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Meet Michelle Bonton of Harris County Cultural Arts Council

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Bonton

Today we’d like to introduce you to Michelle Bonton

Hi Michelle, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
Jeremiah 29:7 says “seek the prosperity of the city where I have sent you. Work for its good and pray to the Lord for its welfare, for in its welfare is your welfare.” In other words, I believe God looks for people who will impact the world for good. That’s my “why.” I am a change agent for good. I believe I was born to be who I am and do what I do, but there are 3 key people/traits/experiences that helped me to identify my “Why,” 1) A 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Brenda Taylor, who helped me to see my worth and inspired me to do the same for others; 2) My unwillingness to accept rules that simply did not work for me or my peers leading me to advocate for change, e.g., petitioning my middle school principal to request a school bus stop closer to the apartment complex I lived in, saving myself and my classmates a 2 mile walk each day! 3) Being a 3rd generation teen mom and fighting to survive circumstances and a system in which I felt almost powerless. Those three things taught me the reality of the truism that says, “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the table.” They awakened something in me that has driven me to fight for others who may not know their worth, or who have to navigate through policies that hinder rather than help. I view myself as their voice at the table. My initial foray into advocacy was through my role as a classroom teacher and later counselor and principal. I wanted to support and inspire students like Mrs. Taylor inspired me. I’ve always sort of marched to my own drum, and after a frustrating experience at an inner-city Houston middle school, I decided to start my own. I spent 13 years as founder and superintendent of a fine art public school. The school grew from 1 site with 5 teachers and 97 students to 3 sites, 180 employees and over 1400 students. Hurricane Harvey happened about 3 years before I was scheduled to retire from education. As I looked ahead to retirement, I began to ask myself, “what next?”  I started talking to friends and neighbors. One of those was a complete lack of any organized, community based creative economy, and that’s when the idea for Harris County Cultural Arts Council and the Harris County Cultural Arts Center was born. We were blessed to acquire our beautiful 20,000 square foot facility in our first year of operation and we have been on a mission to initiate a creative transformation of unincorporated East Harris County through art and culture-based community engagement, economic development, and social justice initiatives.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
I grew up poor and did not have a lot of parental support because my parents were so very young themselves. I dropped out of high school and spent the next 12 years trying to earn my college degree between getting married, working, and taking care of my growing family. Getting through college was a big challenge and starting my own organization was an even bigger one. Most of my friends came from backgrounds similar to mine and I didn’t know or have access to people with the financial means to help me. When I submitted the application to the state for the fine art school, I turned in a budget with a zero balance! I’ve also had to fight stereotypes, fight to be heard and taken seriously.

As far as the cultural arts center, The biggest challenge with something like this, something of the magnitude of the cultural arts center in a community where we’re the first, is raising awareness about our existence, helping people to see the value to the community of what we offer; and of course, funding!  We’re offering something that will be a great value to the community, but to do it right, we need financial and people support.  We’ve had challenges bringing people on board; challenges in getting the word out; and challenges with getting funding.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
I am the founder and Executive Director of Harris County Cultural Arts Council. Harris County Cultural Arts Council is a 501(c)(3) organization whose mission to lead the way for a creative transformation of unincorporated East Harris County through art and culture-based community engagement, economic development, and social justice initiatives. We are the SOLE SOURCE for art and culture in this community of more than 40,000 residents. We are proud to the be the first and only organization of our kind in the history of this community. Thanks to HCCAC, our neighbors who live in North Shore, Galena Park, Sheldon, or Channelview no longer have to travel outside their community to enjoy artistic performances and community engagement events like festivals, farmer’s markets, outdoor movies, and more! We also have almost 13 acres of land and over 20,000 square feet of space within which you can hold your next major conference or special event.

What sort of changes are you expecting over the next 5-10 years?
We believe that within the next five years, Harris County Cultural Arts Council will have successfully positioned unincorporated East Harris County as a destination spot in our city.  The creative economy in Houston is more than ONE BILLION dollars. The arts and culture industry provide jobs, helps to foster a sense of community, and promotes the overall wellbeing of those who experience them.  The pandemic has helped people to see just how important arts and culture based community engagement are to the overall health and wellbeing of a community. We believe that awareness will lead to greater support to the creative economiy of Houston and surrounding areas, and unincorporated East Harris County in particular in the immediate future. We  are working hard to make sure that Harris County Cultural Arts Council and the cultural arts center, are positioned to take advantage of that growth so that we can better serve our community. We expect that our work will lead to a stronger, more connected, more resilient unincorporated East Harris County and that the cultural arts center will be the “go to” spot for arts and culture for the entire east region and beyond!

Contact Info:

Image Credits:
Flyer Graphics and Design by Angry Pig Media
Bonton Headshot photo by Di Tubbs Photography
Event Photos by Awakened Visions Media

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