May 27, 2020

AIR Institute Inspires Hope During a Crisis

Beth Flowers

As the Executive Director of the AIR institute, I’m here to tell you a bit about our mission to raise the value of arts and culture in every community, in spite of the global pandemic affecting every aspect of our lives. The AIR Institute has been providing creativity-focused rural economic development programs since 2012 when it first piloted workshops and programs to serve the Intermountain West in Fort Collins, Colorado. Now the AIR Institute has trained more than 75 facilitators in 9 states, most in the Appalachian region.

Like the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, the AIR Institute believes that creativity helps humanity thrive. We believe that our human, creative nature is what can solve our ills – if we can get folks together to collaborate and create together. What makes our programs unique is cross-sector collaboration – we serve artists, business people, educators, and the community together. We teach design thinking, business planning, and entrepreneurial spirit using the latest business development strategies and tactics. We help people find common ground so that they can collaborate to create a shared, locally-crafted, vision of what they want their community to be.

Most importantly, we believe that everyone should have access to these skills and programs - so we train people who live and work in rural communities to be AIR facilitators. We believe that we learn better from people we know and trust; people who understand us.

The AIR Institute hosts cohort workshops with Appalachian rural communities. (Photo Credit: AIR Institute)

All of our programs have been in-person, in our rural communities, in libraries and community centers and city halls and church basements. COVID-19 has changed everything. We’ve already heard from our communities that they want and need AIR programs now more than ever - people need hope, resilience, adaptability, entrepreneurial spirit, and empathy to pull together and find their way in this new COVID-19 reality.

So, we used our own systems and processes to pivot and move our programs to online platforms so that we can continue to provide the important community and economic development that people and rural communities need right now. We offer a proven step-by-step process and series of programs that help communities assess, train, and grow their local creative economy. Free workshop materials allow any community to begin their assessment process and network building with a workshop that will help determine if they are ready to grow their creative economy.

COVID may affect rural areas in interesting ways as people from urban centers are realizing what we already know: that many rural communities offer incredible benefits for health and wellbeing. It’s even more important that communities discover their shared stories and find common ground so that a population influx becomes a benefit, not another dividing line in our towns.

So, how do we bring people together when social distancing health guidelines keep people apart? AIR is offering to help you host these introductory workshops online; we can provide zoom meeting training and a facilitator to help you deliver the presentations and facilitate conversations during the workshop.

Rural communities participate in Shift Workshops to gain hands-on, collaborative community and business planning experience. (Photo Credit: AIR Institute)

Once a community is ready for a deeper dive there are two additional workshops and programs that can engage and support an emerging creative economy: the Shift Workshop and the Evolve Program.

Shift Workshop

In this workshop, skilled facilitators guide small teams through exercises that produce hands-on experience in planning, and community development. Shift Workshop participants work together quickly to design and plan implementable projects for their community that focus on raising the value of arts and creativity. Projects have a one-year timeline and most projects require less than $5,000 to successfully implement. Projects that have been implemented include streetscape designs, youth farmers market, hiking trail wayfinding, youth-run coffee shop, and business creativity training.

Shift Participants report that their:

  1. Networks have grown by 44%
  2. Morale is 43% higher
  3. Productivity is up by 35%

Most importantly, communities begin to believe that they can make change with the people and assets they already have and that small projects can lead to big solutions.

The AIR Evolve Program follows the Shift Workshop and, like CIRD, it is built around a cohort model. It is a flexible business development program that serves cohorts of up to 15. Participants learn practical business skills and design thinking. In Evolve, each participant prototypes their venture and gets constant real-world feedback from their potential markets.

The program is results-driven:

  1. 87% report increased revenues
  2. 20% start new businesses

Eleven people from two rural counties in Appalachian Ohio are participating in our first online Evolve Program. Nelsonville (population @5,000) and Logan (population @7,000) are towns in the Hocking Hills region of Southeastern Ohio. Both towns have struggled with high poverty rates and unemployment, but they share borders with Hocking Hills State Park that attracts thousands of tourists every year.

The cohort is doing amazing work such as transforming an existing dance studio to include new dance cooperative for aging dancers or, and creating an arts and history festival within new pandemic realities.

Creative placemaking and creativity are what will help us find new, better, ways to serve and grow our communities. We look forward to working with all of you to make our rural communities vibrant and stronger.

Learn more about AIR at