Episode 19

Episode 19: Mary Cohen-Hearing incarcerated Voices

Episode 19: Mary Cohen - Freeing Silenced Voices

Threshold Questions and Delicious Quotes

How can singing a song help change the mind and the heart?

...the thing about singing that's really valuable for me at least is it's embodied. We're using our breath. We're using our voice. We're using our ears. We're feeling the vibrations in our bodies. So being able to do that with other people is super- it can be powerful. One of the students in the peace building class last spring shared such an insightful comment. She said, if you're in there singing together with your eyes closed, we don't know which voice is going to be walking out of the [00:31:00] prison at the end of the rehearsal, in which voices be staying in the prison.

What is ubuntu, and how does it relate to prison choir work?

Ubuntu Is that beautiful concept from South Africa, meaning a lot of things, a person as a person through other people. Desmond Tutu defined it as, "my humanity is inextricably bound with your humanity". ...But we need to know who we are and be at peace with ourselves in order to step forward and find our sense of common humanity with others...you can only imagine a choir has songs with lyrics and some of those lyrics may resonate with one person and not so much with someone else, particularly if it's songs that have some kind of a religious connection. However, if we [00:12:00] follow deeply the idea of Ubuntu, we ideally can sing these songs because we're looking at our relationship with the larger communal body when we're singing together.

What do the Oakdale Prison, the Soweto Gospel Choir, and the TV show Friends have in common?

I found a song called How Shall We Come Together by ... Maggie Wheeler. Do you know Maggie? ... on the TV show Friends, Maggie played the role of Janice. The character that would go "oh my God", that's Maggie! ...So, I contact Maggie completely out of the blue to ask permission to use her song. And after a series of conversations, Maggie's like "Mary, you want to use my song in a prison with the Soweto gospel choir? I'm coming to Iowa".

How can a prison choir contribute to prison abolition, to excarceration?

You know, we have 3,144 different stories of prison growth, one for every County. So this imagination that the abolition thinkers are requiring of us needs to [00:34:00] happen at a very local level, and the way that I've tried to apply it through the building class I've started, and through the work we do with the choir is that local space of creating the healing needs to happen internally, each person developing a sense of inner peace building. That's the project, the primary project we do in this class, and in the Oakdale Choir, we've actually done it these 10 years through the writing exchange changes where the choir members write reflective components and they share it with one another and that broadens their awareness of what people are experiencing, what their stories are related to each choir season, the songs we're doing, the original songs that have been created.


Bill Cleveland: [00:00:00] I'm curious, is there something more to singing than just voices moving the melody and the words out into the world? Can the simple act of singing a song together, turn a deeply feared "other" into an "us"? Mary Cohen thinks so, actually, she knows, so because she's been doing just that for 11 years at Iowa's Oakdale Prison.

This is Change the Story, Change the World, a chronicle of art and community transformation. I'm Bill Cleveland.

As you're probably aware the us has one of the world's highest COVID death rates. Sadly, we also bear the distinction of the highest per capita prisoner rate, by far, leaving Turkmenistan, Russia, and China in the dust. The enormity of our prison population, we have a little over 4% of the globe's people in 25% of its prisoners, [00:01:00] make the hidden in plain sight, “what prison problem," attitude of many Americans, hard to fathom.

But not really, because when you look a little harder and check out which communities are most effected by mass incarceration, the undeniable fact is the two thirds of the us prison population are people of color. In Iowa. Where the population is 90% Caucasian. Their per capita incarceration rate for blacks is nine times that of whites.

If there ever was a perfect storm for building an us versus them society, well, that's it. Mary Cohen knows this and has dedicated herself to helping heal this horrible wound. This is no mean task, of course. So, it's a good thing that she's a dynamo, and takes her work inside very seriously as a musician, as an educator and as a scholar. Suffice it to say her prison work is not a side gig. But as daunting as it is, [00:02:00] it's not a heavy lift either. This is because, in addition to being a talented artist, she's a joyful force of nature. But don't take my word for it because she tells it best.

Part One: Finding Ubunto

Hello, Hello

Mary Cohen: here I am. I'm here. I how's Bill today?

BC: Doing good. Good.

MC: [00:02:27] By the way, I'll show you one little picture since I'm changing my backdrop. This is what the Oakdale choir looks like. So, we have the purple shirts are the outside singers, green shirts inside singers, and this is a concert we had in the prison gym back when we got together and sang, in the same room.

Hi. how are you today?

BC: [00:02:54] Well, it used to be, that was a pro forma question. These days it's a [00:03:00] book, Mary, thank you for doing this. I really appreciate it. And so our goal here is just to add your story to the other stories that are being collected in the growing basket of Change the Story, Change the World.

So, I'm going to begin by asking you the simple question that often is complicated, and that is what is it you do in the world?

