Collaborators in the Key of Change

The Ensemble seeks to connect and inform all people who are committed to ensemble music education for youth empowerment and social change.

Collaborators in the Key of Change

Ken MacLeod, CEO/Founder, Sistema New Brunswick (Canada)

05-10-2021

The Sistema NB Paper Orchestra. Photo: Keith Minchin.

When you have a great program, you want as many people as possible to experience it. And if, like so many in the Ensemble network, you’re driven by a mission to share the power of music in people’s lives, then you start noticing how those who need it most are often the hardest to reach.

Those observations led Sistema New Brunswick (Canada) to a new initiative: including children who have been taken into care by the Province of New Brunswick and placed in foster homes.

Sistema NB, a program that uses orchestral music learning for social change, was established in 2009; we now operate from nine centers and serve 1,100 children daily—the largest such program in Canada. Our classes last for three hours after every school day, and are free to children and families. Since opening, we have observed the impact of learning instruments and performing orchestral music on students’ growth, ambition, and sense of belonging.

But we have never engaged children for whom normal caregiving channels have officially broken down.

String sectional with Maestro Tony Delgado, Music Director and Conductor of the New Brunswick Youth Orchestra. Photo: Ken MacLeod.

This felt like an oversight. Who needs an empowering experience of inclusion, social engagement, and personal success more than children in care? So, in the coming year, we will dedicate a certain number of seats in our Sistema NB centers to children in the care of the Province.

Building this initiative into our programming has been a unique challenge. We can’t simply mandate that children in care will enroll. Nothing about Sistema NB has been done with a “build-it-and-they-will-come” mentality; we have learned that whatever we want to happen, we must make happen.

To begin, we had to identify the decision-makers and gatekeepers, engage them in meaningful ways, and ask them to choose Sistema NB to provide for children in need. We knew we needed those decision-makers not only to allow us in but also to become collaborators in our work.

We first reached out to senior staff in the Department of Social Development; just as in our school partnerships, the endorsement of the key authorities is essential. Those discussions expanded to include regional government officials and program directors, and then to a crucial online meeting with 80 front-line social workers throughout the province. Social workers know the children, take responsibility for their wellbeing, and represent the government’s policies in their lives. This makes social workers invaluable partners. In our discussions, they asked pointed questions to understand the program and its benefits for children and families. “Do children need to be musical to be involved? Is attendance mandatory? It is very intensive; what’s your retention rate?” And broader questions about impact: “What kinds of change have you seen?” Some were interested in still larger questions: “How is the music itself central to the social change you are pursuing?”

Society’s highest goal for children in foster care seems to be keeping them out of trouble. But their social workers ache for more. In our conversations, they were drawn to the idea of offering children a path to rare and significant personal success, including new skills and disciplines that would change their future. Since we are now in our 13th year, we could point out that many of our graduates are achieving success in medical science, linguistics, and social work, in addition to music. Their stories contrast starkly with those of many children in care.

In the end, the social workers collectively embraced the idea.

So, beginning this fall, a total of 30 children from the province’s foster care program will enroll in Sistema NB Centers. They will have what may be their first experience participating in something collective and collaborative.

We know that opportunities to learn, belong, and achieve lead to increased self-esteem and self-actualization for our students. That transformation is our mission. But this new effort has three other key benefits:

  • Creating an opportunity for research and evaluation with a discrete group of children whose needs we will encounter over and over again in the future.
  • Helping the government meet important social development needs in society, which positions us as a partner and societal force rather than an organization that simply seeks money.
  • Building greater awareness and appreciation of music and the orchestra as a vehicle for social change.

We started with an idea, built a strong case, engaged the right people in a strategic sequence, sought qualified advice—and then planned, revised, and revised again. This process is how we built Sistema NB. We believe it is highly transferable.

Beyond that, it’s worthwhile. Our partners understand that innovation is hard, deliberate, and thoughtful work. But our mission binds them to us. They share the deeply held conviction that all children deserve every opportunity, and they call on us to demonstrate the will to create what we believe is needed.

Because of that shared commitment, this fall the first 30 New Brunswick children in foster care will pick up an instrument and start a journey that can rewrite their futures.

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