New Location Sets Enhanced Course for Groundbreaking Arts Organization
(PHOTO Caption: The former Solid Anchor Church in East Chattanooga will become the new home and community hub for RISE Chattanooga.)
2020 was a year of devastation for Shane Morrow, Executive Director of RISE (Responsive Initiatives for Social Empowerment) Chattanooga, an independent, minority-led arts organization dedicated to using the arts to transcend cultural barriers and addressing the lack of arts and cultural programming in the Chattanooga area.
While the world struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, his family faced the destruction of a tornado and mourned the death of a child. As a black, gay man, he also felt deeply the impact of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and the ensuing national conversation about race and (dis)unity. Though the months were filled with darkness and uncertainty, 2020 closed with remarkable hope. RISE purchased a 15,000-sq-ft building – a church built in the early 1900s in the heart of the Glass Farms neighborhood. When the doors open later this year, Morrow imagines a joyful, art-filled neighborhood block party.
“RISE Chattanooga did not imagine we would be in this place a year ago,” Morrow says. “It gives us hope. We all needed to see some kind of light, and it’s here. Not a light at the end of the tunnel, but the beginning of a journey.”
More than Music
The RISE journey began in 2011 as Jazzanooga, a one-day music festival in downtown Chattanooga. But people were hungry for more cultural programming in the city, and artists were looking for opportunities to create and share their work. Morrow says that Jazzanooga has always been what the people needed it to be, so after the initial festival, they continued bringing people together to explore the musical history of the Big 9, enjoy jazz, and provide venues for artists of color in the community.
“I would not be a good citizen without teaching people about the foundation we stand on,” he explains. “We were always about more than just music, so it was important to rename ourselves. RISE – Responsive Initiatives for Social Empowerment – is about breaking barriers and providing tools for people to recognise, build, and grow their worth and their work.”
Throughout the pandemic RISE has been active doing just that. Online concerts have been joined by community conversations about hard topics such as managing strong emotions in these difficult times. RISE also began publishing CoCo, a magazine featuring arts and culture created by black and brown people. Most recently they debuted The Spirituals REMIX, a project featuring three vocalists reimagining timeless spirituals including Wade in the Water.
“Of all the work we’ve done so far, I’m most proud of the REMIX project,” Morrow shares. “It teaches about where we’ve come from and illuminates the stories we face now.”
A Community Haven
Having a (huge) brick and mortar home opens the doors to countless opportunities. “It’s so fitting that our building was once a church,” Morrow says. “Churches have always been a haven for people of color. They’re the first place you go when you want to learn anything about what’s going on…in the civil rights movement…when you need food… an education…you go to your church.”
To ensure RISE could be a community haven like the church before it, Morrow went door to door in the neighborhood listening to residents about what they wanted and asking what would keep them in the neighborhood. What he learned is integral to how RISE will use the new space.
- Gathering Room – Previously the sanctuary, the space will host intimate concerts, community events, and educational lectures on topics such as social justice.
- Studios – Several studios will be available for artists working in the neighborhood and for what Morrow broadly defines as “creative entrepreneurs” who have completed the RISE business-development program.
- Social services area – We Over Me Chattanooga, a RISE community partner, will have an office in the building adjacent to a laundromat (specifically requested by neighbors) and space will be available to other organizations for satellite outreach.
- Commercial kitchen – The original parsonage will come to life as a working kitchen for classes as well as for businesses to use as an incubator.
- Maker space – RISE is in talks with local visual artist/sculptor Rondell Crier to host a creative community space in the facility.
- Community arts gallery and meeting space – Local artists will be featured throughout the year, and neighborhood groups will have an inexpensive meeting space to rent.
- Community garden – raised beds and sculptures from a nearby community garden will be relocated to the back of the RISE campus
Break Down Barriers
“RISE is one of the only black-led arts organizations in the southeast region of Tennessee that owns their own facility,” Morrow says. “I’m proud that we’re breaking down barriers, and everything we’ve done has been for the community. But I ask this: What does this say about us as a city? As a community?”
Morrow will keep asking hard questions, and he will lean into the arts to explore the answers. “We can disagree on many levels, but arts and culture bring us together. Whether it be music, dance, visual art, or written word, we can use art as a platform to at least hold a discussion.”