The Importance of Contextualized and Conflict-Sensitive Sistema Programs

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The Importance of Contextualized and Conflict-Sensitive Sistema Programs

Graciela Briceno, Foreign Service Education Officer, U.S. Agency for International Development; Founder, Boston Music Project

Graciela Briceno. Credit: Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

In July 2020, The New York Times released an insightful podcast: Nice White Parents, reported by Chana Joffe-Walt. The first episode focused on a group of well-meaning white parents who, after enrolling their children in a highly diverse public school in Brooklyn, New York, begin fundraising for a new dual-language French program that would serve the entire school. The podcast noted that “the school’s students were Black, Latino, and Middle Eastern kids, mostly from working class and poor families.” Without consulting the rest of the parent community, the new group of parents raised thousands of dollars for the French program. The community was surprised and upset: the school needed new chalkboards, basic technology, and other essential resources. Was a French program truly a priority? And why had the school community at large not been consulted? These new parents had positive intentions, but they missed an important mark.

As I listened to the episode, I had a sudden crisis of conscience: had I done the same thing in starting a Sistema-inspired classical music program within a Boston public school? Given the principal’s enthusiasm, and the fact that at the time there was no music or visual arts programming, I eagerly launched the program without questioning what was best for the community. Was the money we were raising for the orchestra program being put to its best use at this school? Over the years, there was a group of parents who seemed annoyed by the orchestra program’s success, and what that meant for other school fundraising efforts. It did not occur to me why there was such animosity until years later, as I listened to this podcast.

Many Sistema-inspired programs do a terrific job of inviting community members to be part of early planning and implementation work. For example, Sistema Scotland spends six months to a year, prior to launching a new site, meeting with local leaders and support organizations, attending school group meetings, and encouraging home concerts so that teachers can better know families. But not all programs do this; in some cases, including my own, the excitement and passion of starting something one wholeheartedly believes in takes over, and with a few supportive individuals, such as school leaders or donors, we dive into the work without taking the time to adequately contextualize, or make sure that our ideas have relevance for students, teachers, and families. Contextualization refers not just to adapting songs or languages, but also to ensuring that chosen skills, lessons, schedules, resources, and interventions reflect a community’s cultural and social environment, needs, and various perspectives.

Contextualization has become especially important as more international education programs focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) and youth development in middle- or low-income contexts, often utilizing curriculum materials from high-income countries that might not be applicable or effective in these new contexts. El Sistema is unique in that it was founded in Venezuela, with programs thriving in some of the most under-resourced parts of that country. Yet contextualization works both ways: some Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. have struggled to recreate the success of Venezuela’s El Sistema, which was founded and developed within a different set of cultural and societal norms; they often find their students don’t want to participate in a music program five days per week because they are also expected to join a sports team, tutoring club, or community service organization. Every community has different needs and different priorities. It is the responsibility of Sistema founders, leaders, and teachers to take the time to understand those differences.

Contextualization is especially important in crisis or conflict contexts, such as refugee camps or countries experiencing/recovering from war or natural disasters. To ensure both safety and equity for students and families in these contexts, we must apply principles of Conflict-Sensitive Education. Without doing so, education programs, including Sistema programs, run the risk of actually reinforcing or exacerbating conflict. For example, a program might focus more heavily on the musical traditions of a certain group (bias or favoritism), offer free services to refugee children while host community children are left out, or hire teachers who only speak one language. Such actions can raise tensions among staff and/or families and children.

Conversely, education programs can promote peace by strengthening people’s abilities to resolve conflict in different ways. To ensure that education programs promote peace, rather than conflict, the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies outlines these three steps:

  1. Understand the conflict context by collecting and analyzing information about the conflict actors, dynamics, and causes;
  2. Analyze the two-way interaction between the conflict context and the education programs; and
  3. Ensure that the content and delivery of education services do not increase tensions and violence.
2019 concert of Superar Romania children singing in Afghan, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew. Credit: Superar Romania.

The need for conflict sensitivity can occur in a multitude of settings. In Playing for Their Lives, Tricia Tunstall and Eric Booth described numerous Sistema-inspired programs across the globe where the need for conflict sensitivity and contextualization were vital to ensure safety and equity. For example, the Romanian Superar program serves children from three traditionally hostile ethnic groups, with the goal of bringing them together through music. Tunstall and Booth, observing the preliminary stage of this initiative some years ago, noted:

They are preparing the ground for integration: all the kids are learning how to play in ensembles, and all are being taught the same songs—in many languages, including Spanish, English, Chinese, Italian and Swahili—so that when they come together they will have a shared repertoire….[They] deliberately don’t include songs in Romanian, Hungarian, or Roma, because the children’s parents wouldn’t allow them to sing in one another’s languages. (p. 74)

As this and many other examples demonstrate, ensuring that Sistema-inspired programs are contextualized and conflict-sensitive takes time, patience, and a lot of on-the-ground work. But if we want to be effective change-makers and establish equity, justice, peace, and conflict resolution, no amount of goodwill or fervent passion can substitute for sensitive contextualization and deep understanding of the true needs and complexities of the communities with which we work.

Visit USAID Education to learn more about their work, and visit for more information on BMP.


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