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UMS flips the script on Flint: Yo-Yo Ma inspires pride, empowerment during 'Day of Action'

By Sydney Hawkins

The University of Michigan Museum of Art recently re-opened the Robert B. Jacobs Asian Art Conservation Laboratory under the direction of Qian He (pictured), a fourth-generation art conservator trained in orthodox Chinese Su-style craftsmanship. Photo by Dave Lawrence.
When world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma visited Flint for a “Day of Action” this year, he didn’t focus on the water. Instead, he highlighted a resource often left out of recent narratives of the city—Flint’s rich culture. “Flint is a thriving community full of cultural entrepreneurs and artists who can’t wait to tell the world what they’re doing,” Ma said. “My goal was to tap into that—to use it to create a connection and to start a conversation within the community.” His visit was organized in partnership with the University of Michigan’s University Musical Society. During the first part of the day, Ma hosted a Cultural Competency workshop for 50 Flint-based cultural, community and civic leaders to explore how “culture can raise all voices in Flint to build a more inclusive and resilient community.” UMS’s partnership with Ma is an example of one of 400 community outreach and educational events that UMS organizes with the dozens of world-class performers that they bring to Michigan each year. “This particular project is emblematic of the work that UMS has always done,” said Jim Leija, UMS director of education and community engagement. “Our goal with this event was to do something impactful, to draw local and national visibility to the ways that the performing arts can have social impact, and to let Flint speak for itself.” The second part of the day included a cultural showcase that featured Ma, along with more than a dozen Flint artists and performing arts groups. The showcase, which was open to the entire community, included talent ranging from tap dance and jazz to African drumming and spoken word. “Yo-Yo Ma’s visit to Flint was really the beginning of our work in that community,” Leija said. “We have every intention of continuing the conversation that he helped to start.” Other recent community engagement projects facilitated by UMS include their annual School Day performances, which brought more than 8,000 K-12 students and teachers to U-M’s campus this year to see jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and Mexican-American roots band Las Cafeteras. The “You Can Dance” programs offered community members of all ages a chance to take lessons with dance giants like Camille A. Brown and the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Most recently, a UMS residency with Omar Offendum, a Syrian American hip-hop artist, designer, poet and peace activist, offered talks and performances at venues like the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and the First Baptist Church of Ann Arbor. To plan the daylong event in Flint, UMS worked alongside a committee of 14 members of the Flint community, bringing together people from organizations of all sizes across the city to discuss issues like diversity, equity, accessibility and how resources move through the community. Lynn Williams, a proud "Flintstone" who has lived in the city her entire life, was on the planning committee. She participated in the workshop and was also one of hundreds of people that gathered at the historic Berston Field House to view the high-energy cultural showcase later in the day. "The day of action was really empowering for our community," said Williams, who is a community engagement officer at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. "I think it reminded people that we have always been resilient, and that moving forward and changing the narrative of Flint needs to happen from the inside out—we need to work together to improve our quality of life by creating a sense of place, building pathways for cross-cultural collaboration, and generating new ways and means for people to feel good about the city of Flint." Williams said that the Flint artists who participated in the cultural showcase—which included songwriter and recording artist Tunde Olaniran, mariachi band El Ballet Folklórico Estudiantil, and director Kevin "Baba" Collins of the Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company, among many others—are already planning another "Day of Action" next year. "UMS has done an amazing job providing the tools for us to come together, and we're happy that they were the catalyst for something that we can build on from here," Williams said.

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