Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Happy Activist Becca Finley: Taking the Arts to Rural Communities
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 435 of Live Happy Now. Creative arts such as painting, dancing, acting, and singing can play a powerful role in self-care and mental health. But they’re often overlooked, particularly in rural communities. This week’s guest is determined to change that.
I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m talking with our Happy Activist, Becca Finley, founder of the non-profit This Is Noteworthy. This Is Noteworthy supports the creative community and now is working to develop new spaces in underserved areas. Becca is here today to talk about why she feels it’s so important to emphasize the arts, how it can improve our mental health, and why she is focusing on rural areas. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:48] PF: Becca, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:50] BF: Thank you, Paula. I’m so happy to be here.
[00:00:53] PF: You have a lot going on. I think before we get into the how and why of what you’re doing, I want to hear about the what. Can you explain to our listeners what This Is Noteworthy is all about?
[00:01:05] BF: This Is Noteworthy is an organization that was founded in late 2010. The purpose of the organization was to give creatives a space to grow and to experiment. So whether that be as a graphic designer or as a writer or as an artist, a visual artist, we sat through the process of people don’t have access to try and fail. So really, what This Is Noteworthy started as is a place where creatives could come together to build something as a unit, and then try and have this space and ability to fail but still put it out and utilize the creative process.
[00:01:48] PF: You say that it started in late 2010. You started it, correct?
[00:01:52] BF: I did.
[00:01:52] PF: It’s something you started. Can you talk about what was going on that made you realize this needed to start? Then how did you go about saying this is the steps that we take to create that?
[00:02:04] BF: So, I mean, I am a creative and have been my whole life. I never had enough resources to be able to try and do all the different things I wanted to do. So I took on lots of jobs and internships and led what is deemed as a starving artist lifestyle and fully embraced it, dug into addiction and all the things that come along with that.
In 2010, I was in Texas, and I had a really burnout phase in my life. I was traveling fast and hard, and I needed to reset. So I moved, packed up all my belongings, shut everything down, and moved to the beach in South Carolina, and took three years to get really quiet and tap into the divine.
I thought what I wanted in my own journey was I wanted to create, and I wanted support, and I wanted all these things. But I was mad at everyone for not opening doors freely and easily for people to grow. I was also mad that our creative community was always in competition with each other versus being collaborative with each other.
I watched industry, meaning the business part of the restaurant industry and the entertainment industry and the arts industry, start just take, take, take, take, take, take, take from the creatives, and creatives had nothing left. You have nothing left. You have no resources. Your work half the time doesn’t belong to you anymore. I wanted to change that.
So after sitting on the beach for a few years, I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to something that was of a noble service. I couldn’t think of anything that was a more noble service than taking care and providing space and all the different ways you provide space for the people who create and inspire everyone else.
[00:04:10] PF: So that’s a huge mission, though. How do you go from sitting on a beach and saying, “This is what I want to do,” to making that happen? Like it’s a big machine.
[00:04:21] BF: Well, I think it seems like it is. It is and it’s not. I think that’s the thing that all of us who want to do big things we struggle with is like how do I. How do I go about? Then we’re like, “I got to form a business. I got to do this. I got to do that.” The truth is you don’t. What you have to do is go, “Oh, yes. I want to do this.” You go and you talk to one other person. You find one person who says, “Yes, let’s –”
In this case, I had two interns that were working at the film production company that I was working with. They have been talking about wanting to have a music magazine, and they asked me. They were like, “Can we have a music magazine?” I was like, “Can the music magazine have a ripple effect that impacts a bunch of different communities?” They were like, “I don’t know what that means.” I said, “Great. Let’s do it.”
So it literally started as that, and we put an ad on Craigslist. All these different people who were graphic designers, writers, videographers, musicians, artists, everyone came together and said, “I want to be a part of this. I want community. I want to grow.” So that’s how we started.
[00:05:30] PF: So basically, when you provide a space for creative people, they’ll find it. Kind of like if you build it, they will come. That’s how it’s all come together for you.
[00:05:39] BF: Yes, 100%. It’s that but then also recognizing where opportunity is and where there are holes that beauty and empathy and curiosity are needed. So it’s an awareness too of what is around you. Just like people take from creative, creatives have to give back. But everybody has to work together on what does it look like that it’s beneficial to both. So it’s having the awareness yourself of recognizing where there are holes that you actually can help and elevate society.
[00:06:15] PF: So you’ve done a lot of different things to provide that space for creative people. You’ve just developed a lot of programs, things like that. Can you tell us some of your favorite projects that you’ve done through This Is Noteworthy to give artists a voice?
[00:06:27] BF: There are probably three that I love the most. The first is there was a documentary project. We did this high school program in Charleston that connected four different high schools, the different socioeconomic groups and different areas of the city. Kids who had artistic interests came together to build a television show. So in the process of building this television show with all these different creatives who came in, so they could do interviews and all the thing, it was right around the time of the 2016 election and the Emanuel shooting at the church. Then our kids had a program outside, and one of them got held up at gunpoint.
[00:07:09] PF: Oh, wow.
