For 25 years, the annual REACH Across Dayton conference has been using art, discussion, music and more to help expose thousands of people to other cultures and ethnic groups. Its main two founders and leaders, Tess Little and Willis “Bing” Davis, two artist/teachers and longtime friends, are stepping aside from organizing the event after this year. We talked with them and the professor who will pick up the reins, Derek Petrey, about this year’s event. — Ron Rollins
Q: For anyone unfamiliar, describe REACH Across Dayton in your own words.
Tess Little: REACH stands for Realizing Ethnic Awareness and Cultural Heritage. It uses the arts and humanities to help people connect and get acquainted at a deeper level than the normal, hello-nice-to-meet-you level that we experience in everyday life. It allows folks to talk and explore their own beliefs, experiences and personal histories while learning about other people’s beliefs, experiences and histories. It allows us to compare and contrast at a level that allows us to see that we have more in common than we have differences.
Bing Davis: It’s a unique opportunity for individuals from a broad and diverse cross-section of the community to come together to celebrate each other.
Q: What makes it different from other multi-cultural gatherings you may be familiar with?
Little: REACH focuses on the similarities between cultures, while acknowledging that there are differences. We believe that if we learn about one another and form a foundation of understanding and friendship that when differences arise they will be able to be talked about and worked out between one another.
Davis: REACH places a strong focus on how the arts and humanities reflect the commonality of the human family. The Rights of Passage are life stages people go through … birth, puberty, marriage, death. These stages in life are celebrated through ceremony and rituals that often use music, dance, visual and decorative art, drama or the spoken word. The primary focus for the REACH conference was to identify and celebrate the positive similarities between Appalachian and African-American cultures — two important cultures in Dayton and the nation that are often pitted against each other for the crumbs from society’s table. People that came to the first few years enjoyed and appreciated the warm and sincere efforts to share information on the similarities of these two cultures when they are not in a crisis situation.
Q: How old is it? What’s the history, and how were you both involved?
Little: REACH will be celebrating 25 years this year! It started back in 1993 when I noticed, as I was teaching art, that my African-American students and my Appalachian students seemed to have a lot in common.
Davis: Tess had the vision as a way to help students who appeared to have had difficulty navigating the educational systems. A large number of these students were Appalachians and African Americans. They had the intellect, but were experiencing some difficulty that may have been from school officials and teachers insensitive to students from these two cultures.
Little: As an urban Appalachian, I could relate to many of my Appalachian students. And, when my African-American students talked with me, it seemed that many of them expressed the same feelings and beliefs that I held. I asked the dean, Clarence Walls, if I could do something that would bring the two cultural and ethnic groups together and discuss our commonalities. I also talked with Paula Recko, who was then director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center, and had several community meetings to see if there was any community interest. There was a lot, including Bing, who came to one of those first meetings.
Q: How are Appalachian and African-American communities and cultures similar?
Davis: Both cultures traditionally reflected a closeness to the earth and family — a similar use of music and movement (dance) and story telling in the expression of civic, social and cultural values.
Q: Has the conference always been part of Sinclair Community College? How does the school participate in and/or shape the event?
Davis: Sinclair has always embraced and supported REACH.
Little: Yes, REACH is primarily financially funded and supported by Sinclair. We have two other partners, the Dayton Visual Arts Center and Bing’s Ebonia Gallery, who help with art exhibits and workshops. REACH is supported all the way from our president, Dr. Steven Johnson, to faculty, staff and students — even the cooks at Building 12 work hard to prepare special ethnic menus for our conference.
Q: Who typically attends?
Little: We have about 120 Sinclair students, 100 high school students, 10-15 K-12 faculty members, 30-40 Sinclair faculty and staff and 80-100 community members. We usually have between 300-350 people who attend.
Davis: Classroom teachers, program directors, social workers, psychology departments, language, history, international studies, artists, musicians, dancers and dramatists.
Little: Each year a different group of folks attend REACH, but we have a group of 50-60 folks who come religiously every year. For our two art exhibits, at Sinclair’s galleries and at DVAC, we have several hundred who view the exhibits each year.
Q: What do you hope people get out of the event?
Davis: I always hope that those who attend gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of themselves and people who are different from them.
Little: By celebrating our similarities, commonalities, we will be able to work together to create a more harmonized world.
Q: Did you ever think it would last this long?
