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Rockford looks to bring people together through arts and culture

Participants gathering before the Rockford Region Cultural Plan meeting.
Yvonne Boose
Participants gathering before the Rockford Region Cultural Plan meeting.

Cultural Equity Plans are being created across the world and now one northern Illinois city is joining in. Some of its organizations, residents and other groups came together last week for the city’s first cultural plan conversation.

The Rockford Region Cultural Plan was explained and discussed at Riverfront Museum Park on May 10.

Mary McNamara Bernsten, the executive director of the Rockford Area Arts Council, said this is put in place to establish belonging, community pride, safety, and beauty.

“It gives focus to the community and helps it move forward not just in the areas of arts and culture,” she explained,” but in other critical areas of community development. According to the Americans for the Arts, the impact of a strong arts and culture community leads to community cohesion, economic development, livability and very effective planning.”

Rockford Area Arts Council board member Armando Cardenas addressing the crowd
Yvonne Boose
Rockford Area Arts Council board member Armando Cardenas addressing the crowd

The Council and other community groups are partnering with LORD Cultural Resources. This global company started 40 years ago. It helps communities create cultural spaces. The Arts council has worked with this team since February.

Eve Moros Ortega is a director at LORD. She said the Americans for the Arts website is a great resource, and it explains the need for these plans.

“Each one of these little slices of the pie connects to actual studies," Ortega said. "So, when we talk about these outcomes, they are backed by data, and something really important, like why we are doing this?”

The inaugural meeting kicked off with the Rockford Area Arts Council board member Armando Cardenas playing a familiar tune -- La Bamba. As he performed, he explained the history of the song.

After the introduction speeches and performance, participants were asked to sit at small tables and have group discussions.

“We are going to ask hard questions,” said McNamara Bernsten. “What is missing? Who is missing in this conversation? Where is that disconnect? What are we doing well? What could we build on? Answering those tough questions is a big part of this cultural planning process.”

The participants at one of the tables discussed the positive aspects of arts and culture in the city. Some examples were the creation of many murals, the city’s biannual ArtScene art walk and the work of the Arts Council.

Rebecca Francis is co-founder of the SOAR Radio Gospel Music Awards. This platform celebrates some of gospel music’s biggest artists. Francis took part in one of the group discussions. She gave input on an issue she said the region should work on.

“I literally am breaking apart our entire city and watching where the gaps lie,” she explained. “And it literally all boils down to classism. So, it’s depending on where you live, and who like you're attached to, or who you know, is really how you would get the information.”

Knowledge that some in the group said isn’t readily available for everyone. This includes different cultural offerings in the region.

Barb Chidley is a neighborhood specialist for the city of Rockford. She joined Francis and other women in the group. She says another opportunity is to work on communication. Chidley says to be inclusive, the region should look at the cultural offerings that appeal to all groups.

“Because if certain folks are not involved in those decisions as to what we bring, what we host," she said,
"it may not be a question of how we make them feel like they belong in our world, it may be a 'how do we also feel comfortable in their world.'”

After the micro conversations ended, representatives from each discussion table were asked to give a report to the rest of the participants.

Similar events will take place later this year. The Arts Council is also inviting residents in the region to take part in a plan survey. It can be found on the council’s website.

  • Yvonne Boose is a current corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It's a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.
Yvonne covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This could include how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities. Boose is a recent graduate of the Illinois Media School and returns to journalism after a career in the corporate world.