BY KAYLEE DUFF
(Photos courtesy of Harmony Project)
“We’re not focused on any group, it’s focused on every group. We welcome everybody.”
If you’re from central Ohio and involved with your local community, chances are you’re already familiar with Harmony Project. The Columbus-based service-focused performance ensemble has been rocking our worlds since 2009.
If you’re unfamiliar with the organization, it can be summed up in three words: service, music and community. According to their official website, the Harmony Project has a very specific and inspiring mission and vision:
“Our Mission: Artistic Passion. Social Purpose. Harmony Project connects people across social divides through the arts, education, and volunteer community service. Our Vision: Many People. One Community. Working together, we are building a stronger, more inclusive community with a focus on developing a social infrastructure that unites the community for the common good.”
The Harmony Project made history by being the first organization honored as the Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade Grand Marshal and Community Honoree. They have made an enormous impact around central Ohio and beyond. And yet, not everyone knows where Harmony Project came from.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Harmony Project was founded by David Brown in 2009, after years of hoping and planning. Brown grew up in Louisiana, with a deeply religious family. “Coming out was not a great experience,” Brown said. “The tools that my parents had to process who I was were not the tools that people in other parts of the country, and maybe who weren’t quite as religious, had. The toolkit that we had growing up was that you get into therapy and you fix it.”
Brown went into a therapy program to “fix” who he was. Meanwhile, one of his old college friends was attending grad school at Ohio State at the time. He called her and explained what was going on. Immediately, she wanted to help him, Brown explained, offering him a place to stay until he figured things out. So David Brown did what he had to do: “I got on a bus, on Labor Day weekend in 1985. Landed at the bus station [in downtown Columbus], the next day.”
Brown ended up staying, living and working for a few years in Bexley. But he had some reservations about the area itself. “I had this image in my mind of Columbus as being very white bread,” admitted Brown. “Also, I just wasn’t quite sure that I could be who was here. I knew that if I said the words ‘I’m gay,’ and I’m working for a Methodist church and a high school, that I probably would have had to found another job.”
He moved to New York City in 1990, where he got a spot in an acting program. Years later, Brown was working developing community choirs, after finding his voice “through working with music, with people from different backgrounds.” These choirs could be considered early versions of Harmony Project, in that they brought together people of all different backgrounds. They were missing, however, the key component: the community service.
Brown was eventually working with several different choral programs, including Marble Collegiate Church, which is famous for being Norman Vincent Peale’s church (see: “the power of positive thinking”). There, he began to question faith and how that’s different for different people. He found the power in that.
He left the church and started a city-wide community choir, the New York Metro Mass Choir. This was in 2001. Their first performance was scheduled for September 12. But then the terrorist attacks happened on September 11.
Three weeks later, the New York Metro Mass Choir sang together for the first time. “We sang for the very first gathering of all the UN delegates who came back together after 9/11 had happened. We sang ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’” David recalled. “It was Muslims and Jews and Christians and Buddhists and atheists and agnostics, all singing together. Which was really spectacular. But I still felt like there was something missing.”
Tired of the competitive nature and still searching for that missing component, Brown decided it was time to take a break from music — and head back to Louisiana.
His sights were set on New Orleans, a city where he could think about what to next, where he could “be in a city where [he’s] surrounded by music, but not music [he had] to do anything with.” That was three days before Hurricane Katrina happened.
He left the day after the storm, heading north with two women he picked up on the street. In the time following the hurricane, Brown volunteered in Ruston, Louisiana, at a convention center packed with people who had been displaced from their homes. There, he noticed a severe lack in certain donations and supplies.
“There were things that the people told me that people were not saying they needed,” Brown said. “There were things that people were not talking about because of shame associated with talking about hygiene.” Necessary items such as tampons, nursing bras and other feminine hygiene products weren’t being donated because of embarrassment or lack of forethought.
Brown took action, calling friends in New York and Los Angeles and asking them to donate stuff that was missing. People could pay over the phone and have items delivered to those in need. “The response was incredible. This is what can happen if we turn immediate gratification from something negative into something positive,” said Brown.
He continued: “If we give people a chance to immediately feel good from what they’ve done, and they see that the dollar that they spend, there’s the result of it, right there. Then maybe we’re on to something here.”
He filed that knowledge away. Shaken by 9/11 and Katrina, Brown was ready for some sort of break. A friend hooked him up with an interior design job in Los Angeles, so he moved out to California.
