Melissa Wray is a member of the 2021 Rising Stars Under 40 recognized by the 7 Rivers Alliance and the River Valley Media Group.
Age as of Sept. 1, 2021: 33
Town of residence: Caledonia
Occupation/company: Program Director at Lanesboro Arts; Founding Director at Mainspring
Family: My extremely supportive parents and siblings who have logged a lot of sweat and time in helping me along the way! Plus my adorable nieces and nephew, and my dog Bobby Biscuit, who all keep me smiling.
What is your proudest professional accomplishment?
The most rewarding experience of my life has been creating Mainspring, a nonprofit arts and cultural center in Houston County, alongside with my fellow founding board members. I left the area for 13 years to live and work in the Twin Cities. Over the years, my work focused more and more on storytelling and community, and I pursued my masters in Arts & Cultural Leadership. I always felt pulled back to my hometown of Caledonia, but finally was starting to see a way to make that happen with the arts experience I was gathering. Some friends working in the rural arts and economic development and I started dreaming about an organization that our younger selves would’ve wanted in our small hometown communities. A place that celebrated community and the arts, whose programs could be an entry-point for important intersecting community conversations. We found out about a vacant church building on Main Street that was for sale and thought the space lent itself well to an arts and community event space. We eventually started the process to register Mainspring as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, acquired the building in 2019, started planning events, and here we are just a few years later, still going strong!
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Please tell us what community and volunteer activities you’re involved with – and why?
I am the founding director of Mainspring, a nonprofit arts and cultural center in Caledonia that serves all of Houston County through community arts and cultural events, programs and resources. We’re an all-volunteer run organization that puts a lot of heart into the community events we host, the partnerships we build, and the creativity we support. Starting this organization with my fellow board members was the reason I moved back to my hometown of Caledonia from living in the Twin Cities for over a decade; this is the type of organization I wish Houston County had had when I was growing up here and it fills me with a lot of gratitude and purpose to be a part of building that now.
I work as the Program Director at Lanesboro Arts, which is my dream job because my work revolves around community arts programming in a vibrant small town that has built a very strong foundation of this work over the last few decades. We offer a wide variety of programming including youth arts education opportunities, public art like murals and mosaics, unique events including music and dance, and support the work of more than 90 regional artists in our Lanesboro Arts Gallery. A recent highlight was launching a new outdoor concert series this summer called Rhythms on the Root, with folk, bluegrass and blues music all outside along the Root River.
I also serve on the Caledonia Chamber of Commerce board, as well as the Caledonia Tourism Committee. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of these two groups because it’s an opportunity to support our great local businesses and showcase our community through its strengths.
Tell us what inspired you to be a leader in your organization and in your community.
I think the type of community leadership that I gravitate towards is just that: community-led. None of the work I’ve done would’ve been possible without the creative and dedicated partners alongside me, or the supportive hometown community welcoming us back. So I guess it’s really my fellow community doers, artists, thinkers, enthusiastic participants, and business owners who inspire me to be a part of our community!
What advice would you offer younger leaders to aid their success?
Find people who have a similar vision as you to help build collectively towards something. Resources can be tight and doing the work alone can exhaust the spirit. Find your team of folks who can carry the vision and do the work alongside you -- and who you can turn to for inspiration when you need it most!
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