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At David’s Harp, Transparency Leads the Way—and Mentorship Follows
Brandon Steppe, Founder and Executive Director, The David’s Harp Foundation
In early 2008, my wife Eunice experienced a health scare. Six months pregnant with our daughter Jasmine, she was rushed to the hospital, where doctors recommended that she undergo surgery. I was despondent, clinging to faith, nauseous at the possibilities. While we waited, she encouraged me to step out for a few hours. I had been mentoring young people in my native Southeast San Diego neighborhood since 2006, helping them produce hip-hop accompaniments, or “beats,” in a studio I had built in my father’s garage. Eunice knew how much the kids and I got from those studio sessions and encouraged me to spend some time doing what I loved. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and off I went.
I made it maybe 15 minutes into the session before I broke down. One by one, my young friends consoled me. When they asked me why I was crying, I did the unthinkable: I shared my struggle with them. And then everything changed. The group began opening up to me, and a rich conversation between young people and their mentor replaced the monologues that I had unknowingly been performing. Those raw moments in my father’s garage were the unofficial beginning of The David’s Harp Foundation, established in 2009.
We adults are rarely transparent with young people. This is true for several reasons—we want to respect their boundaries; we need to maintain our authority in the room; we make ourselves malleable at the expense of honesty—but the biggest might be because it’s so easy to screw up. That was certainly true for me. (One former student, Andre, reminded me of one of my greatest hits: “Do you remember when I was writing my first album, and you told me to meditate on how my creative process related to my life goal? I had no clue what you were talking about, bro!”) Only by taking off my mask could I gain the trust of those young artists.
Today, as a Creative Youth Development organization, The David’s Harp Foundation is a unified community of young artists and trusted adults (Artist Mentors) who teach youth to compose, produce, and engineer music. We meet young people inside spaces of incarceration, juvenile probation, and teen youth shelters. With the help of their Artist Mentors, youth consistently achieve goals such as graduating from high school, navigating probation to a successful termination, processing trauma into artistic expression, and securing employment in the local creative sector.
At David’s Harp, the success of our work is measured in trust. It is easy to prioritize art instruction over community and relationships, and especially so in our local youth circles. These kids have been deeply affected by the institutions that are meant to serve them; very few of their adult relationships feel authentic and transparent. Their trauma creates barriers for us adults, especially teachers who work in traditional settings. If we are to inspire the next generation, the question becomes: Who are you and why should they trust you, especially with something as vulnerable as their art?
For us, the question of mentorship is best addressed through “Flashlight First,” one of the Seven Pillars of Community in our Pedagogy of Relationships. Flashlight First is a sharing exercise meant to support the young people with whom we work. Our Artist Mentors lead a check-in with the young attendees during every studio session, sharing the high and low points of their days. (Lately, I have been sharing about my struggles with early-morning insomnia; in this social media era, young people are often surprised that an adult would share something less than flattering with them.) We have discovered that, just as with my experience in the garage recording studio so many years ago, authentic communication works to shine a light on us as teachers and mentors. It allows youth to get to know us first, and then, if they are willing, to walk in that light with us. As more young people opt in, a true community begins to flourish.
There are three generations of youth in our community that have found a transformative community in our recording studios. A young lady named Livy, who successfully navigated the juvenile justice and foster care systems, said it the best: “I’ve been in a lot of programs since I was six in foster care. You guys were real with me first, so I knew that this was a place I could trust. I know that you were real people.”
The benefits of trusted adult relationships are rich and well-documented. If I had never opened up to my young friends, I would not have experienced the genuine, transformative community that over 300 justice-involved youth contribute to everyday in our studios. Music and media production help us connect with youth in our recording studio facility at David’s Harp—but the true catalyst for authentic connections is transparency, patience, and love.