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Published: Monday, 5/3/2010

Indianapolis festival could resonate in Toledo

WE live in a world crowded with silos of individual and organizational authority that are loath to connect with each other. These urban structures are invisible but impart a sense of self-importance and authority. In many ways they stifle progress and growth in a community.

Now imagine a weeklong festival that brings arts, humanities, and faith together in an unobtrusive and nonthreatening way, to celebrate life and humankind's myriad accomplishments.

Enter Marlon Kiser, president of WGTE Public Media in Toledo, who always is searching for ways to add to the cultural texture of our city.

So Mr. Kiser invited Pam Hinkle, director of the Spirit and Place Festival in Indianapolis, to come to Toledo and share her experience with a few Toledoans and WGTE board members.

The unique festival she runs is 14 years old. It attracts people from across the country and the world to learn the nuts and bolts of a silo-less civic effort.

The festival's mission is to promote civic engagement, respect for diversity, thoughtful reflection, and public imagination. It hopes, and has effected enduring change in the community through creative collaboration among the arts, humanities, and religion.

The festival is spread over 10 days, and the events - 40 or more - are scattered across Indianapolis. Some events draw hundreds of people, others a lot less. Most are collaborative efforts by participating organizations.

The festival is under the nominal supervision of the Polis Center at the University of Indianapolis. It was started through an endowment established by the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

Over time, that subsidy has decreased. The festival now has to raise much of the projected cost of $300,000. A community advisory board oversees the festival, and businesses and universities in the area are financial partners.

In the beginning, a much-needed helping hand was extended by a few of the city's more famous sons and daughters. In the early days of the festival, novelists Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield, and John Updike made appearances and set the stage for future events.

Every March, a call goes out to the community to submit applications for participation. Volunteer committees weed out those applications that do not fit the festival's vision.

Some people get nervous when religion is invited to share public space. But the festival makes sure the focus is not on proselytizing but on meshing religious traditions with humanities and the arts.

Indianapolis is not Paris, London, or Amsterdam. It is a city not unlike Toledo. If people there can come up with a unique concept, why can't we?

Imagine Hindus and Muslims from India and Pakistan organizing an event of classical and semiclassical music from the Indian Subcontinent, with emphasis on devotional music from both religious traditions. Add shared culinary delights and you will have the makings of a memorable event.

Imagine Muslims and Jews organizing a program that brings forward their shared religious and cultural similarities, or a re-enactment of the westward advance of pilgrims through the swamp we now call Toledo and northwest Ohio. The possibilities are innumerable and the combinations infinite.

Toledo has a vibrant artistic community. The University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University have strong humanities and arts programs.

We have religious diversity that is not seen in many other cities. We have civic and business leaders who are connected with the community and have been generous with their time and money to improve life in our area.

But what is missing is civic pride in what we are and what we can do. Also missing is the willingness of local politicians to rise above partisanship and forge something for the greater good of the community. Ditto for the rigid and unbending silos in the rarefied world of academia and the holier-than-thou stand-alone silos of some religious institutions.

The template has worked in Indianapolis. I am sure we can make it work in northwest Ohio, if there is a will.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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