ArtsOhio Blog

The ArtsOhio Blog is the Ohio Arts Council's way to share stories that highlight the arts in Ohio, feedback from the field, interviews with artists and staff, and more. Sign up for the ArtsOhio newsletter to receive a curated selection of posts each month.

A 1909 postcard of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Athens. Photo courtesy of Ada Woodson Adams

Athens Organization Selected to Host Rural Design Workshop Led by National Endowment for the Arts

The exterior of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Athens, Ohio. The church and the efforts to preserve and revitalize the structure are the focus of an upcoming National Endowment for the Arts Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshop that will be held in Athens. Photo courtesy of Ron Luce, 2009A community organization in Athens, Ohio, has been selected to host one of three multi-day community design workshops led by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Part of the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design (CIRD) program, a national initiative that aims to support rural communities through hands-on training and other events, the workshop in Athens will focus on the efforts to preserve and reimagine the use of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, a century-old church founded in 1872 that is the last standing building in the city that was built by free-born and formerly enslaved black artisans.

The workshop will focus on the work of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society and its partners as they envision the architectural rehabilitation and revitalization of the church as an economic engine and as a hub for black history and culture in Athens.

“A lot of times when you think about Appalachia, it is often perceived as a white culture and not immediately associated with African Americans, so it is important to save this church so that its history and the fact that we have been here contributing to the community since its inception is acknowledged,” said Cherri L. Hendricks, board president of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society. “We feel that Mt. Zion can play a role as a black cultural space where the community can come together and talk about issues such as racial justice, equity, and food security. As we move forward, these issues of race, space, and place become more and more relevant and important to us.”

A partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Housing Assistance Council, and Texas-based buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, CIRD works with communities with populations of 50,000 or fewer to “enhance the quality of life and economic viability through planning, design, and creative placemaking,” according to a Sept. 10 National Endowment for the Arts media release announcing this year’s workshop participants.

With the goal of using creative thinking to address issues unique to each community, CIRD workshops seek to empower local citizens to explore creative solutions with assistance from design, economic development, and creative placemaking professionals. In addition to providing competitive funding to support workshop expenses, CIRD also provides support through webinars, digital resources, and customized follow-up materials.

The congregation on the steps of Mt. Zion Baptist Church during a homecoming event in 1961. The church is the last standing building in Athens that was built by free-born and formerly enslaved black artisans and is considered an important historic landmark today. Photo courtesy of Ada Woodson Adams“We’re excited about the expertise our CIRD partners will bring to this project. There will be an incredible convergence of their decades of experience working with and applying participatory design methods and design justice frameworks with the embodied expertise of the Mt. Zion team, including the experiences of several members who were congregants in the church and have deeply embedded local ties with the community,” said Sam Dodd, director of the Ohio Valley Center for Collaborative Arts (CoArts) at Ohio University, who assisted the Mt. Zion Baptist Church as the primary strategist and lead grant writer for their CIRD award.

“I think the time is right for this to happen inside of Mt. Zion’s mission – to graft together our conceptual plans and material needs. With CIRD, we can have discussions that make concrete change—or in this case, brick and stone—through memory and identity and storytelling.”

This year, in addition to Athens, Millinocket, Maine, and Pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico, have been selected to host workshops. Specific dates and the participating members of the resource team for these workshops have yet to be announced, but more information will be available on the CIRD website.

An inaugural Rural Design Summit attended by members of a peer-learning cohort comprising these three communities and 20 others from 17 states ranging from Alabama to Wyoming will also be held this year Oct. 9-11 in West Virginia.

Ohio Arts Council Executive Director Donna S. Collins said she thinks Athens is an excellent choice for a CIRD workshop city.

“Athens has long been an outstanding example of the amazing things that can happen when a community comes together to imagine innovative ideas and approach challenges in a creative way. From transformative public art initiatives to community collaboration among the city’s diverse arts and culture organizations, it’s clear that Athens is not afraid to infuse a healthy dose of creativity into the problem-solving process,” she said. “For the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society to be selected to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts’ Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design is a tremendous opportunity. The skills, connections, and resources shared through this program will undoubtedly equip all who participate with the tools to make a difference in the community for years to come.”

Hendricks and her team are already looking to the future. She expressed excitement about the opportunities that exist through creative placemaking and spoke of the enthusiastic engagement of the Mt. Zion partners, which include the Athens County Foundation, the City of Athens Planning Department, and the Southeast Ohio History Center.

“The possibilities with this are limitless,” she said. “Our whole organization is just incredibly thrilled. We are excited, we are energized, and we are motivated, and we are really looking forward to making the absolute most of this opportunity that we’ve been given by having a national light shined on our little corner of Southeast Ohio and Appalachia.”

To learn more about the CIRD program, visit Find more information about the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society at


The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Established by Congress in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the Arts Endowment supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. For more information, visit


The Housing Assistance Council (HAC) is a national nonprofit that strengthens communities across rural America through investment and assistance with affordable housing and community and economic development. Based in Washington, DC, HAC is actively involved in shaping federal policy and the affordable housing industry with its research, lending and conferences. We also deliver technical assistance, training and affordable loans to local organizations that help rural communities prosper.

ABOUT buildingcommunityWORKSHOP

buildingcommunityWORKSHOP ([bc]) is a Texas-based nonprofit community design center seeking to improve the livability and viability of communities through the practice of thoughtful design and making. We enrich the lives of citizens by bringing design thinking to areas of our cities where resources are most scarce. To do so, [bc] recognizes that it must first understand the social, economic, and environmental issues facing a community before beginning work.

Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured photo: A 1909 postcard of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Athens, Ohio. Photo courtesy of Ada Woodson Adams

Comments are closed.


Sign Up for the Monthly Newsletter

From deadline reminders to artist interviews--sign up to receive the monthly ArtsOhio newsletter directly to your inbox.

* indicates required
OPTIONAL-Select additional opportunities: