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Laura Shultz and Ann Smith-Tate: Building Stronger Communities

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Constructing a strong community requires leaders dedicated to engineering character to develop a concept and move it to completion. They build on their own skill set, but they also know the importance of networking and reaching for the strengths of others to realize success. Laura Shultz and Ann Smith-Tate have called on these qualities and the assets of others in their pursuit of good and are being recognized as the 2018 HERLIFE Magazine Women of Influence.

Laura Shultz can’t play an instrument, but that hasn’t stopped her from building a successful musical program, keeping at-risk kids in school and changing their mindsets. She’s the maestro of Harmony Project KC, based on the campus of the Northeast Community Center in Kansas City, which has served children and families through cultural, educational and social programs in the historic northeast area of Kansas City, Missouri, since 1940.

While many might have worried about striking a sour note with a program they knew little about, Laura challenged herself to bring Harmony Project KC to this area. She’s never been one to shy away from a challenge, from serving as a pediatric registered nurse in the Peace Corps in South Korea to establishing herself as a commercial photographer/businesswoman and then a nonprofit leader. She has been executive director of NECC since 2008.

A Vision That Grew
“It took luck, courage, a supportive board and the perfect program manager to try to start something from scratch that had not been done in KC before. I reached out to everyone I could with experience in music, and we were able to pull this off,” the mother and grandmother shared. “I’m a music lover but I’m not a musician. It’s a miracle. I thought it would take five years for this type of program to bring results, but it took six months.”

This was an incredible achievement given the community environment. Although it’s improving, the northeast portion of Kansas City continues to suffer a local dropout rate of 40 percent, with skyrocketing crime and poverty. The immigrant population is high; 28 languages are spoken in the area. Seven diverse neighborhoods cover an area running from River Market on the west to Interstate 435 on the east, to the Missouri River on the north and Truman Road on the south.

“We have solid partnerships with the city, universities and the symphony, and they all see the benefits of Harmony Project KC. Many local schools are underperforming in this area, but with this program, kids are able to bridge that achievement gap,” shared Laura. “Every child in Harmony Project KC has seen their grades rise, social activities improve and overall
performance progress.”

Outstanding Results
Harmony Project KC is an affiliate of the acclaimed Harmony Project Los Angeles, an arts-based youth development program tailored to low-income youth. It was recently recognized with the nation’s highest honor by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Harmony students boasted a 100-percent college acceptance rate, including two Fulbright Scholars.

The positive effects music can have on a child have been scientifically proven. According to a recent five-year study by the University of Southern California, music instruction seems to accelerate brain development in children, most notably in the areas responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills. The study demonstrated that the acceleration can be significant for those who studied music.

“Music has been proven to be more powerful than other art forms and sports as a positive educational projector of children’s lives. And the younger the child begins to study music, the better. That’s why we’re in Head Start. Many children in the Northeast area aren’t ready for kindergarten,” noted Laura. “But we know children who study music are better readers by third grade and more likely to graduate from high school. In just six months’ time, these children were succeeding, and some were taken out of special ed. It’s phenomenal how it happened.”

Commitment to Students
Harmony Project KC started three years ago with 33 kids from 20 different schools. Now, more than 100, from first to 12th grade, train at the Northeast Center, with 40 more studying at nearby Garfield Elementary. Three days a week they gather to study music, playing either violins or cellos, flutes or clarinets, or singing in a choir. With a strong commitment from their parents, children spend several hours each week in class at Harmony Project KC and even more time at home practicing. In addition to the musical training, the program helps students earn college scholarships.

“There are so many underserved areas in this country, and these children have little chance of achieving success without outside help. Half of the graduates in Los Angeles went into STEM careers. Some go on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses,” commented Laura. “Many businesses now are looking for applicants who have musical backgrounds because they are creative and can work collaboratively.”

For Laura, the sweet sound of children playing instruments is music to her ears. Her dream is to carry her tune of musical positivity to other Kansas City areas as a way to give kids the right start in life. Her greatest hit enhances the lives of the children and families through the power of music education.

As a youngster, Ann Smith-Tate imagined the Main Street of her Burlington, Iowa, hometown as a better place. She dreamed of rehabbing the blighted historic buildings into prosperous businesses. “I remember driving in our historic downtown area imagining what this building and the next one could be,” she recalled. “For me, it was discovering what I was passionate about. It’s interesting how all of it comes together.”

Ann started her professional career in public health, but she wanted something different. Nearly 20 years ago, she called upon her youthful curiosity and reached out to professionals in the economic development industry. Ann eventually connected with Kansas City Area Development Council chief marketing officer Martin Mini. “Martin met with me—this 20-something-year-old—who couldn’t articulate what she wanted to do,” she laughed. “But he helped me navigate and network.”

Building Community
This connecting has paid off impressively. Ann now finds herself as the president and CEO of the Shawnee Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Council, bettering the community through business expansion and attraction. “I love my career because it’s about community and building great places, working with the many elements that it takes to create vibrant cities. At the Chamber, we’re always working toward making that happen. It fascinates me how we’re able to knit all this together into a wonderful community that people love to live and raise families in,” the wife and mother of two remarked. “It’s always shifting but it comes together around this concept of community. Every day I recognize the many strengths of Shawnee. This is a strong community with great housing, schools and business opportunities, where unique ideas are percolating.”

Ann is a newcomer to Shawnee, although her experience in community and economic development is very deep. She spent nearly a dozen years in Independence, Missouri, as the economic development manager and before that she was with the Overland Park EDC. “The Shawnee Chamber’s purpose is to provide leadership in the community by being an advocator,
connector and convener,” she noted. “We’ve unified the chamber with our economic development division to better serve our goal of helping business grow and attracting new commerce.”

Growing Business
She finds herself in a very dynamic role. Shawnee is one of the fastest growing cities in the Kansas City metropolitan area and in the state of Kansas, with growth increasing at a rate of 25 percent or more every decade. A good part of that success is based on the partnership among the business community, Shawnee Chamber EDC and city government. Ann and the Chamber’s community partners focus on efforts to expand the business base of the community. The organization also helps businesses in Shawnee continue to succeed by offering unique learning opportunities, networking and advocacy for a better business climate.

“The brand and mission of the Chamber of Commerce are incredibly strong. We’re a 71-year-old organization, and we play a very important role in the community. A solid business environment provides jobs and diversifies the tax base,” Ann advised. “Most people want to live in an area with reasonable access to goods and services and employment opportunities. It’s a mix of how to service the basic needs and create communities and connections so that people love where they live.”

Looking Forward
Even with the solid reputation of the Chamber on a national and local basis, Ann notes the road can be difficult. “The challenge before us is consistently keeping the organization relevant and meeting the needs of members,” Ann shared. “Business isn’t the same as it was 71 years ago, and we shouldn’t be either. We’re building on trust and relevance so that the Chamber can be an influencer in the community.”

Being curious, asking questions and networking were incredibly important to Ann as she developed her career. She advises women to do the same. “Sometimes we’re afraid to ask a question or put ourselves out there. We should never feel that way,” she said. “Be inquisitive and reach out to others. Building a professional network is crucial whether it be through the Chamber or other professional organizations or an informal group of women in your industry. Finally, take time to reconnect with why you chose this career or started your business. There are a lot of pressures for women to balance successful careers and a happy family life. It’s easy to lose sight of the purpose and passion that excited you in the beginning. This has allowed me to be more passionate and more successful.” ■