BY MELINDA CHILDS
Development Director, ArtStart Rhinelander
After taking the summer off from writing my monthly article to take advantage of precious time with my little ones (not to mention precious time in swimmable water), I am excited to be back writing and sharing thoughts about the value of art in our community! October was particularly busy as I had the opportunity to participate in back-to-back conferences. While I was not thrilled to leave Rhinelander (or my family) behind, I do think it’s important to seek out opportunities for new ideas, fresh perspectives and to share the creative work that is happening here in the northwoods with others.
The first conference was in Iowa City and was hosted by two organizations, Art of the Rural and the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI). The conference was called the Next Generation Rural Placemaking Summit. What was most exciting about this conference was that it was for people working on the idea of placemaking in their communities. Placemaking is a buzzword in the field of cultural and community development that essentially means working to create vibrant communities by looking for creative ways to support economic development. After living in Rhinelander for a full two years, I have seen, at worst, a rural bias among arts professionals and, at best, a general lack of understanding of what rural communities are like by those who live in more populated areas. Convening with others from across the country that all come from rural areas was refreshing and inspiring. We could skip to the core issues we all have in common and not spend too much time explaining our situations.
As I write, I am on a plane to Miami to attend a conference called Common Field. This gathering is more focused on arts and social practice (more buzzwords, but essentially artists and community organizations going beyond viewing art for art’s sake). Again, this conference will include presenters and attendees from all over the county. I am putting the finishing touches on a presentation about collaboration. It should be a great discussion once I explain to them what a Hodag is!
“Our local environment is changing and we can either embrace it and guide it towards prosperity and stability or miss a golden opportunity.” Melinda Childs, Rhinelander ArtStart
I am sure I will continue to share with you ideas from both of these conferences over the next few months, but for now what is resonating with me most is the idea of rewriting our narrative. This can happen on a personal level – the story you have told about yourself or what others tell about you is not set in stone. We have the ability to claim our stories and re-tell them in new ways as we grow and reinvent ourselves, learn and respond to the world around us.
What really got me excited was the idea that an entire community could re-write its narrative. We, as a community, have faced a lot of struggles recently. Just this year we struggled with a referendum, with the challenges that come along with an exciting downtown construction project, with the loss of our new city administrator and our new Chamber director, and other transitions in community leadership and city projects. It’s easy to feel that we are losing ground. I struggle with some of this myself.
On top of that we inherit others’ versions of the “Rhinelander story,” such as Rhinelander making the list of the top 10 worst cities to live in Wisconsin on a click bait website advertised on social media (by the way, this unsavory designation was arrived at through a very unscientific approach to calculating the data). I hear young people in Rhinelander talk about what Rhinelander could be, its potential and the feeling that the city is on the cusp but could go either way. I hear potential investors saying that with all the recent leadership turmoil they are not sure if purchasing property is a smart choice. This is the narrative that we are all reinforcing: our local media, our conversations with friends, and our comments on social media. Is this really the story we want to tell about our city?
Similar narratives are being constructed on a national level. There is so much focus on what is wrong with our society, economy and communities and not enough conversations about problem solving or solutions. Conversations should not be rooted in complaints and criticisms without offering a balance of ideas and vision. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting we avoid talking about critical issues and addressing problems, but let’s do it with vision, collaboration, inclusivity, creativity and openness.
For about two years a community group called Forward Rhinelander has been working to foster positive dialogue and problem solving about both short and long term planning for Rhinelander in partnership with the city and other community leaders. This group is looking at ways to support economic growth and workforce development, and the creation of a common language and vision for the city and all its citizens. Our local environment is changing and we can either embrace it and guide it towards prosperity and stability or miss a golden opportunity.
We can start today to tell the story of the Rhinelander we want to see. I invite you to envision, dream, share, volunteer and become involved in the development of our community. You won’t regret it!
Melinda Childs can be reached at mchilds@ArtStartRhinelander.org or by calling 715-362-4328.