At the center of the Harmony Project, a citywide initiative that combines music-making and volunteer service, is David Brown.
It's just past 9 a.m. on a raw January morning, and inmates at the Ohio Reformatory for Women are crisscrossing the prison grounds bundled in blue. For most, it's a day like any other. But for those in the Tapestry program, it's Thursday-and Thursdays are special. The 110 residents who volunteered to join this structured therapeutic program for substance abuse rehabilitation are gathered in one large room, eyes trained on the door. Through the glass, a knot of people in civilian clothes can be seen making their way toward the building. The inmates are smiling, jittery.
The group enters the vestibule and the inmates rise to their feet. Finally, the door opens and the first eight visitors, all women, walk in. The prisoners start to clap. But then the last person walks in: a trim man with short hair and glasses, neatly dressed in skinny jeans and a wool peacoat. His arms are spread wide, as if he could wrap them around all 110 women, and a broad smile lights his face. The room explodes with applause and cheers.
David Brown has arrived.
For the next hour, the founder and creative director of the Harmony Project, assisted by a staffer, a muffled boom box and eight volunteers, leads the women in song. The volunteers pass out lyric sheets and sit among the inmates to sing. Brown plays a verse of the song they are to learn today on the boom box: "Survivor," by Destiny's Child.
I'm a survivor
I'm not gon' give up
I'm not gon' stop
I'm gon' work harder
I'm a survivor
I'm gonna make it
I will survive
Keep on survivin'
When the women begin to sing, Brown doesn't just conduct; he exhorts. He cajoles and coaxes. He's in constant motion, prowling the front row, making eye contact with each person in turn. Clapping, pointing, laughing, running. His conducting is dynamic and personal.
"The song we are singing today is chosen for a reason," Brown tells the women. "Use the music, use the song, and don't be afraid to go for it!"
They're not singing loud enough. He wants them to sing louder.LOUDER. "If you're looking around like you don't want anybody to make fun of you," Brown yells, "GET OVER IT!"
The women nod, and then sing some more. By the end of the rehearsal, what started as a weak, tremulous sound has progressed to a full-throated revival: "I will survive!"
"Someone pass the plate, because we're in church!" Brown shouts.
A Mission Medley
The program at ORW is just one branch of Brown's Harmony Project, a citywide initiative that combines music-making and volunteer service in a variety of settings. The most visible of these programs is the Harmony Project Choir, which gives twice-a-year performances at the Ohio Theatre. The choir, 200 voices strong, has opened for Whoopi Goldberg and Natalie Cole and performed at other major Columbus events. It is unusually diverse, both racially and economically. "There's people in the choir who hardly have bus money to get to rehearsal, and then there's CEOs of major corporations," says Susan Steinman, who sings in the choir, serves on its board and writes grants for the organization.
But the Harmony Project Choir is just one part of the Harmony Project. In addition to the choir at the reformatory, there is a choir program at the Commons at Buckingham, a facility for once-homeless adults, many with mental or physical disabilities, as well as an after-school choir at South High School and two choirs for elementary and middle school students.
These initiatives are united by more than just song-all provide community service as well. A commitment to volunteering is required for participation in any Harmony Project program.
Some members of the citywide choir volunteer by helping out at other Harmony Project programs, such as the eight volunteers who accompanied Brown to sing with the inmates at ORW. Others participate in stand-alone projects like painting murals, removing graffiti or planting trees.
Students from South High Harmony have cleaned the neighborhood around their school and served meals to the Commons at Buckingham residents. The Commons at Buckingham singers perform for the elderly in nursing homes. Even the women in prison serve. Through a Skype connection, they sing to children in a hospice in South Africa. They knit them scarves and puppets and write them letters.
The point of the service, Brown says, is not only to help others, it's also to create fellowship. "When you're standing there painting for three hours, you're going to talk," he says. Even people from divergent backgrounds "are a little less threatening to each other when you're covered in paint stains and standing there doing something really beautiful and good for someone that you don't know."
And sometimes the one volunteering is helped as much as the one being served. "I have children I had to walk away from because I made bad choices," says Trisha Strouse, 28, who is serving a two-year sentence at ORW. "But now I have children I can help."
"A lot of people forget about people who are incarcerated," says Warden Roni Burkes. "They think that because they have committed a crime, they are not worthy of being heard. This program lets them forget, for however long David is here, that they're in prison."
Susan Steinman says it took her about six months to begin to really understand the goal of the Harmony Project. "I think what [David is] trying to do is build the kind of model community that people would want to live in if they had a choice."