MC: [00:03:28] That is a simple and complicated question. I think I'm evolving in my answer to that question all the time, especially now. A simple answer might be connecting people and allowing people to express themselves.

BC: [00:03:44] And, connection. By what means, Mary?

MC: [00:03:48] Great question. So, connection through group singing, movement, self-expression, song writing, writing exchanges; sometimes as simple [00:04:00] as I know, 'person a' in Ireland doing this activity, and I know this 'person who's basically is in Canada now. They both are so similar. I think they should meet each other, and I'll send an introductory email. I love doing that kind of thing, and I feel like I'm doing that quite a lot.

The larger connection, to be super specific to career is I'm working on a book. The current draft of the book title is Freeing Silenced Voices: Music Making in US Prisons

Many times, when people hear about the idea of music in prisons, the default thought is, "Oh, great. A program inside a prison. A program to help people who are incarcerated deal with their time". And maybe that is part of what we're doing as Beth said, when you interviewed Beth, we are about transforming the broader society. So when I say connection, it's connecting people who are not in prison to realize we have more in common with people in prison, [00:05:00] than not in common. So how can we do that? Good question. I don't know. we're trying.

BC: [00:05:06] But that picture you showed, which had yellow and purple t-shirts, which designated people from the outside and people from the inside, which is unique in a lot of the work that happens in prison. Art making, as a way for people inside and outside to find common ground. Often, it's an outside instructor or teacher and everybody else is an insider. Talk a little bit about that connective tissue that you build in that choir space?


MC: [00:05:41] First of all, I want to give credit to amazing woman named Elvira Voth. At age 70. Elvira began the East Hills singers in 1995, and in 2002, I was reading the Sunday arts page in Kansas City on notice that the East Hill singers were performing a few miles from my house. And I went to one at a Lutheran [00:06:00] church just out of curiosity, I had friends involved arts in prisons in Kansas. And what she does is she had a group of outside volunteers come the day of the concert to meet a group of men in custody at the Lansing minimum security prison in Kansas. To see the two groups together and think about the philosophy and the general idea of a group of people that have been accused of committing a crime, singing in unison and harmony with people from that community was just... [it] really blew me away. When I decided to earn my PhD at the university of Kansas from 2003 to seven, I spent a lot of time in prison, literally and figuratively examining her project. So coming to the University of Kansas and researching to prepare to start the Oakdale choir, I followed her model.

So to get back to your question, what is it about that connectivity? It was amazing Bill, the first three weeks of the [00:07:00] project in 2009, when the choir began we've always had a reflective writing exchange in addition to singing together and songwriting together. Three weeks into the season, one of the inside singers he said, "being in prison is especially hard for a lot of people because there is so much negativism. I've learned through our practices and meeting people from the outside world that we are human."

 The fact that these people have come in has developed a sense of his self-esteem, with both worthiness and competence. So, I did one research study that examined that because if your self-esteem is only based on competence, and then you don't feel successful at a particular skill, that's not going to help. And if you only feel self-esteem from a sense of worthiness, there's a parallel between narcissism and just [00:08:00] problematic behavior. So, this project has allowed the men in the prison and to find that sense of self-esteem of worthiness and competence both.

And the connections are combined, both the outside and the inside singers, they're all volunteers, but all the people together, basically created our own communal body. By singing together, and the project started in 2009, so this would have been our 25th season because we had three seasons in 2009 and then two seasons every year after that.

I just want to acknowledge and express my gratitude to you, Bill, because you probably remember what I came to Iowa in 2007 and eight, we had a phone call trying to figure out how do I do this? What's the way to make this work? I've shared this with other people, your brilliant suggestion of “Mary don't build a summer camp, build a village.” I took that to heart. And the other thing I want to thank you for one of your articles that you wrote, In the eighties, the article was called Common Sense and Common [00:09:00] Ground: Survival Skills for Artists Going into Institutions. For the first four years of the Oakdale Choir, I had the outside volunteers read that article prior to coming in, to learn how to build them mutually respectful relationships with the people in the prison.

BC: [00:09:15] Thanks for that, Mary, and it's interesting ... When I talk to people that are intensely involved in a practice like you is all of the relationships that are necessary for this to occur in the community that you build so that the end result-- beautiful music and working hard to blend different perspectives, different stories, different voices, together in a way that transcends the significant differences that exist. And actually one thing that I noticed that we haven't common also is this idea of Ubuntu could you [00:10:00] talk about that? I think it's related to what you mentioned in terms of connection.

MC: [00:10:04] Absolutely. Ubuntu Is that beautiful concept from South Africa, meaning a lot of things, a person as a person through other people. Desmond Tutu defined it as, "my humanity is inextricably bound with your humanity". In fact, Kathy Roma in Ohio, she's named one of her choirs Ubuntu. She's been leading prison choirs for over 30 years.

