With Harmony Project, David Brown builds inclusive community

By Danae King The Columbus Dispatch

It seemed like David Brown was flying as he led several dozen people in a Harmony Project rehearsal at Lincoln Theatre.

He danced back and forth on the wooden stage as he directed the community choir — hips wiggling, hands gesturing, head swiveling to look at individuals in the audience.

The music moved Brown, and the choir members responded in kind. They bopped their heads as they sang and leaned forward in their seats, smiling eyes trained on their leader.

Brown founded this community choir in 2009, and it's not just about singing. It focuses on unity and community service.

One member likened Brown to a spiritual leader, and the rehearsals to a once-weekly service.

“It does feel like a very spiritual experience for me,” said Janine Dunmyre, a waitress who lives in Linden. She joined the Harmony Project in May and loves it.

“It’s similar to a synagogue and church experience," she said. "We come together, see each other just once a week. We have a spiritual leader to bring out our joy."

Minutes later, Brown offered up one of his sermons, focused on the church shooting in rural Texas that killed more than 20 people. He urged people to connect with their inner child as they sing.

He ended with a powerful sentiment, and the crux of what the Harmony Project is about.

"What we're here to do is use our voices as a counter to violence and a counter to destruction and a counter to all those things that are weighing heavily on everyone's hearts and everyone's minds," Brown said. "Let's just use our music and use our voices tonight and know that in this little bitty space, in this little bitty town, in this little bitty state, in this little bitty part of this world we live in, that this sound does matter, it matters because each of us represents more than just ourselves."

"So let's sing together."

A chorus, truly harmonious, of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," rang out.

Creating harmony

David Brown didn't grow up in Columbus. He’s a Louisiana native and a New Yorker all the way.

But you wouldn’t know that from the way he talks about Ohio’s capital city, or the way he’s helped it and the people in it.

Brown first found Columbus in 1985 when he was looking for an escape — from his former life, his parents and the shame he was made to feel about his identity. Brown is gay and was raised in an evangelical Baptist family. In his words, "coming out ... did not go well."

He only stayed for a short time in Columbus before taking off for New York. Years later, friends drew him back to work on political campaigns.

Now, Columbus is Brown's home and the Harmony Project members his family.

"When the community responded to it, I started seeing Columbus again through a different lens," he said. "I had this huge family here that I didn't even know I had. It was like my family increased 10-fold overnight when the Harmony Project began."

Making connections

The Harmony Project is more than just a community choir. It has no requirement to join other than the commitment to help the larger community through service projects such as serving meals at homeless shelters, planting trees, building playgrounds and painting at New Story Group Home.

The project welcomes people of all classes, colors, occupations, religions and has even included children and inmates at local prisons.

"I'm hopeful that what the Harmony Project is doing is connecting people," Brown said. "We're purposeful with that."

David Brown leads rehearsal of the Harmony Project in the Lincoln Theatre. (Columbus Dispatch photo by Doral Chenoweth III)

Brown, 54, who is single, adopted two teens he met a few years ago when the Harmony Project began working with a South Side high school. Chris and Kulay, both 19, were aging out of the foster system. Now, they have a home with Brown in Blacklick.

They've taught the project founder a few things about diversity. Brown is white; his teenage sons are black.

"Neither of these boys were ever told there was a future, their world was all about survival of today," Brown said. "They just need the same access as the kids who live in Bexley and New Albany and Clintonville."

Brown loves Columbus, but says part of that love is noticing its flaws, what he calls the "cracks in the sidewalk."

He's realized some of those cracks are racism, socioeconomic inequality and a fear people have of leaving their neighborhood "bubbles."

Chris and Kulay have "been welcomed into this community and their Columbus became so much bigger," Brown said.

"They were just as afraid to cross over into 'our' Columbus as we are afraid to crossover into theirs," he said.

Truly inclusive

Many people, community leaders especially, struggle to figure out how to be truly inclusive.

Dunmyre has noticed that Brown does those things right. Debby Stokes, an African American woman who has been part of the Harmony Project since it began, agreed.

Brown "really has a method to his madness in not only wanting us to sing, which is my joy," Stokes said, "but he wanted to be able to create a community that did not register in with 'OK, I live on the South Side'"

People from all neighborhoods and of all races are drawn to the Harmony Project. It does not recruit.

"It's an organization of attraction," Dunmyre said.

One way Brown brings people together is service projects, but it's also the fact that he makes it known that "we are one and there was no distinction in that," Stokes said of the choir.

What does Brown see in the Harmony Project's future?

"What's next for us is probably what's next for the city: more growth, being able to react and respond ... We want to be able to be reactive to the world around us."

When the choir began years ago, it was 100 voices, now it's 500 voices strong.

Like Columbus, "We're growing inside out," Brown said.

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