Part One: The Choice to Sing
It seemed so simple, what they did over at The Harmony Project. They got together in a big room and sang a few songs. But there was magic there – beautiful, strong magic, that those like Ms.Peggy (Director Of Communications and lead for the Community Arts Program) knows just how to harness . I watched this magic overtake the room, and realized, with awe, the impact it would have on the group of students that came here to sing.
The Harmony Project’s mission: “To build a more inclusive society by breaking down social barriers, bridging community divides and empowering the voices of the people through arts, education, and volunteerism.”
It sounds like a heavy lift. The logistics alone can be one hoop after another. In this unique gathering, with the generous contribution of a grant from the Ohio Arts Council, a charter bus was rented to bring a school load of kids for a half day field trip – a carpooling nightmare, otherwise. Meanwhile, individuals from multiple places, such as Alvis Inc., ARC Industries, Open Door, Goodwill Columbus, IBA Support Services, and National Church Residences had to make their way to Harmony Project headquarters, the old Northland Mall movie theatre. These individuals are part of Friends in Harmony of the Community Arts, a specific group within The Harmony Project.
The Community Arts Program is made up of “differently-abled adults, men and women who have experienced homelessness, and people who have experienced significant physical and/or mental health trauma and live at or below the poverty line [who] are empowered through performing live for audiences across Central Ohio. Participants sing and work alongside volunteers in the community, resulting in an integrated community experience of cooperation, creativity, and social connection.”
One of those connections took place during this field trip when a new song called “Sing Out, March On,” was introduced. This was after they had all warmed up, and ran through the other two songs everyone had come prepared to sing. This new song was a surprise.
“It’s going to be a little scary, but it’s going to be okay,” said Ms. Peggy.
She explained the song was about standing up for what you believe in. It tied to the social justice focus ROCS has for the year: Disability and connecting with people that are different- abled. This focus is what eventually brought ROCS to Friends in Harmony after a chance encounter between Ms. Peggy and Theresa (assistant ROCS manager.)
“Last year I had to go into the office to pick up my tickets [to a Harmony Project concert] and it’s like I was absorbed into the community immediately,” Theresa said. ”The director introduced himself, Peggy introduced herself and then, “What do you do for a living? What’s your connection with Harmony Project?”
Theresa’s reply was straight forward: “I’m just here to pick up my tickets.”
But it began a whole conversation that has yet to end. It’s as if a collaboration between ROCS and The Harmony Project was simply meant to be. Here are two groups who are driven, built, and fueled by the shared definition of community.
“Community is where everyone’s voice is represented,” said Peggy at one point during the morning.
Getting back to the singing, Peggy brought up Todd, a member of the Friends For Harmony who would be the lead singer on “Sing Out, March On” by Joshuah Campbell. He knew the song well, and as he sang I could feel the energy and depth I knew so many of the kids must be experiencing right then.
Later at home, my daughter remarked, “There was this guy that came up front and sang a new song. He was so good! And you know what else?”
“What?” I asked, letting slide she had forgotten I had also been on the trip.
“He was blind.”
It was something that was obviously making waves in her mind. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“Guess what else? Guess what they asked us?”
“What?” I said smiling.
“If we liked Pokemon. And guess what? One of the people in the other group raised their hands!”
“Wow.” I said.
This is part of the magic I was talking about. The connecting I could see happening right before my eyes, despite the two groups being separated by more than just an aisle way. Earlier in the session Peggy had asked for a show of hands. She released a series of questions to the groups, tailored to show how much more alike everyone was than perhaps they realized.
“Who likes to smile? Who lives with a pet? Who’s missing a tooth? Who likes Pokemon?”
It was such a low key, fun way of bridging a gap. And it worked.
I think what is most impressive about this whole collaboration thus far ( and there is more to come after this field trip!) is its simplicity. It shows that the formula for community and positive connection is so…straightforward. Yet, why on Earth then, it is so hard to bridge gaps between communities, or even between individuals is gut wrenching to ponder. All you need is a song and a little time, right? Not quite.
As Peggy pointed out near the conclusion of the session, ROCS had answered the question that is at the heart of said formula. They’ve answered not if they “can sing, but if they will sing.”
-Celeste Irving, ROCS mom