Virtual series spotlights arts and activism


Screenshot Courtesy of UCIMC

Sr. Wilson Roca and his daughter perform Brazilian & Afro-Brazilian folkloric music and popular music during the May 6 installment of “Sounds Like Community.” The Zoom series aims to foster a sense of community amidst the pandemic.

By Karena Tse, Staff Writer

December 2014, Ja Nelle Pleasure set out on a quest for the impossible: an affordable, spacious and kid-friendly venue to host her son’s birthday party. A string of fallen prospects finally led her to a sunlit space at 202 S. Broadway Ave. — the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center.

This venue hunt was Pleasure’s lucky introduction to the IMC family, of which she would grow to become a committed member over the next six years. A lover of the arts — and poetry in particular — she was drawn to the center’s mission to gather people around arts and activism.

By March, the means to this mission could no longer rest on physical gatherings. In response to COVID-19’s escalation, the IMC launched “Sounds Like Community,” a “community media experiment” held weekly over Zoom.

“We wanted to diminish the physical distance that everybody was suffering from,” Pleasure said. “We wanted to have a space for everybody to care for one another.”

Each Wednesday evening, SLC featured two Champaign-Urbana speakers. Presenters ranged from social justice activists to folk musicians and manga artists to elected officials. Each session gave attendees a window into different passions and platforms.

“I do really appreciate this spirit that is strong in Champaign-Urbana,” said Miriam Larson, IMC Executive Director. “This willingness to try new things, ask questions, be reflective and to explore all kinds of cultural experiences.”

While the presentations provided viewers with learning experiences, to performers, they offered relief from the deafening silence of closed venues. Artists who had come to rely on common spaces for connection and expression found a generous new outlet in “Sounds Like Community.”

The weekly meetings tapped into a need for human connection during the pandemic. Amidst anxious isolation, “Sounds Like Community” reminded participants of their capacity for collective joy.

“You have good talent, and good conversation,” Pleasure said. “You’re bringing something to them that puts a little bit of light in their life and a bit more motivation to just keep going through this pandemic.”

While the series saw an early spike in engagement, “Sounds Like Community” garnered less viewership in later months. Initial interest in online events faded — first during the summer, which pulled audiences outside and away from their computers, and again in the fall, which left the average schedule oversaturated with Zoom meetings.

However, Larson holds faith in the IMC’s resilience. A decline in virtual participation was hardly its first challenge during the pandemic. After March brought a drop in income from venue rentals — the center’s principal funding source — the IMC became entirely volunteer-run.

“That was an incredible outpouring of labor and care on the part of the volunteers that got us through that period,” she said.

Larson holds a deep appreciation for the town’s culture of public engagement as a lifelong resident of Urbana. Pleasure has been enchanted by C-U’s devoted, vibrant communities since she moved into town 15 years ago.

While students and visitors may understand C-U as a college town, Pleasure believes the University is only one element in the city’s colorful constellation of ideas, talents and cultures. As the “Sounds Like Community” series grows, Pleasure and Larson hope to highlight all the shades of C-U.

“These people come together to express love, to express community and to show off their amazing talents — you learn something every time you go out the door,” Pleasure said. “It’s really a magical experience to be a part of this community.”

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