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Unity: Building Community through Choral Music

Sabish Middle School, WI

100 N Peters Ave, Fond du Lac, WI 54935, USA
Fond du Lac
Director: PJ Uhazie
Category: Community Event
Award: Gold, 2020

Project Description

Our Unity concert was created with the hope that by intertwining carefully chosen music, community partners from diverse backgrounds, and the youthful energy of 6th-8th grade who wanted to make a change that Sabish Middle School could build meaningful bridges between groups with very disparate ideas of race, sexuality, and police-community relations. The program began with a pre-performance gathering where community groups who advocated for LGBTQ+ issues, race-equality, police-community relations, music’s role in community-building, and the acceptance of all peoples facilitated a conversation with audience members on the issues facing our Fond du Lac community and different ways that they (as community members) could address those issues. Recognizing that some of the audience might be uncomfortable interacting with some of these marginalized groups, members of the audience were incentivized to visit each community partner, engage in community-orientated dialogue, and get a signature from one of the representatives from each group. Once someone has gathered signatures from all the community partner groups, they would be entered to win grocery gift cards. Approximately 53% of our students are classified as economically disadvantaged, so the use of grocery cards as prizes was meant to alleviate any kind of hunger or stress those families might have over putting food on the table. As audience members entered the auditorium, they then were asked to quickly answer the questions “what does unity mean to you?” These answers were monitored by our 8th grade National Honor Society students and were then projected up behind the choir throughout the concert. This gave our audience the chance to have an active role in the performance, celebrated the diversity of ideas that we had gathered in performance hall, and create a sense of unity amongst the strangers gathered to hear their middle school singers perform. Shortly thereafter, the performance part of the evening began. The music was deliberately chosen to celebrate the diverse places and people that choral music comes from. The music performed originated from countries such as Israel, Australia, and the United States and included both women’s’ and People of Color’s compositional voices. In between pieces, students would read short expositions of what the next song was, what it meant to them, and how they believed that this song fostered a sense of community.

Target Audience

The target audience for this project was community members of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and the Fond du Lac School System. Fond du Lac, Wisconsin is a town of about 43,000, 11% of those people coming from non-white backgrounds and about 13% of those living in poverty (according to the US Census). The school district is comprised of about 7,200 students, 36% of them come from non-white backgrounds and about 42% of them are economically-disadvantaged. Furthermore, Sabish Middle School has a non-white population of about 43% and 53% come from low-income backgrounds.

Overview of planning and execution process for this project

Early in the school year, I asked my students what were some of the biggest problems that we were seeing inside and outside of our school. The middle schoolers reported the usual issues with homework, bullying, and behavior issues, but also talked about how nobody (inside or outside of school) seemed to get along. I dug a little deeper and pushed the students to elaborate more on what exactly was keeping people from getting along. They mentioned issues such as politics, stereotyping, racial inequality, gender inequity, and issues with the government/police being the major reasons that there seemed to be so much hate in the world. After hearing this, I was determined to create an opportunity that would teach my students the impact of music while also empowering them to be makers of change in our community. It was sometime in October that I began to pick out music that highlighted and addressed the issues brought up in the beginning of the year. By weaving together Civil Rights protest songs, Israeli folk tunes, uplifting pop songs, and pieces whose composers wrote them to inspire unity within a community the choir was able to use diverse, meaningful music as a vehicle to advocate for empathy and community-builiding. After the repertoire was picked out, I then began to reach out to different community groups in the area to see if they would be willing to partner with Sabish. After a few email chains and phone calls, the choirs were able to partner with an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, an organization dedicated to empowering People of Color, a music parent organization who would advocate for music as a means to connect to one another, the Fond du Lac Police, and a group dedicated to enhancing and educating about diversity.

Sponsors/charities/volunteers/ other groups involved in the project and the benefits to each.

While our Unity concert really only received actual monetary funding from our school’s administration, many other groups contributed to the success of the event by dedicating their time, energy, and passion. There were three ways that the groups could have assisted with the program: being part of the community forum and conversation prior to the concert, helping run logistics (handing out programs, ushering for seats, or helping monitor audience responses), or by helping with musical and technological set-up prior. There were 6 community groups that facilitated and prompted conversation in the audience. The Fond du Lac PRIDE group came to engage community members in conversation regarding LGBTQ+ visibility and inclusion in our relatively small, conservative town. The organization Ebony Vision came to talk about different opportunities (both social and professional) that they create to empower both students and People of Color. A local inclusion group called United for Diversity came to advocate a need of empathy and understanding for those who might be different or marginalized. We had the Fond du Lac Music Parents organization participate to talk about the unifying power of music to bring people from very different backgrounds together unity. Finally, we had the Fond du Lac Police department there as well to talk about the ways that they are working to build trust and unity within in the community and how they are combating the concerns that people are seeing in regards to the police issues being brought up on the news. The presence of these groups not only created an open-minded and safe space to discuss unity within our community, but also allowed them the opportunity to interact and educate the students and parents of our middle school in a positive, meaningful way. In addition to the groups leading our community conversation, we also had the groups who volunteered to keep the concert moving forward logistically. We utilized our 8th grade National Junior Honor Society students as volunteers. Not only did this create a positive leadership opportunity and responsibility for those NJHS kids, but it also allowed them to witnessed positive community building and civil conversations about potentially divisive topics. Finally, we had those volunteers from within our school district who came together to ensure the success of this event. Whether it was technology coaches spending extra time after school organizing the audience response and projection technology, the custodial and theater staff setting up choral risers and booths, or fellow teachers offering to help organize students backstage, proof read programs and reading materials, or running our ticket booth, this event certainly brought together employees from all areas of the Fond du Lac School District.