Davis: I was anticipating a two- or three-year run for REACH. There is now a “family” of REACH people in Dayton that have developed a special bond for reaching out to others.
Little: I am amazed and thrilled that it has lasted this long and is more relevant today than ever. I am so happy that Sinclair will continue the REACH program and even grow it larger. Prof. Derek Petery will take the reins next year as the coordinator and has plans to carry REACH forward.
Derek Petrey: I’ll be working with a team of faculty and artists to continue Tess’ and Bing’s vision. I was invited to work with REACH 13 years ago. I had just started to work as a professor of Spanish for Sinclair, and this was a unique opportunity.
Q: Do you have any particular stories to share about things you have learned, or that you know others have learned, from attending over the years?
Little: I’ve learned so much about myself and about the Dayton community. I’ve made many good friends that I never would have met without the REACH project. I’ve had meaningful discussions and thought about things that I would have never been aware of without the dialogue that REACH started. I am grateful for this journey.
Davis: It’s provided an even deeper appreciation for my own Appalachian background and my Applachian brothers and sisters.
Q: What high points from the 25 years stand out?
Davis: One high point was having the great Noah Adams of NPR “All Things Considered” radio show as keynote speaker. Another was having African-American master sculpture Ed Hamilton of Louisville, Ky., to present. The homeless shelter choir was special. Several panels of local humanist scholars have been special. The Burundi drummers gave a special presentation. There have been some outstanding experiences.
Little: Many of the large-scale art projects stand out in my memory. The 1995-1998 Heritage Sculpture, which is on the front of the stage on Courthouse Square, comes to mind. Over 3,000 people helped to create the 48-by-3-foot bronze relief. The Many Faces of Dayton also had about 2,000 people participate in the 20 photo panel murals. Quilts projects, banjo making, gourds and mask making – there were so many visual arts projects. The performers from cultures from all over the globe over the years have been wonderful, too. Our speakers have shared from their hearts. There are so many wonderful memories of speakers, art projects and performers over the years.
Petrey: To me, having the poet laureate of Kentucky, Frank X. Walker, come and do a reading was very powerful. The keynote speakers always bring me tremendous insight.
Davis: One of the memorable learning experiences for us was from the late “Red” Spurlock, the master banjo player who performed country and music programs across Dayton and Miami Valley-region schools in an effort to preserve and broaden the appreciation of country/western music. “Red” always began his history of the banjo and its music with the one-string African instrument made from a gourd, animal hide and wooden handle, which was brought here by enslaved people. This instrument evolved in the new world and today we call it a banjo. This kind of shared knowledge helps us to see and appreciate our commonalities and shared experiences.
Q: What has most surprised you about the experience of running the event?
Little: I was surprised at how many people are willing to help, support and whole-heartedly participate year after year. We never ran out of material or topics. Each year Bing and I would brainstorm and other folks would suggest ideas to us. We have so much diversity in Dayton and it’s easy to find presenters and performers who are willing to share their knowledge and cultures with others.
Q: What is it about Dayton that lends itself to such an event and makes it last so long?
Little: Dayton is a great city to live in or near. It is a welcoming city. It has many ethnic communities that work to keep their cultures alive and that are willing to share. The World A’fair, and multitude of cultural festivals speaks to the diversity of the city.
Davis: Dayton is a small up-south city of many people with an Appalachian connection. Dayton is also a city of great need for REACH. Dayton has something special that can be felt even if not totally understood. Some things about Dayton are hard to totally explain, like the Wright brothers, Paul Laurence Dunbar, funk music, Edwin C. Moses, etc.
Q: Looking back over 25 years, what would you do differently?
Little: I would try to take REACH to a regional or state level. This project is needed in other cities and communities.
Davis: Possibly provide a few follow-up activities in between REACH conferences for participants to continue to experience the REACH-like activities beyond the one-day conference.
Q: What will you miss?
Little: I will especially miss the daily contact with people who have worked hard to make this project so successful. Bing and I have already been invited to do the REACH art exhibit next year so we are already in the planning stages of the 2019 art exhibit.
Q: Parting thoughts?
Little: I am so glad REACH will continue. It is a wonderful legacy, but after 25 years and my retirement I feel that this is the right time to let new ideas and energy take REACH into the future.
Davis: REACH has been one of the most enjoyable events in my lifetime during the last 25 years. We always close with the phrase “See you next year, if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.”
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