Columbus Foundation President Doug Kridler calls the Harmony Project pioneering. "As a community, we only truly prosper when we care," he says. "And David has created a unique and compelling combination of ways in which he builds the conscience of our community."
The foundation supports the Harmony Project with a Continuous Improvement Grant, offering not only significant funding but also assistance with administration, operations and programming in order to strengthen the organization and help it grow.
It seems to be working. In 2009, its first year, the organization operated on a shoestring, with Brown working for no pay. Five years later, the operating budget was $700,000, with significant funding from the Columbus Foundation and the city of Columbus as well as corporate grants, individual gifts and revenues from ticket sales. From that, Brown earns a board-approved salary of $96,000 annually.
The Harmony Project Choir now sells out the 2,779-seat Ohio Theatre. In January, the Ohio Arts Council announced that the Harmony Project was one of nine recipients statewide of the 2016 Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, two months after receiving a $25,000 Columbus Performing Arts Prize from the Columbus Foundation's Arts Innovation Fund.
Dragging a Metaphorical Red Wagon
At the center of all this boundary-breaking, community-building, music-making work is David Brown. He has a few staffers (only one is full time) and many volunteers and partners who keep the programs going, but Brown's creativity, vision, talent and sheer force of will are the engine that drives the Harmony Project initiatives.
Brown, 52, was born in the small town of Monroe, Louisiana, to Southern Baptist Republican parents. "I grew up in the ideology-and it sounds like I'm bashing my parents but really I'm not, it's just who they are-that, 'we're right, and everybody else is wrong.'"
One of his early memories is of the desegregation of his first-grade class. "At 5 or 6 years old, I didn't have the capacity to understand that I was seeing the rest of my life begin to unfold," he says, "but in hindsight, I think it's interesting that one of my first memories is kids different from me coming into my classroom."
The family moved often: eight times before he was 16, he estimates. He learned to get by in new environments. In high school, he moved every year. Sophomore year, he attended an integrated school, where he was called names because he shared a locker with an African-American girl. Junior year, he attended an all-white school. In his senior year, his family moved to a town of about 800 and enrolled him in a predominantly black school.
"It was really traumatic," he says. "It was very difficult to fit in. I was not a country boy, I was not a small-town boy and I was white."
But by the end of that year, Brown was class president. He got there, he says, by not taking himself too seriously and by wearing his heart on his sleeve. "I think it was learning at an early age that self-deprecation can break down a lot of barriers," he says.
In college, Brown began to come to terms with the fact he was gay. It was an uncomfortable acknowledgment for a conservative Baptist. He says he sometimes called the Billy Graham hotline during crusades, asking for someone to help him pray away his homosexuality.
But a turning point came during a trip to Columbus with his choir, Believers Harmony of the Louisiana Tech Baptist Student Union. He stayed in a dorm at Ohio State University, and the students were different from anyone he'd known. "I met all these people who were not religious, and they were great people and they were not hung up on right and wrong and sin. They were just living their lives. It started to change the way I thought. It gave me the courage to come out."
On hearing their son was gay, Brown's parents enrolled him in a therapy aimed at turning him straight. Still unsure of himself, he went along. "I was dragging around a little metaphorical red wagon with me, with all my junk in it," he says. "I kept trying to start over but I couldn't."
He dropped out of college and got a job at a bank near his parents' home in Ruston, Louisiana. His parents thought they could "fix" him, he says, by isolating him from friends. They took his paychecks and drove him back and forth to work. He was miserable.
At the height of his misery, he called a student he'd met at Ohio State and trusted. "Can you get to Columbus?" she asked. With no access to his savings, he set aside his lunch money until he had the bus fare. One morning, after his father dropped him off at the bank, he slipped away and walked to the station. Twenty-two hours later, he arrived in Columbus with nothing of value except his grandmother's coin collection.
We Are All "The Other"
It was a precarious beginning, but Brown soon began building the relationships and experiences that helped him find a purpose. He got a job, and after a year, auditioned at Capital University, where he received a scholarship for vocal performance. He worked in the theater department at Bexley High School, where he cast then-student Josh Radnor in "Oklahoma!" Radnor, who went on to become a television and film star, would offer Brown support at critical junctures later on.
Brown moved on to a job at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, where he found a mentor in Arthur Caliandro, successor to Norman Vincent Peale. Caliandro introduced him to rabbis and imams who "challenged me to think from a faith perspective that wasn't about religion and about the Bible, but was about something bigger than myself."
