On Thursday October 1, 7:00 -8:50 p.m., the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition in partnership with Originary Arts Initiative will host Express: Wide Open Mic Event –“What Matters? Creative Empathy, Community Care Ethics, and Story-Listening.” Artists, writers, and musicians will tell and listen to each other’s stories in the spirit of creative community and shared experience. This virtual event is free and open to the public by clicking the link, http://tmuky.us/whatmatters .  

I had the opportunity to talk to UACC Steward Sherry Cook Stanforth, who has organized this event as part of her Originary Arts Initiative. I asked Sherry what motivated her to do so. She explained: “Some months ago, I heard myself speaking in the voice of someone who was waiting for our currently distanced and socially fractured community to get better, as if healing descends out of nowhere.” Since healing communities takes place in communities, Sherry was inspired to draw in some of the folks who have helped define the urban Appalachian community in the past for an event that could begin the process of healing and community-building right now.

Sherry Cook Stanforth called on those who have defined the creative spirit of the urban Appalachian community and beyond. Many of the people involved in “What Matters? Creative Empathy, Community Care Ethics, and Story-Listening” have previously lent their voices to the process of building community through the power of stories and poetry: “Over the years, I have been blessed to work on other projects with these specific artists and young people.  They are genuine in their love of community—and they are honest in their values for cultivating powerful storytelling.” The event will feature young writers and storytellers as well as established writers and artists Frank X Walker, George Ella and Steve Lyon, Chiquita Mullins Lee, Manuel Iris, Pauletta Hansel, Richard Hague, Omope Carter Daboiku, and Desirae Hosley.  Many of these people are known to the community, others are new, but all will gather via Zoom in the service of the project of healing the community.

The idea of healing comes at a time of deep fractures in our communities and the continuing weight of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than turn away from these harsh realities, the Express: Wide Open Mic Event is all about directly confronting these things. Sherry explained that “many people (including me) feel distressed and angry about the destructive forces dominating American culture.” With these issues in mind, the event is as much focused on listening as it is on speaking. One could make the case that much of the conflict of our times stems from a lack of listening.  Sherry told me that the centrality of listening in this event stems from some of her core beliefs: “I believe that listening allows people to establish common ground outside of the hard-clipped politicized rhetorics that are currently being utilized to suppress human rights, kindness, care, and collaboration on social issues.” With the help of Zoom, the speakers and artists will facilitate us all as we connect and find this common ground by simply listening to understand, rather than just listening to respond.

Underlying the challenges that come with the Express: Wide Open Mic Event is the relatively new challenge of pulling this together amid the pandemic and facilitating the entire thing via Zoom. When I asked Sherry about the way the pandemic is affecting her and the runup to the event her initial response was, “On a bad day, my soundtrack for the Pandemic is something akin to ‘All the Good Times are Past and Gone.'” Yet never to be held down, much less defeated, Sherry explained that Zoom is proving to be a blessing. No matter her self-described “woods and meadow resistance to technological activity,” Sherry told me things are working out quite well. “Artists from beyond our Greater Cincinnati area are teaming up with local people…we’re offering small focal pieces of personal testimony, poetry, music, storytelling.   Technology is allowing us to reach through the void–toward each other,” she explained.  

Perhaps because of the challenges rather than despite them, “What Matters? Creative Empathy, Community Care Ethics, and Story-Listening” is coming together beautifully, coalesced around the spoken word with a community of people who are committed to the themes of creative empathy, community care ethics, and story-listening. In open mic style, the program promotes the spirit of a listening, caring, and just community during a time of great division. Where are you coming from? What struggles and experiences shape you? How are you rooted, planted, committed?  We’ll weave diverse expressions into a tapestry of poetry, short prose, testimony, and music, offered from people all around our region. As Sherry told me: “I now include Zoom on my “I Am Grateful For…” list.  And—on a determined day, I hear the tune of “We Shall Overcome” echoing all around…it is my soundtrack of humility, reminding me that we are called as artists to creatively adapt to the needs of our time and place.” Determination and a gathering of voices make a community, it seems, no matter the medium by which they gather.

Express: Wide Open Mic Event –“What Matters? Creative Empathy, Community Care Ethics, and Story-Listening” is free and open to the public. Hosted by author/musician Sherry Cook Stanforth and co-sponsored by Urban Appalachian Community Coalition and Originary Arts Initiative, it will be held on Thursday, October 1 from 7:00 -8:50 p.m. on Zoom by clicking the link, tmuky.us/whatmatters .

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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