To the Man Who Called Us Clowns
OpporTUNEity® Music Program AT…
A year ago, a reporter from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette ran a story on the OpporTUNEity® program at Anna Maria College. I need to take a pause here and repeat the second half of that sentence. That is, the OpporTUNEity® program AT Anna Maria College. OpporTUNEity® is its own brand. Its own entity. And soon to be its own organization. I cannot emphasize enough how important this distinction is, both to me and to the future of OpporTUNEity® Music Connections. Plans are in place to build OpporTUNEity® out as a nonprofit organization that repackages the current model programs in Worcester County and establishes similar partnerships with institutions of higher education across the country. The OpporTUNEity® program AT Anna Maria College currently exists within a larger network of partnerships between OpporTUNEity® and community organizations: the OpporTUNEity® partnership with Worcester Public Schools and Anna Maria College, the OpporTUNEity® partnership with Worcester Housing Authority and Anna Maria College, the OpporTUNEity® partnership with Joy of Music Program and Anna Maria College, and most recently, the OpporTUNEity® partnership with the Worcester County House of Corrections and Anna Maria College. As my current place of employment and the place that helped me birth OpporTUNEity® 2.0, Anna Maria College is currently the most important hingepoint for all of these partnerships but it MUST be noted that OpporTUNEity® is NOT strictly an Anna Maria College program. It is a program offered AT Anna Maria College, in partnership WITH Anna Maria College and many other partnering organizations.
The OpporTUNEity® Program at Anna Maria College is part of a larger network of programs within what I hope will become the vast network of OpporTUNEity® Music Connections.
I think I’ve made my point. Back to my original sentence. The aforementioned article was published a year ago, just a few weeks into the start of the OpporTUNEity® program at Anna Maria College. The awesomeness of this coverage was made more awesome the moment the Anna Maria College OpporTUNEity® student instructors read the article to the kids in the program. They. Were. So. Excited. to see themselves validated and affirmed in the media. So many of the kids in this program live in a space of marginalization. Many of them are maturing more comfortably reinforced as the “bad kid” which prevents them from learning, through experience, what it means to be on the other side of the fence (do I err on the side of boldness and say the side most frequently reserved for privilege? Yes. Yes I do.). Last week, a handful were telling me about all of the detentions they’ve received since starting middle school. So many detentions for what seemed to be so many frivolous things. The kids we work with in this program know how to be “in trouble” and while I don’t doubt that they all wish for a different lot in life (Note: we see very few negative behaviors during OpporTUNEity® programming worthy of detentions), I also recognize that they don’t necessarily know how to “be good.” They’ve not been properly taught. It’s a spiral, this space, and without a village of people rallying around the children and families who reside in communities that are absolutely marginalized, this negative space is perpetually reinforced. Left uncorrected, adulthood happens inside a population of individuals who have spent their entire lives being more comfortable with being “in trouble” then reinforced for “being good.”
I digress. Kind of. The October 2018 T&G article grabbed the attention of the Superintendent of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Department, David Tuttle. David had been trying for close to 10 years to establish a music program at the Worcester County House of Corrections to no avail; every so often, he would latch onto a potential partnership that never gained enough traction to manifest into something real. After reading about the mission of OpporTUNEity®, he reached out to me in the spirit of finding a partner to help build a music program for inmates. And so we spent the Summer of 2019 in meetings, building, planning, negotiating, and finalizing the OpporTUNEity® Songwriting program at the Worcester County House of Corrections. Last week, less than 5 weeks into the program, the T&G covered the OpporTUNEity® program again, this time with a focus on the inmates at the Worcester County House of Corrections. In the spirit of pushing back against all of the folks lashing out against this program on social media (behind the safety their digital screens...often with typos and improper grammar…I address them later in this post…), I need to emphasize what to me is the most important sentence of the October 2019 article:
Martiros said the money that the correctional facility is paying Anna Maria College to run the program is helping to underwrite the expense of their main OpporTUNEity program, which is a nationally recognized, award-winning engagement initiative for underserved youth and children with special needs in Worcester.
Setting aside the fact that the OpporTUNEity® program will not always serve children only in Worcester, here’s how the underwriting aspect of this program works: Inmates make purchases in prison. These purchases translate to revenue for the prison. It is legally mandated that this revenue be used to fund inmate programs within the facility. This money funds the OpporTUNEity® Songwriting program AT the Worcester County House of Corrections. This money is used to compensate the Anna Maria College faculty for their work with the program while also covering administrative fees which help to offset the money Anna Mara College pays Durham Transportation to bus the 40 children enrolled in the OpporTUNEity® program to the Anna Maria College campus on Wednesday afternoons. Put differently, the funds generated through the OpporTUNEity® partnership with the Worcester County House of Corrections provide the resources needed to fund the Songwriting project for inmates AND after-school music programs for children (the majority of whom are being raised in communities alongside many of the past, present, and future inmates at the facility).