As director of youth programs, Brown started an LGBT group and developed a Christian education program that included learning about other religions and cultures. "It was a way for me to impart to them what I had not been given myself in my religious education," he says.
In 2001, Brown left that job to form his own New York City gospel choir. Metro Mass Choir was racially and socioeconomically diverse, and performed a pop-gospel blend that would appeal to people of all faiths. Their first concert was a performance for the United Nations delegates in their first gathering after the September 11 attacks. The group sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
"I've had a few of these moments in life where you know you're exactly where you're supposed to be, doing exactly what you're supposed to be doing in the moment that you're supposed to be doing it," he says. "All of my experiences-being gay in a straight world, being white in a black world-I realized they had brought me to this place of understanding that being 'the other' is what life is all about. All of us are the other at some point."
"It was one of those moments for me of, 'this is my calling; this is my passion.'"
There were still a few stops on Brown's journey to the Harmony Project. After five successful years with Metro Mass Choir, he needed a new challenge. He moved to New Orleans just three months before Hurricane Katrina hit.
He was in Ruston, Louisiana, where 10,000 Katrina victims sought refuge. "They needed cots," he says. "And they needed nursing bras and diapers and tampons and things that you don't hear people talking about on television. So I called some friends in L. A. and New York and said, 'Call everybody you know, here's an Army-Navy surplus store that's 40 minutes from here. If you call them with your credit card today, they'll deliver tonight.'"
The response, he says, was overwhelming. And he thought he knew why. "It was about instant gratification. It was about the giver being able to know that today, my gift has an impact."
That insight-that people like to know that their gift, whether money or time, has an impact-would inform Brown's plan for the Harmony Project.
Several years passed before Brown returned to Columbus, years in which he worked as an L.A. decorator for celebrity clients, starting with his old friend Josh Radnor. He even did a turn as a "celebrity design consultant" for the E! Network.
But all along, he was gestating a plan for his next big initiative: a choir that would be diverse, would bring together people regardless of their skill as singers and would offer them opportunities to connect to each other and their community through short-term, manageable service projects. They would find their commonalities through service.
Calling All Glee Fans
Friends in Columbus suggested he start it here. "They were like, 'Do it. Do it. It's Columbus! It's a test market! If it works here, it'll work anywhere!'"
He moved back to Columbus in 2009 and took the plunge, renting out BOMA (now the Bluestone) for a run of rehearsals and booking two nights at the Lincoln Theatre. His flyers read, "If you're a fan ofGlee, if you love to sing, even if you've been told you can't, if you want to be part of something bigger than yourself, come to our open house."
That night, 93 people joined the choir, and 10 weeks later they sold out the Lincoln Theatre, collected 1,500 toys for needy kids and raised $45,000 for an after-school program, After-School All-Stars. The Harmony Project was born.
Talk to a Harmony Project Choir member and you'll hear the same story over and over. "I've met people I never thought I'd meet." "I never thought I could sing." "I never thought I'd be on the stage in the Lincoln/Ohio/Southern Theatre."
For some, it goes even deeper. Devin Francis-Belcher, 21, was the youngest member of the choir when his single mother died suddenly four years ago, leaving him alone at 17. The choir rallied around him with support, both financial and emotional. "It was like a home away from home," he says. "I had family there, I felt safe."
Exposure to one another's lives creates understanding, Brown says. "The way I look at it is, we are inspiring change." People in the Harmony Project Choir, he says, "were not talking before about whether the box should be eliminated on job applications that asks if you are a felon. They are now having those conversations because they have met people in that situation. They weren't having conversations about how 70 percent of people on the South Side have incomes of less than $20,000 a year, because it didn't seem possible to them that families could be making less than $20,000 a year and surviving. Now they know."
Franklin County Treasurer Ed Leonard joined the choir after attending the group's first concert. He now serves on its board of directors. When the choir performed at Mayor Andy Ginther's swearing-in in January, Leonard couldn't sing because he was participating in the ceremony. As the group filed onto the darkened Lincoln Theatre stage, he touched each member on the shoulder as they passed. "I'm so proud of what they do and how they sing and how they come together," he says. "How can you be unhappy when you're up there singing like that? How can you focus on your differences?"
Walking the Walk
A November email from Brown caught many friends and colleagues by surprise. "I wanted to update all of you on a significant change in my life," it began. The message went on to tell them that, with the permission of the court, he was hosting and supervising a South High School student who had been accused of a crime. Brown asked that the boy's name be omitted from this article, as well as details of his situation, which is under consideration by the court.
