The Arts and Social Justice: Bridging Artistic Excellence and Social Justice Transformation
With the rise in racial tension and violence in our communities, the question of how we engage our communities in meaningful civic discourse is being asked across the country—particularly how do we engage our young people and help them understand how to include their “voice” in the discussion? The arts have a long standing place in building a bridge between artistic expression and social justice. “Music and the arts are often the glue that helps hold a movement together, providing a sounding board and an emotional support structure,” says Anthony Trecek-King, Artistic Director for the Boston Children’s Chorus, BCC, during our recent discussion about BCC’s unique mission.
Founded in 2001 by civic rights activist Hubie Jones the BCC’s mission is to:
Harness the power and joy of music to unite our city's diverse communities and inspire social change. Our singers transcend social barriers in a celebration of shared humanity and love of music. Through intensive choral training and high-profile public performance experience (locally, throughout the U.S. and around the world), they learn discipline, develop leadership skills, and proudly represent the city of Boston as ambassadors of harmony.
Twenty children were accepted into the initial pilot program in 2001—this season there are almost 500 singers representing Greater Boston, participating in thirteen different choirs in five Boston locations. Named “Boston’s Ambassadors of Harmony” by the Boston Globe, collaborating with community and other partners is integral to BCC’s vision of creating a social and cultural legacy for Boston’s youth, families and communities.
With equal emphasis given to music and social justice, my conversation with Anthony focused on the bridge between the two and how adhering to this unique mission impacts and supports building artistic excellence for the chorus.
What does the dual mission “look like” in the daily operation of BCC?
With the mission to use music as a catalyst for social change, the inclusion of social justice is at the center of what we do. Being more purposeful has only deepened that impact. We now make sure that every student, regardless of age begins a journey on the path to understanding and valuing our differences. This first begins with having classrooms with a diverse population. Then we proceed to create a safe space where there is perceived and understood equal status. This allows for the breaking down of prejudices overtime, which is a goal of the organization. Through pursuit of a common goal of artistic excellence, we are able to build community with our singers and win the minds of our audience.
What does activism look like at BCC?
That is a tough question. At BCC our goal is to help foster an atmosphere where our differences are celebrated. We then allow and support the students in taking the next critical step in becoming socially active. I have seen cases of activism by our students in the streets during “Black Lives Matter” protests and online to combat cyber bullying. Each year the students who run
for president of their ensemble, run on a non-musical social justice platform. This topic is chosen and implemented by the students, again with staff support. Some topics explored include suicide prevention, homelessness, health and well-being, gender equity, identity, and environmental justice.
To support the mission BCC has developed a social justice curriculum that is used during rehearsals for all of the ensembles. BCC staff, parents and board are critical to the successful implementation of the curriculum.
How has BCC included the entire organization in the implementation of the social justice curriculum?
I think the direction was already there and that parents and students felt apart of something bigger. The change is really in the intensity of what we do. We began with the staff, which took part in several “race” trainings, then expanded to the singers and finally the board. We felt that it was important that we all increase our level of understanding and that should start with the staff. We then continue the discussion at meetings and pass around articles. The students are the main focus of this work, where we begin to understand what makes us different. From there the discussions become increasingly deep, where we bring in real world topics. For example, when Trevon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012, we talked about it through the lens of Emmet Till, a song we were learning.
Developing artistic excellence has been equally successful as evidenced by the accomplishments of the chorus in its relatively short history. Included in the many achievements of the chorus, in 2015, BCC received the Brazeal Wayne Dennard Award from Chorus America, recognizing BCC’s commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and furthering African-American choral traditions. In 2013, BCC was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, and in 2011, BCC received the Margaret Hillis Award by Chorus America, recognizing BCC for artistic and organizational excellence and a commitment to outreach, education, and/or culturally diverse activities. To date, hundreds of singers have traveled the world with BCC on international cultural exchange tours to Japan, Mexico, Jordan, England, Scotland, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Czech Republic and Germany.
I invite you to learn more about the BCC, www.bostonchildrenschorus.org, the organization that believes teaching their singers to use their voices together is definitely a way to begin healing the many divides our society faces.
Myran is a member of Americans for the Arts. Learn more.