Editorial | Athens to Texas: “We’re With You”

by Tricia Tunstall, Co-Founder and Executive Editor, The World Ensemble

Over the past few months, some El Sistema activists in the United States have been mobilizing resources to launch an El Sistema program this month for immigrant children in Tornillo, Texas, who are living in the acute stress of the border crisis. Raising money for this has been a challenge; a music industry charity, the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Foundation, recently came through with sufficient support, with help from the Leonard Bernstein Foundation, but many funders with deep pockets don’t understand how ensemble music learning can alleviate a humanitarian crisis.

El Sistema Greece understands. ESG is only three years old, with exactly no deep pockets, but its programs in refugee camps and migrant communities have shown how profoundly this work can help young people in traumatic circumstances. Last week, El Sistema Greece reached out and donated $1,500 to help make El Sistema a reality for the children of Tornillo.

It’s an extraordinary gesture of inter-program solidarity—and a rare one, unfortunately, in the El Sistema movement. To be sure, most El Sistema practitioners across the world feel a warm affinity with one another. Programs in far-flung places often bring their students together for richly engaging joint performances. Seasoned master teachers frequently offer volunteer help to El Sistema initiatives in other countries—the Venezuelans, of course, being our greatest exemplars.

But programs, as a rule, don’t actually reach out and help each other much.

There are understandable reasons for this. Everyone’s budget is tight. Everyone’s daily workload is immense. Everyone’s eyes are on the priorities immediately at hand: creating a program, managing a program, troubleshooting, advocating. Also, it’s natural to want to build community through emphasizing local, regional, or national identity. El Sistema Colorado, El Sistema Sweden, El Sistema Japan—entities like these invoke deep habits of loyalty and nurture parochial identity.

But the understandable instinct to create identity around locality also has a downside: witness the many struggles currently inflaming the world that hinge on ethnic, cultural, religious, or political preconceptions. Place-identity needs to be respected but tempered by a global, values-driven identity that prioritizes human connection and social justice across cultures.

Shouldn’t movements like El Sistema be at the forefront of that change? As teachers and learners of music—perhaps the ultimate pan-cultural humanistic endeavor—don’t we have an urgent responsibility to encourage a generosity of connection among young people across the world who are investing their energies in ensemble music learning? Being young is profoundly about forming identity. We are in a position to model identity formation around the wider affinities of cross-cultural inclusion. That’s what El Sistema Greece just did. In its simple gesture of help for Tornillo, it conveyed the message: “Your cause is our cause. Our larger ‘we’ is anyone across the world who is working to bring beauty and community to children in transit, children in trauma, children at risk.”

By a fortunate coincidence, a new El Sistema project has just been launched that promises to reinforce this broader sense of self: Sistema Connect. (See our feature article in this issue by project founder Graciela Briceno, former Managing Editor of The World Ensemble.) This is an elegantly straightforward initiative that will match anyone involved in El Sistema work, anywhere, with an El Sistema program anywhere that is in need of the skills that person can offer.

Sistema Connect powerfully encourages international self-orientation: “I am an activist in a worldwide movement, and I contribute my skills and passion anywhere in the world they are needed.” If this project sparks engagement, it could be the biggest truly global initiative we’ve ever undertaken as a field. Not coincidentally, Sistema Connect is supported by the NAMM Foundation, the same globally civic-minded entity that is making the Tornillo program possible.

Sistema Connect awakens the yearning for global identity in individuals. El Sistema Greece embodies an institutional commitment to that value. As for our students—I think they’re out ahead of us on this. An impatience with parochialisms and an urgent attention to cross-cultural synergies seem to characterize young people around the world more than ever before.

In 2016, students at the El Sistema-inspired House of Good Tones in Srebrenica, Bosnia, wrote a song called “Love People.” With the help of their program leaders, they turned it into a universal anthem and produced a four-minute video collage of kids in programs across the world, singing and playing the song. There’s some decidedly youthful whimsy in the opening and closing graphics—but to watch the video is to experience the blazing clarity of kids around the world about global citizenship in action. “Strong, free, and ready, we can win this fight,” they sing in a multitude of accents, as inset crayon-colored maps show how the message is being passed—“Colombia to Vietnam,” “Vietnam to Spain,” etc.

As of now, there’s a new connective line on the world Sistema map: Athens, Greece to Tornillo, Texas. Let’s keep these lines of kinship and generosity multiplying.

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