Out of Our Comfort Zones: Inviting communities to teach us how to serve them well

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

Out of Our Comfort Zones: Inviting communities to teach us how to serve them well

Alonzo Chadwick, CEO, Bravo Youth Orchestras

Alonzo Chadwick.

For arts organizations that provide direct services to young, impressionable musicians and artists, there is often significant temptation to assume that we exist to make their lives better, more affluent, and more successful. When we do this, however, we can be unintentionally dismissive of the beauty, cultural values, and rich heritage that already exist in their families and communities. Many of our organizations serve underrepresented students, and we are also tempted to view these students and families from a deficit/impoverished lens. This can be dangerous, because it means we make assumptions about them without knowing the value and richness that already existed in their lives before we crossed their paths.  

Coming into a community to serve is no different than being a guest in someone else’s home. Emphasis on the fact that we are guests. As guests, our job is to build relationships, rapport, and trust. We can’t do that by discussing only what values we bring to this community. Instead, we must be willing to look through their lens and appreciate the current beauty that exists. We must not assume, just because of race, class, or socioeconomic status, that they “need” us.  

Thus, we must do our homework. We must be willing to come out of the comfort zones of our assumptions and do some “community asset mapping.” Who are the elders and the key stakeholders in these communities? Have we sought out their counsel? We need their wisdom, knowledge, and insights into the communities we are serving.  

What makes a community beautiful is the diversity and the village mentality established before we arrive. We can’t serve a student and not have connections with their family. And we can’t have relationships with a family and not have connections with the village and community they love. My philosophy is that when we have a student in our care, we automatically become a part of this student’s village, whether we like it or not. We all want these students to succeed. Therefore, we are all on the team now to help get them to that goal.  

Music and the arts are the universal love language. But we must also be careful that the music and arts we are presenting represent the diversity of the communities we are serving. That also means we need them to contribute their insights, so that we don’t appear to appropriate their cultures. We want them to know that we value their culture. We can’t emulate their style while giving them no say. Instead, we want to collaborate and invite them to teach us how to represent them well. This is the best way to gain the trust of the students we serve. For our organizations, it’s also the most challenging way. However, we must be committed to creating social change through music and the arts with sincerity. 

For more on BRAVO Youth Orchestras, visit oregonbravo.org.


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