‘The value of each other’: VCU students, RVA Street Singers pair music with social justice

A choir and band performs on a stage.
VCU students and members of the Richmond community at a past RVA Street Singers performance. (Steven Casanova, School of the Arts)

Colette Daley fell in love with Music and Social Justice when she took the course two years ago. She returned to the class every subsequent semester in some capacity until she graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University last month.

“I really got into the class. They asked me to be a service-learning teaching assistant so I came back and did that for two semesters,” said Daley, who also volunteered with the class last spring and graduated in May with a degree in sociology.

Daley is one of approximately 22 students and alumni who have taken Music and Social Justice since it began in 2018. The class — which like many courses has been modified in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic — was designed in conjunction with RVA Street Singers, a choir made up of people affected by homelessness. The idea behind the class is for service-learning students to “get involved, create relationships with community members and build an understanding of, and acknowledge, individual worth and the value of each other,” said Cameron Carter, co-founder of the choir and an associate professor in teaching in the School of Social Work.

As part of the class, students participate in the choir with community members, many of whom have been homeless or have been impacted by homelessness in some way. The two-part course requires participation in the choir as well as a weekly seminar. 

“Students also have additional roles,” Carter said. “They may help with logistics, for example. Some have taken on different projects, such as creating our Facebook page.”

Carter wants students to understand how music can be used for social justice and get a better understanding of systemic issues such as housing instability. The course, she said, is an opportunity to learn more about both. And even during the pandemic, Music and Social Justice remains a way to connect students with the community.

“We use music as an avenue for learning,” Carter said. 

More people and more voices

The class, as well as RVA Street Singers, was created by professor Rebecca Tyree in the Department of Music in the School of the Arts. Tyree served as director until her sudden death in May 2018. In the fall of 2018 Robin Rio came on as director.

Rehearsals normally begin with Rio strumming the chords to the first song on her guitar. At a rehearsal in February, a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the choir to suspend meeting in person, members swayed to the beat of the music as they belted out the Peter, Paul and Mary classic “If I Had a Hammer.” Everyone is comfortable and animated with the routine.  

Students in the class come from different majors and different schools within VCU, everything from social work and biology to political science and journalism.

“Students are invited to return after they finish the one-semester course, and some do because they want to participate in the choir. They have created meaningful relationships and they want to keep them,” Carter said.

Daley was one of those students. She likes the idea of using music as a means of building community. 

“That is something that is really stressed,” she said. “We all come from different places but one thing everyone has is some capability to produce music whether it’s banging on a drum or singing a song. Music connects everyone.”

We all come from different places but one thing everyone has is some capability to produce music whether it’s banging on a drum or singing a song. Music connects everyone.

Before the coronavirus, about 15 community members attended choir rehearsals each week. The choir was formed as a partnership with Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond and VCU’s Department of Music and School of Social Work. Rehearsals had been held every Monday after the lunch ministry at the church. 

At that February rehearsal, one of the male community members in the choir said he enjoys the camaraderie and being with people from all walks of life. “We come together with our voices blending together glorifying Jesus Christ,” he said. “We come together in one accord.”

Another community member who had never sung in a choir before said he appreciated the opportunity to learn how to sing properly. “Since the beginning, I have grown a great deal,” he said. “It has changed me a lot since coming here.” 

Trip to Washington

The choir has performed at Second Presbyterian, and at VCU and community events, including RVA First Fridays. Last September, the singers traveled to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington to perform at a festival for the opening of the center’s REACH campus. Recent VCU graduate Maryum Elnasseh was taking the course at the time. 

“It was only the second or third week of class. We took the bus to Washington. It was exciting to be there with everyone,” said Elnasseh. “It was a good bonding experience. I got to know a lot of the other choir members.”

The choir has become a comforting space for both students and community members, Carter said.

“The community welcomes students,” Carter said. “I have been impressed that community members are invested in students’ lives. Genuine relationships are made in that space.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have not been allowed to participate in the choir but the church has still been providing meals for the homeless and Rio has volunteered to give out meals. While the choir can’t rehearse at the moment, Rio plans to do some individual work with two of the long-term choir members.

“It’s all very different now,” she said. “I’ve started experimenting with a virtual choir, but I don’t know how it will work out because everyone would have to have internet access.”

She hopes to be able to record members of the choir individually and put the recordings together digitally. She recently began virtually recording members singing the choir’s original song, "Unity."

During the second half of the spring semester, students in the class connected on Zoom and participated in projects on grant writing, Rio said. The class has made Daley more mindful of issues within the Richmond community “and the lack of resources we have,” she said.

“I see with every new group of students their growth from their entry into the choir to the end of the semester and how much they have learned and how those barriers have been broken down.”

Elnasseh has more awareness now of what people with hardships have been through. Last year, when she would normally be excited about the possibility of snow, she realized it would cause hardships for the homeless. 

“That was my first thought,” she said. “I felt an extra sense of empathy while I was taking the class.”

Carter works hard to honor Tyree’s original intentions for the choir and the class. 

“I think we have done that,” she said. “We have gotten a lot of people involved who are really invested.”

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