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
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...
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 person's story or worldview?
MC: [00:18:09] So you want to hear a story?
BC: [00:18:10] Yeah. Tell us a story.
Okay, okay, I'll tell you what. The story that kind of represents aspirations for this idea of connection. The story I'm going to share with you is a personal story, I'm going to share a story about me and the choir that relates to this topic.
So in my family. I'm the youngest of six children and the ages are spread quite a bit. My oldest sister is 16, one six, 16 years older than me. So growing up, Judy and I were the ones that spent lots and lots of time together. She was my role model in everything from learning to teach group fitness, to earning a PhD, to taking piano lessons.
Judy was a professor at the university of Maryland Baltimore County. She also loved dogs. She had two German Shorthaired [00:19:00] pointers, one named Brunhilda, and one named Zigfreed. So, she was taking Bruny and Ziggy one said Sunday morning in May 20th, beautiful sunny day. She lived in Washington, DC and was traveling East on the Baltimore Washington Parkway six in the morning, the sun blinded her view of someone who had become drowsy and fell asleep behind the wheel, cross the midline and right into Judy's car head first . Judy graduated to the next realm and so did Bruni immediately in the accident.
First person in my whole life that died. I was blessed whatever, life's process happened that I never experienced deep grief ever. My parents were both alive. I never had a friend that died. I was, it was pretty much a big privilege there, having that experience of kind of being shielded from grief because grief is so intense. In fact, that weekend, my husband, I were in Chicago and I just attended a Story Catchers, [00:20:00] theater performance. Driving home or my husband had brunch, you get the phone call about the accident and blown away, completely blown away the week after. That happened. A lot of Judy's friends had a celebration of her life. They wore tiaras because she used to dress Bruni up in tears. They served pie, she loved pies, and ice cream and they had these little bracelets that said WWDD, "what would Judy do?" , and the answer on this little bracelet was find the joy.
So, I received a bunch of those bracelets, shared them with all my family and decided I needed to write a song titled "Find the Joy". Bill, most of the songs I'd written previous to this... a few times I wrote my own lyrics, but usually I love taking other people's lyrics and creating a song from them.
So, I took that idea, find the Joy, went through a lot of different theory, counseling and whatnot. To unpack. How do you find joy when you [00:21:00] are in the midst of grief? Deep grief. So, I wrote the song, so this the next fall, and then the following spring of 2013. The theme of the prison choir concert was mourning is broken M O U R N I N G. Mourning is broken. We learned the song. Throughout that season, as we were learning the song, the words it starts out with verse one: How do I find the joy in brick walls block my path? How do I find the joy when I'm living through the aftermath? The chorus, where is the joy of searching for the joy?
That was really what was going through my mind. I was really struggling with what was happening. Purpose of life, I mean I collected. Can you believe it? I still have it. I collected a bibliography about books, about life after death. I wanted to know what was going on with my sister. Where was she?
What does this mean to be on the other realm? Other side of the realm. As we were learning the song one day we were walking [00:22:00] out of the prison and an outside volunteer singer named Kevin Coomber said to me, Mary, you know what? On your song, Find the Joy. He said, I think you don't ever have to actually go out to find the joy. The joy is always within us. We need to pause to feel it. And it was the biggest aha, where I had been told that so many times "look within, find peace within, find joy within". Something about Kevin telling me that on the walk out of the prison just clicked and that is something, it's a process. It's not like we find the joy inside of us and then it's always, there we go through these. Do you know, how do you balance what's balance? We're always in motion, even a pendulum that finds balance in the middle swings to one side and then swings back to the other side.
So, I'm really still reflecting on that and that whole idea of [00:23:00] finding peace within. Has been a cornerstone to a course I've created at the university called Peace Building, Singing and Writing in a Prison Choir. I've gotten to teach that class two times at the prison and hope to do it in the spring, but not quite sure how that's going to happen.
MC: [00:23:17] So the story is. Finding the joy it's here within finding the peace it's within. But how do we find that?
And the other part of the story was, after reflecting on what Kevin said, I changed the end of the song and told the story to the whole choir and so at the very end of the song, we changed the phrase to, "we pause, to feel the joy". That's an element of the communal voice and the process of taking an original song with people, creating it together, and the n tweaks like that come from. The conversations people have with the song or the writing reflections [00:24:00] people have about the song.
