Ceding the Floor to Young People in Crisis Times

By Francis Gagliardi, Teacher, Facilitator, and Content Design, Young Leaders Program, El Sistema Greece

Credit ESG & Kasia Łukasiewicz

Have you ever wondered what the future will be like? Will future leaders be more aware and empathetic? At El Sistema Greece (ESG), such questions never cease to concern us. How do we help our young people become the leaders they’re capable of being?

Though Greece is struggling to recover from an economic crisis, we have welcomed thousands of refugees and migrants. They include thousands of children left in limbo, lacking inspiration and dreams. As a community institution, our superpower is music; El Sistema Greece provides free music education for all children and young people in Greece, no matter their origin, nationality, or religion. We offer instrumentation, theory, music initiation, choir, and orchestra lessons, focusing on group dynamics and team spirit. Our goal is to inspire children to strive for a better future while fostering healthy social dynamics in the small communities formed in our classrooms and núcleos. Over 2,500 students have attended our program since its founding in 2016.

Over the past four years, we have observed the many ways students take on leadership roles. Some students arrive early and organize the classroom before the teacher arrives; others worry about punctuality and adherence to the schedule. Some try to regulate discipline while others might serve as translators for classmates who speak other languages. It is beautiful to see how often students decide to wear the “teacher’s hat” themselves. In observing, we realized that there was no better time for ESG to create a program to foster students’ leadership skills. We firmly believe that these children and adolescents have a gift for consciously changing the world, and we want to be involved in their evolution and growth. This is what led us to create the ESG Young Leaders Program (YLP), which I lead in collaboration with Project Manager Angeliki Georgokosta.

Credit ESG & Kasia Łukasiewicz

Young Leaders Programs exist in Sistema-inspired organizations across the world. At ESG, we have adapted the idea to Greece’s reality. The main goal of the YLP is to work with the most advanced students from all the ESG núcleos (Skaramagas and Eleonas refugee camps; Kypseli, Moschato, El Sistema Greece Youth Orchestra and Youth Choir; and others), providing them with tools that will aid their personal, intellectual, and artistic development. All Young Leaders were selected in accordance with their musical level, active participation, and collaboration with fellow students, and are guided by the project facilitator through monthly sessions. The program kicked off last February, when participants met and took their first steps toward forming a team. Unfortunately, after that first meeting, all educational activities in Greece were paused due to the pandemic. But even those difficult circumstances could not stop the Leaders.

During lockdown, all activities continued over the Internet—particularly over video platforms like YouTube. Each week, we designed new activities to help students exercise their decision-making, critical thinking, creativity, class planning, storytelling, effective communication, and reflective practices. Above all, we sought to develop their leadership skills through assignments closely related to artistic content, focusing of course on music.

After months of meeting virtually, the physical distance measures were finally removed, and the Young Leaders were able to meet before the year’s end. This last session presented many obstacles—the students had to keep a two-meter distance; the use of masks was mandatory; we were not allowed to sing or play any wind instruments—but creativity triumphed nevertheless.

Credit ESG & Kasia Łukasiewicz

The minutes just before we began were quite tense. We could only see each other’s eyes and wonder what others were thinking behind their masks. When we started our session, we realized it would be difficult to communicate; the external noise from the street felt intense, and students were too far from each other to chat normally. Our masks were like mutes for our voices. So we decided to stand up, put on some good music, and start stretching and dancing together; if nothing else, at least our bodies would be a means of communication. After just a few minutes of acclimation, we were back to being a team, more united than ever.

During the session, several social issues were discussed — the recent lockdown and the impact it had on people’s lives, of course, but also one of the most significant events of our time: the social protest movement ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Students began the session with a lengthy discussion, looking at the event from a social, philosophical, psychological, racial, and even moral point of view, which led them to create a video that includes fragments of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” It was important to the entire group that the Young Leaders position themselves against injustice, disrespect, division, and intolerance.

During that session, I felt immense pride for my students, who were able to hold and lead a challenging discussion without my help. Their self-regulation, their respect for one another, and their authentic attentiveness were simply astonishing and beautiful to see. Some courageous students shared personal anecdotes in which they had been victims of racism, helping everyone understand how close to home this issue really is, and how we are all affected by it.

I realized then that I had made an early mistake: I had underestimated my students. As a teacher, I had prepared myself for a scenario in which nobody would share opinions and silence would be the norm. On the contrary, their ideas and feelings on the topic were gushing out; all I needed to do was devote myself to listening attentively to their conclusions. I knew at that moment that I would have to change my approach to working with them, going forward. My job was done; they were doing the job.

A few days ago, the new school year began, bringing new goals, expectations, and paths to discover. The YLP will continue with the same cohort, to make up for the time that passed—but was not lost—while we were apart. We are thrilled to share that the leaders will receive holistic training in the areas of management, communication, content creation, event organization, musical arranging, use of technological tools, physical, intellectual and emotional well-being, reflective practice, and critical thinking. Above all, our objective is to see this group become a bridge that connects ESG with the teachers and staff. We believe that through this process, both the Young Leaders and the entire ESG program will grow to reach their full potential.

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