It’s cyclic, this program, and how the partnership with Anna Maria College, Worcester Public Schools, and the Worcester County House of Corrections works. It’s also quite Organic. Symbiotic. Reparative. Humane. Transparent. Beautiful. And for the members of the community out there spreading hate on the internet, calling our OpporTUNEity® teachers and student interns “clowns” for the work were are doing with the inmates in this program, I direct you to the sentence I copied from the T&G article and pasted above while also kindly requesting that you look beyond your knee-jerk reactions to the self-selected pieces of content that have you riled up. If you are not working alongside those of us in the trenches living and breathing the mission of the OpporTUNEity® program, you have not earned your platform from which you judge. If you take a second to breathe and focus on the bigger picture, you might gain an appreciation for the rays of light my colleagues and students bring to the recipients of this program, children and adults, every single day. And if these statements aren’t enough to calm the negative emotions swirling inside you, I invite you to continue reading below.
About the Students
I have no doubt that I am going to ruffle some feathers with this post. I am okay with this. I come to this working knowing that what we do is controversial and, while I stand by it, I also grapple with it regularly. I also recognize that there are people who have been victimized by men in the Worcester County House of Corrections who have every right to feel resistance to what we are offering inmates. That said, the men we work with on Friday afternoons with the Songwriting program are predominately men who, in their late teens, went off the rails, most of them because of drugs or gang related activity. These are men who have had one too many DUI’s. These are men who became felons shortly after turning 18. They are men who will be released in less than 2 years. Most felons are not given second chances. They do not get loans. They do not easily get jobs. Reparative experiences are not easily found let alone had. And so when they get released, they slip more easily back into the activities that made them convicts than they slip into opportunities that assist any efforts made to find another way.
The lyrics these men write are often focused on the following conundrum: I love my family but I don’t have the resources to support my family. The street life is how I support my family but the street life is how I end up back in prison which makes it impossible for me to support my family. As they express the impossibility of this situation through music, they also trace the roots of their stories back to childhood, to family, where the majority of them experienced trauma, like the man who recently rapped about the steady flow of heroine in his kitchen as a child, and the others who sing about abuse, neglect, and poverty. Last week, one of the inmates said to another group of inmates after a song performance “I didn’t see a bunch of convicts up there, I saw a bunch of poets.” One can examine this comment from a number of different angles to begin to see its profoundness but to me it speaks to identity. These are men who have spent their entire lives being more comfortable with existing “in trouble” than reinforced for “being good.” They have not been taught to view themselves differently.
As my colleagues and I interact with the men in this program weekly, I am struck by the likelihood that one of the kids we work with in the OpporTUNEity® program with Worcester Public Schools will end up in this same facility in the future. These children are beautiful little souls with passions and minds and talents and limitless potential. But they are also kids who live hard lives and work everyday to find balance between the resilience needed to survive and the desire they have to play. (We provide space for them to play through music.) Racism is everywhere. Poverty becomes intergenerational. Privilege becomes intergenerational. Trauma becomes intergenerational. Children challenged by difficult situations need to be taught how to cope, how to make good choices, and how to follow the responsible path. But when the issues they face are systemic and the challenges become insurmountable, what are they to do?
The American Civil Liberties Union (the ACLU) defines the School-to-Prison pipeline as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” It’s fact. Schools that lack the resources needed to properly support, teach, enrich and coach all students, especially those who present behavioral challenges, experience higher dropout rates. Worse, these schools often develop “overly harsh disciplinary policies push students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system” (ACLU).
Let’s take a moment to play this concept out in an OpporTUNEity® related context. The previously mentioned students in the program who spoke with me about their detentions? They all live in Great Brook Valley. The “Valley”, as they call it, is the housing project in Worcester most notorious for drug activity and gang related violence. And while the Valley has seen a decrease in criminal activity in recent years, this decrease has not been so substantial that it has wiped clean the environmental factors that leave its resident children vulnerable to criminal activity during unsupervised hours after-school and/or hours when accumulated detentions lead to suspensions, drop-outs, and expulsions. “All of these factors increase the likelihood of court involvement” (ACLU).
Let’s take this one step further. The OpporTUNEity® middle schoolers I mention above who are racking detentions all live in poverty. It is a gross misconception that their families “live off the system.” That they don’t work. My experience with the majority of parents of the OpporTUNEity® children is the exact opposite—they work hard, sometimes multiple jobs, just to survive. Minimum wage sucks and the cost of living in Massachusetts is high. As these hurdles accumulate, one major consequence is that many of the children residing in the Valley are left unsupervised for long periods of time after-school in a neighborhood where access to enriching programs is limited and the temptations to engage in more detrimental after-school activities is high. One of the schools we partner with does not have the resources to run programs after school. The kids are dismissed at 1:45 and left to their own devices to fill the time between school dismissal and the start of the next school day. Without community organizations that provide structured activities designed to enrich and engage all children during the after school hours (not just children who come from families that can afford tuition for these types of activities) how can we expect that all children will make the right choices and follow the right path?
Answer: We can’t. Or at least, we shouldn’t. I operate within the paradigm of believing that our world would be a much better place if all youth were provided equal access to quality arts programming. This is where the intersection of all current and future OpporTUNEity® programs and partnerships exist. And, quite frankly, I would much rather exist in a world where ex-cons are released with the tools to express themselves through music than one where they’ve not been provided an opportunity to develop these tools at all.