The Higher Ground Project

Higher Ground Coalition/The Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College

Funding Received: 2012
Cumberland, KY
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
August 28, 2012

Led by The Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College, this participatory community arts project and the coalition behind it will transform spaces to catalyze economic development by connecting art, design and commerce in a rural Appalachian coalfield county.

ArtPlace asked Robert Gipe of the Higher Ground Project what his group would have to do well to achieve success with their initiative, and how they expect the community to change as a result of their efforts.

GIPE: Higher Ground’s ArtPlace project includes a new play, a series of history exhibits around the county, youth arts initiatives, the beginnings of a new art school, and the creation of four theater environments in four communities. We have to find ways to increase the number of people who are able to take responsibility for the broad range of work our ArtPlace grant represents. As a way of doing that, we asked project participants to respond to this month’s blog prompt. Here’s what they said:

High school drama teacher and Higher Ground cast member Wendy Clem said: “It’s good to map out a plan no matter what the objective is—a huge production or a trip to Wal-Mart. Patience is also key. Some things take time to achieve.” Nor does it hurt to remain flexible. Clem: “Sometimes what you want to happen just gets fouled up and you need to be able to adapt in order to reach the overall goal!” Cast member Rut Melton added: “You have to stay focused on what you plan to accomplish. If you have a good idea, the community will follow.”

As one of our partners, Richard Geer of Community Performance International says, “We have to grow stakeholders in every community.” Our work is spread out over at least four community sites in our mountain county. We are creating theater that is site-specific to each site and at the same time is a unified performance that makes sense in all the sites. Already, a cadre of younger Higher Ground cast members are working with veteran playwrights in the community to collect stories and come up with the script for the new show. We will be looking for ways to involve community members in set design and construction with CPI and in designing community exhibits with the University of Kentucky College of Design.

Creating the bridges between the participating communities is important, because as cast member Judy Hensley says: “In the normal routine of any community, people tend to mix with the same group of people over and over - family, work, school, church. It takes something special to dislodge them from the norm and motivate them to set aside time to be part of something totally different. The mutual respect evident when our communities come together to make art is a powerful encouragement that causes people to want to engage in something bigger than their own little neighborhood.”

Hensley continues: “Communities change when a common effort towards a shared goal brings down the invisible walls come down between races, religious beliefs, cultural differences, and socio economic backgrounds. When people celebrate their success together, they can never go back to being the strangers than they might have been before.”