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Constance Alexander: AIR program helps small towns strengthen community, economy

I, wife of a coffin maker, have no idea where I will be buried, or even if I want a final resting place. These days, I’m leaning toward cremation, with ashes to be scattered maybe on Cape Cod, or else strewn from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge.

So when a classmate at a workshop I attended this week declares, “From the time I was 8 or 9, I knew where I would be buried,” it caught my attention.

The two of us, and about 16 other Kentuckians, are at AIR Shift Facilitator Training in Berea. The acronym stands for Arts Incubator of the Rockies. The concept originated in Fort Collins, Colorado, with the purpose of providing artists, businesses, and communities the tools, resources, and support to learn, connect, and succeed. In 2015, when AIR expanded east, Berea College became an affiliate. So far in Kentucky, most of the AIR projects have been in Appalachia.

Many of my fellow workshop participants were born and raised in the mountains. Some left to go to college or pursue careers, but eventually came back home to be community organizers, artists, business people, and creative problem solvers. Other non-natives were attracted to the region because of the strong sense of place, the abiding spirit of community, and the value of a good story, well told.
One Appalachian talked about the AIR program as a way to bring hope to the region, emphasizing the importance of cultivating the positive to offset negatives like the opioid epidemic. A married couple from Grayson County spoke of the importance of creative place-making and how their pop-up art gallery is now a long-term asset in their rural community.

Most of us shared the goal of being creative catalysts in our towns and counties, but that journey is not undertaken by any one person.

Beth Flowers, workshop facilitator, challenged us with a key question: “Who in your community is interested in expanding your creative economy?”

She went on to say, “Creativity is the engine behind every pursuit that has changed the world. The things we used to do aren’t working anymore.”

Heads nodded in agreement, and I heard at least one “Amen” in response.

As various trainees gave examples of creative activities in their rural communities, we learned how a pencil sharpener museum put Logan, Ohio, (population 7152) on the map. A small town in eastern Kentucky claims its own Ruber Driver, which stands for “Rural Uber.”

A group in rural Virginia used the AIR model to create Rise & Shine Market, a branch of the local Farmers Market, through which youth ages 8 to 18 learn entrepreneurial skills by selling their own wares, including produce and plants to fine arts and crafts.

AIR is committed to providing support that will increase the long-term success and sustainability of programs that build communities and economies, connecting people who normally never meet. The focus is on creative problem solving that addresses crucial issues that affect rural communities.

“We’ve already built the town we want,” one participant explained, “but now we want to create a community that young people want to live in.”

Communities interested in the AIR model, can dip into the process through a 2-hour workshop that helps determine your community’s readiness to grow a creative economy. The workshop introduces AIR programs and goals, explores social entrepreneurship, and helps local participants – including artists, local business people, and community members – to find common ground and shared values.

The 3-day workshop I attended ignited a spark in all of us. We shared wit and wisdom garnered from cultivating values and ideas that sustain artists and communities. Some of the advice shared was esoteric, as in, “Creativity is the engine behind every pursuit that has changed the world.”

For me, one of the most sensible takeaways was this: “In order for visitors to stay longer in your community, you need five things to do. Then they’ll stay overnight.”

Gives you something to think about, doesn’t it?

Organizing an AIR program in a community is a way to get started. The Kentucky Arts Council is coordinating AIR efforts in our region.  Contact Emily Moses, Creative Industry Manager, at 502-892-3109, or EmilyB.Moses@ky.gov.

For more information, log on to www.airinstitute.org or via email info@airinstitute.org.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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One Comment

  1. Anne Adams says:

    Excellent article….ALWAYS! Gets the creative juices going!

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