Empowering youth through music

A new local project is setting community change to music. As the Memphis Music Initiative looks to transform the city, they are taking advantage of one of Memphis' most long-standing assets -- its music culture -- and using that as an anchoring point in strengthening youth outcomes.

A $20 million, five year project is working to expand the access of music programming to low income and black youth in Memphis.

While serving as a manager at San Francisco-based The Bridgespan Group, Darren Isom worked on community engagement strategy for ArtsMemphis. A private funder of that work thought that Memphis music could use a similar approach, one with a focus on outcomes for underserved, black children and communities. Isom was asked to lead this new community-led strategy that he developed as Executive Director of the Memphis Music Initiative in 2014.
Darren Isom, Executive Director of the Memphis Music Initiative
The initiative began with a five-month strategic development process to define the assets, processes and activities. The strategy is expected to run through the year 2020.

The approach is three-pronged: Sustaining existing in-school music education and expanding instruction through partnerships with local musicians, expanding high quality extracurricular programs to reach more youth and remove barriers to participation, and developing places to spur innovation where youth can hear, play and learn music.
The first prong of the initiative began in January 2015 when teaching fellows were placed in classrooms to pilot the program. In the summer and fall of 2015 initial grants were made to youth development and music engagement organizations in Memphis.

The 20 fellows whose expertise range from rap to classical music are in 25 schools across Memphis. According to Isom, the goal is to get 50 fellows into 55 schools in the five years.

“Memphis (schools) have a fairly good infrastructure on paper,” he said. “The goal there is to bring musicians in to support existing music resources in schools and make sure they are strong and vibrant and also community relevant.”

Isom noted a rush for professionalism in Memphis for some people. He reasoned that even if students don’t end up becoming a professional musician, they still need activities that are meaningful to them and that could help them develop life and behavior skills that are important for success.

Partner schools include Booker T. Washington, Carver, Cordova, Douglass, East, Kingsbury, Melrose, Overton, Ridgeway, Southwind, and White Station high schools, as well as Bellevue, Colonial, Cordova, Hickory Ridge, Kate Bond, Mt. Pisgah, Treadwell, Westside, and White Station middle schools. Charter schools include Freedom Preparatory Academy and Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School. Memphis Jubilee Catholic Schools include St. John’s Catholic and Memphis Catholic.

One of those fellows, Ty Boyland, is a music producer, writer and engineer.  He heard about MMI in a series of focus groups concerning how the music industry and infrastructure in Memphis could be improved.

Boyland is stationed at East High School where he teaches and mentors students in ninth through 12th grades and at Grizzlies Prep where he teaches students in the sixth and seventh grades.

He finds the experience is different at each of the schools. With the older kids at East, Boyland does more songwriting, things like comparing and contrasting lyrics, and translating concepts from older songs to make them sound modern. He said he also leaves time for business questions, community issues, and how they can change the perception that their generation lacks leadership skills and abilities.
"The Memphis Music Initiative brings together a diverse network of teachers, students, and musicians unlike any I have seen." - Victor Sawyer, Fellowship Coach, Memphis Music Initiative
At Grizzlies Prep Boyland said he teaches technical skills that translate into life lessons like teamwork, giving and receiving critique, meeting deadlines, self-confidence, and professionalism. They have a “Freestyle Fridays” where kids put on a show and compete weekly.

Boyland recommends the fellowship to artists who have a passion for helping others (specifically children in the community) and those wanting to offset negativity in the city.

“It's an amazing opportunity to serve our communities without sacrificing the time needed to pursue and nurture our professional careers,” he said.

Fellows receive pay for the 20 hours a week they work in schools, as well as a health stipend for the two years that they participate in the program. They receive the health stipend for an additional year after completing the fellowship.

The second prong of the MMI strategy is a grant-making one and revolves around working with existing music organizations to help them scale their programming and support extended learning opportunities after school and during the summer.

Isom said that their research showed only five percent of kids in Memphis have access to music programming outside of school compared to similar cities where 15 to 20 percent of kids have access.

“Kids blossom where there are opportunities,” he said.

The last strategy prong is a grant-making, community-based approach. MMI supports organizations already working with the target demographic of kids in art and youth development to add music programming to their after-school and summer menu of options, help them to develop those programs, and help them to grow the programs.

MMI partners currently include ArtsMemphis, where its offices are housed, as well as Blue Violin Foundation, Education Pioneers, Iris Orchestra, Knowledge Quest, Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Memphis Library Foundation (via Cloud901), Memphis Symphony Orchestra, PRIZM Ensemble, Saint Andrew Enterprises, Soulsville Foundation, and Visible Community Music School.
"Music moves us to maximize our creative potential, to arrange beauty out of fragments, and to share it together." -- Sawyer Schafbuch, Visible Community Music School
Isom said that the students they reach are at an age where they can be positively influenced by those in their lives and that the quality of programs are defined by the quality of engagement, quality of mentorship, the work staying relevant, and the passion of people engaging in the work.

“If we have kids who go on to be professionals of any form because of professional services or support they were given and relationships they made during this period — and relationships they have avoided during this period — we have been successful,” he said.

Over the summer the MMI will implement direct music programming through local organizations already working with youth. There are also plans for an MMI internship program. The internship will pair high school juniors and seniors with music and arts organizations so that they can learn how the organizations are run through an apprenticeship model, find out if the organization would be suitable for them, and learn how to operate in a professional setting.

“We think of ourselves as a creative youth development outlet and music is our tool,” Isom said of MMI.

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. 
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