Kids have a reason to sing with University outreach program

Cully Gallagher

At the beginning of an after-school rehearsal, a singer stands in front of the choir and lights a candle, reciting the CitySongs mantra. Some of the kids scoff, but others call out with him.
“This candle stands for our potential and possibility for the future,” they said in unison.
CitySongs, a University outreach program, is a choir made up of kids ages eight through 15 from all over the metro area. The group rehearses twice a week and gives 20 concerts every year. The 35-member choir is open to all kids, free of charge and without an audition.
Chris Love, a seventh grader, said, “We learn how to sing, and it gives us something good to do after school, so we’re not doing drugs, or in a gang.”
Dr. Helen Kivnick, associate professor in the University’s School of Social Work, founded CitySongs in 1992 with the idea of using music to “develop strengths in a robust way, the first time around. We try to build bridges … The opportunity to sing together is one of the few activities made for cooperation. It gives them a chance to play together on the same team, instead of facing each other on opposite sides of a volleyball net, on opposing teams … or opposing gangs.”
As a developmental psychologist, Kivnick believes that close-knit communities provide the care and support kids need to develop. “But when community life falls apart, there aren’t those connections with each other.”
One of the goals of the program is to broaden and reinforce the kids’ sense of community, to “make the difference between what they have and what they need.”
Noting that 40 percent of juvenile crime occurs during kids’ unsupervised after-school hours, Kivnick said that CitySongs provides support for kids who need structured activity.
The program employs a social worker and recruits mentors to work one-on-one with kids having trouble at school or at home. But, Kivnick said, “They’re not here to deal with their problems. They’re here to build their strengths.”
Building strength starts with learning to make good music. The choir tackles a variety of music, including pop, soul, rap and spirituals. During their Tuesday rehearsal, the CitySongs kids sang “Lean On Me,” “I Believe I Can Fly,” “Reach” (the 1996 Olympic theme) and a South African spiritual.
Dona Ailabouni, a first-year biology student at the University who started working with CitySongs this year, said the group’s repertoire “raises awareness of problems in society, and encourages kids to try to change the world.”
As the kids learn the songs, the directors make sure they understand the messages of hope and love that they are singing about.
The kids have also collaborated with local and international musicians to create original compositions. They helped write the lyrics to several songs they recorded on an album in a professional studio last year.
Every year, the program gives concerts in schools and community centers all over the metro area. They have worked and performed with members of the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Choir members are exposed to positive role models when they meet and perform for people. Their audiences have included: an African-American juvenile court judge, the news crew from KARE-TV, an African-American state Supreme Court justice and poet, author and activist Maya Angelou.
They perform often at the University, giving the kids a chance to meet faculty members and students. After a recent concert on campus, each singer got to pick out a book donated by local book stores and community groups as a gift.
The CitySongs experience stresses kids’ potential for achievement, including rewarding careers and a university education. “We’re part of the University precisely so they will be part of the University,” Kivnick said.
It’s hard to say now whether Kivnik’s long-term goal will be a success. That could only be answered, said Kivnick, “if we can catch the kids when they are 20.”
The uncertain success of community outreach programs like CitySongs bothers some people.
But Ailabouni said that positive results aren’t always immediately tangible. “We don’t teach the kids to add and subtract. It’s more indirect. In order for someone to even aspire to go to college, they need to build up their self-esteem,” she said.
Love and James Gates, who joined CitySongs together three-and-a-half years ago, get a big boost out of the concerts, “especially if it’s a big crowd,” said Gates, making a sweeping gesture with his arms. “It just spreads out. We have fun.”