Building Musical Imaginations

by Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Our newest podcast episode, Singing Connected Relationships in Prison Contexts with Dr. Mary Cohen is an exploration of the power of imagination as a part of restorative, redemptive, and community-building work within prison contexts. When the word “empathy” was introduced into the Western lexicon by Robert Vischer in 1873, the notion of empathy was rooted in an imaginative ability to feel into works of art (Laurence, 2015). Rachel Corbett (2016) writes, “Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of ‘losing themselves’ in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them . . . or they lose track of the passage of time” (p. 22). Empathy may be a process of losing the self in the moment to construct new identities and interconnected communities within imaginative space.

Mary Cohen conducts the Oakdale Community Choir

Mary Cohen and Jennie Henley (2018) recently wrote about the imagination of possible selves as “cognitive bridges between the past and future.” As I listened to prison insiders/outsiders offer introductions to concert songs and read stories within the Oakdale choir, I began to understand the power of articulating imaginations in a public space. Many choir members’ spoken introductions articulate who the self is and who the self wants to be. This ritual of public proclamation within a choral concert offers members opportunities to reimagine a new sense of self within the shared accountability of concert space.

Similarly, my earlier conversation with Elizabeth Parker (2018) explored how women’s choirs allow girls to construct new senses of social identity that imagine the possibility of who they are and can become as women. Parker writes that women’s choir participants “felt a sense of mattering” that supported them in literally and metaphorically “opening up my voice and me.” Maybe a sense of mattering is the fertile soil which supports imagination and the development of voice and personhood.

I am also captivated by the interplay of imagination within Mary Cohen’s notion of ubuntu as the work of humanized community building. South African ubuntu is the process of being a person through other persons; a process that engages our imaginative and empathetic capacity to explore, sense, and live into a sense of oneness. Desmond Tutu (1999) articulates that through the oneness of ubuntu, forgiveness reclaims humanness. He says, “What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It [Ubuntu] gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them” (p. 31).

Prominent peacebuilders and theologians have noted the centrality of imagination and connectedness as foundations of empathy and compassion. Bridget Moix (2019) notes that peacebuilders speak of “the ability to imagine new futures as a critical ‘tool’ and a source of ‘power’ in the process of peacebuilding.” Imagination can make hope visible, opening futures of possibility and empowering practices of compassion. The power of artistic or prophetic imagination, according to Brueggeman (1978), is that it allows individuals to lose a sense of numbness and reclaim humanness through awakened senses and emotions. It is for this reason that imagination is one of our three pillars of peacebuilding in our new Master of Music Education program at Elizabethtown College.

This podcast with Dr. Mary Cohen that has challenged the way I think about the role of imagination within identity, restoration, and healing. As arts advocates, we all know of the power of the arts in awakening creative imaginations. The emerging research from Dr. Cohen, Dr. Parker, and the neuroscience of social connection may help us frame our intentions in building selves and connecting communities.

Works cited:

Cohen, M. L., & Henley, J. (2018). Music-making behind bars: The many dimensions of community music in prisons. In B. Bartleet & L. Higgins (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Community Music (pp. 153-171). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corbett, R. (2016). You must change your life: The story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Laurence, F. (2015). Music and empathy. In Olivier Urbain (Ed.), Music and conflict transformation (pp. 13-25). New York: I.B. Tauris.

Moix, B. (2019). Choosing peace: Agency and action in the midst of war (Peace and Security in the 21st Century). New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.

Parker, E. C. (2018). A grounded theory of adolescent high school women’s choir singers’ process of social identity development. Journal of Research in Music Education, 65(4), 439-460.

Tutu, D. (1999). No future without forgiveness. New York: Random House.

About the guest contributor:

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson is director of music education at Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of peacebuilding and music education. As a teacher, he has applied his interests in ethics, spirituality, and peacebuilding to approach music coursework in ways that are rooted within an Anabaptist heritage of peacebuilding, intentional community, and ethical discernment. Dr. Shorner-Johnson’s most recent scholarship will be highlighted in an international book that approaches and critiques the United Nation’s temporal constructions in education policy. His on-the-ground peacebuilding work focuses on building capacity and community within Central Pennsylvania Latina/o communities and using the arts to affirm and embrace the fullness of Puerto Rican identity.