[00:07:11] BF: It was a very, very scary thing. We had to shift like quickly because they’re no longer prepared to just make a television show about art. What they did was they chose to use the mediums they were learning, film and writing and design and art and television, to instead make a documentary called See Me that was all about what it means to have gun violence or people not seeing each other and having empathy for each other in schools. We had a songwriter come in, and they all wrote a song together. It was the most beautiful collaboration that organically came out of what happens with life.
But for me, that shows ultimately the creative process and the life process of how in every day, every moment, you have to be aware, and you have to pivot, and you have to be willing to pivot to accommodate what society is handing us.
[00:08:08] PF: Let me ask you this. How did it change the people who are participating to have that voice instead of trying to deal with it in their own heads or just saying like, “That was an awful thing, and I’ve got to move on,” to actually have the space to sit down and work through it and create a song, create something about it that really expressed how they felt? What outcome do you think that had as opposed to not having that outlet?
[00:08:32] BF: For one of our professional songwriters who came in and worked on it, he took six weeks out of his very busy schedule in life to come in and work on this. He begrudgingly kind of did it at first. I mean, he’s happy to, but it was like, “Man, this is a beast of a project.” It was scary, and it was something he hadn’t done before and all the things. Then at the end, the inspiration and the cause and the ability to give back, it just fueled him on to do more and more within society in that area.
[00:09:06] PF: That’s terrific and that’s the whole purpose, and what you’re looking at is how the launching pad that you give and the space that you create will then help them explore their talents, and they keep moving that forward. They’re going to pay it forward. They’re going to do other things, and that’s going to affect other people. I believe that’s what was behind you, taking it to a whole next level in 2021, and you created a cultural arts center in Water Valley Mississippi. That’s had just this amazing effect on the community. Can you talk about how you changed that in 2021, and what you’re doing, and how that’s changed the program going forward?
[00:09:43] BF: So in 2021, we as a group decided that, hey, it was time to have a brick and mortar because all the things we were doing, we were bouncing from place to place to place to place to place. But I think what we realized was there’s a modeling of behavior, I think, of creatives or entrepreneurs for that matter of this gig economy of like, “I’m in. I’m out. I’m in. I’m out. I’m in. I’m out.” There’s no real holding on to what you create because you’re always putting it in the hands of another venue, another place, another something else that doesn’t belong to you. We as an organization, we’re doing that as well. So we had nothing to hold on to at the end of the day.
[00:10:26] PF: Had no home. You had no home.
[00:10:28] BF: We had no home and no way to protect our people that they then always had a safe space to come to. So when we decided to plant in Water Valley, Mississippi, we decided we wanted to start impacting underserved and rural communities, and utilizing our cityness that we have as well, and putting it back into rural communities because those communities, the school systems are in the arts, and entrepreneur-type activities are lacking.
So we were like, “If we can create a hub that is primarily free for people to be able to utilize,
we can cultivate many entrepreneurs, creative entrepreneurs. We can give that. We can give that back and have access and resources.” Which rural and underserved communities do not have access and resources that are not just only that they’re free to them, but they are free to them to learn how to make money for themselves, and they use this space to make money for themselves.
[00:11:41] PF: So talk about some of the things that has gone on with the center because you’ve done a lot in a very short amount of time. Tell us some of the things you’ve done, and then we’re going to talk about what kind of effect it’s had on the community.
[00:11:55] BF: So we’ve been in the space for almost a year now, and we’ve produced about 150 different events. We’ve given over 200 micro-grants to students and provided 80-plus opportunities for creatives to build working gigs for themselves. So that in a just a nutshell. But then in the space, there’s a listening room. There’s an art gallery. There’s a commercial kitchen. There’s a ceramic studio. We do healing arts work with yoga, and we’re starting breath work.
There have been exhibits that have ranged from the first art exhibit that came from Parchman Prison and the inmates was in our space. So we do music events with Wu Fei, this beautiful classical music in a tiny listening room in Water Valley, Mississippi with an internationally acclaimed virtuoso.
[00:12:55] PF: Talk about Water Valley. That’s less than 4,000 population.
[00:12:59] BF: The Water Valley, the total population is, I think, right around 3,600 people.
[00:13:05] PF: Yes. What you’re doing is like unheard of in a community that small. First of all, when you first started saying, “Here, we’re going to do this,” was the community like, “You’re insane. That doesn’t happen here.”? Or were they just standing there with their mouths open or what? How did they receive this?
[00:13:20] BF: It’s a hard question because I think it’s both, and it is – some people were like, “This is amazing.” Other people were like, “What do you want?” Other people were like, “We already do this.” So there was a wide gamut of just I think when you are in a small community, and there are different people that are working on different things to whatever their capacity is, it’s tricky that no one comes in and dishonors or dismantles what is happening. So we have to walk in and walk through really a lot of landmines. I mean honestly.
