A conversation with MMI Executive Director Darren Isom

Talk about the development of the in-school strategy.

The in-school program strategy plays a critical role in the success of MMI’s larger youth and community impact strategy.  Key to the success of our work is engaging students in all facets of their lives. And schools, important in any youth’s life, are particularly important for the low-income, underserved youth that we support, as schools can offer a sense of stability, routine, and constant too often absent elsewhere.  That sense of constant and routine, although an asset, is also a challenge: people have a very strong perspective of what should and shouldn’t be included in the school day and, more importantly, what role traditionally non-academic activities like sports, music, or the arts play in the school day.  So as we thought about our work, we wanted to position music engagement as an important creative youth development tool that youth should be able to participate in and benefit from within the school day – not just as an after-school and summer-type extended learning activity, something just as valuable and important as traditionally academic subjects and activities. Our work became about positioning music engagement within the school day, as a critical part of the school day, and as an imperative for youth learning, education, and growth; and our in-school program strategy became our way to do just that.  So with that, our strategic question and mandate became: “How do we normalize music engagement within the school and ensure that it happens consistently and in a way that’s relevant and high quality?”

Additionally, we saw our in-schools music engagement work as a unique opportunity to bridge the school and community culture. Schools, particularly middle and high schools, have lost a lot of their community connections over the last 50 years. Schools used to be community hubs, existing as a place to demonstrate and showcase the community.  Now, too often, schools are isolated from the communities in which they sit, with limited interaction or connection.  And the music happening in the schools is often disconnected from the rich musical culture of the community – so we wanted to make sure that whatever was happening musically within the schools was somehow connected to and a reflection of what was happening musically within the communities. This is how music fellows came into the fold as critical programmatic ingredients. Our music fellows are community members with a community perspective of music and a strong connection to the youth and families that we serve. Many of our music fellows have worked with youth in after-school and summer spaces in the past, but few of them had actually ventured into the schools. Although they had strong experience working with, mentoring, and teaching you, schools were made to seem “off-limits.”  So our music fellowship program became a great way to bring these skilled community music advocates into the schools and in doing so reshape the conversation about what effective learning looked like in a school and how music and the arts in contributed to it.

What challenges came up around the implementation of the strategy?

As we thought about the work and the number of schools we wanted to reach within the initiative, we had a fairly aggressive goal; we wanted to get to some 60 schools in four or five years. And there was a spectrum of schools from a “will and skill” perspective – from those schools that got the importance of what we were trying to build to those schools that didn’t get it and weren’t good at it, and everything in between. We started with the schools that got it and were pretty good at it. They understood the importance of this work. Many of them already had music programs or were looking to grow new programs. In a pilot year, you work with those who are strong, not to strike where it’s hot, but to demonstrate best practices and proof points as you look to grow your work across the spectrum.  So our work became not only about working with the schools who got it and were good at it and making them really good at it, but about diversifying their programs to offer different paths to success that would translate and ring relevant across the spectrum of schools. In doing this, we would build momentum at the beginning and would very quickly be able to develop different paths to impact. Starting early in the work, we also did a lot with the parent-teacher-principal cohort – they’re basically our in-house advocacy group. We knew that these were the folks who were able to articulate to the school community the value of this work better than we ever good. So we involved and continue to involve them in the development and outreach efforts.

Most importantly, I’m grateful for the wealth of community engagement we did in developing our work.  Strategies are living documents and the best ones course correct to better incorporate and address what you’re learning and the imperatives you were offered during the community engagement portion of the strategy development process.  A lot of our strategic imperatives came out of the parent, student, and community focus groups, interviews, and working sessions conducted at the start of the process. I can remember specific quotes from that process.  Musicians saying, “I would love to be involved in the education conversation – no one’s ever asked me,”  or “They’re doing interesting stuff in this school. It’s not the same stuff we’re doing in the community but I’m glad the kids are learning what they’re learning in the schools, too.” I remember a parent begging me, “Whatever you do, can you please not just choose one kind of school? My kids leave the house and they go to school, ‘what type of school?’ that’s your distinction, not mine.”  This quote is one that stays with me as I think about the work and look over the portfolio. I find myself asking, “We’re doing a lot of charter schools. Are we dealing with the regular public schools, too? Have we gone to the parochial schools?” Not only do I want to offer opportunities to all kids, but I want to make sure that we’re creating best-practice examples. As we think about growing the work, success is being able to grow the work in a way that we can demonstrate to different types of schools that this work is relevant, important, and achievable for them.

How has the strategy evolved since the launch of the Music Engagement Teaching Fellowship?

You know, the in-school piece actually hasn’t evolved that much, maybe because it was already pretty flexible in how we were thinking about the work. There was a lot of space for it to evolve as a part of its implementation. I think that as we initially thought about the work, we wanted to reach middle school and high school students. We wanted to be thoughtful about the programs we were offering – we wanted to make sure they were broad and diverse. We wanted to be able to build on things that existed in the schools if they did exist, and offer opportunities for them to expand — and all of this is happening, mostly as planned. However, there have been a few surprises.

We always wanted to be fairly music-agnostic. Everything from classical to rap, gospel, soul, jazz – whatever the musicians had to offer, we wanted to make sure it had a place in the schools we partnered with. I was actually quite worried whether our hip hop artists and our music producers would be seen as relevant or worthy by the schools that had more traditional or classical orchestral bents to music education. What I’ve found, however, is that there is huge interest for these musicians, often by schools that in the past had more traditional music programs. Schools understood the importance of music in developing a culture within a school, and also, in connecting with the students. So if hip hop and a hip hop artist would make the students more focused and more interested in music and as a result what’s happening outside of the music class, they were all for it. So, the demand has been strong and steady. This was a pleasant surprise for me.

I also did not expect our musicians, who are full-time professional musicians, to become so engaged in the city’s youth-development and engagement conversation. From the work in the schools to how many of them have also found places to support the youth in neighborhood organizations and spaces – they have truly proven themselves to be true *community* fellows. It shows that the musicians in this city are very organically connected to the city’s youth and communities. It also shows that musicians by nature of their training as musicians are able to train others quite well – not just musically, but in life by acting as coaches and mentors. I’ve been very impressed. Our goal was to engage fellows for two year tenures, but folks want to stay for a third year. So that’s been very interesting and pleasing to see the level of buy-in and how in some ways, we’ve assembled a whole community of musicians who gig musically and also have a very strong passion and skill for community and youth development.

Is there anything else driving this in-schools strategy we haven’t touched on?

I think that as we’ve thought about music engagement and music education, we’ve also had some other underlying goals that are less articulated but kind of inherent in what we’re doing. Very often you’ll visit schools, often schools that are perceived as best-practice schools and they are joyless places. They have silent halls and silent lunchrooms and honestly, that’s just not how I was educated. I loved school. School was fun. School was loud. You are constantly being hushed everywhere else in life – at least schools allowed you to be loud, to be free, to be youthful, to have fun. And I think this simple belief, that having fun is a value, is important to me in life and work.  A very important part of our work in bringing music engagement and arts to the schools is ensuring that we’re producing a culture that’s fun, exciting, and warm for kids – the world could benefit greatly from an increase in joy, no?

Darren Isom is the Executive Director of Memphis Music Initiative. Prior to leading MMI, Darren was a manager with the The Bridgespan Group where he was a strategic advisor to nonprofit and foundation leaders in youth and community development, foundation strategy and education policy. A seventh generation New Orleans native, Darren is a graduate of Howard University, Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, and Columbia Business School’s Institute for Nonprofit Management. He is also an activist around issues concerning disconnected youth and LGBT communities of color.