The Amani Project Partners with U.S. El Sistema Teachers-in-Training

by Akhil Gopal and Ziyad Marcus, students in the MAT Program of Longy School of Music of Bard College

As students in Longy School of Music’s El Sistema-inspired Masters of Arts in Teaching program, we have recently partnered with the Amani Project, a global nonprofit that uses music to serve youth in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Colombia, India, and many more countries around the world. We have found this collaboration to be a crucial reminder of perhaps the most important part of the El Sistema philosophy: social change. While technical excellence is prioritized in standard music pedagogy, El Sistema pushes us to bring musical competency and social justice into convergence. However, despite being in an El Sistema-inspired program, as music teachers we sometimes lose sight of ideals beyond music for music’s sake.

The Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program of Longy School of Music of Bard College is a one-year intensive graduate program encompassing the three parallel goals of musical artistry, pedagogy, and social justice. As students in the program, we have engaged in everything from Orff masterclasses to trauma-informed education to a walking tour of Los Angeles’ Skid Row community. In our final quarter, we are undertaking a survey course titled “Historical and Social Foundations of Education,” in which we apply lenses of intersectionality, oppression, and colonization in order to better discern the institutional nature of schooling. It is in the context of this class that our collaboration with the Amani Project began.

According to Cofounder Andy Lewis, the Amani Project has prioritized the social-emotional and therapeutic potential of music education. Teaching young people technical competence on their instruments, Amani has operated from a framework of music pedagogy as a vehicle for social-emotional learning. “Music does not exist in a void,” says Lewis. “It has a strong line to our emotional state. Both collectively and individually, music affects us.”

The Amani Project’s founding philosophy was based on the belief that social-emotional learning is an integral part of social change. In our conversations with the Amani Global Leadership Team, we learned that they are in a process of expanding their framework around social-emotional learning as a tool for social change, to ensure that they aren’t inadvertently approaching their work with a deficit mindset. The dialogue between us has brought forth complicated questions that are pertinent to El Sistema teachers interested in the ethics of teaching music for social justice, and unveiled music education’s limitations in enacting social justice in poverty-stricken areas.

The Amani Project strives to elevate music for social change through collaborations with locally led organizations like Smile Foundation in India and Fundación Escuela Nueva in Colombia. They also partner with Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence and Think Equal.  Together with these partners, they offer music curricula, fundraising, guidance, and pedagogical tools, as well as a network of clubs that provide community, mentorship, and basic resources for youths. Throughout our work with the Amani Project, our cohort has participated in thoughtful conversations about the culturally responsive practices of the Amani Project’s music teachers, the inspiration the organization takes from music therapists, and the ways in which local collaborations have helped them develop lesson plans to fit the needs of local communities.

We also are in the process of designing and filming sample lessons that build upon the Amani Project’s framework of blending musical elements such as rhythm, pitch, and tempo with social-emotional ideals such as empathy and kindness. Our project is based on the existing Amani curriculum, rather than the new curriculum that they are in the process of creating with their partners. In the video lessons, we address young audiences in the countries where the Amani Project works. To better inform these lessons, we are researching aspects of the countries’ histories, demographics, and cultures.

The members of our cohort were drawn to different aspects of the Amani Project’s mission. Joh Chase, a singer-songwriter and educator, noted the Amani Project’s unique structure, which guards against the top-down approach characteristic of U.S.-based nonprofits doing international work: “They implement these checks and balances by employing only local community members as their teachers and by having those teachers give feedback to the curriculum designers about what is working and not working in each community.” Chase also commended the organization for “staying self-aware and [being] able to pivot when cultural equity is being called into question.” Another member of the cohort was primarily impressed with the global reach of the organization, considering its work to be “proof that music education throughout the world, and collaboration with communities far and wide, are possible.”

One outstanding aspect of the Amani structure is the control over curriculum design and implementation given to teaching artists of color who are teaching in their own countries in a culturally responsive way. Budget creation is led by local organizations with community knowledge, which is unusual for the nonprofit world. We were particularly intrigued by Amani Project teacher Aluta Humbane’s use of critical pedagogy, the educational movement sparked by the work of Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire. In the Amani Project clubs of Durban, South Africa, Humbane works to combat patriarchy with music, using music’s ability to give students voice to express their emotions in cultures and situations in which they are regularly silenced.

The Amani leadership team shared with us their growing awareness that the youth they serve face structural and systemic forms of oppression, rather than a deficit of social-emotional skills.  (A deficit mindset implicitly places blame, and the onus to change, on the victims of systemic oppression.) This realization has prompted the leaders of the Amani Project to contextualize the musical teaching of social-emotional skills within a larger understanding of the systemic structures of power and inequity. While they continue to believe in the healing potential of music as an essential part of a multipronged approach to addressing students’ needs, they are currently looking to Creative Youth Development as a model.

This change in philosophy is also evident in the Amani Project’s new approach to measuring impact. Cofounder Andy Lewis notes that the Amani Project is now working with its local partners on how to quantify community impact beyond the typical measures of workforce development. The Amani Project differs from many nonprofits in its equitable partnerships with local organizations, emphasis on culturally responsive curriculum, holistic vision for youth development, and commitment to growth and process. Lewis is discomfited by the role that nonprofits have played in “cleansing the reputations” of the companies and individual donors who are complicit in the structural problems to which the nonprofits are responding. He hopes that the model created by the collaboration between the Amani Project and its partners will allow the Amani Project to be a subversive force within that system.

As the members of our cohort enter our own classrooms as first-year teachers, many of us are carrying the lessons of this collaboration, including a reminder to dismantle the pedestal that elevates western classical music at the expense of culturally responsive teaching. The Amani Project maintains that the most effective teachers are embedded within their communities, and value the culture and knowledge of their students. Both the Amani Project and El Sistema urge us to consider music as a tool for social change, rather than an end in itself.

We propose considering both social-emotional learning and music education to be resources that all children should have, rather than fixes for systemic inequality. Furthermore, we must ask ourselves if these are resources the communities we seek to serve already possess, in ways we may not recognize. Reflecting upon the limitations of music education to enact change leads us to recommit to the pursuit of social justice outside the walls of the classroom as well. We must align our lives with our music education ideals, so that we can actively challenge the structures harming our students, rather than just teaching about them. Equitable teaching as a reflective process is our ideal as teachers invested in social justice, and we’ve learned from the Amani Project’s own reflective process in that regard. This collaboration between the Longy MAT Program and the Amani Project generated new ideas and questions for what music for social change could look like in educational institutions around the world.

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