As you may or may not know, there’s a group of Kentuckians out there trying to rebrand Kentucky’s state slogan from “Unbridled Spirit” to “Kentucky Kicks Ass.” The program has gone so viral that even Conan O’Brien made a joke on his show about it. In an unrelated but equally clever initiative, a group of Covington denizens known as The Awesome Collective of Covington preceded the Kick Ass campaign when they came up with their own strategy to let people know how remarkable their peculiar town of 40,000 people truly is.
Covington entrepreneurs Tess Burns and her husband Chris formed AC in September 2011 after they bought a house in the Peaselburg neighborhood of Covington and Tess joined a neighborhood association that “wasn’t a good fit.”
“I saw this need for a positive group,” Burns explains over coffee at local bookstore/coffee shop Roebling Point Books and Coffee. “It was, like, energized; we’re going to have fun and do these cool community projects. So I decided what that would look like and talked to a couple of visionary people that I know and we went to the Center for Great Neighborhoods and they said, ‘Sure, we’ll support you. Go for it.’ We did our first event with some music and it was very laid back. And we just asked for feedback on — don’t think about budget — if you could think as big as you wanted what would you have in Covington, or what do you love about Covington?”
The amour evolved into the Index of Awesome, a sort of “Not for Tourists” paperback zine filled with more than 200 crowd-sourced submissions of various things people in The Cov admired about their town. Tess and the other members of the collective walked around, handed out index cards and asked residents to write down what they liked, and they also asked for submissions through their website.
Soon after, a zine committee formed and wrote brief descriptions on faves like Devou Park, cobblestone streets, local musicians, restaurants and places that might not even be on the locals’ radar. The Index was released at a launch party the day the world was suppose to end, Dec. 21, with more than 100 people showing up. (You can view the entire Index on the Collective’s website).
What things about The Cov have enamored them? Chris loves the city’s diversity; Tess appreciates “this old, slow Kentucky vibe to things where you might be having a beer in someone’s family room and someone pulls out a banjo and all of a sudden there’s a bluegrass band.” Lydia Cook, a core member of the collective, says, “I think what inspires me about Covington, really, is the people that are here and that are willing to stay here.
What I mean by that is people who live here will stand by Covington.”
“The common thread is it’s unique, it’s honest and it’s real,” Tess says about her hometown.
The collective is exactly that: a group of people who want to stay optimistic and promote the town. “There’s definitely a sort of tier that goes down and it’s all based off of this massive foundation and The Awesome Collective is anyone who thinks Covington is awesome or anyone who has that in them, that says, ‘I need something different and I want to be there for my community,’ ” Cook says.
Other tiers are comprised of volunteers who send out emails, plan events, show up to gatherings (they prefer that term over “meetings”) and just inform other people about the town’s awesomeness. There are no job titles, gatherings happen organically and they abide by 10 core values listed on their website. Basically, imagine if a local city council meeting involved booze, music and making arts and crafts for the community instead of somnolent talks.
“We believe that community work does not have to be something that is underneath fluorescent lights in a boardroom or something that we have to go by bylaws,” Tess says. “Instead, we say forget all that. We want to do stuff where you walk away from the event and think, ‘That was so fun and I met like-minded people and it was energized.’ There’s some weirdness and fun that happens.”
Cook offers examples of this weirdness: During the Great American Cleanup last year, they gave all of the volunteers high-fives; their latest gathering entailed people convening at local watering hole Pike Street Lounge to make valentines for the community to be passed out on V-Day.
Of course, Covington — like every neighborhood — has its problems, but Cook thinks “to let go of the little things” is the key, and Chris believes the city is taking positive new steps for improvement, with the resurgence of Gateway Technical Community College (Tess’ employer) and other projects that “bolster the social fabric.” Despite the neighborhood growth, they don’t want to be the next OTR. “We’re our own thing,” Tess says.
Besides AC, Tess also started Futurecraft, a peer-to-peer entrepreneurship support group for Covingtonians, and she and Chris (he’s a prominent chef in town who currently works at Nicola’s) plan on opening a community-engaged restaurant in MainStrasse this summer or fall called Commonwealth.
Farther down the pipeline, the Collective’s working on wheatpasting murals on every school in the city, spreading Covington’s awesomeness via guerilla marketing in the form of stickers and badges (their “Covington Awesome Since 1815” sticker appeared inside the Stanley Cup) and writing another Index.
“The sky’s the limit,” Tess says about AC’s trajectory. “We were asked actually at this year’s launch party — it’s one of our biggest events we did — how is Awesome Collective ever going to top this? To which we responded, ‘We’re only getting started.’ To us, that didn’t mean ohmigosh, how are we going to beat this? We were just like, yes, we laid this great foundation and now we’re just going to keep on going.”
Covington is not only awesome, but it also kicks major ass, too.
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