The First Annual Symposium of El Sistema in the USA

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The First Annual Symposium of El Sistema in the USA

Hermes Camacho


The symposiums I’ve attended in my professional career have run the gamut from too much academicism to too much mutual reinforcement among like-minded individuals. But neither was the case at the 2018 El Sistema USA (ESUSA) National Symposium, held during a surprisingly snowy January weekend on the campus of Duke University. There was certainly a prevalence of head-nodding among the nearly 200 attendees, but it was the kind of agreement that symbolized an eagerness to challenge and to improve.

One of the two themes of the weekend, racial equity, was powerfully conveyed in the keynote by David France (Revolution of Hope), titled “Dear White People: Use Your Privilege.” A sort of “hell, yes” murmur permeated the room throughout his talk, fueled by his reminder that “inequality is intentionally built into the fabric of our society…so we have to be equally intentional to undo this.” Adam Eccleston (Bravo Youth Orchestra) expanded on this idea, stressing that finding new ways to engage students only strengthens goals of racial equity already inherent in El Sistema. And Calida Jones (Bravo Waterbury) challenged the audience to be present in the neighborhoods we serve: “Don’t just drive by. Stay for dinner, have a conversation, and find common ground.”

During a luncheon honoring ESUSA founders Mark Churchill and Stanford Thompson, ESUSA Board Chair and retired physician Bonnie Ragen (Bravo Youth Orchestra) proudly admitted, “The impact you have as teachers is more than I could have had as a physician.” Indeed, the second of the symposium’s themes focused specifically on Collective Impact, the collaborative model for making social change through a multi-organization, shared goal-oriented framework. Sara Zanussi (ComMUSICation) addressed the need for a reliable neighborhood infrastructure so that members can consistently access community programs. Anna Pietraszko (Miami Music Project) and Michelle Hospital (Florida International University) presented findings of their three-year study on the community-university partnership between their organizations. Tricia Tunstall and Melina Garcia (El Sistema New Jersey Alliance) and Helen Eaton (Philadelphia Settlement Music School) touched on how regional collaborative efforts can benefit from and contribute to the Collective Impact model. Christine Taylor (Reach*Teach*Play) spoke on how ESUSA’s Guiding Principles can help programs achieve Collective Impact.

A site visit to Kidznotes, the El Sistema-inspired program in Durham, provided a close-at-hand example of Collective Impact. Kidznotes partners with the East Durham Children’s Initiative and several other organizations across the area to provide the local underserved community with a breadth of programs and opportunities.

Interspersed between the formal TED-style talks were several breakout sessions aimed at encouraging dialogue between presenters and audience. Some of these focused on increasing student engagement, including a session on student-led learning, where ownership over learning outcomes is shifted largely to the students involved. Another workshop empowered students through collaborative composition projects, providing an opportunity for the students to own both the creation and the performance of the music.

The strength of the symposium was in the sense of community-building not just within programs but also within El Sistema itself. Bringing together El Sistema from across the country meant folks (finally) got to put faces to familiar names, share stories, and develop new networks of learning and support. Attendees were not just eager to learn; they craved the chance to work and try new things. Solutions were often met with “What would that look like with my kids?” rather than “Prove it.” The plenary speakers didn’t leave us just with awe and fuzzy feelings – they challenged every attendee, combining the inspirational with the actionable.

The snowstorm did cause some havoc with symposium logistics. But the El Sistema spirit prevailed; we all rolled with the punches, adapted, and realized nothing is perfect – and that’s fine.

A speech by Calida Jones best captured the weekend’s most important takeaway, exhorting everyone to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Judging by the vigor of the head-nodding in that room, I believe we are headed in the right direction.


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