BC: [00:24:03] One of the things that Beth Thielen points out is [that] we build little narratives in our head about who's who and where they are, and most people probably think people in prison are in a bad place and I have a life path that is better. Beth of course turned the tables and basically said, Oh, what we're facing now in the world is daunting and challenging and very complex, and every time I go into prison, I encounter people who are a lot further along the path of answering the kinds of questions that we're facing in our world, and if there ever was an expert on where to find joy in a fairly sterile place it's people inside. That [00:25:00] you have to be a resourceful self-generating force in the world, if you are going to keep your soul intact when you're inside these institutions.
So, is that song a continuing part of the repertoire of the choir?
MC: [00:25:22] I don't know yet. We've created 159 original songs, so as far as using Find the Joy again, it really would depend on the ideas of the group and what they think is appropriate. I've shared it with a number of people I know who are going through grief, and it's on the choir website, there's a link for performances. You can go back and listen to quite a few years of those songs.
BC: [00:25:45] Part Three. Choosing Change.
Um, If you wanted, let's say right now, to share a piece of music with people who are listening, what would it be?
MC: [00:25:59] Oh, I'll [00:26:00] share another one of the most powerful musical experiences we've had- I've had in my career was this event that we did called Changes we Choose, which was a learning exchange with the Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa, Maggie Wheeler and Sarah Thompson.
BC: [00:26:19] And where was that? And was that connected to the prison program or?
MC: [00:26:22] It was inside the Oakdale Prison, and it was in the gym, like we would do most of our concerts. The Soweto Gospel Choir were coming through Iowa city for a performance. And it was. Beyond amazing. When the gospel choir got up to lead songs, we were all on our feet, moving and dancing and Sarah Thompson, she's a beautiful song singer songwriter from Duluth Minnesota. She led some songs where we were all doing movement. And then another really, probably one of the most powerful stories for this event, I found a song called How Shall We Come Together by brilliant. [00:27:00] Brilliant with every letter, capitalized woman, Maggie Wheeler. Do you know Maggie?
Do not know Maggie?
BC: [00:27:05] No.
MC: [00:27:06] You might know her and not know, you know her, so on the TV show Friends, Maggie played the role of Janice. The character that would go "oh my God", that's Maggie!
I came across the song from Maggie, how should we come together? And it was that tear response. Whenever I get that and that huge emotional connection to a song, I'm like, that will work for the Oakdale Choir. So, I contact Maggie completely out of the blue to ask permission to use her song.
Music: [00:27:35] How shall we come together?
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".
So she, he came from Los Angeles and connected with Sarah and she led us and it was just, it was back to my theme at the beginning connection.
And the fact that her song is titled, how shall we come together? And then [00:28:00] boom, we're all gathered together in this event, this learning exchange. So at one point we all sang together. At one point in the event, I facilitated a conversation about that theme Changes we Choose.
During the conversation part of it, everybody was connected with another person. And I remember getting some emails back from a guest that was there from Wisconsin who interacted with someone in the Soweto gospel choir, and according to some of those emails, there was some idea about starting some kind of a special choir program back in South Africa. One of the gospel member's siblings was dealing with addiction and so seeing the model, when you physically will walk in and see the inside and outsiders singing together, sometimes for some people that'll spark ideas like, Oh.... Because that's really the model that you could apply to many other places.
BC: [00:28:56] One of the things that I think we take for granted [00:29:00] that may in fact, not be something that people who are listening recognize, or maybe even have a question related to, and that is you have a room, a gym, let's say, chairs, outsiders and insiders. They've gotten to a point where the song is coming together. What's happening for those people when those voices merge, connect, parts manifest?
MC: [00:29:39] So it's hard to know for sure what's happening. Sometimes in a choir rehearsal, we'll be doing activities like babbling from interplay, and everyone's gonna have a different experience with that. Some people will love it, and other people will be extremely scared to be standing the group is pretty big. The last few seasons it's been over 70 [00:30:00] people and so we'll make these big circles, especially at the end with stand in a big circle. We always end every rehearsal and every concert with a song called May You Walk in Beauty. So, what is it like?
May You Walk in Beauty: [00:30:12]
I do know that when I'm in there, and I'm connected with the people that are with everyone together, singing it's a pretty exciting feeling to be... 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.
