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Seeking Systems Change / Creating New Environments

In 2012, my colleague, Dennie Palmer Wolf and I took on an evaluation of a choral residency program from Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program. Funded through the ArtWorks program at the National Endowment for the Arts, the project offered a chance to explore the impact of ensemble choral music-making on young people living in one of the most uncertain and stressful environments: the juvenile justice system. In two of New York City’s secure detention centers youth aged 13 to 17 sang in a choir under the direction of Pastor Chantel Wright and young adult mentors from Harlem’s Song of Solomon ensemble.

Photo by Julien Jourdes

In secure detention, it is frankly adaptive for young people to be vigilant, hyperactive, and even aggressive, given their past experiences and the potentially threatening and uncertain environment. Thus, to be successful, the choir had to create a radically different and convincing setting where it became adaptive to collaborate, focus, make long-term investments, and fail in front of your peers because you are building new skills or framing new identities. In both facilities, the choir fostered some key accomplishments among young people: high numbers volunteered and persisted to the final performance, earning much needed high school credit, and the incidence of acting-out behaviors — both observed and rated by staff — declined.

But the effects were much more pronounced in one of the two facilities. In that facility, staff supported youth to persist even when performing was hard; peers and staff worked on music outside of rehearsals; and youth turned to their peers as members of their musical and social worlds. In that setting, the choir fostered a microsystem, both during and around rehearsals, where positive social interactions, peer collaboration, and affiliation were recognized and valued, and thus became adaptive.

This pattern of findings challenged us, as evaluators, to think much more systemically. We realized that to have a maximum effect, a program has to re-write the rules of the environment, not just the individual participants. To have an impact, arts-based interventions have to engage all the actors in order to invent and sustain new ecologies where new behaviors can occur, survive, and possibly flourish.

A full report on the project is available on the Carnegie Hall Musical Connections website and from the National Endowment for the Arts that generously funded the work.

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