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El Sistema USA Youth Ambassadors: The Start of Something New
Leute Lagaaia, Sistema Utah, and Rachael Diaz, Paterson Music Project; Youth Ambassadors, 2023 El Sistema National Symposium
Youth Ambassadors cohort, with Leute Lagaaia, left, and Rachael Diaz, third from right.
Editor’s Note: In the second week of March 2023, El Sistema USA, an organizational network of Sistema-inspired programs in the United States, held their first in-person national symposium since the pandemic began. Attendees converged to attend workshops, rekindle friendships, and share perspectives and questions about the field. They also encountered something unprecedented: a lively cohort of Youth Ambassadors, students from programs across the country, who often took the lead in key activities.
Two Youth Ambassadors teamed up with The Ensemble to describe their experiences and offer key takeaways from the Symposium.
At first, I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. My mind was littered with ‘what ifs,’ even though our cohort had had many Zoom meetings prior to arriving in Indianapolis. However, my worries were needless. As soon as the members of the Youth Ambassador (YA) cohort got together, I felt like I had known the other members for a lifetime. Every moment, from when we ate together to when we prepared our sessions, felt like a bonding moment. And this interpersonal chemistry aided us with our presentations. When it was showtime, we knew we had each other’s backs.
The symposium was very inclusive and welcoming toward the Youth Ambassadors; we were listened to, and our ideas were considered. The program leaders and El Sistema USA leaders who were there to help us along the way were extremely understanding, and they were open to our suggestions regarding the way we presented. Seeing all these directors of programs listen to our presentations was a stellar experience.
Having Youth Ambassadors lead the opening plenary was a unique experience. I was given the honor to introduce the Samoan culture and an excerpt of a modern-day Samoan chant. I also got the opportunity to teach a class on my own about diversity, representation, inclusivity, and ageism, and the importance of acknowledging the existence of these ideologies. I was the only student who presented on my own, and I taught a Poi dance and how to make the Poi Ball. It was a sight to see: everyone absorbed the information and asked insightful questions.
To be not only acknowledged as a student, but also respected for my ideas, experiences, and knowledge, was marvelous. Leading with the other Youth Ambassadors was a brand new, life-changing experience. I got to meet some of the most talented musicians in the country, and I was motivated to push myself to perform at my best. I was constantly inspired by the overflow of ideas, perspectives, and thoughtful insights, and by the chemistry that pulsed through the room. I gained experience in teamwork, public speaking, lesson planning, time management, and understanding my audience when preparing for a presentation.
What made this symposium unique was the focus on student voice. The inclusion of a Youth Ambassador cohort meant that we were able to share our views on the topics of equity and excellence, through our lens as students. In one YA session, we discussed the importance of diversifying music repertoire, as well as balancing excellence and fun, to help form more well-rounded musicians and people. Having members from different programs share their definitions of excellence demonstrated how the system of evaluating someone’s talent isn’t always accurate. In this session, we also got inspiration from the keynote speaker Dr. Bettina Love, who mentioned viewing diversity as an imperative rather than something momentary.
After seeing how many ideas the Youth Ambassadors had, many program leaders have been motivated not only to bring students from their programs to symposia, as youth ambassadors, but also to incorporate student voices in their own organizations. As students, we have so much to share when given the chance. This new YA cohort demonstrated just that.
Introducing how ageism affects the way someone values their own opinion is a great way to start speaking of youth voice within one’s program. Simply being the first person to introduce ideas to our directors makes a difference. A plant can only grow after a seed is planted. Once an idea sprouts, it can spark a chain of possibilities–resulting in different interpretations of ideas from upcoming generations.
Moving forward, we can speak about these things to shift the focus on empowering student voices. Having this idea out in the open, and being transparent with all questions, are key components in how we can progress in providing more opportunities for youth.