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Social Justice + Community Music = Unique Course

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Nika Anschuetz





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On a warm Saturday in January, beautiful sounds – a cappella and digital – reverberated from Iliff Avenue as groups gathered at the University of Denver for a day of music making.

It was part of the Social Justice and Community Music Making: A Community Engaged Learning Course, the brainchild of Marquisha Scott and Aleysia Whitmore.

Scott and Whitmore, assistant professors in the Graduate School of Social Work and the Lamont School of Music, respectively, began by documenting the impact of the Spirituals Project. That community group in the Lamont School of Music is dedicated to preserving and revitalizing spirituals.

Scott, a social worker, and Whitmore, an ethnomusicologist, believed there was more to do. So they spent over a year developing the course. They found community partners eager to join forces with DU students.

“Social workers’ skills are vast. That’s why Aleysia and I created this course. Our class is showing them that,” Scott says.

The course’s first iteration had 17 students from various disciplines.

“We have these very different perspectives. They’re thinking about similar things but coming at them from different perspectives,” Whitmore says.

They broke into four groups, partnering with Denver-based community organizations. In most community organization classes, everything is theoretical. But in this class, students put theory to work.

The course combines both passions of MSW student Kaya-Damali Malik-Knights.

“I love music. That’s why I took the course. I wanted to bridge social work and music and be able to eloquently talk about why I’d be pairing the two,” she says. “It’s a lot about socially engaged arts practice and community arts.”

On Jan. 29, week four of the course, Malik-Knights helped organize a collaborative music- making event on campus, a joint effort by Aurora Sister Cities International, Colorado Music Bridge and the Spirituals Project.

Spirituals Project founder Art Jones taught spirituals to some high school students from Aurora Sister Cities International.

Through masks, students repeated after Jones:

Come on and walk, walk, walk, walk
Walk, walk, with your mind on freedom

“Hey, that’s pretty good,” Jones says.

Back in the ‘60s, he didn’t realize the civil rights movement would make history.

“The biggest thing I regret is I didn’t go to the March on Washington in 1963,” Jones says.

He had just graduated from high school and was working at a local library to help pay for college.

While chants of “Black Lives Matter” or “No Justice, No Peace” are heard at marches today, he’d like more songs to be incorporated into movements.

“In the civil rights movement, the freedom songs were spontaneous. No one said: This is what we’re going to sing when we’re going to Birmingham,” he says.

His memories really made an impression on the students.

“They were excited to hear from someone who was a young person during the civil rights movement. They really felt affirmed,” says Georgia Duran, director of strategy and storytelling at Aurora Sister Cities International.

In the afternoon, the students took what they learned about the spirituals to create digital music with the help of Colorado Music Bridge, which is dedicated to modern music education and mentorship. While CMB led the workshop, Lamont and GSSW students helped their younger counterparts.

Lamont student Sarah Wagner felt comfortable instructing. Before studying at Lamont, she was a classroom teacher.

“In our schools, we don’t have a lot of inherent community,” Wagner says.  “I’m still learning what my idea and conception of community is, what social justice truly is.”

On the ride home, students were notably riding the excitement of the day. They left with the tangible and intangible – a piece of music and a sense of self-confidence.

“DU should be proud,” Duran says. “DU students were present. They were helpful. They wanted to create a positive experience for our students.”