Walking up to the Cunningham Township community garden, I was somewhat nervous given I was alone, had never been there, and was not planning to brave the stage (which seems like the obvious way to unite with others at an open mic). In fact, last Wednesday, July 11th, was a particularly morose day for me — the type of day you dread having when you’ve made plans to tackle the nerve wrecking task of engaging with a group of strangers. Typically, for me, art events bring out the shy, wall-leaning, uncontrollably awkward voice cracking side of myself — one I try to keep happy at home. And, of course, on the walk from my car to the garden, she (this side) was there. But, what I didn’t expect, and what has been reiterated by the intent of this project’s initiators, is the true welcome that overcame me once I started to take it all in.

Photo by Rachel Lauren Storm. 

So, what is it all? The open mic included what you would expect of any open mic being the obvious microphone, stage, seating, sign-up list, and host. However, on top of these essentials there was much more to this open mic. Perhaps, some history behind the birth of the project is helpful to situate our understanding. Rachel Lauren Storm, coordinator of the Urbana Public Arts Program, stated, “Open Scene began as a project of the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center and the city of Urbana’s public arts program that with a grant from the NEA would invite area youth, particularly youth of color and youth often on the margins to take their place as creative leaders in our downtown arts scene. The initiative in its original form back in 2017 offered four weekend intensives lead by artists, from across the nation, in theatre, storytelling, beat-making, and hip-hop performance. Open Scene, Open Mic is a continuation of the project, inviting diverse expression and creative organizing to our downtown arts scene. Open Scene, Open Mic will be popping up in Urbana’s downtown twice a month through September”. As one may infer from Storm’s description, this open mic actively takes on the challenge of creating spaces in the community that bring people together and embrace new relationships that allow for us to grow and understand each other better.

Photo by Rachel Lauren Storm.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

Brian Dolinar, Program Director of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, emphasizes this intent by stating, “Our mission with Open Scene is to introduce new creative collaborations in downtown Urbana, and diversify the art and music scene in C-U. In the current moment of great social anxiety, we want to build a community supportive of everyone― youth, Black and Brown people, poor folks, homeless women and children―they are all welcome at Open Scene”. And this welcome Dolinar describes was truly present, creating a beautiful scene of collaboration, enthusiasm, and life. The beauty present at Open Scene, Open Mic reminded me of the ways that beauty inspires hope —something that many of us desperately needed to be reminded of right now.

Photo by Neleh Barber.

Danielle Chynoweth, supervisor of Cunningham Township, embodied this hope in her time on stage that night as she reminded everyone to embrace and utilize their individual capabilities when she confidently spoke to everyone about her voice tremor and expressed her strength through showing herself and others care that is essential to sustaining hope. Chynoweth commented on the event stating, “At a time of manufactured scarcity, we can create abundant community. When we come together across difference, we can organize to meet the needs of our community and organize for essential policy change. In our garden yesterday, City Council members and County Board members mingled with and met homeless residents over snow cones and burgers. This is what beloved community looks like."

Photo by Neleh Barber.

Of course, these three are doing work and showing their care in many ways for the C-U community. And perhaps, their collective involvement in the community is what helped make this event so successful. When Rachel Storm encouraged everyone to make three new friends I immediately shook off the challenge as an impossibility for my shy self. However, moments later I met my new friend Kevin, a man several times my age, originally from Tennessee, who happens to be homeless, and has found a welcoming community at Cunningham Township. Kevin was the first person to truly make me feel welcome at the open mic that night and immediately impressed me with his storytelling. My words take me a bit longer and usually the rehearsal of the keyboard allows me to edit out the long pauses I take in real time. Kevin’s delivery, on the other hand, was flawless. Shortly after meeting Kevin, I met Dan, Theresa, and Jon who were enthusiastic, energetic, and quick witted twenty-something-year-olds ready to take the stage and share the latest song they wrote. Of course, Dan was not part of the harmonizing duo, but nevertheless, he quickly took stage to provide the beat to a young aspiring rapper and photographer (Neleh Barber). It was as if I had been welcomed into a tight knit family BBQ.

Photo by Rachel Lauren Storm. 

Children were painting the faces of adults, formerly strangers, and now trustingly blank surfaces eager to wear their creative expression. The host for this week, Shaya Robinson stated, “Being surrounded by community young old, rich, poor, and in between all there just enjoying the themselves was amazing!”, and I couldn’t agree more. The breadth of difference was impressive to me because I cannot remember being another place where so many different people voluntary gathered together. Local artist and poet (also one of the night’s performers) Ja Nelle Davenport-Pleasure stated, “I appreciate Open Scene creating a space for artists of all backgrounds allowing them to come together and share love and talent”. The emphasis and transparency of the open mic’s intentions seem to propel its successful inclusion of many different peoples, which is both politically and personally important to its counterparts.

Photo by Rachel Lauren Storm.

Photo by Danielle Chynoweth.

As I began this article, I expressed my disposition last Wednesday, as I originally feared it would somehow shadow my experience and create for a biased review, but contrarily to my fear I believe the transition from when I arrived to when I left is truly indicative how wonderful Open Scene, Open Mic was and how important it is for the open mics to continue. Collaboration is not easy and creating spaces that feel welcome for everyone is a rather daunting task no matter how vital it may be. No matter how involved you are currently, what you have to offer, if you are performer, or if you are more of the wall-leaning type, these open mics will welcome you, hold you, and reciprocate any care you show them.

The next Open Scene Open Mic, hosted by DoMonique Arnold with music by DJ Terrance, will be July 30th, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., at Blackbird in downtown Urbana. Followed by another hosted by local poet Jim O'Brien on August 8th, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at 25 O' Clock Brewing Company. For a full listing of upcoming Open Scene Open Mics, click here.