May 31st, 2018
Three choral organizations show how united voices can make a difference for themselves and their communities.
When choruses come together in song, the sound can be breathtaking. When those same voices come together around a common purpose, beyond the creation of art itself, the results can be equally powerful.
Choruses and civic engagement go hand in hand—as Chorus America’s Chorus Impact Study found, people that sing in choruses are more likely to vote regularly and support community organizations with both their money and their involvement as volunteers. Yet marshaling these qualities in support of a focused cause still can be daunting. Chorus leaders may be called upon to learn new organizational skills, expand their network, and muster fresh courage, among other tasks.
The causes that motivate choral advocacy take many forms, ranging from civil rights and social justice to educational opportunities or a chorus’s own financial vitality. For this story, we examined the advocacy experiences of three organizations that faced these challenges, worked to unite the voices around them, and pushed for change.
In 2013, the Chorus of Westerly, Rhode Island, helped create a bold, state-wide advocacy effort to secure funding for the renovation of its historic concert hall home, a project that represented both a huge potential boon for the organization itself and an opportunity for economic and cultural growth for the greater community.
Advocacy for Houston’s Parker Elementary Music Magnet School focused on preserving a wide-ranging music program that features choral instruction for third- through sixth-graders. When a threat to funding arose last year, parents and community members took action, fighting to preserve both the program’s financial integrity and the positive opportunities that they see it create each year for hundreds of students, many minority and underprivileged children among them.
The efforts of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) represent a different sort of advocacy, one responding to social concerns central to the organization's mission. In the wake of the divisive 2016 presidential election, the chorus embarked on the Lavender Pen Tour, a series of performances, meetings, and workshops specifically designed to promote understanding and acceptance. The tour focused on southern states that had gained national attention for laws widely seen as discriminatory against LGBTQ+ citizens, and sought to counter what chorus leaders identified as troubling national trends.
Varied as these examples may be, they share common themes, among them, courage, organizational prowess, and the willingness to delve into unfamiliar territory. Neither the Parker Elementary nor the Chorus of Westerly communities had engaged in such forms of advocacy prior to these activities. And though advocacy has been part of the lifeblood of the SFGMC since its founding in 1978, the tour was a larger endeavor than the chorus had ever attempted before.
Here are just a few of the lessons these three organizations learned along the way, strategies that choruses can use to empower their own advocacy efforts.
Identify Organizational Passion and Harness Enthusiasm
No one who’s spent time around choral musicians would be surprised to see them display passion for music or the causes they love. So the challenge lies less in persuading chorus members and their supporters to engage in advocacy than it does in channeling their energy to achieve the greatest possible impact—focusing on what each chorus community is truly, fiercely passionate about and designing advocacy outward from there.
After the 2016 presidential election, leaders of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus felt their mission to “inspire community, activism, and compassion” compelled them to respond to the change in climate they perceived. “We knew that, nationally speaking, things were not going to get better for the LGBT community, and would probably get worse,” says SFGMC executive director Chris Verdugo. “It was a moment for us to think about how we could move the needle, support our sisters and brothers, and tell our stories. We originally had plans to travel internationally, but we thought that this was the perfect moment in history to change our plans and fulfill our mission in our own country.”
The chorus chose to focus its attention, and tour dates, on Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and the Carolinas—states that had become battlegrounds over legal issues related to gay adoption, freedom to marry, transgender discrimination, and beyond.
“Telling our stories is one of the most important things that we as a community could do," says Verdugo, citing legendary San Francisco politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk: “'Tell your story and let people see the humanity in you.’ That’s what we did throughout our concerts in 23 different locations, including church events, interfaith services, and five major concerts.”
It was enthusiasm from within the SFGMC, harnessed and directed by chorus leaders, that drove the entire tour, Verdugo continues. "From the minute it was announced to the singing membership, 200 singers raised their hands" and committed to doing whatever was necessary to make the journey happen, he says. Tours of similar scope usually take years of planning and fundraising, but the SFGMC pulled it off in nine months.
In Spring 2017, Parker Elementary’s district threatened funding cuts that would essentially cripple the school's music program by making it impossible to pay the dedicated teachers vital to its success. Under Title I, “over half of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch," says parent-teacher organization president Kelly Lewis. "I don’t have a parent body that can pour money into this school and offset what the district takes away."
Parker leaders immediately began spreading the word about the looming threat to a music program that Lewis describes as something precious and incredible, a resource that Parker students are truly fortunate to have. “The kids at our school are amazing and they perform at such a high level,” adds Marianna Parnas-Simpson, who has directed Parker’s choruses for 18 years. “This sort of music education goes very deep and touches everything in our lives, and the kids understand this concept.”
