EDITORIAL: International Visitors and El Sistema Programs

Nathaly Ossa Alzate works with a student violinist at El Sistema Kenya through the Global Leaders Program

Many El Sistema programs have the opportunity to host high-profile or international visitors, which can be a great opportunity. In Kenya, our experience with visitors has been mixed, with some very positive and some negative experiences, largely depending on the circumstances of their visit. As a result, over the years we have been more selective with potential visitors and careful with the invitations we offer. I imagine this experience is similar to those of other programs, so we want to share our learning, in the hope that it helps others avoid mistakes!

We often receive requests from musicians and teachers traveling to Kenya who are interested in volunteering or helping out in the community. These visitors often bring very relevant experience, but typically only visit us once and may stay for just a week or so. Many visitors are great, and quickly get along with our children, developing new games, helping them learn new pieces, and bringing warmth and energy. But the issue is that they leave just as the children are building connections with them, which is very discouraging for us. The visitors also don’t have enough time to train our teachers to continue the work they’ve done, so we find there is no continuity.

Over the past couple of years, therefore, we have been leaning more towards long-term visitors and re-occurring partnerships with programs such as the Global Leaders Program. We find that with long-term relationships, we are able to build trust in the community and among the children we work with. Such visitors are able to give continuous lessons to help the children learn a new skill, new pieces, or new games. It is much more likely to make a long-term impact on their learning, as well as to enforce the visiting teachers’ reputations.

This is the first step, but the second step is making sure that the teachers and mentors they work with are also people they can trust. We build this trust by ensuring that our teachers stay with the same projects and work with the same groups of children each year. When we invite visitors to come to Kenya, we are looking for visitors who will return year after year, or who represent a program that can form a long-lasting relationship with us. In our communities, the children need to see that the mentors and teachers in their lives are constant, and that music is also a constant that gives them an outlet outside of school and their lives at home. Many of our children grow up in troubled homes, and this often leaks over into their school life. By creating a safe place in their music classes, we hope to let them know that this is a safe environment, and that their teachers are mentors they can trust.

One of the clarinet students, Emmanuel, guides a lesson with other students.

As a result of our experience with visitors, we have begun conducting intensive interviews and creating a questionnaire for potential visiting teachers. Often, it is fairly easy to sort out those who want to do a quick visit and those who want to make an actual impact. In our questionnaire, we ask what our visitors hope to take away from their visit, what they hope to bring to the children and teachers there, and what long-term goals they could develop with our program. In return, we hope to give them the experience of working in underprivileged communities in Kenya and knowing that they are helping grow our teacher development program into something even stronger than what it is today.

We would love to know what other programs have done to increase the impact of visitors, especially those with programs in developing countries where the danger is all too great of accepting anyone who wants to visit, in the hope that this one person might be able to bring a great impact. If you are willing to share your experiences, please write to the WE newsletter so we can share with the other programs as well!

Author: Karis Zeller, Founder, El Sistema Kenya

Date: 31 December 2018

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