Emerging Ideas: Mobilizing Your Community through Innovation

Posted by Gabriela Jirasek, Nov 22, 2011 0 comments

Gabriela Jirasek

This post is part of a series on emerging trends and notable lessons from the field, as reported by members of the Americans for the Arts Emerging Leaders Council. It’s not just the Angelina Jolies and Brad Pitts of the world who fall victim to the ruthless 24-hour news cycle. The public’s hunger for uncomplicated, easily digestible news can slander celebrities and entire cities alike. On January 11, 2011, Newsweek magazine published a now infamous article titled “America’s Dying Cities.” It crunched U..S census data to list the top-10 cities with 100,000 residents or more that experienced the steepest population decline in the country. Number 10 on that list was Grand Rapids, MI. But the residents of Grand Rapids were about to prove that the reports of their city’s death were greatly exaggerated. In answer to the article, lifelong Grand Rapids residents and filmmakers Rob Bliss and Scott Erickson created perhaps the greatest letter to the editor of all time,  a 10-minute lip dub music video of Don McClean’s “American Pie” featuring a cast of thousands and a full tour of downtown Grand Rapids. Responding to the city’s premature death knell, director and executive producer explained, “We disagreed strongly, and wanted to create a video that encompasses the passion and energy we all feel is growing exponentially, in this great city. We felt Don McLean's ‘American Pie,’ a song about death, was in the end, triumphant and filled to the brim with life and hope.

Produced for merely $40,000 and completely sponsored by local Grand Rapids businesses, the video received more than 1.3 million views over the 2011 Memorial Day weekend. It was praised by film critic Roger Ebert as “the greatest music video ever made.” The video was so successful and garnered so much media attention, that even the editorial staff at Newsweek took notice, publishing a Facebook friendly “mea culpa.” The Newsweek editors explained that the original article was not actually written by its staff and came to them as part of a recently negotiated content-sharing agreement with another news website mainstreet.com. But in the end, the faults and apologies fade away because what remains is a community-based project that showcases the creativity and vibrancy of a great American city. Rob Bliss, Scott Erickson, and the more than 5,000 participants of the Grand Rapids lip dub put a human face on an otherwise abstract economic concept.

So what lessons can the arts take from Grand Rapids? Mobilizing your local community can be one of the best ways to make a project happen. The Grand Rapids Lip Dub was successful because it was a true grassroots effort that engaged residents, local businesses, city politicians, and the creative energy of a whole city. We all have stories to tell about our work and our art, but it’s up to us to share them. Not all of us can produce high quality music videos with a cast of thousands, but we can find new and inventive ways to communicate the value of our crafts. In our field, we are lucky enough to have creativity to spare. It’s time to put it to work.

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