Arts Communities

Spotlight On: LEAF

LEAF Rocky Dawuni Residency.

By Emma Castleberry

It doesn’t take long for Asheville newbies—both tourists and residents alike—to hear about LEAF. The thrice-yearly festival is a bastion of community life in our region and has become a household name for music and art lovers. But the LEAF Festivals—one in the spring and one in the fall at Black Mountain’s Lake Eden and LEAF Downtown AVL—are just one branch of LEAF Community Arts, which is a community-driven nonprofit organization.

The tagline-cum-mission statement of LEAF Community Arts is “connecting cultures and creating community through music and arts.” This effort comes alive through the LEAF Schools & Streets and LEAF International programs. Through LEAF Schools & Streets, the organization brings community teaching artists to local recreation centers and public schools, where the artists share their craft with youth. “LEAF Schools & Streets uses the arts to bridge cultures and create life-affirming, community building experiences, empowering our youth to become global citizens, leaders and agents of positive change,” says Cortina Caldwell, LEAF community relations director. Together, the teaching artist and the class prepare a performance for LEAF Festival. “It is an opportunity for youth to take the next step toward becoming leaders both onstage and off-stage, in their community,” says Caldwell.

The goals and curriculum of LEAF Schools & Streets are aligned with the Developmental Assets Profile (DAP), a survey assessment developed by Search Institute. “Building these assets prepares youth for success in some type of college or education, a career and citizenship,” says Caldwell. LEAF Schools & Streets develops six of these assets through its programs: Community Values Youth, Adult Role Models, Creative Activities, Cultural Competence, Personal Power and Self Esteem. LEAF Schools & Streets has served more than 70,000 youth since its inception in 2004, with programs in drama, hip hop, music appreciation and African diaspora.

LEAF International also has a youth focus. This division of LEAF operates 13 programs in 10 countries: Bequia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Mexico, U.S., Panama, Rwanda and Tanzania. “In First World civilizations, youth are becoming more Westernized and elders are dying off,” says Reggie Tidwell, a president emeritus of the LEAF Board. “It’s easy for these beautiful cultures to fall by the wayside and vanish.” To keep that from happening, LEAF finds an existing community partner—a “culture keeper”—that is teaching native art or music to youth and provides that partner with resources. The children in the LEAF International programs sometimes get to travel to the U.S. and perform at LEAF Festival. “Increased leadership skills, connectivity, trust and cultural awareness are just a few of the changes I’ve noticed in communities that have a sustainable LEAF International program,” says Schree Chavdarov, global engagement director for LEAF. “It is truly amazing to watch the growth and confidence of the LEAF International youth and culture keepers.”

This—instilling youth with confidence and pride and empowering them with skills and expressive arts—is the heart of the LEAF mission, and the festivals are a celebration of this year-round work. Outside of direct donation, one of the most powerful ways to support these LEAF initiatives is through the purchase of a LEAF MemberSHIP. LEAF members get access to Plus Passes for LEAF Festival, invitations to special events throughout the year, discounts from LEAF sponsors and early cabin reservations at Lake Eden in December and June. Additional benefits are available with LEAF family and benefactor memberSHIPs. The entire cost of membership goes to support LEAF International and LEAF Schools & Streets.

Tidwell remembers his first LEAF Festival experience in 2006. “Living in Asheville, you learn about LEAF because it’s such a magnet for this community and you hear this strong buzz about it,” Tidwell says. “I wanted to see what it was all about.” Tidwell volunteered as a photographer and spent the weekend capturing images of energetic concerts and joyful youth against the backdrop of picturesque Lake Eden, his toddler atop his shoulders all the while. “Even in the early stages, before I quite understood the breadth of what LEAF was doing, I could see this amazing synergy among the youth. They were so empowered, walking around and performing. I’ve been to a ton of music festivals, but this is something very different.”

The Spring LEAF Festival is Thursday, May 10, through Sunday, May 13. To purchase tickets, make a donation or learn more about LEAF, visit

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