The circumstances, Brown believed, needed to be considered in the context of the boy's background and experiences. He was born in Liberia. Abandoned by his parents, he was taken in by relatives and fled his village with them during a rebel attack in 2003, hiding in the bush for days and eventually making their way to the U.S. Since arriving, he had lived in four states, staying with relatives and other refugees. But since joining the choir, he has raised his grades from Cs and Ds to As and Bs and shown leadership qualities.
Without a family to take responsibility for him, the boy, a high school senior who is enrolled in college classes, would remain locked up until he was tried or the situation was otherwise resolved. So Brown volunteered to be the boy's temporary custodian. The boy, who just turned 18, now lives with Brown and remains under Brown's supervision whenever he is not in school.
"It's 12 months out of my life," says Brown. "My friends say I'm downplaying it. I say, 'No, I'm not. I need you to not up-play it.' The reason more teenage kids are not being taken into kinship care is because everybody says how difficult it is."
Brown sent the email to seek the support of his Columbus circle. "The question I have been repeatedly asked is," he continued in the message, "'Do you know what you are getting yourself into?'The answer I continue to give: 'No, how could I?'What I do know is this: I have a strong network of support and am not alone on this new path."
Having created the Harmony Project community, Brown was now turning to it for support. He found it. Some of his friends agreed to background checks so they could participate in the supervision of Brown's new charge as well.
People are Invested
If there's any kind of knock on the Harmony Project, it's the idea that it's not easily replicated-that it could not survive without David Brown.
"I don't think David likes to think of it this way, that it's him that makes this work, but I think it's a huge part of it," Steinman says. "His sense of humor, his extraordinary creativity, his openness about his background, his foibles and his issues-I think that's very disarming. It helps people to think, 'I'm OK.'"
"He's almost like a Pied Piper," says choir member Bob Nacdimen. "There's people in this room who would follow him anywhere. I'm one."
But one of the newer offshoots of the Harmony Project suggests that the idea could develop legs of its own. Choir member Jen Robinson asked Brown if she could start her own Harmony Project choir for children, and he supported it. The result is Kids in Harmony, a Bexley-based choir for fourth- through seventh-graders, now in its third season. The after-school group asks its members to perform a random act of kindness once a week, and participates in group service projects.
"David is a special person who really has that unique ability to bring people together," Robinson says. "But [the Harmony Project Choir has] entered our sixth season and are getting ready for our 12th concert. People are really invested. I'll be interested to see where it goes as more people take a bite and add their own ideas. How can you not want to further this mission, wherever you are?"
How Many Choices?
It's Wednesday, and at South High School that means South High Harmony. City Year corps members who are working to support teachers in this distressed public high school set up chairs in the band room, and the musicians wheel in and start to unpack their equipment and instruments.
"All teachers at this time are needed to help secure the halls," blares the public address system.
At South High, 82 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Its South Columbus neighborhood is plagued with crime and decay. In 2014, the school met none of the 15 standards set by the Ohio Department of Education, earning a grade of D for performance and an F for its graduation rate. South High Harmony, in cooperation with City Year, aims to improve that performance.
"We have 44 days," Brown tells the students, starting the rehearsal. "Forty-four days until our trip! And in that time you can't be late more than three times. You can't miss school more than three times. You can't fight with a teacher. If you do, you'll be disqualified. So if something happens, you gotta suck it up. Keep it inside. You can bring it here."
South High Harmony takes a trip each year. This month, the choir will travel to Birmingham, Nashville and New Orleans. Along the way, they'll learn some civil rights history and ride a riverboat. Each student will get a $100 gift card for meals and purchases, thanks to donations from choir members and a Greater Columbus Arts Council crowdsourcing campaign.
It's an attractive carrot, and Assistant Principal Mark Hayward says it works. In a school with a 75 percent graduation rate, retention of South High Harmony kids is inching toward 90 percent. "We see improvements in grades, in attendance, in discipline," he says.
The choir is rehearsing to perform in New Orleans for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, now 10 years in the past. They will sing, of course, "Survivor."
At the end of the rehearsal, Brown talks about the trip again, and what the students will experience. Perhaps he is recalling his own first trip to Columbus, with empty pockets and a desire for something more. "When you see the world beyond your neighborhood, when you meet people who are different, something happens in your brain," he tells the students. "New spaces open up. You want to learn more. More choices open up."
He looks at the choir. "How many choices do we want?"
The students respond loudly, in unison: "More!"