Jessica Sweeney asks: 'Now what?'
Common Folk co-founder reflects on past, looks to future of organization
NORTH ADAMS — A kitchen's haze had enveloped Linda's Cafe by the time Jessica Sweeney took a seat at one of the popular North Adams restaurant's two-tops.
"This is the diner," Sweeney said before ordering her usual, eggs Benedict.
The Union Street establishment is far from the only sizzling spot in North Adams these days. The city's arts scene is red-hot, and in recent years, few have done more to stoke that creative culture than Sweeney. She co-founded Common Folk, the artist collective that has hosted numerous city music and art events over the past several years. The group recently moved into a Main Street storefront, selling art, clothes and other items next to a studio and performance area. Sweeney is also directing the city's first O+ Festival, an art, music and wellness event on May 10 and 11 that will include 20 musical acts and nine visual artists, all of whom can receive free health and wellness care in exchange for their artistic efforts. Creative types and other freelancers often struggle to obtain such services.
"If we were to take away music and take away art and take away the thing that paints our world, we would be miserable humans, [but] we don't treat people that make those things possible with the same dignity and the same needs as we treat other people in our world," Sweeney said.
O+ was founded in Kingston, N.Y., in 2010 and has since held festivals in San Francisco, Chicago, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Haverhill, among other sites. A video made by Joe Aidonidis about the opioid epidemic in North Adams helped attract the nonprofit to the northern Berkshire city. Nico Dery (music director), Amanda Chilson (clinic director) and Ashley Strazzinski (art director), among others, are assisting Sweeney in putting on the festival at several North Adams venues. While festival attendees won't have access to the artists' free clinic, they can check out a health expo that will include yoga and other types of workshops.
"We're not really looking at one particular modality when it comes to health care for this festival," Sweeney said. "We're really trying to look at the whole picture — what constitutes wellness for the community and for an individual and everyone that intersects within that."
The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts brought Sweeney to North Adams in 2007. The Pioneer Valley native studied performing arts at the school, minoring in arts management. At one point, she had an internship with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, working on a "youth substance-free music program."
"It's interesting to reflect back on that now and be like, 'Wow, if I pulled that whole concept apart, I'm doing all of those things in bigger ways,'" Sweeney said.
After college, she started Common Folk as a monthly open mic in Northampton. But she knew that a career in the "intersection of creativity and community development" would be more meaningful in a certain Berkshire city.
"North Adams is where I'm needed," she said.
She worked at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and eventually founded the Roots Teen Center, where she has served as executive director. But that will soon change; she's leaving her post at the end of June.
"Every month, we're doing so much better at Common Folk, and I initially moved here to build that. I fell in love, on the side, with youth work, and I'm certainly by no means leaving the world of youth because I still find it really important. I still have a lot of really important relationships with young people that I don't want to just abandon," Sweeney said. "But I realize that, come June, July, August, I'm not going to be able to run two organizations at once anymore."
Moving forward, she hopes to be on Roots' board. But her attention will be squarely on Common Folk, which now has about 100 members, she said.
"I remember so clearly, like five years ago, when the group really started getting together and being like, 'What do we want to do? How do we want to do it?' I would do these exercises with everyone of, 'Where do we want to be in five years? What do we want this energy to grow into?'" Sweeney recalled.
After moving into the 73 Main St., she found the notes for those exercises.
"I was standing there, and I was like, 'Oh, we did it.' We did it in less than five years, and it was very much this desire to have a space where people can create in as many ways as we could possibly fit into the room," Sweeney said.
The space has already hosted, for example, musical performances and knitting. Its store includes repurposed clothes, North Adams postcards and jewelry.
"Originally, we weren't thinking about having a store," Sweeney said.
But the group had success selling works at FreshGrass and smaller festivals, supporting local artists. Works by Misa Chappell and Katherine Haig, among others, are on display at the shop. Customers frequently ask about where the artists are based.
"Everyone's local," Sweeney said the store's workers tell them.
Common Folk had about 200 visitors during WinterFest in February, shortly after the space's debut. It's often open until 8 p.m., which has paid off: Sweeney said that 20 to 25 percent of the store's traffic comes after 5 p.m. While the space has the benefit of being essentially volunteer-run, Sweeney hopes the shop's later hours will encourage others on Main Street to follow suit.
"It's harder for them to stay open later when they have to invest in their staff to do that. But, if we can help create that draw to make it worth it, maybe we start to shift the tide of downtown a little bit more," said Sweeney, who lives in North Adams with her fiance, musician Tim Shiebler.
For Sweeney, being able to walk to the woods from downtown is one of the city's many draws. She is looking forward to hiking Mount Greylock this summer, something she does on a regular basis when she's not juggling her various work responsibilities. With her time at Roots Teen Center winding down, her Common Folk and O+ Festival jobs ramping up and a 30th birthday on the horizon, Sweeney had been spending a lot of time recently reflecting on her goals and accomplishments.
"I never thought that I would've started two organizations and been a part of all these initiatives by the time I was 30," she said, "so I'm like, 'Now what?'"
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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