EDITORIAL: Should We Include Middle Class Kids?

It came up for the third time in a month, and this time loud and clear.  The setting was a first-ever Forum of Sistema-inspired organizations in South Korea.  The panel included seven presenters.  The government arts education agency KACES sponsored the event and presented its program Orchestra of Dreams.  This is the largest program in the country with 40 program sites/nucleos.  Also on the panel were leaders of other Sistema-inspired or Sistema-like programs in South Korea—the first time they had ever been gathered to share their basic data.  The mission of the public Forum was to sound out the possibility of joining together in some ways to accomplish things of shared benefit, like visibility, like collaborative projects, even like sharing repertoire and professional development.  These programs have no history of collaboration, and some have felt competitive and unfriendly.  Not at that Nov. 10 Forum.

After my keynote and their parade of short presentations of basic facts, the ensuing panel discussion cautiously admitted that they could see advantages in joining together in limited ways as an occasional network to accomplish strategic goals that raised the level of all programs.  It was a historic moment, and it concluded with a verbal agreement to continue conversations about this with KACES serving as lead communicator.  It was a marker of change in the ecosystem of one of the world’s most committed Sistema countries.

One question that rose up was the same question I had heard arise in two other Sistema settings in recent months, in the U.S. and in Europe.  The question is whether it is time now – or when the time will be – to start including students from financially comfortable middle class homes in the mix of financially needy students that comprise the populations of most programs.  In all three instances in which this discussion arose, the two sides appear to express their views, and the issue is left unresolved.  The predominant arguments are: Con: El Sistema programs serve cultural equity, providing kids with fewer resources and difficult circumstances a chance to learn their way to social development through music.  Pro: El Sistema is about social inclusion, so why are Sistema students sequestered away from kids of greater means? – socializing with these kids could open new life paths for them.  In such discussions it is usually noted that the wealthier kids could pay to help underwrite expenses.  (This can be a tempting consideration for cash-strapped programs.)

These three discussions, on different continents, all concluded with a cautious impression that it probably makes sense to make that adjustment…someday.  But the “when” is not agreed upon.  That timing seems clear to me, so I propose it here.  Let’s note that this dilemma does not apply in some countries, most notably in Venezuela (and in some other Latin American programs), where there has been natural socio-economic mixing for a long time, but it does apply widely.

Sistema programs begin focused and dedicated to the needs and potential of a particular community area.  The kids are struggling against daunting issues of generational poverty or social trauma.  Many live in danger or under control of gangs and violence.  It takes years to build the positive, safe-and-charged, radiantly-positive learning environment in which Sistema thrives.  That is a complex endeavor to create the positive environment these students need; it takes years and profound care and dedication to create it.  However, there comes a moment when they own such an environment; the students own it.  And ­that is the time the program could begin to add players from a different race and financial class.  As I see it, at that point the inequality has been addressed within this nucleo environment and can carefully expand its definition of inclusivity.  The key to me is that the originating students play really well, so they can sustain their confidence and be helpful to others.  The power of strong musical voice, and strong nucleo environment, enables the once-disempowered students to engage as equals with a wider social mix; then they can grow and learn socially in new ways; they can welcome a wider range of peers into the healthy musical community they have made.

What do you think? Share your thoughts through Facebook or Twitter using #TheWE.

By: Eric Booth, Publisher of The World Ensemble

Date Published: 1 December 2017

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