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Roanoke City Arts and Culture Coordinator Douglas Jackson is on a mission to unite and strengthen our community through the arts.

Douglas Jackson always has I was passionate about literature, so it’s only fitting that the spark that launched a lifelong career in arts-based community development was an English seminar.

“It was my senior year at Duke, and that interdisciplinary exploration of place through social data, architecture, literature, art, and film tuned me into the built environment and community shaping,” he recalls. “It set me on a path and fostered a love of learning.”

Nearly four years of Navy service and a move to California later, Jackson made the decision to enroll in UC Irvine’s Urban and Regional Planning graduate program. In preparation for this new educational venture, Jackson worked as an assistant to Irini Vallera-Rickerson, a former art history professor at Orange Coast College, who used artwork to teach her students to face what is happening in the world around them.

“It’s hard to see all the ways the arts can engage, inform, inspire, heal, catalyze, gather, and inspire, and it became natural for the arts to be woven into all aspects of life,” says Jackson. “What’s unnatural is how we like to categorize the arts as extracurricular or superfluous. They are actually at the heart of things.” Jackson continues to share this perspective with others as he encourages them to see the important role that artistic expression plays in building more resilient communities.

After five meaningful years as a program manager for a non-profit organization, Jackson wanted to take some time to further explore his interest in literature. It was this change in direction that brought him to the heart of the Roanoke Valley in 2004 to study creative writing at Hollins University. But what was expected to be a short two-year stint in the area quickly turned into something more.

His love of the arts and knack for community building came in handy when Jackson became a member of the Roanoke Arts Commission shortly after graduation. A highlight of his 11 years of volunteer service was becoming a key contributor to the development of the City of Roanoke’s first Arts and Culture Plan, a plan to boost the city’s economy, create more livable communities and find ways to promote civic engagement and lifelong learning through the arts.

After his term ended, he looked for new ways to stay involved. Like his mother, Jackson can’t resist getting lost in a good book. “So I thought, ‘What if I work to pool our book resources? What would an experiment in building community around books look like?'” In 2017, his ideas culminated in the founding of Book City Roanoke, starting with the launch of a website hosting the region’s literary assets.

Star City’s independent bookstore, Book No Further, opened that same year and became a staunch supporter of Jackson’s work on the literary scene. Doug was in the process of planning an area-wide reading focusing on Dar Williams’ ‘What I Found in a Thousand Cities,'” says Doloris Vest, the indie’s owner. The bookstore is also a podcast sponsor of Book City Roanoke, which explores “equality and engagement at the intersection of books and place.”

Following the retirement of Susan Jennings in 2019, Jackson officially rejoined the Arts Commission as the new Arts and Culture Coordinator for the City of Roanoke. But just months into his work to facilitate new collaborations between city departments, community leaders and artists, Governor Northam issued a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Not to be deterred, Jackson and the Arts Commission did everything they could to sustain the momentum they worked so hard to generate. A “play at home” edition of the Commission’s newsletter included a range of activities that families could still take part in, such as blasting sidewalk chalk and touring the virtual art exhibit. Many arts and culture organizations even took it upon themselves to provide educational experiences for children to keep them learning while schools were in limbo.

“We’ve been working as a community for the community,” says Jackson. “I think it felt good. It certainly felt better than closing up shop.”

Cari Gates, former chairman of the Roanoke Arts Commission, commends Jackson for the tremendous effort he has made to bring our community together for the greater good, especially during difficult times. “[He’s been] really engaging and bringing together our artists in Roanoke… not just for the sake of art, but for the sake of change.”

Jackson brought the community together once again in 2020 for an undertaking he calls “one of the most profound experiences.” [he’s] had as a public servant.” In response to the civil unrest catalyzed by the killing of George Floyd, the Arts Commission joined forces with leaders of the Roanoke Urban Arts Project to create the street mural End Racism Now, a masterpiece that left residents pondering what might be the future of their city.

“I sat my bike down every evening during the road closure and, as the sun set and the heat of the day faded, the silent space was a place of connection and reflection,” Jackson recalls. “The space became a space of commemoration and reverence, but also of celebration and hope.”

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