Community Impact

Within the Fond du Lac school district, Sabish has a reputation of being the “tough middle school” due to it serving some of the most diverse and low income students in the district. More specifically, it was a common belief in the community that the musical arts at Sabish were struggling. Working against this negativity, the Unity concert not only showed drastic musical growth in the students, but engaged the community in a way that was never seen before at any middle school music event prior. This concert set a new musical standard for Sabish and a higher level of community engagement for all middle school music events in Fond du Lac. This was validated by previous administrators, parents, grandparents, and current faculty members through verbal or written praise. While this validation was a positive force in the culture and outlook towards Sabish, it was not nearly as valuable as the sense of empowerment that our students received knowing that they were now active agents of change within their hometown. Through empathy, understanding, and critical thinking, the students of Sabish Middle School were able to expand their understanding of community, people from diverse backgrounds (including LGBTQ+ and People of Color) and the joys of using music as a tool to bring people together. Looking beyond the school community itself, this concert gave positive exposure and an opportunity to community groups who were not readily or fairly given the visibility within the more-traditional community. It gave audience members a safe space to engage in positive, community-centered conversation and to allow their beliefs to be heard, discussed, and challenged within the lens of building a more open, inclusive community as a whole. This dialogue was also reaffirmed through both verbal and written comments. All in all, Sabish’s Unity concert created bridges for our small town students to make meaningful connections with people from very different backgrounds as them, inspired and challenged audience members to go out and make positive changes to their community, and reinvigorated the community’s faith in the choral music happening at Sabish.

Overall budget


Specific Budget Breakdown

There was no real budget for this project. The only money actually spent for this event was the 50.00 dollars donated from my school’s administration to buy grocery gift cards as prizes for those audience members who went and talked with all of our community groups present. We chose to award grocery gift cards as prizes because we knew that over half of our school’s population came from economically disadvantaged households and that these prizes could potentially elevate some stress of putting food on the table.

New or recurring project?

New Project

Challenges/obstacles that were encountered

While this project did bring up the common logistical issues of coordinating many different groups, organizing the musical aspects, and spreading the word about the event and its mission, I think that the hardest challenges came from the anxiety of bringing new viewpoints to a very conservative small town. Fond du Lac lacks diversity and prides itself on its blue collar roots and traditional way of life; people in Fond du Lac tend to be unaware of the struggles of marginalized people. It is also not particularly open to new ideas in terms of race or sexual orientation. I was worried that our community partners might receive backlash, my administrators would receive complaints, and that my students might feel backlash from the community. While this worry did weigh on me, I believed that my student’s message of empathy, unity, and tolerance needed to be heard. These students saw a need in our community and this concert was our way of addressing that. Looking back, I definitely did not realize how much my concern for my student’s and community partner’s well-being would effect me, but I am glad that we brought this concert to fruition because it made a meaningful impact on all parties involved.

Measurement of the success/effectiveness of this project?

I firmly believe that everyone involved (students, parents, community members, and administrators) believed that Sabish’s Unity concert was a success. When polled, about 90% of my middle school choir students (139 total) felt that they performed well and that their performance had an impact on the audience. 2 parents sent messages regarding the musical success and impact of the concert and 1 grandparent sent a postcard reflecting on the same things. Our community groups felt that this gave them much-needed visibility in our community and loved getting to work with students from the middle school level (6th-8th grade in our district). Finally, administrators were excited to see that we had a significant increase in audience size (over 250 compared to the roughly 200 we saw in our previous concert), that the whole concert was built off of student ideas, and that the whole project empowered our students to go out and make the change they wish to see in the world. In addition to these successes, the Sabish choral program was able to bring back this experience to our school and display and engage in conversation regarding Unity with the larger student body.

Advice for someone looking to replicate this project in their own community?

If someone wanted to replicate this type of project in their community, I would suggest that they do the following: build strong, positive relationships with everyone that you meet, choose repertoire that is equally as meaningful for the community as it is beneficial for student learning, and don’t let inexperience scare you away from doing something meaningful. This project would not have been a success if I had not made meaningful connections with my colleagues and community members. Whether it was planning technology, preparing materials, running logistics, or offering input, my coworkers were invaluable in offering both practical and motivational support. If you were hoping to replicate this, be a positive force in your community and make positive connections at every opportunity. Next, make sure that the theme of your concert is reflected in quality repertoire whose stories reflect a variety of backgrounds and narratives. Finally, this concert was a project that I undertook in my first year of teaching. While many people believe that one should wait and gain experience before challenging convention, if you feel passionate about making a change and you see a need, just trust your instinct. Neighborhoods worldwide are craving unity within their communities.

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