So ubuntu though, I think definitely comes to the idea that we were talking about before, about connection, and that until we can start learning more healing approaches to conflict management, I don't feel like our job's done. We have so many unjust practices in our U.S. prison systems, plural 3,144, one for every County in the country. [00:11:00] So problematic, and the idea that African worldview of our common humanity and learning, and I think it's more than just humanity, it's Gaia, the connection we have with all living creatures in our relationship to mother earth. But we need to know who we are and be at peace with ourselves in order to step forward and find our sense of common humanity with others.

BC: [00:11:28] I am because you are.

MC: [00:11:30] Yeah, that's beautiful. We have a little short one-page article about Ubuntu that everybody, inside and outside singers alike are required to read before they joined the choir, and we talk about it. It's also helped a lot when we were in a situation, you can only imagine a choir has songs with lyrics and some of those lyrics may resonate with one person and not so much with someone else, particularly if it's songs that have some kind of a religious connection. However, if we [00:12:00] follow deeply the idea of Ubuntu, we ideally can sing these songs because we're looking at our relationship with the larger communal body when we're singing together.

BC: [00:12:12] One of the interesting things about my work is that it has led me down some garden paths, also some rabbit holes, and actually some very enlightening places. One of them is evolutionary psychology, in which there's a growing thesis that humans made what we call art before we had language, and that it was likely, vocal.

I have a story in my head that the first miracle was when two voices came together, or maybe three, and created, harmony, and that once people tasted that delicious thing, they couldn't not do it, [and] then it [00:13:00] did two things. It created, beauty in the world that was codependent, and it intrinsically, physically, psychologically, and spiritually connected those voices. And there wasn't a whole lot of debate. It just happened. So when I think about your choir, I'm thinking that you are many eons beyond that moment. You are replicating that same miracle in the same spirit and with the same power that existed way back then.

MC: [00:13:33] I love that idea of beauty being codependent. That's like a beautiful illustration of Ubuntu through voice. Connecting and singing together and making that connection and whether or not it's unison, dissonance, not even tuned together. We have some, we have some healing to do in the profession of music education. We need to acknowledge [...]. I tell you [00:14:00] this morning in my research, by the way, I read the last chapter of the book, Art in Other Places, I've got the copy right here, and wow! The person you interviewed Rebecca Rice. What she described with theater was so empowering, all answers are right.

There are a couple music approaches that have that music for people is one music for people has a guideline. There are no wrong notes, every note lives with every other note in the universe. So, your story of voices connecting together. That's when we have the space. Boy, and there's another beautiful podcast, angel Kyodo Williams interview with Krista Tippett. Angel Kyodo Williams has that beautiful message of the idea of love creating a space that we can make that loving connection with others that have different views than us, and so [00:15:00] again, back to that symbolism of voices coming together, whether they're in unison and connecting slightly dissonant, or some kind of a harmony creating the space for that to happen. And I'd come back to that idea of music education. I am a believer currently we have some healing to do, and that we need to realize there are multiple ways of making music that are more healing, more empowering of everyone.

There's so many times that. We've grown up as musicians, music teachers have said, that's the right way to do it. That's the wrong way to do it. I'm still, in progress here, and we hear that the choice we made was the wrong choice in a, in an artistic space. That's dis empowering in a way that can be really harmful and hurtful. Given the need for healing and wellness right now with COVID [00:16:00] and with all of the outcomes of COVID, I think there's a vital need for music and educators, maybe other arts facilitators to empower.

By the way, speaking of arts facilitators that empower. My colleague at Boston University, Andre de Quadros, has created a brilliant program at two Massachusetts prisons called Empowering Song. It's a brilliant model of this, and it's going to be a highlight of chapter six of the book because he's done it. He uses Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed, as a theoretical framework for what he's doing and it's just so amazing. So, I'm happy that there are some samples and ideas and examples of music educators following a more empowering approach to teaching.

BC: [00:16:51] Well, connecting dots. my colleague, Sandy, Augustin....

MC: [00:16:55] Did she interview? because I think I heard hers too where you talked about Augusta Boal...

[00:17:00] Yes.

BC: [00:17:00] And it's, there's a fairly common through line among and between people in lots of different disciplines that is this. Democratized idea of an art form that is not just led d irected, but in fact is a manifestation of the collective and Boal personified that in his practice along with Palo Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed, just the idea that this is collective work.

Part Two Finding Joy.

So I'm going to segue now, one of the questions, probably the most important question for a podcast called Change the Story, Change the World is there a story that rises up for you that really encompasses or personifies what it is [00:18:00] that you're up to, and particularly this idea of altering the trajectory of a...

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Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation