Editorial: July, 2020

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

Editorial: July, 2020

Monique Van Willingh, Director, Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program, Longy School of Music, Los Angeles, CA


I had my first U.S. protest experience in Los Angeles, CA, after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. I could hear but not see the protesters behind rows of policemen in riot gear. As circling helicopters kept me awake that night, I realized that I felt safer in my home country of South Africa, although I had directly experienced racism, gender-based violence, and crime there. 

A similar feeling arose after George Floyd’s murder. My fear was not for the city or its businesses—just a sense of terror on behalf of the protestors. Using city-wide lockdowns to kill protests echoed the South African apartheid regime’s response over 20 years ago.  

In these last few weeks, I have experienced cycles of shock, anger, depression, dialogue, and hope alongside my students. Our youth are growing up in an ecosystem where police brutality is commonplace, inhumane immigration practices continue, and LGBTQI+ rights are still withheld. In the music for social change field, where leaders and teaching artists are predominantly white, 83% of our students are students of color—26% are Black and 41% are Latinx. What is El Sistema’s role in this landscape?   

We will answer this question with our action (or inaction) moving forward. We are either working to dismantle racist practices or we are not. If we cannot own and reflect on the complicit nature of our privilege, then we have no business doing this work. It is easy to say the right thing, but challenging to truly listen, admit, and understand. And even more painful to forgive, continuing to care for others patiently as their privilege is unraveled. 

Nelson Mandela said that “courage [is] not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” It is with this sentiment pounding in my chest that I choose to act: to speak out, critically inquire, collaborate; to say “yes” and to say “no.”  To tell my story. This takes courage; but through our vulnerabilities, we begin reframing the notion of professionalism to incorporate empathy, listening, and the space for our full selves. 

Start here: Choose to embody courage. Tell your story. Create spaces where students can do the same. Trust the voices of our youth and communities of color. Our field is already poised to embody racial healing—let’s not waste this opportunity. It is in the vulnerability of our stories that authentic solidarity and hope will arise and show us the way forward. Courage is a choice. Action is a choice. And hope is a choice. 


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