Why art and music matter in the fight for social justice

[Image description: A beautiful spiral made up of stained-glass windows, depicting various scenes, likely from the Bible, since this looks like a dome of a chapel of some sort. Pixabay.com didn’t identify it. Update: It’s the Chapel of Thanksgiving in Dallas, TX. Thanks Marijana Ababovic for identifying it]

Hi everyone, before we dive into today’s subject, my organization is growing and hiring three new positions. I’m highlighting here our Capacity Building Lead position. If you are a capacity building geek who also loves using an equity lens to support organizations led by and serving communities of color, this may be your dream job. Check it out. Must be able to tolerate rain, transformative work, and the Oxford Comma.

Last week, I gave a keynote at the conference held by the Association of California Symphony Orchestras (ACSO), whose staff and board are some of the nicest people ever. And extremely talented, with everyone seeming to play one or more instruments. There was beautiful, moving music everywhere. At one point, I stood in the corner, sipping on a margarita and listening to a duo of mandolin and fiddle players whose virtuoso performances for a few minutes lifted me away from thoughts of the gradual apocalypse our country is going through.

In my conversations with folks from arts and music organizations these past few years, though, I sense some existential angsts. A colleague asked me, “People are wondering what the role of art and music is when there’s so many more pressing problems. Is there a place for us in the fight for social justice?” This question has made me think, and my answer, which I gave in my talk, is that yes, not only do we need art and music, but right now we need it kind of badly.

When I was eight, my family moved to the US. Like other immigrants and refugees forced to leave their homeland due to war and poverty, we lost the community we knew. Each morning, I watched Care Bear and Thunder Cats, dreading when those two shows ended, because I knew I would have to walk to the bus and be taken to a place where I understood nothing and couldn’t say much. I was teased constantly, in large part because I had a terrible haircut. My father is talented at many things, but his haircutting skills were negligible, and he insisted on carrying his rusty jagged-tooth scissors from Vietnam and cut our hair to save money. You know those kids with the bowl haircuts? I envied them. I was an awkward, lonely kid with a bad haircut who hated school.

What first saved me was music. It was the holiday season, and all the kids had to learn songs to perform at the school assembly. Our music teacher was Ms. Adair, and the kids were not very nice to her. They were loud and tossed things and made up their own inappropriate lyrics, and she was always on the verge of exasperation. I was confused how children could behave like this and not get their hands smacked with a long ruler, like I had experienced in Vietnam.

Eventually the class did calm down, and we were able to coalesce into some sort of chorus. With my budding English, I could only understand bits and pieces. I did not understand what a “rain deer” was, or why it had a red nose. And Frosty was terrifying, a monster made of snow that, through some ancient arcane magic, came to life and followed the village children around. Math, reading, science, and everything else were overwhelming and I sucked at them. In our little portable classroom reserved for music, however, I could follow along. I could contribute. I could blend in with other voices and seem like any other kid. Ms. Adair was patient and encouraging, helping me pronounce tricky words like “thumpity.” When I sang with the other kids in front of the school, for the first time since my family left everyone we knew, I felt a sense of belonging. (And this is why, to this day, I still love Christmas songs, as repetitive and annoying as many of them are.)

It would take me a couple more years before my English developed. I did everything I could to keep up, including leaning over and copying from the kids next to me. One time, I was sent home for lice, along with a few other kids. I didn’t completely understand why; I sat on the curb, scratching my head and crying while waiting for my parents.

School got slightly easier, especially when a hairstylist friend of my mother’s started giving us kids free haircuts. But I still dreaded going. One day, my fifth-grade teacher, Ms. Moss, pulled out a snowflake she had made. It was black. She held it to the light and all these colors came through. She showed us how to fold and cut black construction paper and glue bits of tissue paper to create a stained-glass effect. I became obsessed. I struggled with every subject and I was filled with constant anxiety that I would get called on to answer a question or read a passage out loud. But that day, I could make a beautiful stained-glass snowflake.

Kids gathered around, whispering. I had an intricate, kickass snowflake. Mrs. Moss called her friend, another teacher, Mrs. Barton, over, and they hovered above me, smiling, as I glued little pieces of tissue paper. I could tell they were impressed. All the snowflakes were hung up on the window, where they stayed the rest of the year. I began to look forward to the art projects. For so long I had sucked at everything that required English, including gym (I could not understand the rules of various activities, like volleyball). With art, I felt competent and respected and sure of myself. My being good at something changed the way the other kids saw me. Art motivated me to continue to learn, to explore. It gave me confidence. It kept me in school.

I’m telling you these stories because when there is so much going on, so many problems to solve, sometimes we think of art and music as indulgent. Who has time for singing and dancing and stained-glass snowflakes when kids are starving or locked in cages? By thinking this way, we forget about art and music’s power to heal, mobilize, build community, and so much more. There are amazing organizations I know, like Totem Star, which started working with youth released from detention, and now works with young people from many cities who have few or no other music learning opportunities. I’ve met many kids and adults who have been transformed by photography or writing or theater. There are countless examples of artists and musicians using their gifts to fight against oppression, to bring hope and joy to those who are most affected by unjust systems.

Art and music are critical in our work for social justice, as frequently they are the only things that can reach people, that can provide comfort or generate the visceral, raw emotions needed for social change. After the election in 2016, when many families and children were terrified, Families of Color Seattle gathered the kids and used art—having the kids draw themselves as superheroes, for example—to help them process their feelings. And this year protesters in Hong Kong, are singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables as they do a sit-in at the airport.

Yes, there are plenty of things to improve on. Art and music are not always accessible to marginalized communities. Resources are not equitably distributed to artists of color, artists with disability, LGBTQ artists. And in public schools, art and music programs are always the first to get cut, and the schools with the most low-income kids and kids of color are disproportionately affected. Symphonies, orchestras, ballets, and other art forms continue to struggle with diversity and community engagement.

While we work on those challenges, though, let’s take a moment to appreciate the organizations and professionals who are creating art and music, whose skills and dedication bring beauty and hope and happiness to a world sorely in need of it.

Unfortunately, the people who benefit most from art and music may not have the awareness or the language yet to express their gratitude. Ms. Adair and Ms. Moss will never know how they affected my life, and the lives of my kids. If you are an artist/musician, and/or if you are with a nonprofit that provides art and music, thank you. Your work makes a bigger difference than you may ever realize. Thank you for using your gifts to help bring forth a more equitable and inclusive world.

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