Arts Key to Erasing Divisions and Building Communities

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Despite the political divide that separates many Americans today, there are important cultural connections and common goals that can be forged within communities across the country to help bridge these differences.

The Mahoning Valley and smaller metropolitan areas like it are at the heart of this discussion, says David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times and executive director of The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

“I’m here in Youngstown to try to learn from what’s happening here,” Brooks said shortly before he joined about 20 guests at the Butler Institute of American Art Monday in a forum to help develop strategies to enhance the arts. “I want to know the story of Youngstown.”

The event at the Butler was part of a daylong celebration of creative talent across the Mahoning Valley sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and its Arts Across America initiative.

Yo-Yo Ma, among the most honored cellists of the modern era, was on hand at the Butler to participate in the discussion, along with local civic, business, academic and community leaders. Ma performed Monday night before a standing room audience at the Warren Community Amphitheater.

Brooks, as executive director of the Aspen Institute, saw this as an opportunity to join in and observe the impact of establishing a common dialogue within a community to elicit change through the arts. One of the Institute’s programs, Weave: The Social Fabric Project, seeks to help community groups establish common goals and erase barriers concerning race, religion, economics and other social divisions.

A conservative columnist, Brooks has recently written about the power of localism and how civic-minded organizations can have more of an immediate impact on the welfare of the community rather than the heavy hand of a divided federal government.

“The first thing I’ve noticed is that everyone in Congress is miserable,” he said. “Then, I go out and see a mayor or civic leader and they’re happy. They’re getting stuff done.”

He noticed that community organizations across the United States have demonstrated a sense of urgency and action that has yielded impressive results. “From Denver to Shreveport, La., through New Hampshire, there are community groups doing great things,” he said.

In Shreveport, an effort called Community Renewal International boasts 55,000 members and is starting to address many of the social issues that affect the lives of residents there.

There’s still a lot of work to do, Brooks noted, but the dialogue is pushing the city in a positive direction in regards to racial divisions and economic woes.

“To me, it’s a cultural shift,” he said. “If we can start to see each other in a different way and shift attitudes, then you begin to have a national effect.”

One reason for Brooks’ visit to Youngstown is to learn more about the community and to understand the difficulties brought on by deindustrialization. But, it’s also to tell a story about how people have come together to rebuild their collective lives.

The political atmosphere in the country and the administration of President Donald Trump isn’t exactly making these efforts easy, Brooks conceded. “It’s hard to be successful locally when you’re country is being ripped to shreds nationally,” he said.

Yet the events Monday in Youngstown – capped by an evening performance by Ma at the Warren Amphitheater – points to precisely the kind of positive momentum communities need, and the arts is a perfect way carry that message forward.

“Everybody loves Yo-Yo Ma,” Brooks said. “People like music and the arts are a great relaxant.”

The Mahoning Valley is the fourth region selected for the Arts Across America project, said Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. The idea is to travel to smaller cities across the United States, bringing constructive dialogue and support to arts education and awareness.

“It’s been really exciting to do this,” Rutter said. “It’s a way to shine a light as to what is going on in the community and what is happening across the country.”

Rutter said that each of the visits — the last one was with Yo-Yo Ma in Braddock, Pa. — has allowed her to bring back new ideas to the Kennedy Center and to its network of organizations nationwide. The Youngstown-Warren area was selected because the Kennedy Center already has a past relationship with Warren, and it so happened that Ma was playing at Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls Sunday evening.

“Yo-Yo Ma is one of our most important partners and we knew he was in the region,” Rutter said. “And, he had a free day.”

Moreover, the Kennedy Center team found that the Mahoning Valley possesses a vibrant arts community that is thriving, Rutter said, making it a perfect location for the Arts Across America initiative.

“The arts are thriving despite all kinds of changes,” she said.

Those who attended the discussion Monday said that it focused on how to develop strategies to promote the arts within the Mahoning Valley.

Richard Van Leer, vice president of artistic planning at the Kennedy Center, said the purpose was to help people find their own voice about how the arts could help address some of the social issues affecting those across the country. “The arts can touch many of us in many different ways,” he said.

Local officials also found the discussions productive.

“It was an exciting and engaging process,” said Warren Mayor Doug Franklin. “We talked about how to leverage our message, educate through the arts, and create opportunities for our citizens.”

Franklin said that one of the takeaways was the realization that there is a vast amount of artistic resources throughout the region.

“I can’t think of a better launching pad for our message moving forward than to have it kicked off with a performance by Yo-Yo Ma,” Franklin said. “He believes in what we’re doing.”

Youngstown Municipal Court Judge Carla Baldwin found the discussion with Ma exciting. “This conversation showed the importance of connecting the community to the arts,” she said. “We have all these amazing institutions here in the Valley. How do we get our kids connected? How do we keep them connected? How do we make this a priority and just not an option?”

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Pictured: Warren Mayor Doug Franklin talks with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts President Deborah Rutter outside the Butler Institute of American Arts Monday.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.