by Mentor Artists Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd. Photos by Kristin Chalmers
Alphabet Rockers were proud to offer hip hop arts programming in Glenwood Elementary School again this year. In a unique program design, we offered two assemblies (one in fall, one in Spring), along with accompanying dance workshops following each program.
Principal Kim Goodhope understands the importance of equity frameworks – and was eager to see how this model would deepen the experience for the young people.
We ourselves as artists were in the process of evolving our language, performance and messages to step up as allies and advocates for racial justice. Earlier in 2017, we performed “Change the World,” with songs like “Gimme Some Skin” inviting young people to see and validate the diversity of skin colors in the room. We invited the audience to envision how they would change the world to make it more fair for all people.
In our return visit this past October, we were in the process of developing a new concert series for the September released album, Rise Shine #Woke. Our music had changed. We had changed as artists. As a multi-racial group of artists, we had advanced our work from “Gimme Some Skin” into songs that talked about discrimination, and took action to interrupt our biases.
In the assembly, we performed the song “Shine” in this way. We talked about how shocking it was for Tommy when someone said to his face, that “Black lives don’t matter” when wearing a BLM shirt. This had happened to his 10 year old son only weeks earlier, and we took the story into our show – outlining how friends stood up for him at a time he didn’t have the words. The song throws “shine not shade” on all those facing discrimination. The children joined us in dance, and sang out the words “Shine! On my beautiful skin!”
When we went into the classrooms to unpack further, we knew that as a mixed-race group, we would hold different space. A white woman talking about skin color discrimination and a black man talking about skin color discrimination would hold different language, embodiment and throughlines for these classrooms, where the children were from various backgrounds but were navigating a mostly white school and community. We found that the work needed to root in identifying and celebrating difference, before we could address discrimination and advocacy. It was clear that the work we were aiming to accomplish would need further parallel resources in the classrooms and in the school culture.
This album received a GRAMMY Nomination only a few months later; we returned with that glow to Glenwood in March. We performed our song “Walls” – about how folks who speak another language or come from another place are not always made to feel welcome. How can we be “the people” that we really want to be? How can we uphold those ideals of equality and equity at a time when we knew that even our own kids were feeling the pain of discriminating national policies and actions.
Post concert, we went back into the classrooms, charged with a similar inquiry of unpacking discrimination and bias with our young people. In one class, learning the dance moves to “Shine” empowered the children to feel their voices and bodies connected to bold claims of belonging. In another class, we reverted back to trying to describe our skin color, finding that the work around discrimination was still not quite sinking in. We went on a skin color match game, finding articles in the room that reflected our skin colors, from pages of an old book to a wooden clock. We then turned our skin color matches into unique handshakes, which celebrated the diversity and creativity of the students.
What’s interesting to know in this path with arts and creativity is that it is not always linear. We do need to circle back, to revisit, to revise and listen. Just the same with adults – we cannot assume that one moment of learning around systems of oppression will lead us entirely to a path of truth and understanding. We are complex beings, seeped in our systems of bias and understanding. Our kids are as well.
In our work at Glenwood, we are reminded of this openness. The principal brought us in with full understanding of the importance of equity. We will continue to support their work – and the students individual and collective journeys – as it is about true embodiment through the years.
Alphabet Rockers’ Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Shepherd put on a fantastic performance of their show Playground Zone: Diversity for the K–2nd graders at Glenwood Elementary in San Rafael. They performed several new songs from their recently released album, Rise Shine #Woke, which was created to to “interrupt racial bias inspire families to make change in the world.”
Students were encouraged to get up and learn the Hip Hop dances with the Alphabet Rockers. Everyone was on their feet, and the positive and powerful messages of the songs resonated with the young audience and teachers alike.
As a follow-up to the performance, Kaitlin and Tommy each taught more in-depth workshops in the 2nd grade classrooms. The students practiced the dances they’d learned in the assembly, and then broke down the songs to get more out of the content. Students were asked what they thought the songs with titles like Stand Up for You, and Shine meant. The responses were wonderful and demonstrated how clearly they got the messages. They said things like: “the song is about being friends with people of all different skin colors,” or “the song is about loving everyone no matter what.” Then the kids were asked to define some of the words in the songs, such as injustice. One student said, “Injustice means you are fighting for love.” Finally, they were asked if they feel we are treated differently based on how we look. Many of the students said no, but a couple raised their hands to indicate yes, not ready to share more. One said, “No. We shouldn’t be. We love all colors.”
Spring is bouncing into summer and hundreds of young artists around the North Bay are finishing class projects and creating exhibits, performances and other artful events for family and friends with Youth in Arts.
Recent posts have highlighted Spring projects by K-Dub Williams’ students at Marina Middle School and Angela Baker’s students at Harding Elementary, in addition to the amazing work created by Suzanne Joyal’s kindergarteners at Loma Verde as part of the Walker Rezaian Creative HeArts program. Youth in Arts also produced a special “Passport Art Event” at Harding, and Nydia Gonzalez and Shawna Alapa’i concluding performing arts residencies at Ocean View Elementary in Albany and Sonoma Mountain Elementary.
In late May, Arts Unite Us “collaborative residency” projects at Harding and at Tam High School in Mill Valley wrapped up with terrific performances by all the students. Collaborative residencies bring together special education and general education students for shared arts experiences. At Harding, students wrote, directed and performed an original play “Lydia and the Land of Gee-Jo” around themes of Pollution, Bullying, Self Acceptance, New Beauty Standards and Taking Care of Each Other. At Tam High , the original pilot site for the collaborative residency program, students from the Special Day Class and advanced Conservatory Theatre Ensemble worked with Mentor Artists Suraya Keating and Melissa Briggs to write and perform their original play, “By my Side,” which opened the school’s popular One Acts Festival.
Tommy Shepherd’s students at Wade Thomas put an exclamation mark on their rap and beatboxing residency with a performance of their original rap for their peers at school, and Kaitlin McGaw’s kindergarteners at Bahia Vista will soon perform a vocal music and hip hop show for their fourth grade buddies.
At Laurel Dell in San Rafael, Djenane Saint-Juste has been teaching students Caribbean dance around the theme of Kanaval (Carnivale), using costume pieces the students created this Fall with visual artist Gabby Gamboa. The students will perform in a grand parade with family and friends at the school’s big Fiesta del Sol event this weekend. And at Mary Silveira, Mentor Artist Julia James finished a successful year with a big art show featuring work by all her K-4 students in the program.
Youth in Arts award-winning `Til Dawn a cappella ensemble performed their annual Spring Concert at San
Domenico Hall of the Arts this past weekend–a big congratulations to all the performers for a wonderful show and a special shout out to our graduating seniors. We will miss you!
Also at San Domenico, Youth in Arts workshopped a new performance of “Goodnight Gorilla” on May 23 with music by Dee Spencer performed by a terrific band of Bay Area music educators and musicians who are working with us to develop the work into an educational performance piece for youth jazz bands.
You can see it’s been a very busy Spring, full of fabulous art and fabulous young artists. Watch this blog for more detailed reports on many of these projects in the weeks ahead and get ready to celebrate summer with Youth in Arts! Come see `Til Dawn at Youth in Arts night with the Pacifics, visit our Everything Under the Sun YIA Gallery exhibit, sign up for a unique summer camp program, check out the Mountain Play and benefit Youth in Arts with your ticket purchase, or join us for our gala Summer Solstice celebration at Studio 333 on June 21. We’d love to see you in person and share our work with you. Happy summer!