“Is Amos here?”: scenes from MusicianCorps at Southwest Interagency Academy

A story from the MusicianCorps Seattle pilot year.

One lesser-told story of MusicianCorps Seattle involves Southwest Interagency Academy. Southwest is an alternative learning school in the Seattle Public Schools system, and serves students in transition, many of whom have been suspended or expelled for issues ranging from truancy to records violation.

Mural at Youngstown Arts Cultural Center by Zach Bohnenkamp, John Osgood and youth from Southwest Interagency Academy

Southwest Interagency Academy resides within Youngstown Cultural Arts Center (the building which also houses Arts Corps, and other community arts organizations), and was one site of MusicianCorps Fellow Amos Miller during the 2009-2010 pilot year.  Part of Miller’s service mission was to help bridge organizations and resources in the building. This proved a needed mission for Southwest, as these young students were staffed by only one full-time teacher, Ms. Dian Fundisha-Bey.

At Southwest Interagency Academy, Amos led “Music Production” twice a week with 5 to 35 students.  In class, Amos taught beat-making and used hip-hop and technology as an entryway to explore students’ cultures and creativity, and to encourage confidence, expression and discipline in his students.  During the pilot year, Ms. Fundisha-Bey noticed an increase in attendance in the school day and more communication among students.

Entrance to the Media Lab where class for Music Production was often held

“A lot of our children would not have had this opportunity to be exposed to the music aspect—to go into the studio, learn how to make beats on the computers—if Amos was not around,” said Ms. Fundisha-Bey. “They love him, they look forward to his class.  Our attendance has gone up on the days that Amos works with us, and they want to be here for Amos’s class. (…) There was a young boy who wouldn’t even speak to us, and he joined Amos’s class, and he was doing a rap.”

I mostly saw Amos’s impact outside of the classroom. Everyday—during lunch break at Southwest—I heard refrains of “Is Amos here? Is Amos here?,” as students popped their heads into the Arts Corps office and looked for their teacher and mentor. When Amos was here, he would hang out with his students: work on beat-making, or listen to new music. Other times he’d help a student with multiplication tables, or find resources for a difficult situation at home, or help build upon students’ job skills, or just listen.

A second classroom for Southwest youth: the Arts Corps office

Even though I saw many of the Southwest students every day, I sat in on their class only once. When I did, I asked about their year, MusicianCorps and working with Amos. Here are some responses:

“Since I’ve been here I’ve seen stuff improve. We used to play around, but we start[ed] focusing. We inspire each other in a lot of different ways like leadership, teamwork. We back each other up. We do this as a team. We are in this together.”

“I have learned to take in with open doors. Try new things, I want to learn new things. Change in life, habits, problems, levels of excitement.”

“I got to meet a person that changed the way I look at music. Something that was cool … he always pushed us to give our best stuff. Making beats and writing music was a lot of fun. It worked for me.”

“[Music] was the only reason I stayed here. I’m going to miss Amos. He is like my big brother.”

From what I observed, MusicianCorps at Southwest led to meaningful student growth in dedication, creativity, openness, and confidence because of the safe, fun, consistent and creative-driven space that Amos Miller and Ms. Fundisha-Bey built for students. Alberto Mejia, Program Director at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, described Amos’s talent in facilitating the best out of students through the arts.

The Media lab where Music Production class would often take place

“Amos is an extremely gifted person in terms of reading young peoples’ energies,” Mejia said. “Amos … has worked with at-risk, low-income youth. He really facilitates the best out of them. So a young person blocked by the things that are external to their environment or the things that have become internal because what is going on in the external—Amos helps to navigate through that and find a lot of beauty through art.  Art is a neutral point, where it can open people up to take that next step. All those amazing unique coalescing things would be completely impossible without someone like Amos in our communities. The benefit is amazing now, and I think we’ve only begun to understand the potential of it. It’s been an amazing pilot year.”

I also think growth during the MusicianCorps year at Southwest Interagency Academy was possible because Amos and his students created a safe space—one that emphasized teamwork and openness—for the greater possibilities that music education and music production creates. Amos said:

“It brought out a heart. It made us reach inside and find something real, and we did that together.  Sometimes it worked and sometimes cats were being silly … It gives opportunity for people to speak from that place. You can’t talk like that in the street, but to have a place where people can do that, I think it was a positive thing.”

When I asked Ms. Fundisha-Bey about what she would have changed during the pilot year, she repeatedly pointed to just one thing: more time with MusicianCorps Fellow Amos Miller.

“We need to have [Amos] more,” Ms. Fundisha-Bey said. “We need to have him three or four times a week, instead of just two times a week. All of the children want his class, but they all can’t have it because he can only take a small amount. The challenges we have in the class are that we need him more. He is great.”

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