REDEMPTION SONGS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A COMMUNITY PRISON CHOIR – Book Release

Innerworld Publications

San German, Puerto Rico

Iowa City-based writer Andy Douglas’s new book, “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir”, was released on April 1, 2019. For six years, the author volunteered with the Oakdale Community Choir, a performing chorale composed of both volunteers and inmates and directed by University of Iowa associate professor of music education Dr. Mary Cohen, based in a correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa. Taking the reader inside the walls of this medium-security prison, the book offers a glimpse at how music and the arts are offering second chances to the incarcerated.

The United States incarcerates more prisoners per capita than any other country, with more than two million people in U.S. jails and prisons. In addition to exploring the role of singing as a rehabilitative tool, the book examines some of the pressing issues facing the criminal justice system.

In doing so, it reflects on several questions – how can music and the arts inspire prisoners to change? Should the underlying philosophy of our penal system be one of retribution or restoration? What can restorative justice offer to all those touched by crime and the criminal justice system?

Dr André de Quadros, Professor of Music and Chair, Department of Music Education, Boston University, notes, “More than an account of the choir’s work, the book is a deep insight into musical humanity under dehumanizing conditions. Douglas’s work is evocative and thoughtful, deeply compassionate and humble, and brings the reader close to the troubled lives, wounds and hopes of the incarcerated men.”

Andy Douglas received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where he was the recipient of the Marcus Bach Fellowship for Writing about Religion and Culture. His first book, The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga, was published in 2013 by Bottom Dog Press. He is available for readings, and review copies available upon request.

      

TO ORDER: The book is available from Amazon.com (including ebook), in selected bookstores, and directly from the author. To support the author, order directly from him! Pre-order by sending your mailing address, $16, plus $2.75 for shipping and handling, to Andy Douglas, 2721-D Muscatine Ave, Iowa City, IA 52240. Or send your info to andy.c.douglas@gmail.com and pay by paypal. A percentage of sales will be donated to Inside Out Reentry Community, a returning citizens support organization, and should you wish to donate any amount above the $16 cover price, this will go to the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance.



A Perspective on the Texas Arts for Justice Forum

By Johnathan Kana

He calls himself “a musician with a message”— and for good reason. A few pithy lines from SaulPaul’s rousing performance at the Texas Art for Justice Forum perfectly encapsulated an entire day’s worth of thought-provoking dialogue:

Ain’t no way around it,

If you’re tired of the same,

And you want to make a difference,

It’s time to BE THE CHANGE.

The award-winning, formerly incarcerated hip-hop musician “free-styled” on audience-selected words like “hope,” “Jesus” and “sex trafficking” during an inspirational midday break for an energetic group of artists, legislators, reform advocates, and system-impacted individuals who assembled in July at the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC).

These individuals had come from across the state—some from considerably further, including at least one from as far away as Nigeria—for a collegial day of networking, fellowship, and frank conversation about the role of the arts in advancing criminal justice reform.

But if any of us in the room expected merely to be entertained by Saul Paul’s performance, we were in for a surprise.

The song SaulPaul, who went from prison to the University of Texas at Austin to chart-topping musician, taught us was a provocative call-and-response requiring audience participation. Though our part seemed easy enough—we were to sing the words “Be the Change” during the refrain—the music moved quickly, and many of us struggled to keep up. After fumbling several cues, the audience broke into uncomfortable laughter as SaulPaul abruptly halted the music.

“See, this is when we need leaders to step up,” he quipped, paraphrasing something Houston Arts Alliance CEO John Abodeely had said earlier in the day, challenging arts organizations to “really throw down” as change leaders in their communities. When the laughter died down, SaulPaul seized upon a teaching opportunity afforded by this awkward moment, summoning all the musicians in the room to raise their voices and show the rest of us how it’s done.

“If you got this and you know it,” he said, “then now’s the time to be heard.”

The energy in the room shifted as he kicked the beat back to life on his loop pedal. As he began leading us through the refrain again, about half a dozen voices confidently rang out: “Be the Change!” The second time, half a dozen more joined in. By the third chorus, we were all singing so enthusiastically that an outsider would have never guessed that we had only learned the song a few minutes earlier.

Changing perspectives

That’s the power of art in action. SaulPaul’s performance that afternoon was more than just a concert. It was a rallying cry—and a microcosm of the very work that had brought us together that day.

