A Community-Charged Creative Clambake at Middle of the Map Forum

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Monsieur Raux.

If terms like “Creative Placemaking,” “Emerging Education” and “Sustainable Wellness” sound a bit obscure, then you probably weren’t at last week’s Middle of the Map Fest Forum.

Or maybe you were there. You’re just still mentally unpacking what it all meant.

Sandwiched between a boisterous live Music fest and a cultish Film program, MOTM’s big-dreaming-stepchild Forum assembled two days of panel discussions and keynote speakers from all corners of the Kansas City area and nowhere else.

Rather than give rote presentations, all speakers were invited to engage with one another and the crowd. This led to some pretty remarkable chance collisions – like when one green-minded restaurateur found a potential new source of produce from a fellow panelist who had started a community garden cultivated by urban core youth.

And, amazingly, not too much of what I witnessed (I was there for Day One only) seemed overly disjointed or undercooked. The personalities and minds on display were interesting, and the talk was hard-charging and dynamic.

In a conference landscape that tends more toward the hyper-rehearsedness of TED, there’s something to be said for just plain, natural conversation.

This was the intent of organizer John Raux, KC visionary and artist-in-residence at the architectural firm BNIM.

Over the preceding months, I got to watch from the wings as John planned this second year of MOTM Forum, occasionally getting to step into John’s swirling gyre of energy and ideas and offer some concrete project-managing advice or writing help, but John and MOTM founder Nathan Reusch (of the Record Machine) and Ink Mag’s Chris Haghirian and their amazing team of volunteers created a strikingly original experience.

As John put it in his opening remarks on Thursday, “It has all the energy of a kitchen at a party.”

And it had all the cool of a much bigger fest like SXSWi and none of the pretense or exclusivity. That’s because it was completely homegrown and community-oriented.

The superintendent of Grandview Schools sat next to the president of the Kansas City Art Institute. The mayor of KCMO sat beside the founder of the techie Startup Village across the state line in KCK. It was a hotbed of civic engagement, technological leadership, and sustainable development, all compressed into a small event space off 19th Street in the Crossroads

Bet lest you think it was some kind of Cowtown echo chamber, the high credibility of some of the talent (such as Children’s Mercy doctor Stephen Kingsmore, a pioneer in the field of infant DNA) put the event on a national scale.

Nonetheless, many of my favorite moments had a deep community feel:

  • The opening session tag-team of culturally driven real estate magnate Adam Jones and Boulevard Brewery founder John McDonald on how they have worked to revitalize the once blighted Kansas City Westside and West Bottoms neighborhoods by repurposing old buildings creatively and sustainably.
  • A side conversation I had over lunch with Microsoft client solutions specialist Jeff Centimano on not allowing gadgets and technology to strip away our creative drive – our drive to make things. (I paraphrase Jeff: “The only career advice I give my kids is to create – just be creators.”)
  • An accountant (you know who you are), an educational architect, a gallery owner, and a high school English all conversing publicly during the day’s closing Synthesis session (which I had the honor of moderating) about how to promote creativity in education. (Three out of those four mentioned were audience members.)
  • The pitch-perfect social marketing brilliance of sponsor Missouri Bank, which commissioned a @mobankpoet or (“Moet”) to collaborate with attendees in writing a poem, largely via Twitter, about the event.

If you missed out on this year’s Forum, don’t make that mistake next year. Not only will you learn a lot, be inspired by people from walks of life and career paths you’ve never before encountered in ways that will make you better at whatever it is you do for a living – you’ll also get a hearty dose of #kcpride.

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