According to Lewis and Parnas-Simpson, students, families, and community allies alike already shared a deep passion for the program. When the funding cuts were first proposed, they expressed equal levels of outrage and desire to act. “We will always fight for these kids and the benefits you can see so clearly,” affirms Lewis, who praises the program's ability to teach not just musical excellence, but discipline, cooperation, and personal responsibility. The reason behind the passion—and the drive to fight that it ignited? “We know what we have to lose.”
Take Advantage of New Technology
When it comes to organizing for advocacy efforts, email and messaging apps, as well as social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, can be priceless. It’s a lesson that Parker Elementary knows firsthand.
“The moment we were notified about the potential cuts, we started a social media campaign all over Facebook to parents and friends in different areas of the community who could be vocal for us,” says Lewis. Parnas-Simpson also published petitions via Facebook and encouraged her friends and colleagues in the choral field from all around the country to sign. Organizers began to see momentum build as their announcements were reposted and “liked,” Lewis says. And offline, word came back that community members had become aware of the issue via Facebook, which she describes as "very popular with parents, particularly moms in our area."
Data and statistics—already used extensively in local and national political operations—can also boost the advocacy efforts of choruses. For the Chorus of Westerly, this meant collecting and analyzing audience and financial data to craft economic impact reports. The goal? To demonstrate just how significant a financial force the chorus—and the coalition as a whole—could be, both for Westerly and for the greater Rhode Island community. "When we first started telling people about the bond and our renovation goals, they would say, 'That's wonderful. We would love to support your buildings and organizations, but why should we do this?'" says chorus executive director Ryan Saunders. "Our chorus needed a way to answer that question and really demonstrate the value that the bond would have for the community."
Saunders recalls being blown away by the results of the analysis. "We discovered that the chorus had an average of $1.575 million economic impact on the local economy annually," he says. "We had no idea it was that high, or that what we did stimulated so much activity.” With approval of the renovation, Saunders says projections indicated that the chorus’s annual economic impact would rise to an even more impressive $2.52 million.
The coalition encountered pushback from critics who were nervous about the total amount the state was proposing to borrow in bond funds that year, Saunders says, a number that, including the cultural bond that would support the chorus's renovation, would top $200 million in projects. The coalition's analytics were key in addressing such concerns. "We were really able to respond to all of our critics with good facts, good data, and good plans that were going to impact not just one community, but dozens, and drive tax revenue back into them," Saunders says.
Build a Broad Coalition—And Trust
On its own, the Chorus of Westerly would not have had access to advanced data analytics, but luckily, high-tech help was available from partners. The chorus became part of a new alliance of nine leading Rhode Island arts organizations that collectively advocated for $35 million in state funds for a variety of projects, Westerly’s hall renovation among them.
“We could have just advocated locally to raise one million dollars for our building, and it probably would have failed,” says Saunders, “but by partnering with our coalition and making it a much broader project that could impact the entire state and region, it started to make success for all of us more real and viable.”
To be effective, such a broad coalition must be built on solid bedrock of mutual respect, Saunders advises. In the case of the Chorus of Westerly, this meant trusting partner organizations enough to share valuable data. “We certainly didn’t have the mechanisms to take the data that we’d collected about our audiences and create an economic impact study ourselves, but member organizations of our coalition, the Rhode Island Philharmonic and Trinity Repertory Company, did,” says Saunders, “so we decided to show them our finances, books, audience statistics, and whatever data the coalition needed."
Taking the leap and sharing this information required a fresh take on the situation. “We, and everyone in our coalition, had to realize that we weren’t in competition with the other arts organizations that we were working with,” he says. “We were working together. And by giving them that information, we were contributing to a larger core of knowledge about all of our organizations as whole. Arts build other arts,” Saunders continues, “and you can either collaborate and trust each other or you can fail.”
Emphasize Face Time
These choruses have also found that respectful and positive face-to-face interactions can bolster advocacy efforts. And choruses are especially well equipped for this kind of approach. “The unique thing about a choral organization, whether it’s 20 or 200 singers, is that you have people, built in, who understand what you do and why it’s so special,” says Saunders. “They can be the best advocates out there.”
The decision over funding for the Chorus of Westerly’s renovation, and the Rhode Island coalition's $35 million arts facility bond as a whole, ultimately fell to the citizens of Rhode Island via a public referendum. To have a chance, the chorus and its ally organizations needed to reach as many people as they could, as quickly and effectively as possible.
