Key Learning from the Field: Trust and Empower Your Community

by Jason Steinberg, Founder, International Sports and Music Project

In the summer of 2014, I arrived on a rainforest island called Pohnpei, in Micronesia (a country in the region of Oceania) to teach high school English. When the school lacked the resources to enable students to explore their passions for music and basketball, the students and I started looking for solutions. This initiative evolved into The International Sports and Music Project (ISMP), an organization that uses sports and music as powerful tools for mental health.

Since then, ISMP has come a long way. We have incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, moved into an office in Brooklyn, and launched sports/music programs at several other sites—including multiple Syrian refugee camps in Greece, a homeless shelter for teenagers in New York City, and two shelters for children in Rwanda. Each of our programs is custom-built to address the specific interests and passions of the people in each community. As such, our programs range from traditional warrior ballet to basketball clinics to guitar jam sessions.

Children in shelters in Kigali, Rwanda.

Our programs in Rwanda have helped us learn many important lessons about how to create meaningful partnerships with leaders on the ground, and in doing so, how to maintain sustainable and impactful programs. The key lesson we’ve learned is this: the way to create the biggest impact in a community is to empower leaders of that community to have ownership over the program.

In the early days of ISMP, we spent significant time building up our various class curricula so that we could pass teaching resources over to our partners on the ground in different locations. We would map out resources such as “How to Run a Guitar Class,” along with instructions on reading tabs, learning new chords, and playing in a group. What we found, though, is that for all the time we spent crafting these resources, the teachers on the ground wouldn’t use much of what we were providing. This was not for lack of commitment to the program—it was simply that the people crafting the guitar curriculum weren’t familiar with Rwanda, the music of Rwanda, or the specific interests of the kids at the shelter. Therefore, the creators of the curriculum made assumptions that didn’t match up with the reality in the classroom. For example, the curriculum said nothing about drumbeats to accompany guitar lessons, even though drums are a fundamental piece of Rwandan music and the music that the kids wanted to play. Also, many of the examples in the curriculum revolved around American pop/rock music, which is built on different principles than much of the music taking place in Rwanda. On a musical level, these were key differences the creators of the curriculum couldn’t have known.

There were also differences in teaching style. The music teachers we hired in Rwanda, some of whom were former residents of the shelters where they now work, are top-notch musicians and educators. One dance teacher, for example, is on the national dance team. These teachers had their own vision of how to teach a class—one that matched up with their experience, their musical taste, their community, and their personal style. We quickly learned that the best versions of their lessons are ones where they can be themselves and use all that they know, rather than trying to fit into someone else’s plan.

Through these experiences, we learned that crafting and disseminating specific lesson plans and resources was not necessarily the best way to support our partners who were teaching classes on the ground in various communities. What we learned is that the best way to create meaningful music programs is to ask the right questions to leaders in a community. What is your musical background? What is the most popular music in your community? What kinds of music are the children interested in? Do the children already have some musical experience? Which instruments/dances do you believe are easiest to teach to children without any musical experience? What resources would you need to make this a reality? After those questions are answered, our goal is to hire the best teachers we can possibly find and to support those teachers with whatever they tell us that they need.

This is not to say that creating resources and providing guidance to the teachers of our programs is a bad thing. What’s important is that we provide the resources and guidance that can be most helpful, the resources they tell us they need. Our programs are only as impactful as our teachers are prepared/motivated. We have found, given the international nature of ISMP, that having cookie-cutter programs that we spread near and far is not the best way to ensure that our teachers are prepared. The best way to do that is to listen to and trust the leaders of the community. When we ask questions, listen intently, and stay committed to supporting teachers, we spend less time on unimportant tasks and our programs become more impactful and sustainable.

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