And I thought that's just a brilliant metaphor for what we should be working toward. And that's that commonality, that sense of we are all people, and we need to come up with some innovative ways of. Creating spaces for healing approaches to conflict management for looking, peace building circles. We need more creative approaches to healing survivors of crime. I'm not an expert on this. There's so much to learn.
BC: [00:31:34] There is. So, the long history you have in the work that you've done, working with prisons is fraught with ethical and moral contradictions, particularly in the U S. Could you talk about how you and your program have navigated the, this complex terrain? [00:32:00]
MC: [00:32:00] When I began the choir at Oakdale, I was digging into the wisdom of other people that had led programs in prisons and learned the value of creating mutual respect with the people that run the prison. So, at that point, in my own thinking, I knew about critical resistance and the critical resistance role of trying to abolish the prison industrial complex, but it hadn't occurred to me yet about what all of the intricacies of abolition meant. So, through the choir project at Oakdale, we worked really hard to build positive relationships and the overarching goal, creating communities of caring, which is a big part of abolition, but the more progressive abolitionists that I understand are looking at being way more imaginative about what a world would be like without prisons. One of the documents I've actually read in the last, maybe [00:33:00] four weeks is a handbook that came out in 1976. Do you know the handbook, Instead of Prisons: An Abolitionist Handbook. So in that book, there's a word that I've been introducing to people or re-introducing Xcarceration, programs and procedures that allow and community to move away from a carceral state. And the examples they give in this book are community mediation centers, for example.
So, we have, tried hard to build those communities of caring, being aware of the hurtful processes that are part of prisons, but also the fact that the complexity of the United States as John Faff argues in his book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration, and had achieved real reform. 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.
What I've come to realize during the pandemic is all these ideas that I have developed with Oakdale choir, now need to be kind of a mixture of flipped and [00:35:00] magnified. Flipped, meaning to really be clear about what's possible with an abolitionists framework when we're talking about music programs in prisons, and so in this book that I'm finishing this last chapter is going to really. Push music educators to think in way more critical ways of what we're doing in our schools. I just came off of a meeting with my entire music education colleague and our graduate students, and the conversation was about performance. Most secondary programs are so focused on getting as many students going to Allstate as possible, and I'm not saying we don't want to be excellent in our musicianship, but what is the deeper need in our world right now? That deeper need is wellness. The COVID virus is teaching us. We have got to realize we're all connected. One person is not better than another person. That's the only way we're going to be able to navigate life on this earth, and then the deeper question, really, Bill is. [00:36:00] Listen to the earth. And what is the earth teaching us?
I mean, this virus really, really is giving us, um, a clear lesson that we need to be open to.
William: [00:36:13] And how do we apply that to prisons?
MC: [00:36:16] It's Brian Stevenson's point of proximity and understanding another person's perspective, and then what about. What's really informing all of the staff working at the prison? What's really informing the administration? What's really informing the American correctional association and what their goals are?
So, we need to step it up. Like Eddie Robertson has a brilliant song called Black Lives Matter. He sang with Kathy Roma's choir's in Ohio and in his song, black lives matter. He says we all can do better. And that's where I am now with the Oakdale Choir is, how can I create the space that the entire Oakdale [00:37:00] family, which includes people that are still in the Iowa DOC system, uh, formerly incarcerated choir members, all the outside singers, family members of the choir, and people who have been to concerts, people who are aware of the research that I've done, how can we really use music to be imaginative and transform? I mean what world do we want to co-create? How can we as musicians and music educators, co-create a space where we have that gracious space to understand that other person's story?
I read a great quote by Confucius that said something to the effect of, if you want to plan for one year plant rice, if you want to plan for 10 years, plant trees, if you want to plan for 100 years educate children. As music educators we need to be thinking for those next 100 [00:38:00] years, the next seven generations. Yes, we want to be great performers. to learn the techniques of being a musician. What about the the deep need for self-healing self-love and that gracious space to connect with others in a way that allows them to be courageous in their self-expression?
Part 4: Finding Intention
BC: [00:38:23] So actually here's an interesting question that ... Your day job is with students that, come to college. If some students are inspired by this kind of work and ... what would you be telling them as preparation for, trying to fulfill the potential of this kind of work?