That grassroots outreach began with a giant collective meeting, during which the board members of every organization in the coalition, more than 100 people in total, learned the ins and outs and the pros and cons of the plan. Saunders upped the momentum within his organization by speaking to chorus members regularly during rehearsal breaks, giving them "an update on what we were doing and why, and giving them materials to show or bring to others," he says. Outreach to members continued via regular emails, which included further updates, promotional materials in support of the plan, and information to be posted on social media, "to help them become advocates," Saunders adds.
“We began to bring in all of our membership and send them out to increase our circle,” says Saunders. “It gave everyone a sense of ownership. It wasn't just board and staff members out there talking with elected representatives—it was people talking about it in their households." Members of the greater chorus community branched outward, visiting Rotary clubs and senior centers to discuss the issue; children changed their social media icons to logos supportive of the campaign. "All of a sudden, we had created a movement,” Saunders continues.
The efforts paid off. Originally, polling pegged public support for the ballot measure at less than 40 percent, but the chorus’s grassroots outreach helped expand the percentage to over 60 for the entire arts bond project.
When Parker Elementary School decided to take action, both leaders and community members emphasized face-to-face interactions as well. Lewis spoke before the local board of education, pleading the case for her school and students—and thanks in no small part to the school's social media and word-of-mouth efforts to connect with parents, alumni, and other community supporters, she was far from alone. The superintendent overseeing Parker was new to Houston and Lewis describes parents turning out in droves to make an impression on him. “They bombarded the superintendent with questions about his intentions,” she says. “It caught him off guard, how knowledgeable and passionate the audience was. It’s easy to assume that parents don’t pay attention, but we showed that that wasn’t the case.”
SFGMC brought an entirely different flavor of face-to-face advocacy to its Lavender Pen Tour, organizing intimate meeting events called World Cafes amid concerts and performances. “We hosted forums to bring together community leaders in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Birmingham, Alabama, in hopes of having discussions about the LGBT youth in their communities, the issues surrounding those youth, and how, as a community, those issues could be addressed,” says Verdugo. He estimates that 50 people, invited by local partner organizations, attended each World Cafe, with participants ranging from local school board members to the first openly gay council member in Birmingham, nonprofit heads and church leaders to LGBT youth. “It was really a cross-section of the community wanting to engage in this conversation, and a lot of people who came seemed to have their hearts opened to a further dialogue,” Verdugo says.
These three organizations have all experienced positive results from their advocacy efforts. The Chorus of Westerly saw its efforts rewarded with the just over one million dollars in funding needed to renovate its hall. Perhaps harder to quantify are the ripples caused by the Lavender Pen Tour, though if capacity audiences, widespread support from regional leaders, stories of positive and thoughtful conversations, and notable fundraising for local nonprofits are any indication, the tour achieved its goal. The Parker community’s sustained outcry helped persuade the Houston Independent School District board to table its proposed budget cuts last year.
But in January, facing a $200 million budget shortfall, the board proposed a plan that would include significant staffing reductions district-wide. At Parker, that would mean the parent-teacher organization would have to raise funds to pay half of the school’s music teacher salaries, according to Parnas-Simpson. Otherwise, she says, “our music program will be destroyed.”
The still-unfolding situation in Houston points to what is perhaps the most important takeaway from these experiences: advocacy is seldom a one-time battle, but rather, an ongoing engagement. A single tour will not resolve complex human rights issues, performance halls and other facilities inevitably require ongoing maintenance, and budget cuts remain a perennial threat for any arts organization. Lewis is encouraging Parker parents to attend and be vocal at upcoming community discussions of the Houston proposal. “We can see that the voice of parents is causing [the board] to slow down and look more closely at the changes they want to make,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that they won’t ultimately make some decisions that have an adverse effect on our school, but we are hopeful that as long as we remain diligent and vocal, we have a shot to protect our programs.” According to Verdugo, SFGMC will maintain open lines of communication with its local partners in the American South in order to monitor progress made and challenges encountered—and plan future Chorus advocacy efforts accordingly.
All of that said, Verdugo believes choral advocates deserve to celebrate their successes. It helps to keep an eye to the big picture, he says. “Progress is never a straight line. We can take three steps forward and two steps back, but the trajectory is one of moving forward and bringing our communities together. That’s the outreach and the power that we as choruses have.”
Michael Gallant is a musician, producer, writer, singer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. Follow him at twitter.com/Michael_Gallant and facebook.com/GallantMusic.