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February 4, 2010

Traveling to Africa…by way of Detroit

By Claire Rice

Each season, UMS emphasizes a geographic area of the world that is also represented by a significant population here in Southeastern Michigan.  This year we focus on Africa, both in our main stage artistic presentations and in our community engagement work.  We began six years ago with an Arab World music festival, followed by an Africa focus, a festival celebrating Mexico and the Americas, a focus on Asia, and we’re now repeating the cycle…in Africa once again.

From L to R, UACO Executive Director Dr. Ola, a guest at the kickoff party, Alhousseynou Ba from the Senegalese Association of SE Michigan, and UMS's Claire Rice.

As UMS plans these Global Series, we are able to make new community connections, and have the pleasure of getting to know new parts of Southeastern Michigan.  This is especially true in the Detroit area, where we continue to explore new neighborhoods, working with leaders to determine how UMS can make meaningful contributions to community life.   Most recently, we planned a large event in collaboration with the Detroit chapter of UACO, the United African Community Organization, to kickoff our winter 2010 focus on musicians from Africa.  This celebration of African culture brought together African dance, music, clothing and food, and featured African artists that live here in Michigan.  Nearly 200 people attended the festivities in early December.  You can click through the slide show below for photos of the event.

Every two weeks for the six months prior to the event, my colleague Mary Roeder and I would make the 45 mile trip to 15800 West McNichols Road to meet with our community partners at UACO.  Near the UACO offices are many African-owned or Africa-related businesses: clothing stores, record shops, braiding and hair salons… we wandered around a Senegalese grocery store once, taking in the sights and delicious smells, and a man very kindly asked if we were lost!  Of course, this kind of experience reminds us that a crucial aspect of partnering with Southeastern Michigan’s cultural communities is a (sometimes awkward!) exchange of cultural traditions, practices, and values…but when it works well, both sides have much to gain.  For UMS, our goal is not just to build audiences, but to listen better, to be of real value throughout the community, and to explore through authentic experience new cultural connections. The goals for each community when working with us are different: for some it’s about the social interaction that the arts provide, for others it’s about the cultural education opportunities (both inside and external to the community), but regardless of the desired outcome, success is only achieved when both UMS and its partners see their needs met and goals realized.

What, then, is the key to that success?  Why do we drive all over Southeastern Michigan to do this work?  Couldn’t these meetings take place via conference call or video chat? In a word, no.  These relationships are all about personal connections that lead to organizational connections.  We believe that our artistic and community programs provide opportunities for various groups to connect and strengthen themselves around the arts.  But when we first start working with community leaders, they don’t know us, and don’t necessarily relate to or resonate with the ways in which a relationship with UMS could impact their communities. Initially, we get to know each other personally, and (hopefully!) we come like and trust each other as individuals.  That trust then evolves into a connection and relationship with UMS as a whole.  Does it always work perfectly?  No.  But it starts with the driving, and we build from there.


Claire Rice is UMS Interim Director of Education and Audience Development