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Sing On, Children! How the Arts Help Social Movements Take Flight

I am in tears, watching and listening to children and teenagers sing their hearts out. I see and feel a more literal interpretation of that old cliché—putting what's deepest in their hearts and souls to music, and sending their songs out into a violent world.

NPR assembled a wonderful collection of schoolkids singing, two days ago, as part of their walkouts, in-class programs and protest assemblies—arranged carefully on risers, clustered together outside with a pitch-pipe and their own tremulous harmonies, sing-shouting on concrete playgrounds. I know their music teachers were proud to see them making music respectfully and joyfully.

Many of the thousands of children who took part likely had limited knowledge of the issues, beyond knowing they wanted their schools to be a place of safety and community. Older students, in middle school and high school, could speak convincingly of age limits, assault weapons and red flags around who should own a gun.  Some could deconstruct the complexities of the Second Amendment and whether a "well-regulated militia" of semi-automatic weapons had any place in Their Town, USA.

All of them were right to include music, however. Music is always a powerful way to make a point, and to build unity. The NPR article thoughtfully included a run-down of the types of songs selected—music from civil rights movements, pop and show tunes, patriotic anthems and original works.

 Yesterday's demonstration, as with many U.S. social movements, was largely made possible by the history of protest shaped by African-American youth. And these songs were nurtured in the throats of children -- Jamila Jones, for example, has recounted how as a 14-year-old singing "We Shall Overcome" with other Highlander Folk School activists, she was moved to invent the famous verse, "we are not afraid." As police raided the group's meeting venue in Monteagle, Tennessee, she lifted her voice with the new words and heard others join in -- and, as an unnerved officer shakily asked her, "do you have to sing so loud," she suddenly understood the political force of music in the hands of teenagers.

The arts are how we tell our stories; we leave the artifacts behind, so the next generations can learn from them. We know that music, art and drama release emotion. They make us angry and sorrowful, proud and jubilant. The arts impress themselves in our memory.

I was 12 years old when my mother took me to see "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Michigan Theatre in downtown Muskegon, my first movie. My parents weren't movie-goers—they saw commercial films as secular and even dangerous entertainment. But I had read the book (thanks to my teacher) and my mother had, too. The film had an enormous impact on me—especially the idea that someone could stand up against injustice even when his neighbors and family disapproved.

Our students also ought to know that the power of the arts can be used to shape movements for good and for evil. Leni Riefenstahl's groundbreaking film, "Triumph of the Will", presented a Hitler rally as heart-rending phenomenon of colorful flags and inspirational music, causing thousands to gravitate toward the Nazi movement. 

This is another example of how the artifacts left behind are instructive. And another urgent call to teach our children this: Making and appreciating art that reflects our collective joys and sorrows is part of what it means to be human. Art helps human movements and causes take flight.

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