Leah Ross: Revitalizing a Community

Leah Ross, Executive Director of Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) speaks about her role as an influential woman in the arts.



Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The BCM accomplishes its mission to, “preserve and promote the rich music heritage of our region and celebrate Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia as the birthplace of country music,” through a museum which hosts several permanent and rotating exhibits. The BCM also provides educational programming to people of all ages, a new radio station,  Radio Bristol, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion music festival, a 3 day music and arts festival in Bristol, Tennessee with over  140 musicians, 20 stages and 50,000 plus attendees.


Visitors admiring sculpure inside museum

Visitors admiring sculpure inside museum

How did she get here?

Leah grew up in a small coal mining town in Southwest Virginia where her exposure to the arts was very limited. Her main contact with the arts was her father’s love of bluegrass music. The lack of arts in her childhood did not stop Leah from soaking up as much live music as she could during her life and going on to be the executive director of a successful organization providing arts to the Bristol community.

Leah attributes her rise to the top of such a successful organization to, “having great jobs that allowed me to do work in the community.” During her work with both a waste management company and a health system company, she helped plan events with the goal of bringing the community together to support worthy causes. Her work with these companies inspired her passion for  event planning and management.

When the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival was formed, she was brought on as the Chair of the logistics committee. After the fifth festival in 2005, she was asked to take on the role of  executive director of the festival. She happily accepted the position because, as she explains, “events thrill my soul. I love the pressure and pace of live events.”  


Being an Executive Director

The discussion to merge the then, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival occurred about five years ago. Leah explains that the process wasn’t easy, but overall the two organizations felt it was what the community was asking for. Since the merging to create The Birthplace of Country Music, the organization has grown leaps and bounds and has proven very valuable to the community of Bristol.

Leah explains that her role as executive drector can be “challenging to wrap your arms around everything, but it’s very rewarding. You may be working on the festival one minute and then have to change to a different focus about 5 minutes later. We feel like we’re making a difference in our community.” She also says, “it’s all very exciting, just a lot more than it used to be.” This is her dream job.


Leah Ross giving speech for Regional Tourism

Leah Ross giving speech for Regional Tourism


When asked what a normal day in the life of Leah Ross looks like, she tells me it all depends on the time of year. On a regular day, her schedule is fairly structured. She can be focused on an upcoming event, researching grants the BCM can apply for, cultivating sponsor relationships, or brainstorming ideas for the radio station.  


Community Impact

I would say they most definitely have made a difference in the community. Since the creation of BCM, the organization has gone from 4 employees to a total of 21! With the increasingly popular festival, museum, and a new radio station, the BCM only continues to grow within their community. Leah tells me, “the radio station is gaining ground and will become a great avenue for us to tell our story to the world.”


Leah Ross with Senator Carrico from Virginia Tourism Advocacy

Leah Ross with Senator Carrico from Virginia Tourism Advocacy


After the opening of the Museum, Bristol  was recognized by National Geographic Traveler’s top ten places to visit in the world, and has inspired two boutique hotels to open downtown. This helps the vitality of downtown, and promotes the growth of new businesses. According to Zach Vance’s article, Friday’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots draws thousands Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival has “accumulated $16.1 million for the region.”


Leah also believes the merger has shown the community the importance of arts education and live music. “And not just country music, but all of the roots that have spawned from it.”




I wanted to know what Leah believes to be some of her greatest accomplishments. Being married over 40 years and raising two beautiful children have been her greatest personal accomplishments.

As for her career, she is most proud of the festival, helping build it into what it is today and becoming the Executive Director of BCM. “Helping build something that our community and our region should really be proud of,” Leah says is her greatest joy.


Scythian performing for the crowd at Bristol Rhythm & Roots

Scythian performing for the crowd at Bristol Rhythm & Roots


Challenges in the field

Leah does not feel as though her gender has had a factor on her career thus far. “I’ve never been afraid to take on new responsibilities. I think when you show you have that initiative doors open for you that otherwise may not.” However, she does realize that equal pay is still an issue for women today, and she’s not wrong. According to the Pay & Equity Discrimination publication put out by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “in 2015, female full-time workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent.” While obtaining her degree in Business Administration, Leah did her final project on the difference in salaries of  men and women.


For fun

Running an organization requires a lot of late nights, weekends, and hard work. I was curious as to what Leah did for fun to balance her work-life relationship. She told me she enjoys spending time with her family, quilting, and listening to live music.


Do you know a woman who has influenced the arts? Let us know!



