Photos Cameron Flaisch
If you’ve ever tinkered on a brightly colored, slightly out-of-tune piano on a corner of Broad Street during the hot summer months, then you’ve already been PERC-ed.
The same goes for if you’ve tuned into your favorite radio channel and heard local actors – people you run into at the grocery store and sit next to at your kid’s school functions – delivering a heartwarming rendition of the beloved holiday classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
You may have been PERC-ed all along in several ways, but you just didn’t know it. Through a plethora of multi-hued artistic endeavors balanced skillfully with activism and expression, Peacefully Engaging the Rome Community is doing just what its name proclaims to do. With events that highlight different ethnic groups, causes and bring to light Rome’s robust artistic nature, PERC is a gift to the community that keeps on giving.
Love > Hate
PERC was actually born from an activism movement, Turn Your Back on Hate. When a Neo-Nazi hate group, the National Socialist Movement, announced in 2016 that they were going to hold a rally in Rome, Jessie Reed was angry.
Reed didn’t want her children, family and friends exposed to that kind of hate, and tried to figure out some way to combat it in a peaceful way. She decided to channel her disgust into a counter protest and rallied the help of her fellow community members to Turn (their) Backs on Hate, silently. The peaceful protest drew more than 150 people.
“After the protest, it was clear there was a huge group of people who were interested in doing more around community activism and bringing people together,” says Reed. “The overwhelming question immediately after the protest was ‘What are you doing next?’”
Reed developed a small team of people to establish what would become PERC, taking the reactive nature of TYBOH and flipping it.
“We decided we were going to change our name to be something that we stood for instead of what we stood against,” she says. “PERC is appropriate for an organization that’s proactive and designed to bring people together.”
Change Starts at Home
Jeremy Harrison was one of those founding members of PERC who sought to make changes in his community in unique ways. When he was visiting Fort Collins, CO in 2016, he saw something that inspired him.
“I was just walking around downtown and there were pianos everywhere. That was the first time I’d ever seen pianos just outside in the open like that,” says Harrison.
Harrison thought a similar project would be perfect for Rome’s Between the Rivers Historic District. He got together with Reed and they contacted the City of Rome who put them in touch with Kristi Kent, director of communications for Rome.
“Kristi had actually had the same idea at the same time,” says Harrison. “So we made it happen.”
Once the City of Rome and PERC announced in 2017 they were searching for piano donations, the cause gained a ton of traction. They were able to pick and choose pianos for local artists to spruce up. By spring, the pianos were painted, shined and knitted up in yarn as musical masterpieces in downtown Rome.
“It’s been a great success these past two years, and the Keys to Rome project achieved a lot of good for the area,” says Harrison. “It gave people who maybe wouldn’t generally interact with each other something to talk about. It provided people an opportunity to sit down and play a musical instrument that they wouldn’t be exposed to normally.”
A Platform for Positivity
The Keys to Rome project is just one of several endeavors to engage different groups in Rome. PERC has done two community trash pick-ups with Cub Scouts at Lovejoy Baptist Church and also partnered with local group CONNECTION in 2018 to help put on the annual Affair to Remember, a black-tie blues event for the community.
Also in 2018, PERC was able to organize a grant-funded art project with elementary school kids and created a rock garden at Anna K. Davie Elementary School called “Only One You” which focused on children’s uniqueness and diversity.
During the presidential election of 2016, tensions ran high in all corners. PERC organized a spoken-word event called Tension Release at Makervillage.
“We had four hours of spoken word – it was a completely packed house,” says Reed. “We had comedians and host a poetry slam. There were college kids and community members. Women in their 70’s were reading. It was a very diverse group, culturally and age-wise.”
Another PERC project is Mindflow, a mindfulness event for the mind, body and spirit that incorporates meditation, yoga and a drum circle. Each Mindflow session is focused on raising funds by donation for a specific community cause. In 2018, PERC raised nearly $1,000 for the Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia and the Hospitality House for Women, Inc.
Don’t Turn that Dial
If you’ve tuned in to WLAQ (1410 AM radio) or 95.7 FM The Ridge during the holidays over the last two years, you may have heard what you thought was a blast from the past: a group of voice actors and organic sound effects blasting through the airwaves and performing an old-school radio play.
But it wasn’t a throwback at all. PERC established the PERC Radio Theatre in the Christmas season of 2016, when a group of talented local actors performed “A Christmas Carol” in front of a live studio audience at Makervillage. The tradition continued the following year with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in October at Makervillage, and in December of 2017 with “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Historic DeSoto Theatre.
With natural effects created by a team of sound artists using props, the radio theatre shows offer a chance to observe how a live radio play is done and be entertained at the same time. Also, being able to reach out to others across the airwaves is central to PERC’s mission.
“Bringing writers, actors and sound artists together to create something that can be enjoyed by families anywhere they have a radio signal allows us to bring our message of peace and inclusiveness to a broader audience,” says PERC member Jackson Williamson, who has organized PERC radio plays. “It also helps us raise money for other PERC projects, such as the Keys to Rome project which has been financed largely by proceeds from past radio shows.”
Skating Toward a Festive Future
This holiday season, PERC hosted the Winter Wonderland Carnival & Ice Festival at the Forum against the backdrop of the Forum on Ice event, where families enjoyed a wintery paradise of ice skating and all the artistic attributes of a traditional winter market.
Booths with artistic, educational and culinary products were featured, as well as parties and performances including an Ugly Sweater Disco Party; a Night of Carolers, Choirs and Choristers; Los Chilenos (a traditional Mexican dance) led by the local organization Romanos Unidos; an authentic Kwanzaa booth; the Pollard Greens – Jazz on Ice and more.
Festival director Mark Van Leuven was inspired to spearhead the Festival by his European travels.
“When I was younger, I spent a few Advent seasons backpacking through Central Europe,” says Van Leuven. “I enjoyed their tradition of the Advent Markets, in which the villages would close down late in the afternoon and the citizens open up vendor booths, food booths and regale the town with seasonal entertainment.”
Reed says the Festival is right up PERC’s alley, and the organization plans to make it an
“The Festival is perfect,” she says. “There’s opportunity for art and expression and it’s highlighting our diverse communities by truly bringing the community together, not just a segment of it, but the whole. As diverse as Rome is, we could all do a better job of fully integrating or providing platforms for people.”
And PERC will continue to do just that, she says. PERC is a platform to help others have a space to bring culture and diversity to the community and to bridge the gaps between people of different walks of life.
“Nobody is short on things to stand up against these days,” says Reed. “What we are short on is remembering how similar we really are. We’re more alike than we are different.”
Find out more about the PERC on Facebook at thePERCrome