Julie Carlson (Guest Columnist)
Every year, I wait patiently for the arrival of October. For me, nothing is quite as wonderful as a cool, crisp autumn breeze, pumpkin-flavored everything and watching the Midwest fall foliage transform into brilliant tones of gold and crimson. This year though, my October-anticipation increased tenfold upon learning that Dispatch’s Amplifying Education (AmpEd) campaign would be stopping in Chicago in October for the second year in a row. I was even more thrilled when the wonderful Amy Soland and I were asked to help lead AmpEd’s service project before Dispatch’s show at the Riviera Theater on Wednesday, October 3rd.
Last week, Amplifying Education partnered with City Year Chicago and forty amazing AmpEd volunteers at the Chicago West Community Music Center (CWCMC) in North Lawndale to paint some inspiration on the Center’s cold, blank white walls. Our day of service began with a bit of City-Year-led calisthenics to get volunteers pumped up and ready to paint. The volunteers were then split up into five teams, each team name cleverly corresponding with a Dispatch album. Volunteers spent the afternoon working to improve the atmosphere in different rooms within CWCMC, painting almost a dozen murals ranging from Duke Ellington and Beethoven in the Center’s main hallway to inspirational quotes from Gandhi, Bono and Victor Hugo in practice rooms and the Center’s main office. To watch the entire space transform over the course of just four hours was absolutely incredible. We ended our day with some inspiring words from Darlene and Howard Sandifer, CWCMC’s founders and directors, as well as two phenomenal performances from CWCMC’s very own students.
The two people most excited for the CWCMC’s fresh coat of paint were Darlene and Howard. The duo started CWCMC in 1999 with the mission to “harness the creative potential of individuals through education to inspire artistic and cultural expression in such a way that we help foster positive relationships across neighborhood lines.” CWCMC provides a variety of music education programs and mentorship to students as young as four years old and cultivates creativity in an area of Chicago that otherwise lacks outlets for music and the arts.
Darlene and Howard are two prime examples of the kinds of teachers and neighborhood leaders that the Amplifying Education platform seeks to recognize. They emphasize the importance of nurturing the creative abilities of all children across Chicago’s Westside, and work together to bridge the gap between education and the socioeconomic barriers that make it difficult for children in these communities to reach their full potential. When I met Darlene and Howard for the first time, their dedication to improving music education for children on the Westside was tangible. Their total devotion to their students’ success reinforced why being a part of Amplifying Education is so important to me.
My parents divorced the year before I entered high school, and the impacts of their divorce followed me from the eighth grade all the way through my junior year of high school. Despite my parents’ encouragement, I managed to push myself almost an entire year behind my classmates and had no direction or intention of continuing on to college. Attending school, paying attention and doing homework were at the bottom of my list of non-existent priorities. It wasn’t until the year before my classmates would graduate and continue on to college that I got a call from my guidance counselor, Jeremy Baldwin. He sat me down to explain the bind that I was in: I was so far behind in credits that I was not going to graduate high school. He extended a helping hand so long as I was willing to work hard and make a commitment to finishing high school on a positive note. It was in that very moment with the help of a mentor who believed in my ability to shine that I decided to wake up and reach for my potential. Because of his commitment to helping students succeed, I was able to graduate with the rest of my class in 2007.
My own struggles in school help make it clear to me why so many students to slip through the cracks of the United States’ education system, but I shouldn’t have to understand. I am fortunate that I was able to graduate high school and attend college, but many others will never have that opportunity. Today, only 7 out of 10 ninth graders will graduate high school. There are countless reasons why we need to improve the state of education in the U.S., but first we need to emphasize the value and importance of the people who are fighting the battle of the education crisis on the front lines: our teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, and mentors. We need to value people like Darlene, Howard and Jeremy who are committed to improving the lives of students, despite the personal and socioeconomic impediments that they bring with them into the classroom. These are the people who, singlehandedly, are making the biggest impact on students’ futures.
There are no words to describe how gratifying it feels to be a continuing part of the Amplifying Education movement. Since the inception of Amplifying Education, I have had the opportunity to meet and befriend countless individuals who are committed to empowering children across the U.S. through education. I have seen the enormous impact that Dispatch’s music has on generating not only awareness surrounding these issues, but also on people taking real action. Most of all, I have witnessed the impact that small actions like painting a wall or mentoring a child can have on the broader spectrum of education in the United States. Much like my anticipation for a cool autumn breeze in the heat of summer, I am excited to continue making a positive difference on the state of education in the U.S. along with my fellow friends, volunteers, teachers and mentors—one action at a time.