The recent Reframing El Sistema Conference at the University of Maryland Baltimore County aimed to connect “the evolving practice and research of social impact through music.”
The conversation on Friday, April 8th (the only day I was able to attend) at first lent itself to the field’s most enduring questions (i.e. what differentiates traditional music education from Sistema? What is the relationship between music learning and youth development outcomes?). However, throughout the day, a new line of questioning emerged around how power is used and distributed in El Sistema-inspired programs, specifically in the classroom.
As I listened to these conversations (and followed the projected, real time tweets of the audience), I was struck by what felt to be a conspicuous omission in our discussion of power: Why do we—practitioners and researchers—continue to meet for critical discourse without students and parents in the room? What does this say about how we view their expertise and agency? And, how would the language—and the questions posed—change if these conferences included all voices in meaningful ways?
This line of inquiry is not meant to discredit the contributions of the conference organizers, or the many practitioners and researchers in attendance. Indeed, the collective knowledge sparked intellectual debates and compelling considerations. However, the exchange was accordingly narrowed by the perspectives of the individuals present—many of whom (like me) have studied oppression, racism and/or El Sistema in important and academic ways, but have not necessarily experienced it first-hand. So, how might we, the service providers/supporters, shift to valuing the insights of our students and parents as much as we value the insights of scholars and “professionals”?
When I posed these questions at the conference, I shared how my own vantage point has evolved (largely due to the influence of Marianne Diaz at the Southern California Counseling Center). I’ve come to see that every student, family and community I collaborate with holds all the inner fortitude necessary to address the challenges and opportunities they face. Understanding this means viewing my role not as that of the expert who needs to “fix” or “save,”but rather as that of the facilitator, who helps individuals and communities access this already innate capacity.
The facilitator role requires respect for and recognition of an individual’s agency and competency. To quote Marianne, whose chapter in “El Sistema: Music for Social Change" explores these themes more deeply, it acknowledges that all individuals are “the experts in their own lives” and can therefore provide the most meaningful insights and solutions.
Embodying this role involves regular—and often difficult—reflections on how assumptions and blind spots shape the way one views the world. This is especially critical for those of us working in communities battling inequity who come from positions of privilege. So for me, for example, working to stay aware of how my privilege as a white woman with a college education shapes the way I understand and fit into the world. Those involved in El Sistema-inspired work are generally cognizant of systematic oppression in the US. But how many of us have truly examined our own personal culpability? Do we unintentionally perpetuate cycles of oppression in our classrooms and values? These are incredibly difficult questions—and ones we need to explore not only amongst ourselves, but also with communities, parents, and students.
The recognition of students and parents as holding expertise worthy of inclusion in critical discourse would be a pivot for the field. It is not at all lost on me that as I write this reflection today, it is clearly to an audience of practitioners and researchers; that the “field” as defined through my own writing is limited and exclusive. Further, the language used here points out that “we,” individuals in positions of power in this work, get to yield that power to decide who is included. I struggled with this. I wanted to write the reflection in a way that could be heard by other service providers/supporters, but I also conceded to the current position of the field. Clearly, we (and I) need new language and a new frame to discuss these issues more deeply, but neither can be genuinely reformed until the conversation is first expanded to include all voices.
Though I was unable to stay for Saturday’s portion, I heard and read that the conference continued to lean further in the direction of exploring how power is distributed, and what it means to be a “social justice though music” program. When this work is done with deep intentionality, it yields outcomes for the practitioners and supporters as well as the students and families. After all, most of us have as much (if not more) “personal development” to do as those with whom we connect to through our work. My hope, therefore, is that Reframing El Sistema will have acted as a crucial stepping stone for reconsidering the way the field is defined, valued and heard.
Christine Witkowski, Sistema Fellow ‘10