More than three dozen people showed up for the first two-day workshop in the fall of 2015 — a broad and diverse group of government, business, nonprofit and faith leaders alongside artists, educators and community activists. People with power and privilege alongside people without either.
None of us knew where this journey would take us, but everyone had a hunger to find out. The task at hand: to collectively address the economic disparities impacting our city through an innovative approach informed by artists and artistic practices. The goal: to create a more equitable and abundant Winston-Salem for all who call this community home.
The fact that our city was one of only two nationwide chosen to pilot the Lab made this exercise all the more intriguing. The heft and commitment of the conveners —The Winston-Salem Foundation and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County joined the Kenan Institute and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts as primary supporters — no doubt helped us stand out during EmcArts’ highly competitive selection process. And, of course, Winston-Salem is the City of Arts and Innovation.
Everyone in the room that day voiced strong support for a project that would try to bridge differences across the lines of race and class, and charting a new path forward for our city. That this particular approach would integrate artists drew excitement from creatives and curiosity from most others in the room. Richard Evans, the founder of EmcArts, told the crowd: “We don’t know where this will lead, but we know it will lead to new places.”
New places, indeed.
In the two years that followed, the Lab began to unlock important new ways of
thinking. Mindsets shifted. Small groups we called “clusters” coalesced around bold and creative ideas that received seed funding for prototyping. Some of those projects took root and continue to have a lasting impact on our city today.
One example is Hustle Winston-Salem, a group that used its funding to create a brand and launch an integrated marketing campaign focused on growing the local economy through support for underrepresented entrepreneurs — women and people of color. Today Hustle Winston-Salem is a nonprofit and prime mover intent on creating a genuinely level playing field for entrepreneurs from all backgrounds by providing equitable access to resources, education and opportunities.
That’s just one example.
Many of the strategies and relationships developed during the Community Innovation Lab have endured, creating a ripple effect by spurring new partnerships and projects. In the coming months we’ll share more of these stories here on the ArtsFwd blog.
It would be impossible to track the full impact of the Lab on those who took part and on the city as a whole. But among the most enduring outcomes revealed by our initial assessment was the myriad new relationships forged across traditional barriers of race, class and income. So many of those who participated, whether they became deeply invested in the entire process or simply took part in one workshop, continue to be connected to one another and to collaborate.
Strong bonds would not have developed except for another outcome participants revealed: deepening levels of trust and communication that were cultivated across those barriers. Whether through poetry writing, personal storytelling or some other artistic activity, empathy created a greater understanding, and understanding created more trust — trust of other people’s experiences and their roles in the system.
As for Winston-Salem and its funders and leaders, they gained a deeper understanding of the city’s creative sector and the benefits of embracing it as a catalyst for economic and workforce development.
How far have we come in answering the big, hairy audacious question we set forward at the start of the Community Innovation Lab? Not far enough. We knew that creating a more equitable and abundant Winston-Salem won’t happen overnight — or even in a few years, for that matter. However we are certain the experiment we launched nearly four years ago helped put a more diverse and equitable group of people, including artists in a stronger, more visible and influential position to carry this work forward.