Promoting cross-cultural understanding

REACH Conference celebrates 20 years

An effort that began 20 years ago to help Appalachian and African-American students feel comfortable in classrooms at Sinclair Community College has grown into an annual series of events that promotes cross-cultural understanding.

In addition to the current art exhibits at the Dayton Visual Arts Center (DVAC) and Sinclair’s Triangle Gallery, a highlight is a lively one-day conference that blends speakers, artists and performers with workshops and hands-on art sessions. This year’s event is slated for Friday, Feb. 22, at Sinclair’s Ponitz Center, and it’s not too late to sign up.

A testament to the success of the REACH program is that it’s celebrating its 20th anniversary this month and continues to grow. In its first year, 160 attended the conference. Last year, 300 came.

Folks of many ages and professions — including dozens of students — gather for the annual collaboration between Sinclair, DVAC and the EbonNia Gallery. Gallery owner and artist, Willis “Bing” Davis, has been involved in REACH since its inception and serves as co-coordinator.

The informal conference teaches about a wide range of customs and traditions — Appalachian and African American, Native American, Latino, Asian and others. Participants have sampled African drumming and Ukrainian music, sipped soups and munched breads from lands around the globe.

Each year, REACH picks a theme, and explores it in a variety of ways with an emphasis on the similarities among different peoples. Speakers who are knowledgeable about their own heritage typically share experiences — often in panel discussions with questions and answers from the audience. Participants also can select break-out sessions they prefer.

About this year’s conference

This year’s theme focuses on “bridges” and several past presenters have been invited back in honor of the anniversary year. Poet Frank X. Walker is returning to give the keynote address. An associate professor in the department of English at the University of Kentucky, he’s the editor of PLUCK!, the journal of Affrilachian arts and culture. An Affrilachian is an African-American who is from the Appalachian region of the United States.

The special arts project will involve the group in bridge building — in this case a “bridge” fashioned from the foot and hand-prints of those attending. The woven fabric and collage piece will be on permanent display at the college.

Also on this year’s schedule: a bluegrass performance, a discussion of Ohio Barn quilts and storytelling. Walker will discuss “How To Find The Poetry in Your Own Family History.” Art professor Bob Coates will use a lump of clay to lead his class through meditation. The closing session features musician/songwriter Sharon Lane, who will perform and discuss the interrelationships between blues, bluegrass and traditional music.

The history of REACH

It all began 20 years ago when Sinclair arts instructor Tess Little began noticing that both her Appalachian and African-American students were struggling in the classroom but were just as capable and intelligent as her other students.

Little, whose own family roots are in Eastern Kentucky, says she could relate to her students’ attempts to fit in. She’d felt exactly the same way when she was in college. What she discovered was that through music, dance, and the visual arts, her students could open up, relax and learn.

Originally organized as a three-year community outreach project, the idea of REACH was to promote learning “by creating an atmosphere that builds respect, knowledge and understanding for the area’s diverse cultural populations.”

“The idea was that if we learn about ourselves and who we are and where we came from first, then we can better understand and learn about other cultures, and finally, after we have accomplished those two goals, only then can we teach what we have learned to others,” Little explained. “The belief was that if we could change commonly held stereotypes about Appalachian and African-American culture, both internally and externally, we could change the future of our community.”

In the beginning, there were definitely “naysayers,” Little said.

“One prominent community member said that she just came to check it out and see what we were doing. She wanted to make sure we were not talking down or making fun of people,” Little recalled. “Another person said that we were destined to fail because we would never be able to get African-Americans and Appalachians to sit down in the same room together. Several other people said that it was wrong to point out differences, that we were a melting pot and we should not talk about different cultural values – that we all should have American values. One tenured professor of history was so upset that he came to my office and spent an hour trying to talk me out of the project altogether.”

But REACH participants responded enthusiastically. That’s continued to be the case throughout the 20 years.

What participants can gain

Anne Rasmussen, community involvement director for the The Dayton Early College Academy (DECA), has brought her students to the REACH conference for years and says they continue to draw meaningful civic and cultural lessons from the experience.

“The students are a diverse blend of African-American, caucasian and immigrant students who are learning daily how to interact with each other in academic and community settings,” Rasmussen explained. “The Reach Conference is a wonderful way for our students to hear from community leaders the same message they are getting from their school leaders… that understanding each other and engaging and working together leads to a stronger city and better opportunities for all of us.”

Tiara Middleton, a junior at DECA, says she has enjoyed the panel discussions and especially remembers hearing panelists discuss the word “home” and what it meant to each of them.

“I thought it was fascinating to see the differences between cultures in terms of how they viewed the idea of home,” Middleton explained. She said she enjoyed last year’s workshop which involved making stamps, then creating prints from the stamps.

“I had to look up a symbol that described my family,” said Middleton, who chose a Swahili symbol that meant creative. “I also loved hearing Bing Davis talk about the importance of not procrastinating in life and to remember to cleanse yourself from people who hold you back in life. I found these ideas to be very inspiring.”

Noel Pohlman, a Wright State University student who plans to spend the day at this year’s event, first attended REACH as a student at Sinclair, and said she enjoyed lively discussions that ranged from artistic techniques to the economy.

“It has changed the way I think about life,” wrote one participant on the evaluation form. Wrote another: “REACH has expanded my world view and pushed me to seek out all my heritage.”

Little still remembers the electricity that filled the air on the day of that first conference 20 years ago.

“African-American and Appalachian folk were being invited for the first time in their lives into an academic setting, to talk about who they were, what they felt, believed and were taught as children,” she said. “Many people were moved to tears as presenters and panel members spoke about traditions and beliefs.

“Speakers and attendees alike realized that they were not alone in their feelings. That other folk shared the same feelings and beliefs. We also realized people who looked and acted differently than they did had many of the same beliefs, issues and hopes that we hold in our hearts.”

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