MEET Chris: supporter of social justice, mover and shaker of the arts
Over the past few months of interviewing Atlantans about their favorite organizations, one name seems to appear most often: WonderRoot. This organization has become somewhat of an icon for the creative change that is making our city a cooler, better place to live. Although WonderRoot has many supporters, workers and volunteers that carry its mission forward, we sat down with founder Chris Appleton to find out how this Reynoldstown hotspot got started. Join us as we MEET Chris.
Tell us about you organization:
Chris: WonderRoot is a nonprofit arts organization in Atlanta that has been around since 2004. Our mission is to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change. We do that in a few ways. We work hard to support artists to have successful careers in Atlanta; supporting them with production tools, educational programs and exhibition opportunities. We run a community arts a center on Memorial Drive in Reynoldstown that houses a recording studio, pottery studio, dark room, digital media lab, screen print ing studio, gallery area, performance space, library, and classroom spaces. Member artists pay $60 a year and have unlimited access on first come, first served basis to our programs and facilities. Additionally the space is free for those artists under 18. We have never turned anyone away who couldn’t pay the membership fees. The first step in fulfilling our mission is through supporting artists in this way.
The second way we fulfill our mission is through creating arts based service programs in social justice, heath, youth service, and environmental justice. We mostly do this through partnerships with local and regional organizations. Places like Reynoldstown Civic Improvement League, the King Center, Emory University Center for Ethics and Families First that are experts in their fields. Working through the arts to enhance those ares.
How did you get started?
Chris: Two friends, Alex West and Witt Wisebram, and I started talking about what would become WonderRoot back in 2004. We all three grew up here in Atlanta and we all had a passion for the arts. I think as much as anything else, we were trying to contribute to the city that had shaped us in a way that would create more social equity and allow artists, activists and educators to stay here. We wanted to find a way to help artists stay in Atlanta instead of going to other, bigger cities. We recognized the arts as a transcendent agent of change like nothing else can be.
What challenges have you faced?
Chris: There is a much greater need and demand in the community for what we do compared to the capacity we can provide. There is a month long wait to get into some of our studios. Sometimes we have to turn down partnerships, not because we don’t want them or value them, but because it is beyond our ability. There are challenges in growing while maintaining our core mission.
What inspires you to do this work?
Chris: All the people I am around every day. I go to work and am around artists trying to make their careers and around activists trying to make Atlanta a better place by working on a long term future for us. Everyone I am around has elected to do this and that is inspirational and uplifting. Life is inspiring.
Who is WonderRoot collaborating with?
Chris: One of the collaborations I am most excited about is with Emory University. A couple of years ago they started a program called Ethics in the Arts Initiative. It is focused on creating conversations about the ethics of art-making and art expression and connecting the arts community to academic institutions. Traditionally with large, private institutions this connection hasn’t happened well. They are doing tremendous work on that front and we have a current partnership with them.
Another organization we have a relationship with is Alternate Roots. They are doing great work regionally. WonderRoot has a lot going on through youth programming with our arts education, art enrichment and art for social justice initiatives. We have been working with the Center for Pan Asian Community Services for a few years now on a middle school arts program. We have an upcoming program with Cool Girls Inc for an arts education initiative.
Would you like to see what you are doing replicated or expanded?
Chris: Early on we had a vision for multiple arts centers throughout Atlanta. Through a strategic plan of stakeholder interviews and analysis it seems that the vision for WonderRoot we came up with at a young age is still relevant. We have developed a model for operations and programing here in Reynoldstown we think is sustainable and adaptable for other communities. We would still like to develop other centers in different geographic regions of Atlanta to provide similar support. It is really a community driven thing, having support in those regions from community leaders, artists and volunteers to shape what takes hold.
What kind of help or assistance do you currently need?
Chris: The reason WonderRoot is able to do so much good work is because of all the people who contribute to and support it. Right now there are three major ways to help in that regard. First, we just launched a campaign to raffle off a Toyota Prius. We are drawing on December 15. The tickets are $25 each or $100 for 5 and you can buy them online.
The second way to help is by getting involved with us. The majority of our programing is through artists, community organizations or individual volunteers who have an idea for change in their community. We have many opportunities for people to help us realize our mission of social change through arts.
The third part would be to spread the word. We rely so much on word of mouth. We are a grassroots movement. Artists, volunteers and potential funders help to spread the good work we are doing.
What key issues do you see facing Atlanta?
Chris: There is a lot we are facing in Atlanta, and the world. Specific to the arts, funding is a major issue. Not necessary from private sources, but funding from public sources. The arts don’t get what they deserve or what they need to survive or even what we need to compete with other cities. Charlotte gives away almost $2 million annually for the arts and Nashville gives away close to $3 million annually for arts and culture. The city of Atlanta gave away $470,000 last year to nonprofit arts organizations. And that was for everyone small and large, from the High Museum to WonderRoot. Most people recognize that it is intrinsic for all great cities to have great arts. Whether it is San Francisco, New York, Chicago or Berlin, they all have great art and culture that is supported in some way by public funding. The people and their governments have invested in that.
I want to be able to help our elected officials in Atlanta support us. My question to them is what do you need from us as an arts ecology to be more supportive? That is a big challenge. The arts in Atlanta have had a huge upswing in the last few years so how do we build an international identity for ourselves? How do we bring international attention to the actual artists that are working here- because that is what it is about, the artist- to help people see the amazing things they are producing here? How do we build a reputation and awareness? There are definitely some great folks working on that here and I will be interested to see what happens.
On a broader scope, I would say education is a major issue. WonderRoot is in that fight trying to support the educational system and the young people involved. The arts are such an important tool in education and training. There was a study that showed students who had taken 2 or more arts and music classes in high school scored on average 170 more points on the SAT, were 4 times more likely to graduate, and were 7 times more likely to go to college. Students who take part in arts programs excel.
I read recently an article that Atlanta has the largest wealth gap between the poorest and richest citizens in the US. I was blown away that the largest city in the South has that statistic. We have a long history here and I think we need to make that a great history of social and economic development.
What are some of your favorite organizations around town?
Chris: I think the American Friend Service Committee is doing great work. They are in the trenches. The Clarkston Community Center does great stuff with the immigrant communities in their area. We are proud to call them a partner. I think that KIPP Charter Schools have an interesting model and seem to be having success. Rashid Nuri and the Wheat Street Gardens. Their efforts seems to be showing real promise with that site and their East Point farm. Access to healthy food is a big issue here.
Where can interested readers find you?
Chris: Well they can find WonderRoot at wonderroot.org or at 982 Memorial Dr. They can find me at firstname.lastname@example.org if they are interested in helping out. They can probably find me most days at Park Grounds in Reynoldstown working as my second office. Also, about 6 nights a week I can be spotted at one of the many arts events around town.
What FEEDs your soul?