University of Orange provides music-making as a creative tool to help communities heal from collective trauma

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Artists and creatives have played a key role in advancing public health messaging during the COVID-19 pandemic and the national movement for racial justice – two crises that continue to impact the physical and mental health of many people. Residents in the most vulnerable communities are no stranger to health crises or the racist structures that create disparities. The same is true of artists who have been working to improve health outcomes in communities of color to achieve a collective and equitable recovery. In the commentary below, our partners Molly Rose Kaufman, co-director of the University of Orange, and Douglas Farrand, co-director of the Music City Program at the University of Orange, share how their organization has been leading efforts in Orange, New Jersey to help residents heal from trauma. The University of Orange is a community organization and free people’s urbanism school that builds collective capacity for people to create more equitable cities.

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The University of Orange is a free school of restoration urbanism. We recognize both that our cities have been shaped by racist and classist policies that undermine the health of everyone, and that resources to heal already exist within our neighborhoods. We recognize that the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen upon this history of crises, and further reinforces the fractures, inequality and despair in our society.

Our Music City program grows out of this framework, recognizing music-making as an abundant asset in our communities and a vital tool for connecting and gathering, bearing witness and grieving, celebrating and imagining.

Music City responded to the pandemic in three stages (so far). In the earliest months we re-allocated resources and leveraged our networks to provide translation and communications support to local health coalitions working to disseminate important information about COVID-19 and grassroots public health measures.

In the second phase, we built digital infrastructure to hold space for convening our extant networks of musicians, educators, parents and students. We offered stipends for online content projects. An example is our annual “Remembering Rosa” concert, which traditionally brings together school choirs and church choirs to commemorate and celebrate the legacy of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In December 2020, we hosted an online “Remembering Rosa” that invited those same choirs, local dance studios, and local activists and organizers to lift up local stories and songs of organizing, solidarity and resistance.

In the third phase, we are piloting programming that aims to re-make and re-claim public spaces in our city, provide paid work for local musicians, and encourage support for local restaurants and other businesses. One example is the Enciende El Amor Festival, a socially-distanced, in-person music festival held in October 2020, which forged partnerships between local musicians and restaurants to host live music in nearby outdoor public spaces.

Exactly why are we hosting these types of events?

Because the American people are suffering from decades of hostile policies and this has led to feelings of despair and fear.  The arts can help people manage these overwhelming emotions. The depth and breadth of suffering are so great that individual healing is insufficient. We need “Collective Recovery” – programs that help us see ourselves together and that help us repair the deep wounds. The arts are central to collective recovery and to reinvigorating people who are at the edge of their emotional resources.

We convened an interdisciplinary collective recovery team to identify and teach ways we heal physically, socially, spiritually, ecologically, economically, educationally, and emotionally and to help individuals and organizations answer the question “What is ours to do?”

We have workshops and other resources that we share with communities and organizations around the nation. This work has built on our experience leading the 400 Years of Inequality project in an effort to encourage the nation to observe the anniversary of the first landing of Africans at Jamestown in 1619. In that project we observed that many organizations drew on the arts in designing their commemorations.

We are proud to continue this work in 2021 and beyond.

Molly Rose Kaufman is Co-Director of the University of Orange. Douglas Farrand is Co-Director of the University of Orange Music City program. The University of Orange receives funding support from Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program, which places an explicit focus on Creative Placemaking by elevating arts, culture and community-engaged design as central elements of community development and planning. Follow the University of Orange on Twitter at @UofO_07050 or Instagram at @uoforange. Follow photographer Amonnie Nicolas on Instagram at @artoftyler. 

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