How would you define arts and culture in Washtenaw County?
Answering that question is one of the key goals of CultureMakers, a group of 17 young Washtenaw County cultural leaders. The group is a joint venture between the nonprofits Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF) and CultureSource.
Consisting predominantly of people of color, CultureMakers members usually meet once a month to have a shared artistic creative experience. Afterward, they discuss those experiences – including plays, poetry readings, dance performances, or concerts – either formally or informally.
Each member is involved in various capacities in the local arts and culture scene. Some identify as professional artists and others play supportive roles in the sector. Their bios reveal remarkable diversity and talent. They include a classically trained pianist, an artist who works with fabrics, and a curator of paintings, for example.
Regardless of their backgrounds, each is committed to creating an inclusive local arts and culture sector and better defining culture in their community.
Need for clarity brings together creative minds
Since its launch in 2018, CultureMakers has been supported through a $38,000 grant from AAACF's Cultural Economic Development grant program.
"CultureMakers seemed to align perfectly with our desire to build the connective tissues around Washtenaw County and our desire to invest in the cultural leaders of our communities," says Jillian Rosen, AAACF's VP for community investment.
Rosen notes that communities thrive when people are being creative and connecting. AAACF staff believe arts and culture help to unite people across identities, age, and geographic communities.
"It's not to say that all that wasn't happening before. However, we feel that the folks in CultureMakers are the current vanguard," Rosen says. "We're investing in these individuals so that they also have the opportunity to shape the creativity and spark the creative identity of all of us in Washtenaw."
Reflecting on past AAACF community outreach programs, Rosen says community members have communicated "all kinds of notions" regarding what is culture and what is art. She says that lack of "explicit convergence" was not necessarily a bad thing.
"However, we wondered: where is the shared value in our understanding of culture? And that felt like it needed to be explored," she says.
That need for shared understanding was what drove Omari Rush, CultureSource executive director, to create CultureMakers.
"I realized that although the word culture is in the name of our organization, we didn't have a really good way of talking about what culture was, what it meant, or what it looked like to us," he says. "I knew we had to investigate that and come up with a concrete way to talk about it."
In creating CultureMakers, Rush took inspiration from San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts YBCA 100 list.
"The list identifies and honors people in the world who are using their creative power to make change. It highlights these honorees as having interesting perspectives and ideas worth paying attention to," Rush says. "We used that framework, put our own spin on it, and the result was CultureMakers."
Leveraging the power of shared experiences
Rush says CultureMakers' initial years have involved deep exploration and sharing. The group outings have been eye-opening and thought-provoking for CultureMakers members.
"When we go to a concert or a play together, what happens is that everyone responds and connects to the experience differently," Rush says. "We're always learning from each other and bringing different perspectives into our definition of culture. And even with the differences in our identities, there are some very common ways of experiencing culture and that's noteworthy, too."
This year, Rush and the CultureMakers team will be working to further refine their draft statement on culture in the community. Describing the endeavor as a "big, ambiguous, esoteric" undertaking, Rush stresses that the group members understand they aren't going to hit the nail on the head right away and that the statement may undergo a number of incarnations.
The statement will be a good foundation to help the group determine its next steps, says CultureMakers member Jamall Bufford.
"I see it as our elevator speech to use when we want to explain what we are doing and why," he says.
Bufford is no stranger to the county's arts and culture scene. He's also a popular local hip-hop recording artist and a project specialist for Washtenaw County My Brother's Keeper. When Rush asked Bufford to join the CultureMakers team, he recalls feeling blessed and realizing that he must be doing something right in the community.
"I've worked with lots of young people, I've got a background in Washtenaw's hip-hop scene, and I have the perspective of a black man who grew up here and has experienced every level of education here," he says. "I'm also just always down to learn and connect with other artists, and CultureMakers provides those openings for me."
The opportunity to connect with others made joining CultureMakers an easy decision for member Avery Williamson. Williamson is currently the winter 2020 Artist in Residence at The Hosting, an experimental artist residency based in Ypsilanti. She moved to Ann Arbor from Philadelphia about three years ago and had been struggling to find a like-minded creative community.
When Williamson received an email from Rush asking her to join CultureMakers, she was excited about the chance to meet others in person and attend events that seemed up her alley.
"It felt like a good connection from the universe for what I wanted and what I was looking for in Washtenaw County," she says.
In her role at The Hosting, Williamson is trying to actively make connections with people and "bring them into spaces and conversations." She credits her time with CultureMakers as the driving force behind thinking more deeply about her work and how she can be more effective.
Like Williamson, CultureMakers member Megan Winkel has witnessed how her involvement with the initiative has rippled out into her work and community.
Winkel is currently the manager of the healing arts program for the Henry Ford Cancer Institute. When she joined CultureMakers she was transitioning from a similar role at an arts organization.
"Joining CultureMakers just seemed in line with experiencing different settings and learning from those different settings," she says.
CultureMakers has challenged Winkel to explore the depths of the arts community and attend events she normally wouldn't. She says that's been impactful.
"The conversations that come out from those experiences where I've been pushed out of my comfort zone have sparked a lot of new ideas that I take to work. They've helped me to edit my programs for my audience and inspire me to think differently," she says.
Winkel, Williamson, and Bufford all agree that CultureMakers is on the verge of something big that has the potential to impact all of Washtenaw County.
"Sure, you can get a bunch of math or basketball enthusiasts together, and that does happen. But the fact that we are coming together strictly for the sake of art demonstrates just how powerful art is," Bufford says. "... Hopefully, as we dig deeper, we can shed light on what's going on, not just in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, but all of the county. We want every resident to be proud of our arts and culture scene and feel like it belongs to all of us."
Rush shares Bufford's excitement about CultureMakers' future and the difference the cohort could make for residents young and old, artists and non-artists.
"A long-term hope is to have the group contribute to increasing the vibrancy and vitality of Washtenaw County's arts and culture sector," he says. "We aren't positioning ourselves as a final authority, but we do hope to serve as a beacon that inspires and empowers other people to do similar things."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Photos by Doug Coombe.