In 2014, as the Black Lives Matter movement exploded across the news, some interpreted police killings and repression of protests as a new rash of violence against communities of color. But, to quote a young person I heard in a panel discussion last summer, more accurately that summer was when many came to realize that America wasn't going bad, it was going public. There was a litany of names of those who were victims of broken-windows policing, but Michael Brown’s especially stuck out to me. I was a teaching artist at the time, and I remember being fixated on the fact that Michael was not much older or all that different from my students. And as I read books like The New Jim Crow, or Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, I sat in this discomfort, ashamed. Ashamed that I did not know more about the daily realities that communities of color face, even though I worked in programs that predominantly served children of color. Ashamed that I was part of the larger classical music and music education industries, which so often tout their serving under-resourced Title 1 schools, free and reduced lunch students and minority students in their education and community programs, but were silent on the very issues that impacted the communities they claimed to serve.
It was because of this disconnect, and this hope to get more people woke, that we began The Dream Unfinished. The Dream Unfinished is an activist orchestra whose mission is to use classical music as a platform to engage audiences in dialogues surrounding social and racial justice. Each season, TDU sheds light on specific issues within the larger #BlackLivesMatter movement and curates speakers and artistic programming to expand upon these themes. Our inaugural season centered on police brutality and broken windows policing, programmed music by William Grant Still, Leonard Bernstein, and Jessie Montgomery, included Erica Garner as one of our speakers, and featured CCR's Vince Warren as our keynote. Our season last year, titled Sing Her Name, highlighted the intersection of gendered and racial discrimination that women of color face. It included a program of works by Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Ethel Smyth, and Courtney Bryan, and featured Kimberle Crenshaw in its lineup.
This season is titled Raise Your Hand. It focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline, and will feature an orchestra of student musicians playing alongside our ensemble members. While the school to prison pipeline most dramatically manifests itself in the literal displacement of children of color into the prison system, it is also present in other issues of educational justice, such as a lack of role models of color in schools, lack of diversity in classroom curricula, and lack of recognition for student voices. We are confronting these issues through pairing our student musicians with musicians from our orchestra's diverse roster; featuring artists and role models such as conductor Roderick Cox, concertmaster Kelly Hall-Tompkins, and harpist Dr. Ashley Jackson; programming works by composers of color, ranging from the 19th century Afro-French composer Chevalier de St-Georges to living composers such as George Walker; and featuring students in the ensemble, in the premiere of a new work by Evan Williams, and in our keynote address with students from the reForm project.
As an "activist orchestra," we have three major tasks:
We use classical music as a medium to humanize the experience of systemic discrimination. We aspire to make people realize that Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and now Jordan Edwards, were not just rallying cries. They were people, some children, whose lives were lost senselessly, and for whom justice is still due.
We use our platform to draw attention to critical issues - even if they don’t feel critical at the moment. With breaking news coming out of the White House almost every day, it is hard for people to pay attention to urgent issues which may not be in the headlines. The future of our young people is currently at its most vulnerable. While youth incarceration rates are on the decline, racial and ethnic disparities have been on the rise, all while Donald Trump plans on gutting federal funding for education. We need to draw attention to these issues to prevent another Jordan Edwards, or Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin, and to keep our kids from becoming hashtags.
Lastly, we envision a world where the "dream" is finished. Where an activist orchestra is no longer needed because all the orchestras around the country look and sound like ours, and a world where orchestras and other arts institutions look and sound like the communities they serve.
This year, we’re going to make some noise for our young people. We urge you to #RaiseYourHand, too. Hear directly from some of our student musicians in the video below, and if you’re in NYC, join us at our headline event at Cooper Union: bit.ly/raiseyourhand2017
Hear what these kids have to say about the #schooltoprisonpipeline, and then hear them play this June.
Eun Lee is the executive producer of The Dream Unfinished. She writes about how she went from teaching music to producing an activist orchestra, and highlights the orchestra's current work protesting the school to prison pipeline.