In LA, Brown started developing the idea for the Harmony Project. “I went down and registered it all, got all the trademark stuff applied,” said Brown. When he explained the idea to his friend Josh, his friend told him he needed to do this in Columbus. Brown responded that “it’s too white, it’s just too segregated, you know, socioeconomically, culturally, geographically.”
His friend admitted that was true, but still said “that’s why you need it there.”
Around that same time, Brown got a call from Triumph Communications, who wanted his help to fundraise for local Democratic candidates and “turn Ohio blue.” Brown agreed to go. It was the Obama election year. Plus, Brown added, “fall in Columbus. It doesn’t really get much better than that.”
Brown went door-to-door with his new job, which gave him the opportunity to see Columbus in a new light. “It affirmed my belief that it was segregated, but it also shattered my opinion that we’re all homogeneous,” Brown said. “There’s a lot more diversity here than meets the eye. You have to scratch the surface a bit to find it, but when you do, it’s there.”
Thus the Harmony Project was born.
Brown started telling all of his friends about his idea to start a big community choir, where no one auditions. Everyone rolled their eyes and claimed it would never work. “Then I mentioned to them that the key would be that it doesn’t matter what you sound like, you have to give back.” He explained the service aspect — how he was going to make the community choir about connecting and helping the community — and Harmony Project started getting traction.
The Harmony Project “started as an 85-voice choir standing on the stage at the Lincoln Theatre, that collected gifts for some kids,” Brown recalled. “I think we had $34,000 in our whole budget. For production, salaries and everything.”
“Here we are, nine years later,” he continued. “We have an annual operating budget of $1.4 million. We have five full-time staff, about four part-time staff, and we have 300 kids enrolled in after-school programs.”
The Harmony Project is now a full-fledged community organization that boasts a band, the Spirit of Columbus choir and several community programs. From their humble beginnings to their latest concert, the members of the Harmony Project are all about sharing light and connections.
THE LASTING PRESENT AND UNLIMITED FUTURE
From their humble beginnings to their latest concert, the members of the Harmony Project are all about sharing light and connections.
The purpose is “to try to connect those people across those social and cultural barriers, that are what I perceive to be the things that keep us separated and from moving forward,” Brown said. “Because what we get hung up on is the fact that we don’t agree. What do you have to agree on if you have to plant trees? All you have to agree on is that that park needs trees.”
The volunteer work of the organization is what sets the Harmony Project apart from other local choirs or music programs. It’s combining two things that humans seem to inherently gravitate towards: music and service.
“We do pretty much whatever the community asks us to, to give back to the community. The Harmony Project’s goal is to unite the different, disparate community in Columbus,” said Russ Goodwin, an inaugural member of the choir. “We’re just this microcosm of what Columbus is.”
No community project is too big or small for the organization, either, explained Russ. “We feed the homeless. Last weekend, I went and made no-sew blankets at the Ronald McDonald House. I’ve painted murals, I’ve planted plants. We’ve swept streets, and weeded the parking lot and the surrounding area of the Lincoln Theatre.”
The service work also means meeting new people and making new friends, Willa Young, a member of the Spirit of Columbus choir, told us. “Part of what’s really enjoyable is you meet a lot of people in the choir, but working in the community, you also are meeting people in the community, doing good work, connecting with people you wouldn’t meet otherwise. That’s really the beauty of the choir — that it’s making larger community connections, and that’s why it’s meaningful to me.”
This year, one of those community connections manifested in the form of Stonewall Columbus Pride when Harmony Project was named Grand Marshal and Community Honoree. The first large group ever awarded this honor, the organization led the Pride Parade and festivities.
Stonewall Columbus and the Harmony Project have the same mission. “It’s outreach, education and bringing disparate communities together,” Russ said. “We’re trying to pull groups together, making different groups of people live in harmony, and show that really we’re all the same. Under our skin, we’re exactly the same.”
Harmony Project as Grand Marshal and Community Honoree is also a step in the right direction towards pushing for a more comprehensive and all-embracing community. “The Harmony Project is such a great diverse and inclusive organization — every age group, every religion, every race, every sexuality,” said Janine Dunmyre, who is also a member of the Spirit of Columbus choir. “It’s just a range of people who have come together to build this community. It’s just great to be able to be a part of Pride and to have Pride be about that as well.”
So what’s next for the Harmony Project? The community organization is coming up on their decade milestone.
David Brown said there is sure to be more community concerts, connecting people from all corners of Columbus. “We are going to be expanding into some more schools, which I’m super excited about,” he disclosed. “We need more kids engaged in this process.”
Whatever he has planned for Harmony Project’s tenth anniversary is sure to be amazing and great for our community: “Because we’re all interconnected, and that’s the beauty of this.”
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