MC: [00:38:47] I think chapter five of the book I'm writing does get into this in very good detail. And a lot of it is to look closely and find out why, what is your intention? What is your purpose? And really unpack that and [00:39:00] compare that to what the needs are of society at the time that you're trying to plan this project.
So what are the needs of this particular area? Are there needs to make some kind of connection with the prosecuting attorneys, the people that are working in the legal system in your area, the police force. City council. What are the needs of that community and how can you really be a good listener to hear those needs?
Notice what is happening with the racial disparities regarding all sorts of things from the front-end policing to the back-end people in prison, what are some innovative things that are happening? Where can you connect? What are the really organized, productive activist groups in your area? What are they doing? How can you connect with them? There's a lot to learn and to number one, celebrate your own geniusness and celebrate everyone's geniusness that you're connecting [00:40:00] with and how can you celebrate, celebrate success and affirm. That's one of interplays tools, affirmation looking for the good naming, the good being specific about the good, seeing it in yourself and in others, and acknowledging that because I always tell people a wound analogy.
If you have a wound and you keep digging into it, there's no way that wound's going to heal. But if there are ways you can figure out how to heal the wound internally with your diet, with whatever ointment you might need for it getting professional treatment. That's what we need in our social systems. We need to heal the wounds and I hope COVID is finally teaching us our commonality. There's this thing happening on the, across the globe. That's going to teach us. We're all connected.
BC: [00:40:50] The feedback, what you just said, which is to me, one of the most common impulses of people being drawn to this [00:41:00] work is the ideal and an intention leaning into an ideal, and how hard it is to recognize that good intention is not good work. And so this lesson that you just shared, which is make sure that when you burst through the door with your arms open, that there's actually a place there that recognizes your open arms as something that might be valued because there's a possibility, some people might come to choir practice and not be having the best of times because they're not aligned in that moment.
I think this motivation question, "why am I here"? That's probably the most important question that I was asked when I walked inside. Always inevitably someone would say, why are you here? [00:42:00]
MC: [00:42:00] Right? Amen.
BC: [00:42:02] If you've got something to share that we find useful, fantastic, that's great. We're all in this together, but not here to heal you.
MC: [00:42:14] And that question, "why are you here"? That's what anybody going into any career really, ideally, [...]. I think we all need to be exploring and honor that process, affirm ourselves as we're trying to uncover what those vehicles bizarre and say, "Hey, we are all so human. That's where we are. Everyone is".
BC: [00:42:38] Yes, I am because you are.
MC: [00:42:41] right on.
BC: [00:42:42] Yeah.
Mary last , question, the first thing you said was you're a connector. And, if there's anything that has been wounded, okay is all of the unconscious moments that we have every [00:43:00] day in which connection is just a regular part of daily life. And now that's been very intentionally severed in many ways.
My friend, Leni Sloan, who is also one of the, one of the podcast interviewees, talked about , the need for us to come back together to relearn how to do that, under new conditions that you know, it's not the back to normal movie, it is ......
MC: [00:43:31] Any time someone says back to normal, I say let's move forward to better. For me personally I have discovered very recently that I have a big fear of doing something wrong. To the extent where sometimes that might impact the quality of what I'm doing at any present moment. That's not healthy. Maybe moving forward to better for me could be something as simple as acknowledging that I have a fear of doing something wrong [00:44:00] and figuring out how to release that belief system, so when I do anything, whether it's working on my book, teaching grading, someone's paper, advising my PhD, students that are finishing their dissertations and doing research that I can feel grounded, confident, and allow myself to embody the idea of affirmation.
BC: [00:44:25] Absolutely. So, I would like to affirm that it has been a joy, a pleasure to share your stories and your insights. And, as I said at the very beginning, there's a constant process of needing to be reminded of the good part of the human story and these conversations. This conversation was one of those.
And dear listeners, we hope it has been a pleasure for you. So, thanks for tuning in. And thanks to all the members and supporters of the Oakdale Community Choir. And remember [00:45:00] that the show notes for this and all our other episodes includes full transcripts of our conversations and links to all the references and resources mentioned.
Change the Story / Change the World is a production of the Center for the Study of Art and Community. It's written and hosted by me, Bill Cleveland, our theme and soundscape are composed by Judy Munson. Stay safe, stay well subscribed to this podcast and please share it with all your friends. Adios.