the trauma, until you understand what the trauma is.”
And, if this is not your own history, you don’t respond with guilt or denial or begin searching your own history for your own trauma—not now. Because to eradicate racism, to improve your cultural competency, you are listening respectfully, perhaps with empathy, allowing yourself to feel the impact of this history on others.
“Feeling this impact” enlarges understanding, but it can also make you angry. In his talk, White says he doesn’t have the luxury of anger. When I asked him more about this, he said that he has his triggers, but he knows how to recognize them. He doesn’t deny his anger; he corrals it, and “keeps stepping forward.” The challenge is to be angry:
- with the right person
- at the right time
- for the right purpose
- to the right extent
- in the right way
Something else about cultural competence, it’s not an end-point. It’s a process, and we don’t do it in isolation. In other words, if we don’t want to talk about race, but we do want to eradicate racism, we’ve got to talk about race. “We all come to the party with biases,” says White, “and as a result of my bias I know I don’t have all the data. If I want to know if something is true, I have to get it outside of me. And the best way to do that is with someone you trust.”
Trust can come from a trained facilitator, of any race, White says, who is comfortable dealing with race, who is aware of their own triggers, and who has the expertise to manage the discussion and keep everyone safe. Trust can also come from someone you know and value. And, it’ll go best if you enter into these conversations aware that questions come from a desire to understand, not offend, and with a willingness to, as White says, throw your own competence out the window: “When I tick you off, no matter how much I think I know, I am willing to say ‘I don’t know what it was that I said that caused you some anxiety and stress but I’m willing to shut up long enough so that you can educate me.’ ” [Another tip: in a group, don’t make one person representative of an entire race, gender, or ethnic group.]
You can also have these conversations without trust, says White, but you need to understand there is risk. His advice: “One thing I say to people is, ‘Have I earned the right to talk to you about this topic?’ Framing it this way makes you stop and think about it differently, and I find in most cases people care when you care about them. Most people are willing to have those discussions with you.”
This doesn’t mean they will agree with you: “Before you explained to me all these details, I didn’t think I agreed with you. But now that you’ve given me the facts, I know that I don’t agree with you. Sometimes,” as White says, “we just aren’t going to agree.”
But when we dynamically engage with one another “we can express those thoughts and ask those questions and then we’re dealing with the truth as opposed to some of our fears and we’re less likely to MSU (Make Stuff Up) and that’s a way,” he says, “to start to move things forward.”
In our world, diversity is a fact. So is connectivity. Discrimination against some has consequences for everyone. It’s time to get a little (or a lot) more comfortable with difference. White has tools to help people get there, but he’s not interested in dictating behavior. One question I had for Jim White, “What can I do?” I never asked. Instead, I shared with him ideas that came to me, and felt right to me, over the course of our (3 hour!) conversation. For everyone, behavior is an expression of values and beliefs, abilities and strengths, etc. Be aware of your own, while also building cultural competence, and the question “What can I do?” begins to answer itself.
by Kendra Hovey
Gabrielle Crosby has been incarcerated for three years. She has seven more to go. Yet, one Thursday a month she visits South Africa. She smiles and waves joyfully to the children at Sunflower House Hospice, then catches her breath and stands tall as she and a choir of inmates begin the first notes of “Little Bit of Me.” The women sing; they perform a puppet show; and when the children respond in song, they listen, eyes beaming.
This visit is a Skype visit, uniting incarcerated women in Ohio with children in hospice care in South Africa. It is also rehabilitation. The first time Gabrielle sang to the children and they sang back, “that was the moment,” she says, “my life began to change.”
Gabrielle shared these words to an audience of over 600—not by Skype, but in person in downtown Columbus. While prisons have hosted TEDx events (and at TEDxRiodelaPlata a prisoner—Martin Bustamante—shared a poem from his seat in the audience), Gabrielle’s talk at TEDxColumbusWomen marks the first time a currently incarcerated person has given a talk on a TED or TEDx stage outside of prison. And on that stage, Gabrielle delivered this message: “I may be serving a sentence but I am also serving a purpose.”
“Music is healing,” she says, and as a member of the Inside/Out Choir, a partnership between The Harmony Project and the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), Gabrielle has experienced the benefits of giving back: “I am astonished at the impact I can have…and I have found something I have been missing for a long time: My voice.”
Gabrielle was introduced at the event (themed Own It: The Power in our Story) by the warden at ORW, Ronette Burkes. Cheering from the audience were five fellow choir members. Warden Burkes had arranged for the inmates to attend the event both to support Gabrielle (not only is she the first prisoner to speak from the stage at a public TEDx, because of prison protocol she was not told when or where until just a few hours before) and so that they could participate and interact with the world that they will soon be reentering.
If all this doesn’t exactly fit with what we think we know about prisons, actually, says Burkes, safe contact with the outside world is an essential part of rehabilitation. And towards this mission, the Harmony Project has been a perfect partner.
Under the direction of David Brown, the Columbus nonprofit harmonizes voices through singing and communities through service and education. There are a number of choirs under the Harmony Project umbrella, and Brown says he runs Inside/Out the same way he runs all his choirs—which is to say, very unlike every other choir you know. In David Brown’s choirs, no one has to audition, but everyone has to serve.
The result is diversity, not just of ability, but of age, culture, religion, orientation, and affiliation. Choir members sing together and serve together—painting murals, tending gardens, building playgrounds—and they break bread together. The Harmony Project creates opportunities for families with different histories and points of view to sit at the same table and share a meal.
Though the logistics are more complicated, the Inside/Out choir is no different. They serve children across the globe by singing, sharing their love and connection, and making homemade toys and supplies however they can—last year they sent 700 pairs of hand-knitted socks to the Sunflower House community.
They also break bread with different families. At ORW, inmates, guests from Columbus, and correctional officers dined side-by-side. Likewise, one evening a small group of inmates were able to join a dinner hosted by the Harmony Project in Columbus.
On the TEDx stage, Gabrielle spoke about the transformation the choir helped bring to her own life. She and many women at ORW are mothers separated from their own children. Gabrielle is mom to three, and the separation from her youngest, born a few months into her prison term, sent Gabrielle into the darkest period of her life. Across the ocean, the terminally ill children in South Africa are also separated, many of them, from their own mothers.
Through song, the women and children have formed a powerful and healing relationship. “Call it warm fuzzy if you want,” says Brown, “but it’s changing lives, not in a Hallmark way, in a gutsy, emotional, confrontational, evolutionary kind of way.” There’s nothing subtle about the metaphor here. Says Brown: “In singing, people find and express their voice—and every voice matters”