AIR Institute of Berea College
What is the AIR Shift workshop?
The AIR Institute of Berea College is a new program of Berea College, and our AIR Shift workshop is a workshop that is all about getting artists and business people and community members together to discover that they have a whole lot in common and that they actually can figure out how to collaborate and really solve some of their local community problems together.
Do you work mostly in small towns?
We work with a variety of sizes of communities, but we do primarily work in Appalachia right now, so we’re working in a lot of small communities throughout southeast Kentucky and Virginia, and most of those places tend to be pretty small.
How much do you work with town leadership?
We work a lot with city managers and mayors and sometimes elected officials, with economic development folks for small communities or for a county. One of the reasons I think they’re excited is because one of the struggles that small towns have is that they don’t have a lot of resources to invest in community development. One of the powers, I think, of the AIR Shift program is it really allows the community to discover that they really can figure out a plan for their town themselves. They don’t need a consultant to come in and help them figure out what great idea that maybe doesn’t have to be so big and exciting, that could really make a difference in their community, figuring out what their next steps are and helping build the pride and understanding of where their community can go.
What is one thing you wish that mayors and town managers in small towns knew that they don’t know?
Sometimes town managers struggle with the understanding that art actually has value in the community beyond the art itself. One of the things that we really work to help a whole community, but certainly leadership in communities, to understand is that creative people have all sorts of incredible assets and value within a community, not just as makers, but as thinkers. They tend to be really empathetic and they think a little bit outside of the box, and sometimes that’s what we need in our communities to help figure out how to solve some of our problems related to social issues, but also, just frankly our economic problems as well.
Are you optimistic about small towns?
I’m more optimistic about small towns than I ever have been, and I think that this is an incredibly exciting time to understand that rural America, and Appalachia in particular, has an opportunity to really be seen in a different way. Because we have the ability to access the internet and to access global markets, it means that we still can stay in the mountains, and in the places where we want to live, where our families are from. And it really is a chance as well to build on, particularly in Appalachia, one of our most important native talents and assets, which is our ability to make something out of nothing. That’s all that creativity is, and that’s something that we do so well in Appalachia. It’s a great time to realize that that value that’s instilled in our people actually can be a way forward for us economically.
How would a community take part in the AIR Shift workshop if they were interested?
If someone wants to participate in Virginia, they definitely need to contact Julie [Walters-Steele] at the Reynolds Homestead, because Julie has a license that serves all of Southwest Virginia. The other way to contact us is just to go to our website, which is theairinstitute.org, and we can certainly help find out whether there’s a state contact that we already have. We’re in the process of working in seven different states across Appalachia, so we probably have some relationships with folks that we’d love to get them hooked up into.