Bechdel Project Kicks Off the Women Influencing the Arts Speaker Series

For the kickoff of the Women Influencing the Arts speaker series, we were honored to have the co-founders of Bechdel Project, Maria Maloney and Kimberly Faith Hickman, share their stories and experiences as women in the field. They spoke about Celebrating Success: Inspirations, Creations and Explorations. Below is a recap of their visit.


What is Bechdel Project and what do they do?

According to their website, “Bechdel Project is a marriage of art and activism, education and economics,” whose mission is to “tell stories on stage and screen that pass the Bechdel Test.”

The Bechdel Test is named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in whose comic strip series Dykes to Watch Out it first appeared in 1985. Ms. Bechdel credits the idea to her friend, Liz Wallace. Alison is also known for her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which has gone on to be adapted into a very successful Broadway Musical, and her most recent work, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama.

In theory, the Bechdel Test is simple. In order for a story to pass it, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. The story must have at least 2 women.
  2. They must talk to each other.
  3. About something besides a man.


The reality is that, unfortunately, the majority of stories told whether on stage, on screen, or in literature do not pass the Bechdel Test.

Continue reading

Sarah Orren: Stepping Up to Save a Valuable Community Resource

Sarah Orren

Sarah Orren


For my first “Featured Influential Woman” post, I wanted to highlight a dear friend of mine, Sarah Orren, Coordinator of Education and Marketing for the Office of Undergraduate Academic Integrity at Virginia Tech. I first met Sarah in what was the very first graduate level course for both of us, Nonprofit Organizational Leadership. We bonded over the shared difficulty with grasping graduate level work and we’ve been friends ever since. After learning more about Sarah over the past few years, I discovered she was a wiz at marketing and reached out to her for assistance when I first started this project, Women Influencing the Arts.

Sarah has played a vital role in the development of this project: from developing the project’s website; constantly serving as a sounding board, allowing me to bounce ideas off of her; to editing my written materials. I truly could not have done any of this without her.

While all of this showcases her many talents, it is not the reason I am writing about her. Along with her skills and expertise in marketing and design, Sarah also has a passion for the nonprofit arts and holds a graduate certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management from Virginia Tech.

At the age of 5 Sarah’s mom put her into dance class where she took ballet, tap, jazz, and lyrical dance until she graduated high school. As an adult she continued dancing with Belly Dancing and eventually earned a teaching certificate for Zumba. She believes her experience with dance throughout her life has taught her discipline and encouraged her to not give up. Dance has also taught her the value of having a strong work ethic. In dance, as well as other performing art forms, the dedication to perfect ones craft equips those who study it with many skills that can be transferred over to life in general.

For these reasons Sarah wanted to enroll her step daughter, Dylan, into a dance studio. It was important to Sarah that the dance studio be one that did not focus on the “competition” aspect of dance, but rather encourage the learning of technique and passion for dance, in a family environment. During her search she found the Sapphire Dance Center where Dylan showed much enthusiasm and progress in her first year.

Sarah and Dylan

It was at the end of the season, and after the annual dance recital, that the owner informed the students and parents that she, much to her disappointment, was no longer able to continue with the business. Sarah was determined to not let go of this wonderful studio where both her and Dylan had found a home and were able to practice dance. So, she did the only thing she knew to do. She met with the owner and convinced her to share the listserv of parent emails so she may contact them. To her surprise, Sarah was able to find a core group who agreed that this studio was too important to just let it shutdown. Since then, Sarah and this group of volunteers have formed an executive committee and managed to not only keep the doors open, but to continue offering classes to all age groups.  


I was fortunate enough to visit Sapphire Dance Center to speak to Sarah further about her new venture. As soon as I walked in I felt at home. The lobby was full of parents with their children waiting excitedly for their class to start. The children were so excited to see their friends who they hadn’t seen in forever (a week in kid’s time seems like an eternity) and to get into the space to work with their instructors.

Students at dance bar

Sarah explained that the members of the committee take turns acting as the personnel at the front desk during the week as well as pitch in with cleaning the facilities.

Sarah shared how the community has rallied around the efforts of her and the committee by providing furniture for the lobby and pitching in to paint the studio. It is has been a true communal effort.

Sarah hopes in the future to open a nonprofit dance studio to serve the community incorporating dance classes not just for children, but for seniors and the disabled community. The future nonprofit dance studio will also  provide scholarships for students whose parents may not be able to afford classes.

There  is currently no other dance studio in the area that provides these community services. I have no doubt that Sarah will succeed in making this dream come true.She has been a true inspiration to me,teaching me to never give up on my dreams!

Is there a woman in the arts you find inspiring? Share their story!