Summer Youth Program Empowers Students to Confront Important Social Justice Issues
City Music, Berklee’s youth development and outreach program, delivers tuition-free, high-quality contemporary music education to young people in grades 4-12 who are from underserved communities.
During this past summer, City Music brought together 15 at-risk teens, who were referred by the City of Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment, for a summer of learning and self-actualization. These students, most of whom were new to music and the program, were tasked with exploring prevalent social justice issues through small group discussions, activities for connecting, sharing and self-reflection, and research. Students chose topics they felt were important and formed groups around those issues. Former City Music students, now Berklee college students, facilitated the groups.
At the end of the summer, the young people performed onstage before an audience of peers, as well as adults. They used their original music, spoken word performances and song arrangements to express their personal stories and experiences on prejudice, racism (structural oppression), body image, bullying and peer pressure. After each presentation, the audience was asked thoughtful questions to prompt discussion.
What had transpired between the first day and the last was amazing. On the outset, some students were quick to react—to anyone’s words, a situation or in discussion. Some students preferred talking over listening (and vice-versa). However, as students began researching the social justice issues using the iceberg model (M. Goodman, 2002), they began to see how they could use this same analysis to everyday things.
This systematic approach teaches students to go beyond the “tip” or the visual part of the iceberg to become aware of the many causes that can feed into an issue (or what is beneath the water’s surface that is unseen and needs to be chipped apart for examination). The iceberg model has five levels, from top to bottom: 1) an easily seen event or incident happens and is a symptom of a bigger problem, 2) similar events happen again and again, 3) physical barriers, policies, rituals and organizations enable events to happen, 4) conscious and unconscious thoughts drive people’s behavior and 5) society’s core beliefs and values either shape or constrain people’s assumptions and behavior.
This process helped students to broaden their perspectives beyond themselves and consider other student’s opinions. They began to understand how individual backgrounds and experiences—good and bad—can influence those ideas, which may be different from their own. Rather than taking everything at face value and responding in a reactive, confrontational mode, they stopped and reflected on what was going on behind the words and actions. All of this helped build empathy and compassion, empowering students to share their thoughts, words and emotions and to self-express in their art. Finally, this understanding enabled meaningful participation that let students feel hopeful that their voices were being heard, as well as understood, formally on-stage and informally in everyday life.