Summit Spotlight: Melissa Swindell, Executive Director of The Wren’s Nest
August 8, 2018
On August 3rd, Westside Future Fund held its 14th #TransformWestsideSummit of the year.
In attendance was Melissa Swindell, executive director of The Wren’s Nest, which is located in the West End and remains one of Atlanta’s oldest institutions. By preserving the heritage of African-American folklore through storytelling, tours, student publishing and the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris, the Wren’s Nest serves as a valued educational and cultural resource.
Check out our Q&A with Melissa below to learn more about The Wren’s Nest’s plans to support the Westside community and how she sees the Summit helping her achieve her goals.
What was your biggest takeaway from last Friday’s Summit?
Who knew police officers were being offered affordable housing on the Westside? The success story from this initiative that impressed me most was the officers’ new perception of the neighborhoods on the Westside. APD officers reported that living in neighborhoods that were once “statistics” gave them a sense of community and respect for their neighbors and an insight into the neighborhood’s culture. What seems a simple concept, being respectful of your neighbor, has made a world – or rather a city – of difference in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods. While I’m sure there is still work to be done, this is a momentous first step to engaging in open communication and mutual respect.
The other initiative that impressed me is At-Promise. By renaming the concept of “at-risk” youth and providing second chances and productive alternatives, youth from 12-24 years old have the opportunities in education, mental health, and career training/placement that all youth and students deserve, but that they may not have otherwise received. This reinforces the simple yet sometimes fraught-with-difficulties concept of the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Respect and safety go hand in hand, and APD is proving the effectiveness of this through these initiatives.
What is your affiliation with the Historic Westside of Atlanta? A year ago, almost to the week, I began my role as executive director of The Wren’s Nest. While I am not a Westside resident, the community has made the Westside my historic-home away-from-home. The Wren’s Nest is Atlanta’s oldest historic house museum, founded in 1913 for Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus stories.
Today, The Wren’s Nest is a cultural center that celebrates the Brer Rabbit folktales and champions storytelling in all of its contemporary forms. This fall we’ll celebrate a decade of hosting in-school writing workshops for local middle school students; we’re partnering with the West End Neighbors to increase our involvement in the community, and are looking forward to telling the folktales to long-time Westside residents and their new neighbors.
Why is the revitalization of the Westside important to you? Before beginning my role at The Wren’s Nest, I worked in a north Atlanta suburb. Part of my responsibilities were to create and implement dynamic programming in the humanities – history and the arts. Not an easy task to create curriculum-driven, yet entertaining educational programs for youth as well as programming for adults. However, there was a need here for local community programming.
When I transitioned into my role on the Westside, I assumed creating content for community programs would be a similar process in that there would be an open niche – a need for cultural arts programs.
The Wren’s Nest is a cultural center that celebrates the timeless legacy of the Brer Rabbit tales and promotes the art of storytelling in all of its contemporary forms. The programming options seemed endless from the performing arts to the visual arts, to literature and poetry, to music and song, and on and on.
When I ran these ideas by Westside residents, they’d say, “There’s a café in West End that hosts open mic nights for spoken word artists;” or “Did you know there’s a dance studio on Ralph David Abernathy? They do community lessons one night a week;” or “Have you been to the West End Performing Arts Center? They host plays and concerts, and they organize a bi-monthly arts open house for all the galleries in the neighborhood.”
The responses I received continued in this way and included two other historic house museums and their programming, along with the local library and other nonprofit spaces for artists of all mediums. Strangely, my second thought was, “How does The Wren’s Nest and its programming fit into this mix?” My first thought was, “I’m a native Atlanta resident. I’ve lived here the majority of my life. Why have I never heard of all this?!”
I am convinced that the Westside is one of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets for arts and culture. I am overwhelmingly inspired by the creativity, talent, and the support for local artists that flourishes in the Westside.
As a newcomer to the arts and culture scene in the Westside and trying to find my place and my organization’s niche in this community, I cannot begin to express my gratitude for how open, welcoming, and helpful the neighbors have been.
The Westside, for me, is a vital part of the cultural fabric of our city. It’s full of life and full of creativity through the arts and culture. In this regard, the Westside is already flourishing. Revitalization is important to me so that others in Atlanta, like myself at first, will come to realize the cultural significance of this neighborhood to our city and our history.
What are you doing for the Historic Westside, and what is your role in improving life for residents on the Westside? How do you feel the Summits can help you in your role?
Even a year after beginning my career on the Westside, I am still learning about all the incredible arts and cultural programming that is taking place throughout this community. The Wren’s Nest, like many other Westside nonprofits, hopes to be a place where community comes together to gather and celebrate.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve worked with middle school students through in-school writing workshops. This year, for the first time, we opened our 2.5-acre green space to the community for free movie nights in the summer. We regularly give authors and storytellers a place to share their writing and research with a local audience, and our partnership with the nonprofit Jazz Matters gives student and amateur musicians and performers a stage on which to practice and perfect their craft.
I am always seeking fresh, creative ideas for how we can work with and best serve residents of the Westside. From my perspective, being open to suggestions from those who know the community – better than I do after only one year – will always be vital to our role in improving life for residents of the Westside.
To accomplish this, we’ve recently partnered with the West End Neighbors association and regularly attend Summits. Meeting, getting to know, and openly communicating with long-time residents about ideas that work and those that historically have not will give us a solid background and good perspective for where and how to begin. Similarly, hearing and understanding the ideas and concerns of new residents will be a source for new perspectives on improving life in the Westside.
What is your hope for the Historic Westside? My hope is that more people outside the Historic Westside will come to appreciate the thriving cultural community that exists and has existed as Atlanta’s “best-kept-secret” for far too long.
Through partnerships made at the Westside Future Fund and across the city, open collaboration, and the sharing of ideas, the Historic Westside will continue to thrive well beyond its capacity today.