Ohio University

CoArts’ hand in building creative placemaking with Mt. Zion Baptist Church realizes positive ripple effects

Participants gather outside the Mount Zion Baptist Church
Participants gather outside the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Athens, Ohio, as part of a site visit in June 2020 with CIRD designers Omar Hakeem and Zain Islam-Hashmi. Photo courtesy of Zain Islam-Hashmi.

The Ohio Valley Center for Collaborative Arts (CoArts) is where the arts and community building intersect. Housed inside the College of Fine Arts, CoArts connects Ohio University’s creative and cultural resources with community development efforts while supporting applied research and learning opportunities for faculty and students. One of CoArts many projects is a collaboration with the  Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society in Athens, Ohio. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church was built in 1905-1909 and is one of the last standing buildings in the city that was built by free-born and formerly enslaved Black artisans. The Society aims to restore this landmark that has served the Black community for over a century.

CoArts collaborated with the Society to secure support and funding from the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD). CIRD is a leadership initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Housing Assistance Council. Focusing on communities with populations of 50,000 or less, CIRD’s goal is to enhance the quality of life and economic viability of rural America through planning, design, and creative placemaking. The institute empowers local citizens to capitalize on unique local and regional assets in order to guide the civic development and future design of their own communities.

“Upon reading the CIRD Request for Application, I thought of the Mount Zion project right away,” says Sam Dodd, director of CoArts who assisted the Preservation Society as a strategist and grant writer for the CIRD award. “The Society’s goals and CIRD’s program objectives were very well aligned: CIRD provides design assistance to rural communities with important regional assets, and it is my belief that the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society is one of the most exciting and important cultural projects currently underway in Southeast Ohio. From the beginning we were able to involve our community partners, including the City of Athens Planning Office and the Athens County Foundation, in the application process.”

Society members talk with CIRD architect Omar Hakeem
Society members talk with CIRD architect Omar Hakeem at the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill, Ohio, during a site visit in July 2020. Photo courtesy of Sam Dodd.

CIRD and Mt. Zion originally scheduled a community design workshop for June 2020 but had to quickly adapt due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. What emerged was a hybrid in-person/virtual workshop and site visit to assure public safety, making it the first CIRD workshop to make this kind of shift.

After many conversations with CIRD, the Preservation Society, local officials, and community members, a set of core values were created that will bolster the longevity of the congregation and its presence in the area. What emerged was the decision that Mt. Zion will serve as: a gathering space that’s inclusive and safe for the Black community that includes youths, students, alumni, professionals, etc.; a knowledge hub that serves to tell the story of the Black community and the church itself while fostering learning and creativity; a place that will promote the heritage tourism of the city, serving as a symbol and gathering place for the wider Appalachian Black community.

 CoArts continues to play a role in this effort, says Dodd.

“CoArts continues to actively partner with the Society by encouraging collaborations between the Society and other OHIO resources, including the Center for Campus and Community Engagement,” Dodd says.

During the last year Dodd has been working with local residents Ada Woodson Adams, Vibert Cambridge, and Libby Williams, all members of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society board, to produce an online exhibition about the history of the church. The momentum continues.

“The four of us are also talking with the College of Fine Arts School of Art + Design’s photography program about collaborating as part of an archival and curatorial project involving the personal photograph collections of several Society members,” Dodd says.

The work that CoArts did with the CIRD/Mt. Zion collaboration allowed for ripple effects to emerge.

Kiara Recchione, a 2020 Scripps College of Communication E.W. Scripps School of Journalism grad who majored in strategic communications, created a virtual home for Mt. Zion Baptist Church as part of her capstone Communications & Design internship project through OHIO’s Center for Community and Campus Engagement's Community Based Internship Program. The site showcases this video about the workshopping process created by Yaphet Jackman, a graduate of OHIO’s School of Film. Recchione gained valuable creative web design and community engagement/partnership skills that benefits the efforts led by the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, says Mary Nally, director of the Center for Community and Campus Engagement.

“The principles and desired outcomes of community engagement are apparent in Kiara’s Community-Based Internship experience with Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society,” Nally says. “Mount Zion’s work to uncover and elevate local Black history and create a multicultural center for Southeast Ohio offered Kiara the opportunity to build upon community assets while gaining insight into racism, white privilege, and allyship. Web design was a new skill for Kiara, and she reported leveraging these new skills in the interview that led to her first full-time job as an associate project manager position with an advertising agency. In her reflections during the internship, Kiara identified the importance of open-mindedness and empathy as important for her success in this experience and articulated how exercising these dispositions will benefit her career in the future,” Nally says.

Recchione says the internship helped her identify a passion for web design and helped her understand the importance of practicing open-mindedness and empathy benefits not only the community and the project but has an impact on her career path as well.

Participants hear from historian and curator David Butcher
Participants hear from historian and curator David Butcher about the history of Tablertown (Kilvert), Ohio, during a CIRD site visit in July 2020. Photo courtesy of Sam Dodd.

“This internship has introduced me to the world of web design, something previously foreign to me with my background in strategic communication,” Recchione says. “Creating the site for Mount Zion ignited a passion for design in me and has motivated me to continue this work in the future. Secondly, I was able to interact with a team of people who come from a different cultural group than myself, and who have had different struggles in our community. This allowed me to gain insight on the varying experiences of groups of people within Athens County. Overall, I think that this internship not only had a huge impact on me in letting me get my first full time job--during a pandemic--but also gave me the insight to know how I want to move in the future.”

This kind of outcome is exactly what CoArts expects to emerge as it aligns with its mission, Dodd says.

“In many ways, our Mount Zion partnership is the clearest expression of CoArts – to function as a place where university and community interests encounter each other to facilitate mutual learning and discovery,” he affirms. “The Mount Zion Preservation Society is spearheading transformational racial justice work that sets an example for our region, county, city, and university community. The College of Fine Arts and CoArts continues recognizing the deep expertise possessed by our community partners. CoArts nurtures and sustains these vital relationships by facilitating opportunities for imagining our shared futures together.”