I think over time, it’s like you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. I think that’s what we’ve done. We have been over the top, like we just have been doing the things. Hopefully, people come. Hopefully, we will continue to be out there and grow. But it’s just – it is that ripple effect. There’s no greater gift for us than for the people we are serving within that building, that space that they go out, and they’re like, “I had this comeback with me,” or, “I can’t go. You should try this over there.” Then they show up, and we’re like, “We’re thrilled to have you,” or, “We’re thrilled to explore this idea with you of something you want to make or produce that you haven’t been able to do yet and let us think about who our resources are that we can help you.”
[00:15:00] PF: So what you’ve done is give them a space to express themselves. You’ve also brought people together that might not have been together otherwise. You’ve brought people from outside of the community who have come into your events. I think that’s what’s stunning too is Water Valley is not a place where a lot of people are going to say, “Hey, let’s go there for the Friday night show.” So what has that been like for you and for the community to have that kind of an impact?
[00:15:29] BF: I think for the community, it’s beautiful. It’s resources. Again, it’s an opportunity to experience beauty, to experience questioning, to experience community without having to drive too far, without having to worry about anything that it’s there, that you two are deserving of beauty.
[00:15:48] PF: That’s the pride too. It gives pride to a community to have these things that people are coming to see.
[00:15:53] BF: Yes. I think so. Well, and it’s that, and it shows. Or at least for me, it shows that any of us can advocate for anything we want anywhere at any time. We just have to be willing to do the work. We have to be accountable. We have to keep pushing forward when it’s hard.
[00:16:18] PF: Yes. Well, and now because this is done well, and thanks to a lot of hard work from you and some other people, now you’re looking at replicating that model. Can you talk about this vision that you have going forward to help other communities? Because I think that’s what’s so amazing is you’ve touched so many lives in this one little community. Now, you’re saying, “Hey, let’s do that same thing for –” I think it’s a dozen other places.
[00:16:44] BF: Yes. What we want to do is we want to impact the southeast. You know I’m from Louisiana, so the southeast is my hub. Because we don’t have a ton of major cities in the south, again, there’s a lot of rural communities. So what we want to do is have one of these in each state, whether it ranges from a brick and mortar. Or it’s a land, and it’s artist housing an amphitheater. But we want them to connect.
So you have different communities who have different flavors, but they all are filtering together in artists or creatives or chefs or whatever. Have the ability to create a routing system as well between – from community, community, community. So they can earn a living and earn it in a way that is really supportive and that they get to try new things without worrying like, “Hey, if I open this half-a-million-dollar restaurant, and these 12 recipes don’t work, I’ve drained everything –
[00:17:47] PF: Yeah, you’re done.
[00:17:48] BF: Right. None of them have to do that and because they don’t have to. Other than when they finish, they donate back to us, there’s not a payment and [inaudible 00:17:58]. So the access for all creatives and people to get in the door, it’s there.
[00:18:07] PF: That’s amazing.
[00:18:08] BF: So why wouldn’t we want to create this real curiosity and empathy across the entire south, which is filled with literature and storytelling and food and community and music and history and reconciliation and all these things? Why would we not provide the space to be able to do that in a way that is good for the people that are making?
[00:18:35] PF: As you amplify the creatives in a certain community and that, of course, attracts more creative people into that spot because creative people want to be where the creativity is. So as you do that, how is that going to change the flavor and the feeling of these small communities?
[00:18:55] BF: Our intention is never to change the flavor of a community. It’s to enhance it. It’s enhance it. It’s use the resources that are there, and then bring an extra to think about, to be like, “Huh, let me noodle on that.” I don’t want to change anything. What I want to do is allow the community to see what its own natural resources are in the term of creative capital. Because if you don’t know what your creative capital is, you can’t utilize it to beautify your city. You can’t utilize it for someone who maybe has a great business brain who you need on your city council, who is really creative with numbers.
But you didn’t know that because now this person’s volunteered over at This Is Noteworthy. We know and we’re like, “Oh, wow. You’re really good with budgets, and they need help.” So it’s this connectivity in these really gentle ways of small batch events.
[00:20:03] PF: I love that. I love that. So we’re going to tell people how they can learn more about you and more about This Is Noteworthy. But as you look down the road, like look at this five years from now, what do you want to be able to say all this work has accomplished?
[00:20:17] BF: I want more people to be more open to the possibility and the probability of goodness, that people are actually good. People actually do care. People actually can make something and provide something, and they don’t have to take all the money from it. It still works. There’s not one way to do things. I think that’s the biggest thing is have people learn there are many ways to do stuff, and you cannot do anything if you don’t take that step.
[00:20:58] PF: I like it. I like it. You’re doing wonderful work. You’re putting so much good out in the world. I appreciate what you’re working on, and I appreciate you coming on the show and talking to us about it.
[00:21:08] BF: I loved it so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, and I appreciate what you’re putting out into the world. This is a beautiful podcast.
[00:21:15] PF: Thank you.
[00:21:16] BF: You’re welcome.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:21:22] PF: That was Happy Activist Becca Finley, talking about the power of taking arts into rural communities. If you’d like to learn more about Becca and This Is Noteworthy or follow her on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
If you know someone who is putting good out into the world, we want to hear about it. Each month, we celebrate a different Happy Activist who is changing the world one happy act at a time. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us all about them.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day happy one.