Changing through Collective Creation

Engaging with Affordable Housing: The Musical

Black man dressed in black on foreground of stage, with several people in background holding up a hand-painted sign that says "Welcome to Church Mound"

In November of 2019, Affordable Housing: The Musical premiered at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio to a completely sold-out audience. Presented as part of a partnership between community organizations, including Chapel Hill’s Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) and Carolina Performing Arts, the weekend run of this grassroots performance reminded us that the work we do outside of our presenting season is ongoing—and important. 

Founded in 2009, CEF serves and supports Orange County residents experiencing housing insecurity. Co-founder Maggie West had recognized that members of the organization were looking for more opportunities for artistic expression, and so, over more than a year-and-a-half, she and others collaborated to create a performance that would “educate community members on issues of affordable housing and, in the process, reduce the stigma of homelessness.” 

Simultaneously, UNC music major Rachel Despard was searching for ways to use her voice to support the community. An intern for the engagement team at CPA (which works with faculty, students, and community to create connections with artists and the arts), she had also performed at CEF benefit concerts. Soon, Rachel dove into helping bring the musical to life. As production got underway, she offered her experience in mixing and mastering audio to create an official soundtrack for all streaming platforms, which was released in May 2020.     

Through her work with both CPA and CEF, Rachel forged connections that led her to a new understanding of the role of performance in daily life. This experience carried into her academics, as well. In her senior year, she authored (and successfully defended!) an honors thesis that presented a “study of socially engaged art-making and micro-activism in Chapel Hill in 2019 and 2020,” based on her intersecting experiences of collaborating with CEF and CPA, and her study of “existing scholarship on artistic advocacy and ethnomusicological activism, inform[ing] my argument for the significance of micro-activism and socially engaged art making.” 

Finding new pathways for pedagogy and participation is at the core of CPA’s engagement work, and the work extends long after the curtain falls on a performance. From Rachel’s thesis: 

“When you sing a song for an audience, you can immediately witness their reaction and feel a connection. Within the strong relationships that are built through music, participants in collective creation can see others change over the course of a musical project or collaboration. This was the kind of impact I was searching for, and one I witnessed through Affordable Housing: The Musical.” 

When Rachel came to UNC, she didn’t know how her passions of music, advocacy, and academia would evolve and mesh as they have done. And for CPA, getting to encourage and help make these connections for students and community members is an integral part of the “backstage” work we do.

Ellie Pate is an artistic coordinator at Carolina Performing Art, working both in artist services and in engagement. 

CEF serves and supports Orange County residents experiencing housing insecurity, and its work is just as urgent as ever: in the face of COVID-19, members without housing are some of the most vulnerable to the virus, and those with housing face financial uncertainty from economic turmoil. If you are able, you can support this crucial work by donating directly to Community Empowerment Fund or The Marian Cheek Jackson Center, or by donating a dinner through Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe (contact Vimala’s for more information).

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