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Midwest Folklorists' Retreat 2016: Columbus, OH

Co-sponsored by the Folklore Student Association, Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise, King Arts Complex, Poindexter Village Foundation, Columbus Historical Society, Maroon Arts Group, Battiste LaFleur Galleria, and the Ohio History Connection

From May 19-22, 2016, the Center for Folklore Studies and the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise hosted the 2016 Midwest Folklorists’ Retreat (MFR) in Columbus, Ohio. The MFR is a biennial gathering of academic and public folklorists from across the Midwest and beyond for the purpose of professional development and networking. This year, MFR events focused on storytelling (for both academic and non-academic audiences) and arts advocacy in the King-Lincoln/Bronzeville neighborhood of Columbus.

On Wednesday, May 18th, Jo Radner led a pre-retreat workshop with students, faculty, and interested community members on how to interview for stories. This workshop provided a refresher for five graduate students who were going to gather the professional life histories of our visiting public folklorists later in the week.

On Thursday, May 19th participants gathered at the Barnett Collaboratory for the official welcome and introductions, and we then visited the King Arts Complex (KAC) for our first cultural tour.  Sonia Manjon, Director of the Barnett Center, gave a presentation about the work that her think tank had conducted with the KAC.  This involves facilitating community discussion forums and strategy sessions with the board in order to generate conversations about next steps for the organization (which has lost some of its relevance for community artists and activists). Later that evening, Jo Radner performed Burnt into Memory, a story based on oral history research into the devastating 1947 fire in Brownfield, Maine. Her presentation provided a model for how to return stories to a community in a way that engenders empowerment. Her performance was sponsored by the Ohio State University Humanities and the Arts Discovery Theme Mobile Coffee Series.

On Friday, May 20th, Jo Radner led another workshop.  This one was entitled Putting the Oral back into Oral Presentations. Participants used storytelling techniques to enliven various kinds of oral presentations, such as presenting a paper at an academic conference or delivering an informational talk for a public audience. Jo had participants standing up on chairs, lying on the ground, whispering, yelling, and speaking nonsense lines in order to understand the way that positioning and tone can help to bring out the meaning of words and phrases.  Finally,  everyone had a chance to try out their new techniques by re-working their introductions to the draft presentations they had brought to workshop.

After lunch, the group visited the Ohio History Connection to take the Domestic Life tour and visit the Ohio Earthworks exhibit. During both experiences, we were interested in understanding how exhibitors and visitors managed co-constructions of the stories of time and place.  From there, many of the MFR participants went on to enjoy an excellent dinner at Columbus’s premier south Indian restaurant Udipi, where our very helpful waiter introduced us to the delicacies of his home region.

On Saturday, May 21st, we returned to the King-Lincoln/Bronzeville neighborhood which was once the center of Black life in Columbus for two tours.  The first of these was led by the Maroon Arts Group (MAG) and began at Battiste LaFleur Galleria, a flower shop on Long Ave that is owned and operated by African American women.  They are members of the family that has worked in the business for over seventy-five years. Vera Battiste told us how her grandmother started the flower shop in South Carolina during a time when the professional options for African American women were very limited. The Columbus shop serves as a meeting and launching place for local arts initiatives. Members of the MAG, which is a consciousness-raising performance group named after the Maroons of Jamaica, described how they use the arts to host important conversations in the community. MAG co-founder, Diandra Gordon then led our group to the Cultural Wall on the Long Street Bridge, a city project that connects the King-Lincoln District to Downtown and commemorates the achievements and contributions of Columbus African-Americans.

In the afternoon, we moved on to our second tour of the day which was put on by the Poindexter Village Foundation. We began at the Second Baptist Church. There, Julialynne Walker and Sandra Jamison discussed the role of the church and the 19th century leader who was based there by the name of the Reverend James Poindexter. An historic sign outside the church commemorates Poindexter's work as an abolitionist and supporter of the underground railroad. In addition to owning a barbershop and preaching, Rev. Poindexter served as the only African American on the Columbus City Council in 1880 and the school board in 1884.

Walker then led us to what remains of Poindexter Village.  It was the nation’s first low-income housing project and provided poorer African-Americans a place to live with dignity from the 1940s into the 1970s, when urban decay set in. The artist Aminah Robinson,  along with many other now prominent African Americans, grew up in Poindexter Village. Walker explained that the Foundation was formed when the city announced its plan to demolish these historic two-story brick rowhouses to make way for rental housing for the staff of OSU East. The Foundation was able to negotiate the preservation of two buildings, which they plan to convert into a museum and an income-generating bed and breakfast.

Our last stop in the neighborhood was the Broad Street Presbyterian Church where we attended a quilt exhibit at the Broad Street Presbyterean Church and engaged in a lively discussion with Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, a prominent African American quilter and author of A Piece of My Mind.

Between tours, five students collected the professional life stories of our visiting public folklorists. Those interviews will be stored and made publicly available in the Folklore Archives.

On Sunday, May 22, we had a wrap-up and feedback discussion that got participants thinking about how to continue to engage students and professionals in future MFRs, how to build on the relationships that we initiated for this MFR, and how to structure future retreats to include generative discussion and collaboration as well as tours and workshops.

Thirty-six faculty, staff, students, and professionals registered for the retreat, and 67 people attended Radner’s performance of Burnt Into Memory.

Overall, we were excited to have had an opportunity to hear and learn from our presenters and to gain insight into the ways in which community leaders are advocating for change in their neighborhoods. The Center for Folklore Studies was able to form relationships with new community partners, which we plan to build on in the coming years.


Retreat Schedule

Thursday, May 19

12:00PM: Welcome & introductions
2:00PM - 4:00PM - King Arts Center cultural tour, Barnett Think Tank presentation, and discussion about increasing public-academic partnerships across the Midwest.
4:30PM - Check into Smith-Steeb dorms
5:00PM-6:00PM - Dinner at Woody's Tavern, Ohio Union
6:00PM - 8:00PM - Burnt into Memory by Jo Radner

Friday, May 20

9:00AM - 12:00PM - Putting the Oral back into Oral Presentations (workshop w/ Jo Radner) ***light refreshments & coffee served at 10:30am***
12:00PM - 1:30PM - lunch break (on your own; we will distribute a list of restaurant suggestions)
2:00PM - 5:00PM - Ohio History Connection for museum exhibits and Domestic Life tour ($9 museum entrance only OR $11 for museum entrance + tour). Those not planning on going to the OHC will have free time to explore the city or campus.
6:00PM - Dinner TBA

Saturday, May 21

9:00AM - 11:00AM - Maroon Arts Group presentation
11:00AM - 12:00PM - lunch break
12:00PM - 2:00PM - Professional Life Review interviews (students will interview public folklorists)
2:00PM - 2:30PM - break
3:00PM - 5:00PM - Poindexter Village cultural tour
5:00PM - 6:00PM - Poindexter exhibit reception at COSI (sponsored by the Columbus Historical Society)
6:00PM - Dinner on your own/in small groups

Sunday, May 22

9:00AM - Wrap up & feedback
11:00AM - Check out of dorms
11:00AM - (Optional) Depart for trip to Newark Earthworks
12:00PM - 2:30PM - (Optional) Tour of Newark Earthworks