Most of us in that room had been personally touched by the brokenness of our nation’s criminal justice system. All of us shared a sense of legislative urgency regarding the blight of mass incarceration. But none of us had come merely to complain about it. Both as artists and as activists, we had come to discover new ways to unite our voices and leverage our talents toward casting a more restorative vision of what it means to be “tough on crime.”

“A lot of the folks who are incarcerated are risk-takers,” Alma Robinson said during the Forum’s opening remarks. “They were trying to do something creative with their lives, but they didn’t necessarily have a vision or opportunities to explore other venues for their creativity.”

Robinson is Executive Director of California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA), an organization dedicated to supporting artists and arts organizations as “agents of democratic involvement, innovation, and positive social change.” Together with Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts and a grant from the newly formed Art for Justice Fund, CLA convened the Texas Art for Justice Forum as one of six nationwide reform events aiming to stimulate greater participation from local artists and arts organizations in helping to solve the problem of mass incarceration.

“If we had more investment in arts education,” Robinson continued, “perhaps we wouldn’t have so many people to ‘correct.’”

That’s a provocative thought, to say the least—particularly at a time when popular educational philosophy centers so strongly on the value of STEM learning. Could it be that our “need” to imprison more individuals per capita than any other nation in the world stems, in part, from a degenerative cultural insensitivity to the role the arts play in pro-social human development?

Some of the people at the Forum certainly thought so.

“Art is not a commodity,” guitarist and educator Jeremy Osborne emphatically remarked during a theme-setting early panel discussion. “It’s something essential to everyone.”

Osborne teaches guitar to at-risk and system-involved youth in Austin as part of an innovative educational outreach developed by Austin Classical Guitar. Now in its eighth year, the program leverages the accessibility and relative affordability of the guitar to introduce these students to the character-building discipline of music performance while helping them finish school and stay out of the adult justice system. After explaining how various curricula his group has developed are now used as a benchmark for similar programs worldwide, Osborne expressed sincere gratitude for the audience’s willingness to give up their Saturday to gather together and talk about justice reform.

“When you do this kind of work,” he said, “you really feel like you’re on a desert island.”

Sadly, that seemed to be a common theme among the people I talked to throughout the day.

Fortunately, the Forum also demonstrated that voices like Osborne’s  are beginning to reach key influencers in the halls of power.

“[Art] is about the human condition,” Texas Representative Garnet Coleman explained. “This is how we learn. This is how we know about something bigger than who we are.”

Coleman was one of several state legislators who staunchly advocated for the continuation of the Texas Commission on the Arts when it was on the chopping block for budgetary cutbacks several years ago. Another supporter, State Representative James White, was also present for the panel discussion. He spent some time describing how the arts have historically functioned as a “cultural softener,” tempering our more disruptive human tendencies by connecting us to one another at the heart level. Art, he explained, has a way of enlarging our worldview, celebrating a diversity of perspectives while revealing our deficiencies and inspiring us to work together for the common good.

The dismissal of the arts hurts so many people. That’s why many of the artists present at the Forum challenged their peers to begin stepping up their game.  And, like SaulPaul, tell themselves and everyone else “Be the Change.”

 

About the guest contributor: 

Johnathan Kana is a freelance writer, musician, and Christian cultural critic who enjoys probing the intersection of faith, justice, and pop culture. As a restored citizen who once spent 25 months in prison, he believes in the transformative power of a meaningful second chance. He is a volunteer Justice Ambassador for Prison Fellowship and a contributing writer for their quarterly newspaper for prisoners, Inside Journal.

He is also co-author (with Dr. Mary L. Cohen and Iowa prisoner Richard Winemiller) of a forthcoming book chapter about the Oakdale Community Choir and the healing power of community music-making in correctional contexts (to be published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in a volume provisionally titled Walking the Boundaries, Bridging the Gaps: How Community Music Engages Those in the Margins of Society). 

Johnathan works in manufacturing and lives with his wife and two children in central Texas. He is an avid filmgoer, a passionate armchair theologian, and an aspiring kayaker.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Additional forums have taken place at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta on September 28, at Sacramento State University on October 16, at the Jule Collins Smith Museum at Auburn University in Alabama on October 19, and the last forum will be held at Columbia University School of Law in New York on November 16 (register here). For more information, please send an inquiry to aic@calawyersforthearts.org.