In the Spring of 2015, I was a Senior at Brattleboro Union High School, getting ready with college applications, and very busy. I was told about a workshop that was happening called Race Peace. I was intrigued but didn’t know whether I had the time or energy for this. A few of my friends were doing it, so I said yes, and decided to do it, even though I had no idea as to what I was getting myself into.
This workshop has completely changed the way I look at the world and people. My eyes were opened wide to people and all of our struggles. I was obligated to sit in a room with people that ordinarily I would not have hung out with. To be honest some of these people intimidated me—some of the students told me that they thought I was exclusive and privileged and snooty. I can totally see how they thought that, after all our worlds never collided at school and they didn’t know me as a person and I didn't know them. This workshop brought us all together—helped us speak frankly to one another—realize that we cannot judge people from their picture. Everyone has a story, and we listened to each other’s story. Some of these people are now my friends. I wish that I had gone to this workshop in middle school or even freshman year.
I am so grateful to Eric Bass from the Sandglass Theater for opening this up to the schools. I feel that I am changing for the better. I am looking at ways I can integrate social change and social justice into my life. I have studied theater all my school life, and now I hope that I can learn more about how to bring people from different social backgrounds together. It sounds dramatic, but this has changed my course in my life.
Another significant change we are seeing in many rural areas is that, because we have the space, many refugees are being resettled in our communities. Demographics are becoming more racially diverse due to displacement in cities from gentrification, and most recently people seeking safety from the pandemic. This has led to a terrible insurgence of racism and Islamophobia, which has come out of the woodwork. As a result, the demographics in our schools are changing—however, the demographics of our teachers and mentors, role models, are not. We need to bring in artists so that our youth can meet people who affirm and give voice to an aspect of their experience. We need to encourage the voice of our local community and break misconceived perceptions of our area.
Less than two percent of national funding goes to rural organizations, and competitive granting models are scary for us, as we have little access and great need. We must work in partnership in order to present NPN artists, and it is sometimes difficult to guarantee our end of the bargain with our partners. Much of our challenge is a lack of funding opportunities. We do have a thriving arts culture here, and all of these organizations/artists are applying for the same small pool of grants. I am currently working on a plan for a rural touring circuit. As we are mostly small organizations that cannot compete with city artist fees and have much higher travel expenses, we hope to develop a circuit in which each presenting venue can pay what they can and together we can meet the needs of paying the worth of the artist. I performed recently in a small schoolhouse in Shrewsbury, Vermont: far out on a dirt road, surrounded by woods and a few farms. We thought, who will even come? But the little house with the wood stove burning was packed, people emerged by foot and by car, some had driven an hour to see the show (not unusual around here), the audience was of all generations, and the gratitude was enormous.
When we speak about bravery and audacity in the arts, my thoughts turn to what it takes to reach these rural populations and what we’re asking when we ask an artist to come into our community and play for, teach workshops to, and engage with audiences that may seem very different to them. But if they can reach that one child struggling for belonging, offer them voice and affirmation, it is transformational to more than just that one. In our local youth theater, we just had our first child transition, and though the community was very supportive, there is a lack of trans mentors for this youth who could directly speak to the journey. We are working to bring artists here who can connect with exactly these folks. The young people here need equity, and we feel we are struggling to deliver.
A group of rural-identified organizations met for an NPN plática in 2018 (the group included Bridgman | Packer Dance, Bunnell Street Arts Center, Callahan Consulting for the Arts, Double Edge, the Myrna Loy, Sandglass Theater, Urban Bush Women, and The Yard). Here are some of the things we feel we can bring to the table that are unique to our rural identity:
Here are some things we identified that we uniquely need from our national networks: