Kentucky Community Scholars Reunion And Discussion of Community-Based Work.

Participants in the Community Scholars Reunion. All photos by Mark Brown, Bob Gates, or Amanda Hardeman.

This past Saturday in Frankfort, Kentucky, Bob Gates, Amanda Hardeman, Mark Brown and the Kentucky Folklife Program hosted a Community Scholars Reunion.  The event brought together community workers from around the state to discuss their current projects, share resources, and  discuss best practices. The event also celebrated the 23rd Anniversary of the Folklife Program.

The Community Scholars program, a division of the Kentucky Folklife Program, has been around for a few decades now, offering training and resource sharing for numerous community members around the state.  Participants engage in cultural documentation through the media arts and gain training in grant writing and other potential opportunities for community-based projects.  Many of the people who come into the program are already cultural researchers and community workers and come to the program to form partnerships and learn from fellow researchers. Also on hand were many of the Kentucky-based arts and historical agencies.  They provided materials about their own state-based work, offered suggestions for grant funding, and others sources.

Estill County Mushroom and Agate research (more on this in upcoming posts).

In addition to the participants discussing their own work throughout the state, Steve Grauberger of the Alabama Arts Council discussed various ways to use multi-media sources in cultural work.  There was a great deal of discussion about online audio editing sources, the usefulness of various blogging programs, and the like.

During lunch Ed White and the youth-based River City Drum Corps, a performing arts organization out of Louisville, performed a few cadences and discussed the role the corps play in students’ lives.  Much more on this amazing youth-based organization later this week!

Michael Morrow and Mary Reed discussing community based projects.

During the afternoon we all took part in a discussion on cultural sustainability and community-based projects, learning how community members are approaching their work in two different ends of the state.

Panelists Michael Morrow of the West Kentucky African American Heritage Museums in Russellville and Mary Reed of the Mountain Mushroom Festival  in Appalachia, discussed their work in community-based projects in the areas of Logan and Estill Counties, Kentucky, respectively.  Both Michael and Mary work in somewhat small, semi-rural communities and engage in cross-generational work, helping to bridge divides between generations and explore ways to support and sustain their communities.

While their home communities are, in many respects, quite different, they share numerous similarities that are probably familiar to all of us working in communities around the nation.   Both are rich in culture and history, yet much of this information is not passed down to younger generations.  The land itself is layered with meaning and story—whether it be the agate and morel mushroom hunting regions of Estell County, or historic black ownership in the River Bottoms of Russellville—the literal geography of the community plays an inseparable role in defining their homes, past, present, and future.  They both believe that learning more about their community’s past is an inseparable part of planning for the future.

Their work, as one participant pointed out, is essentially a form of community organizing—-a process involving listening to the needs of community members, and serving in a facilitator role to help preserve the history of their communities while also working toward the future.

Mary’s work in Estill County, especially with the Mountain Mushroom Festival, serves as a homecoming for community members in the region, strengthening community connections across years and miles.  In recent years, her work has helped to bring the morel mushroom back to the festival, drawing attention to this community-based foodway.  Mary engages in a series of creative partnerships to help sustain their community work. Learn more about the festival and their work in the schools here.  In the near future we’ll be posting more about this work, so stay tuned for that.

Michael’s work in the community focuses around a series of restored building known as the West Kentucky African American Heritage Museums. The buildings serve as hubs for exhibits, after school youth programs, and research centers for African American history throughout Kentucky.  In recent years the organization has helped to start the Mary Ann Fisher Blues Festival which takes place in the neighborhood.  The core goal of the organization is to uncover black history throughout the area, using this history to work toward a stronger future.

Serving as a facilitator, I had the opportunity to see how both Mary and Michael’s work share similarities and what lessons their work might hold for the rest of us working in our own home regions. I’ve compiled a short list of some of the key concepts Mary and Michael touched on during their discussion.   Some of the points they made were overt and direct; others a but more subtle. If you think of some that are not listed, please let me know and I’ll add them!  I’d love to include your comments as well. These are just umbrella themes, and in the future we’ll be writing more posts that breakdown some of these ideas down and provide more specifics, including upcoming posts that touch on some of the partnerships and projects taking place in each of the areas.

 Ideas About Community-based Cultural Work, as discussed by Michael Morrow and Mary Reed.  

*  Community-based cultural work takes years, even decades, to become fully formed.  And it’s always in a process of growing and changing. Both Mary and Micheal were engaged in cultural research and organizing in their communities long before they ever ran a festival or a community organization.  Their connections with the community run deep and wide. They are constantly reaffirming these connections and building new ones.

* Listen to the community elders; listen to the youth.  Learn from everyone’s stories—-whether you find these stories in the archive or out in the community. Community work means a a deep knowledge of history and of the present-day life of the community.  Listening is key. 

* Much of their community work is not funded in the traditional sense.  They seek funding from a wide number of sources (large and small) and engage in numerous creative partnerships with local and state agencies. Mary mentioned partnerships with the Estill County Public Schools, engaging students in local research.  Michael mentioned his work with KTAP( Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program), where he hosts workers to learn more about historic building renovation and historical research. These partnerships serve the community and the organization in a somewhat seamless partnership. 

* A key theme that continually surfaced in both of their comments was the need to engage in creative partnerships within the community rather than focusing on obtaining funding outside of the community.  There’s no hard or fast way to develop these partnerships.  They develop through listening, learning, asking, and experimenting.

* To make these partnerships work, they pointed to the need to be both in and with the community, listening, observing, making connections.    They clearly love the communities they serve and listen to their needs on a deep level. There is a great deal of trust involved and they have worked hard to earn that trust.

* Always be sharing your ideas, they noted.  Continually tell people about your work, goals, ask questions about what works for others, find allies, share your passions.  In sharing and discussing key partnerships form.  Don’t be afraid to put your ideas out there.  Both Mary and Michael have found local newspapers to be a great sources of information sharing.  Newspapers are continually looking for local content.  Consider creative partnerships with local publications. 

* Don’t wait on the funding to start the work.  For both Mary and Michael, and for so many others, funding has come after projects are already somewhat in place.  Part of the reason for this, as Bob Gates pointed out, is that large funding agencies are more trusting of community-based work that is clearly working and community-supported.

*Look at the big picture and think about the long haul.  Community work is a slow process and always changing.  If something doesn’t work out as planned, try something else.  Everything is a process of trial and error. 

* Love what you do and love the people you work with. Build trust in the community. Work across generations. 

Were you there?  Tell us what you got out of the discussion!  What do you wish had been discussed in more detail?  We’d love to hear what you have to say?

Mark Brown, Bob Gates, Sarah Milligan, Amanda Hardeman, and Sarah Schmitt, past and present Kentucky Folklife Program.

River City Drum Corp. Much more on this amazing youth organization in tomorrow’s post!


Celebration Cake!



  1. […] week we posted about the Kentucky Community Scholars Reunion and mentioned Ed White and the River City Drum Corps. We’ve had the chance to see the Drum […]