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Charleston nonprofits key to healing pain.

Charleston, South Carolina was a wounded city and its citizens desperate for answers last year in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Those at the Gibbes Museum of Art set out to ask questions.

The museum's leadership responded to June 2015's deadly, racially-motivated shooting in an African-American church there with an exhibit, The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South, which confronted the difficult subject of contemporary racism and violence.

"Art kind of makes people stop and ask questions and really think," said Pam Wall, curator of exhibitions at the museum. "We thought, 'if we can get people in there, maybe we can open some minds and have people have meaningful conversations that wouldn't have happened otherwise.'"

Art is one way to start dialogue, so is music and, of course, education.

As the 11 artists took a stab at opening hearts and minds, an assortment of other nonprofits in Charleston also stepped in, putting a variety of talents to work toward the same end.

"There's been a tremendous outpouring of love and support from quite a few nonprofits asking what they can do to help out--helping with everything from the physical structure to the spiritual needs, and any other type of needs of the families," said the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, new pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where the massacre took place on June 17, 2015. "We are immensely humbled and thankful for the amount of progress we have been able to accomplish in a short amount of time."

The violence had taken place during a prayer service in the AME, known in the area as Mother Emanuel Church. Nine people were shot to death, including state Sen. Clementa C. Pinckney. A 10th victim survived. The suspect charged in the attack later said he'd committed the act in hope of igniting a race war.

The American Red Cross responded first, Manning said. ARC provided gift cards for the victims' families and monetary support for their immediate expenses. Then came the art exhibit, musical performances, community service programs, scholarships and a planned permanent memorial at the church. All have been the result of collaboration between area nonprofits and businesses in an anguished city.

The missions of some nonprofits were altered to address the victims' immediate needs, while others are just now beginning to raise funds for a damaged population, with a focus on improving race relations and helping those who mourn in Charleston.

The 11 featured artists at Gibbes all hail from the South, but from very different backgrounds. Some are black, some white, some in their early 30s and some close to 80. The exhibit ran from May through early October. The exhibit was put together in record time, on the heels of the museum closing for a two-year renovation.

"We knew that the city would be reflecting on the anniversary of the terrible tragedy and we felt it was very appropriate to consider an exhibit that spoke to the story," said Angela Mack, chief curator and executive director at Gibbes. "We weren't sure if we would be able to pull it together." An exhibit that would ordinarily take three years to complete was ready for the public within a year.

Manning instructs his congregation to always "look for good," he said, noting that the charity that abounds since the tragedy is one sure sign of it.

"We can see certain good coming out of it," he said. "But we don't want this type of tragedy to happen to anyone again. We must be willing, as painful as it may be, to still have the discussions pertaining to race relations, gun violence and just understanding where people are coming from and how they got there."

Those in the nonprofit community in Charleston were poised to act toward that end.

"We wanted to utilize our craft to reach out to the community," said Yuriy Bekker of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, which sent eight musicians to perform for a public vigil on June 19, just a day and a half after the tragedy. "Many of the survivors of the tragedy commented on how beautiful the music was and how comforting it was," said Bekker, who is the orchestra's concertmaster and principal pops conductor. Selections such as Be Now My Vision, Trumpets of the Lord and Amazing Grace brought forth both tears and healing, participants told the musicians.

The orchestra would be called on again and again in the weeks following the incident, despite being left short-handed by vacationing members. A week later, they'd perform with a gospel choir at the TD Arena for the community and leaders, including President Barack Obama. They'd also be on hand for Pinckney's funeral.

And when church members gathered just a week after the tragedy for another bible study meeting in the very space where the shooting occurred, members of the orchestra showed up with their instruments.

"There were several emotions going through my head," Bekker said. "We were playing in the place where the tragedy happened. It's tremendous grief and sadness, but, at the same time, it gave a little comfort knowing that with our music we can make a difference."

"It was also playing to the essence of those people who are gone," added Ellen Dressler Moryl, retired director of Charleston's Office of Cultural Affairs and a member of the orchestra. "In my opinion, their essence was there. Our music was an offering of humility and love to those who left us. But it's not just in music. It's in every art form and every utterance that expresses these feelings of optimism and hope and love."

For some nonprofits, such as the Coastal Community Foundation, a grant-making institution dedicated to serving coastal South Carolina, the incident and subsequent discussions brought to light a need for changes internally, as well as the need to address the root causes of racism and promote long-term solutions in the South.

"If we were going to have this fund, we needed to walk the walk," said Darrin Goss, president and chief executive officer of the foundation, whose Lowcountry Unity Fund was formed in response to the shooting. The fund--currently more than $350,000--is used to address racial concerns and the economic inequality in African-American communities.

"We took a hard look at our own practices, how we identify vendors, staff members, board members. We've done an internal hard look at ourselves ... in terms of equity and inclusion."

Smaller nonprofits applied for mini-grants of up to $2,000 for projects related to the fund's mission, addressing systemic racism. Applications were required to explain how racism tied in and would be addressed with the funds.

Blackbaud, a Charleston-based software and technology firm that deals solely in the charitable sector, donated $75,000 and pledged an additional $25,000 in matching funds for donations made by Blackbaud employees. "They've been a leader for a significant amount of time," Gross said of the publically-traded company. "Kudos to them for helping, once again."

One benefactor is Loving America Street (LAS), which takes its name from a street in a historically African-American neighborhood on Charleston's east side. Its mission is to provide access to and education about technology for women in the struggling neighborhood. Local women in the technology field taught classes in a laundromat run by LAS. The laundromat-turned-classroom also provided much-needed access to computers. The resulting traffic brought about a revival of the struggling laundry business there, as well, creating jobs and earning funds for LAS.

Another grant recipient, Beyond Our Walls, took students on field trips to historical and civil rights landmarks in nearby cities including Savannah, Ga., enlightening them about African-American history.

The church has attracted visitors from all parts of the world since the tragedy. The need for a permanent memorial to the victims was apparent to John Darby, a real estate developer and president and chief executive officer of The Beach Company. Darby's family-owned company is spearheading the fundraising and planning effort to build a permanent memorial at the Emanuel AME Church.

The Emanuel 9 Memorial Fundraiser was given a big start by The Beach Company, which pledged $40,000. Fundraising is still in its early stages, but the charity's leaders are hoping to raise $100,000 to build a memorial honoring lives of the victims.

"Charleston gets 6 to 7 million visitors a year," Darby said. "Quite a few go and visit the church. They want to pay their respects and pray, and they have to do it on the sidewalk--place flowers on the sidewalk."

The charity has received donations from all over the country, Darby said. Leaders at several local nonprofits, including museums and cultural centers, have pledged assistance and support. Competitions are planned to design elements of the memorial and champions of the cause hope to see it completed by 2018.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to make sure we, as a community, never forget the Emanuel 9 and the survivors," Manning said. "We're prayerful that it will honor the memories of the nine, and, of course, their survivors."

Caption: The Gibbes Museum of Art

Caption: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo: Andrew Kantor
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Author:Barron, Ann Marie
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Date:Dec 1, 2016
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