Adventures in Michigan: a2ru

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Some pretty happy faces despite having to wake up at 5am…

I feel pretty confident in saying that, honestly, none of us attending the a2ru Conference had much of an idea about what we were getting into before arriving in Michigan. All we knew was that it was supposed to correlate with a Music Cities course we had taken together, and that it had the Dean’s stamp of approval… Which seemed like enough reason to us. We were encouraged to submit a proposal for something that would help to better communities across the country, which led the wonderful Sydney Clapp to a brilliant idea about connecting homeless/displaced populations with artistic resources. Her and I submitted the proposal and it was approved, along with eight other submissions.

DAY 1

After landing in Michigan, we went straight to the conference (driven by a very loud and slightly sexist taxi man), ate a quick dinner, and jumped straight into the creative process. We were not assigned to specific groups, but rather, we got to choose from one of the nine proposals based on our interests. Aside from the rebellious Will Card, all of us CU Denver folks joined the homelessness & art proposal group. Will decided to join a group centered around gentrification, which aligned really well with his passions. Our first night was spent getting to know the members of our group, brainstorming (on GIANT STICKY NOTES which are the best sticky notes), and consistently being really excited (and maybe a little confused) about the next 48 hours.

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Sydney leading a brainstorming session on Night 1.

DAY 2

Day 2 of a2ru was a whirlwind. We started out the day at an incredible facility in Detroit, about 40 minutes away from where the rest of the conference was a University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There was a huge body of water right outside of the window, and we realized that the skyline across the foggy river was Canada when some of our phones starting warning us about international charges.

The morning was spent doing various exercises with our groups – designing a logo in fifteen minutes, identifying our values in relation to group projects, and more. We also got the opportunity to discuss with some truly incredible cultural leaders working in Detroit during a panel. Two of the highlights for me personally were the Director of the Heidelberg Project and the Co-Founder of Ponyride. I highly encourage anyone reading this (…mom) to go check out the websites linked above and learn some more about the projects. I think we all left feeling pretty inspired.

It’s also worth mentioning that this specific location provided the absolute best food and beverages that we had during the entire trip. Good job.

 

On the way to the Detroit Institute of the Arts, our bus made an unexpected stop. We all filed out, not really knowing where we were, and were immediately surrounded by an entire neighborhood filled with some of the most interesting art I’ve ever seen. It took a few minutes to make the connection that this was the Heidelberg Project that we had just learned about, and just how awe-inspiring it was that they had been around for 30 years.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying I didn’t really know how to process this art. It symbolizes the abandonment, and now gentrification, of Detroit in a really unique and almost terrifying way. It felt pretty wrong to wander this neighborhood while taking photos, realizing that there were people who still lived in most of the houses, but I also felt the need to document what I was seeing.

I think the part that hit me the hardest was watching this man walk around, picking up huge amounts of trash and looking at our group from a distance. It took me a minute to realize he was the artist, at which point I walked up to him to say thank you. He nodded and then walked toward the next piece of trash, at which point I noticed the part of the piece that had been destroyed by fire. I remembered the lady on the panel speaking about withstanding arson attacks, but I hadn’t realized the scale of what they must have gone through (below), especially since it had happened multiple times. It’s hard to see in photos, but there’s an entire underground level underneath the structure in the last photo that had been completely destroyed.

After visiting the Art Institute (which was incredible), we headed back to the University to work on our projects for a couple hours. We were primarily working in a graduate residence hall, which was beautiful and very clearly geared toward learning in its design. Knowing that we were required to present our project the next afternoon, we were all pretty geared up to work. At that point, people in our group had started developing ideas of specific things they wanted to focus on, so we created a skeleton of a presentation from our collaborative “emotional vomit” document and broke into individual work on our topics. We came back together an hour later to share and give feedback, which was such a respectful and valuable process for me to go through, and then hopped onto the bus to head back to the hotel.

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Bus lighting is surprisingly good lighting for photos.

That last night before our big presentation was pretty special because we got to spend time with our entire group in a less professional manner. We were still working on the project, but we were working in a hotel room, wearing sweatpants, eating hummus, and sharing our favorites artists and bands and movies. It was really wonderful to get to know everyone a little better on that level while still be productive on something we were passionate about.

DAY 3

Turns out that 48 hours isn’t that long of a time to develop a “pitch” project. We (fortunately) got a few hours before our presentation to finalize everything, which mostly consisted of rehearsing in order to get closer to fifteen minutes of talking. I think our first run-through was almost thirty. Our specific project was titled the “Arts, Resources, and Opportunities Initiative” or “ARO.”

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The logo above is what that brainstorming session the day before had turned into, and we were all blown away by the work the graphic designers in our group had done. I think one of the most important things this entire conference has drilled into me is the importance of strengths-based leadership and work. Rather than trying to develop our weaknesses (not that it’s not important), we each worked on tasks that we could simultaneously challenge ourselves and do well with. Our graphic designers created a stunning logo and presentation with beautiful symbolism, our human development major focused on defining the need for this project on a personal level, our business major created a timeline and documentation of unique aspects, and so on. It allowed us to all work cohesively while staying engaged, which is probably the only reason we actually got the project done in 48 hours.

Our presentation went really well (despite the nerves that came from being chosen to go first), and then we got to relax through eight more amazing and well-articulated ideas. I am continually impressed by the sheer power of collaboration, especially in groups like this. We got to hear from the Dean at the University, and we were all mesmerized by his intelligence, kindness, and selfless accomplishments. I met so many people on this trip who just want to see others succeed, and spend their whole lives building up on that. It’s beautiful.

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We spent the last night celebrating at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which was having an event similar to DAM’s “Untitled Fridays” with free admission and live music. There was a really cool, interactive exhibit with several small mirrors hanging in front of a television showing a live feed of what was happening in front of it, which is how I ended up with the terrifying photo of Sydney below.

 

The rest of the night was spent getting to know everyone else a little better, realizing just how much we had in common, making sure we had ways to stay in touch, and lamenting over how early we had to wake up the next morning. That turned into something positive, though, when we were able to meet up with some members of our group at the airport for one last breakfast before flying home after an enlightening couple of days.

FINAL THOUGHTS

After enrolling in a “Music Cities” themed class last Fall, I just thought I’d be getting to meet and talk with a bunch of people I admired in the music industry. The class has developed into more of a community on its own, and it’s led to so many incredible opportunities like getting to attend the Music Cities 2015 Conference in DC, getting an internship I love (that turned into a job I love), and now getting to attend the a2ru Conference in Michigan with some truly incredible people. I’m incredibly grateful for everything.

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