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Finding a New Way Forward: Examining the Sustainability of Labor Practices in El Sistema
Mollie Westbrook, teaching artist and former Senior Program Manager, OrchKids
If you ask anyone to compare life on March 11, 2020, with today, it would be impossible for them to say that nothing has changed. There has been a global reckoning: we are experiencing a pandemic, increasing symptoms of climate change, the rightful expansion of the Black Lives Matter Movement into the forefront of our collective consciousness, and, most recently, the “great resignation.” According to the Labor Department, a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April alone (“As the Pandemic Recedes, Millions of Workers are Saying ‘I Quit,’” NPR). This resignation seems especially spurred by a great shift in priorities due to pandemic-related situations (fears of unsafe workplaces, decreased pay or furloughs, layoffs, etc.), but it also seems that in this “once-in-a-lifetime” moment, many people have taken stock of their lives and their jobs and simply said, “Enough.”
After six years of full-time work in the El Sistema field, I too followed this line of thinking. Like the millions of Americans who put in their notice in 2021, I decided to leave. It was not an easy decision. I have worked in this field since graduating from college. I admire the mission of our programs, the incredibly talented people who work in them, the genius of our students and their families. I have been profoundly shaped and guided by my experiences in El Sistema.
But instead of returning to my Hub Site this fall, I will be a full-time public-school teacher. The relief that comes with tangible benefits and support structures is palpable. Even without being fully certified, I will immediately make significantly more money (comparative to my job responsibilities). The health benefits are incomparable. Maybe just as important, I will be part of a labor union. Throughout the last few years, I undertook significant lobbying and negotiating with my former program’s parent organization to correct some of these workplace difficulties. Every time I would ask for what I felt was fair, I was met with unclear answers and contradictory justifications for the current status quo. I have a feeling that this was not a unique issue for myself or my former program.
Over my years in El Sistema, I have seen many brilliant, talented, and devoted teachers and administrators enter and leave the field. Most of the time, their reasons for leaving are not about the students or the work conditions (although those should still be examined and made safe for all program participants), but about the sustainability of their pay. Too often, those who fund our programs are, in effect, asking our team members to do more with less. There is a combined scarcity/charity mindset that permeates the entirety of our programs, forcing teachers and staff to make difficult choices about their livelihoods and quality of life. We go along with this scarcity mindset across our programs because we are “doing it for the kids” or for the “greater good.” However, there is no greater good without living wages, without safe working conditions, without access to healthcare. Are we being the change we wish to see, or are we simply perpetuating continuous cycles of inequity?
I believe that the El Sistema field, in its current iteration, is not a sustainable environment for its employees —specifically teaching artists, administrative staff, and program staff. I worry that if programs do not begin to address more holistically the fundamental issues of employment (living wage, benefits, workplace conditions), our students will suffer the most significant consequences. The funders and parent organizations of El Sistema programs must do better by their staff and teachers for the programs to become sustainable for the communities they purport to serve. If we do not do right by our teachers, staff, administrators, etc., we will never do right by our students. El Sistema program sponsors and benefactors must take a hard look at their staffing conditions and recognize that program longevity and viability are directly linked to teacher/staff retention and turnover. How can we create the best environment and opportunities for our students, without similar investment into our teams? Without strong and supported teachers and staff, our students will not, in most cases, thrive.
I encourage program leaders, funders, and boards to take stock as the world begins to reopen and we start inviting our stakeholders back into our buildings, rehearsal spaces, and classrooms. What is our vision for our programs and its participants, including paid workers? Are we content with returning everything back to “normal,” or is there a new way forward? Are we satisfied with being part of the nonprofit industrial complex, in which inadequate philanthropic initiatives are the main way that grave social equities are addressed, or are we actively trying to dismantle and replace these oppressive systems? And finally, how are we taking care of our own people? Instead of a return to normalcy, we must all be collectively invested in a new way forward.