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Sticks and Strings

Fe Nunn ’80 drives and innovative arts education program for kids at risk, begun in Ithaca and now going national.


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From the ghettos of Buffalo to the Southside of Ithaca, Fe Nunn ’80 has found his life’s purpose: to bring quality performing arts education to disenfranchised communities.


Four years ago Nunn synthesized his vision, with support from Ithaca College, into the Community Unity Music Education Project (CUMEP), an after-school and summer camp program that provides low-to-no-cost music, media, and arts education to youth of limited resources.

CUMEP enrollment numbers are now soaring, and the program is about to go national. Success is seen — and heard — on the blacktop playground of Ithaca’s Southside Community Center and the vacant apartment–turned–piano studio at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing facility on West Hill. There children sing, dance, drum, and learn to play piano, violin, or cello with trained instructors. The kids write, act, and learn video production in a safe and encouraging environment.

For some, it’s the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the arts or a path to academic achievement. For others, it’s a safe place to go after school. For Nunn, it’s a dream coming true.

Nunn has worked all his life to integrate performing arts education and community. As a child on the east side of Buffalo, his life revolved around making music at his community center. “That’s what kept us away from the gang activity,” he says. “It’s how I survived the rough streets.”

A self-taught pianist, Nunn created ghetto bands as a boy and taught younger kids to play piano or drums, which sometimes meant hitting Popsicle sticks against a garbage can.

Nunn came to Ithaca College on the heels of his brother, John “Timmy” Nunn ’75. While studying sociology and education, Nunn was an active musician, bringing kids from downtown Ithaca to campus to perform and taking IC students to community centers. With now retired sociology professor Anne Brous, he chose independent study experiences that immersed him in off-campus life. “I was very connected to the community then. When I look back, I can fully understand why I’m living the way I do — because I’ve done it all my life.”

Early in Nunn’s career as a teacher, performer, and composer he taught a language arts class at the Alternative Community School called “community unity,” bringing IC students in to teach performing arts. With early funding from the Rotary Club, the Community Foundation of Tompkins County, and the Tompkins County Foundation, his program gained momentum. In 2002, with backing from the provost, president, and dean of the School of Music, Ithaca College began its formal partnership with CUMEP, and the program really took off. The union created an outreach program that would benefit the community and provide experiential learning for IC students. Baruch Whitehead, assistant professor in music education, began teaching in the program, bringing expertise in West African drumming and dance, and students of Jeff Claus, associate professor of education, wrote grants to secure funding.

CUMEP today is a twice-a-week after-school program, run out of downtown and the IC School of Music, and a six-week summer program. Included in both are a journal writing requirement and a homework-checking component. Mentored by Whitehead and Nunn, IC students gain observation and teaching hours while embracing the program’s vision of developing egalitarian societies within diverse populations.

With generous funding from the Park Foundation, the summer program has expanded to include media and technology studies. Students work with Gossa Tsegaye ’76, IC assistant professor of television-radio, to create video journals. “It’s a wonderful gesture by the Park School to provide the equipment and my service — all pro bono — to contribute to the community. It’s our way of celebrating learning,” says Tsegaye.

As a student, Emily McBride ’06 began teaching at the campus sessions and is now the program’s coordinator and summer camp director. “It’s a very different type of music education,” says McBride, who now also teaches music in the Lansing school district. “It’s not the picture-perfect situation that you find at a public school where everything’s in place. I come from an inner city school in Hartford, Connecticut, so it’s similar. It’s so rewarding to reach these kids.”

Peter Guarino ’08 began by observing sessions and then became an instructor at the summer



Fe Nunn gets a lot of help from IC students and faculty in running Ithaca’s CUMEP for local children; Peter Guarino ’08, and Emily McBride ’06 work with kids during an early fall concert; IC music education professor Baruch Whitehead leads students in West African drumming.
camp. A cellist who grew up studying classical music and attending opera, Guarino says teaching multicultural music and understanding the different learning needs of the children have been invaluable as he heads into his student teaching practicum next year.

Lisa Dusenberry ’88, whose six-year-old son, Eric, is a student at CUMEP and studies piano with “Mr. F_,” appreciates the IC student teachers. “They work with each kid where he’s at, and they respect the kids,” she says.

CUMEP’s results are evident to educators like Denise Gomber, principal at Ithaca’s Beverly J. Martin Elementary School. Gomber sees growth in the students academically and socially, and says parents consistently provide feedback regarding the effectiveness and positive impact of Nunn’s work.

Nunn’s vision is for the student instructors to take over running the program, allowing him to launch CUMEP this fall in Rochester, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls, New York, as well as Chester, Pennsylvania, and Charlotte, North Carolina. What began as an after-school program for children in Ithaca is now a model that may accommodate 250 students in larger cities.

“Wherever there is a university connected to a disenfranchised community, it’s ideal,” explains Nunn. “Wherever there are strings, students, a music program, and a community, we can run this program. Ithaca College is the hub.”

Nunn has joined forces with Bruce Abbott, founder of the Life Skills Center of Tompkins County (LSC). From the HUD housing facility at West Village, which Abbott manages, CUMEP and the LSC are creating a national model for integrating performing arts education and life skills such as academics, social customs, career counseling, and health and nutrition. With financial support from the Abbott family, the program gets children focused on something positive. “More than just arts and entertainment, this will lead into other areas — good nutrition, good manners, family ideals — bringing the entire community together at all these levels,” says Abbott.

Nunn and Abbott are getting the attention of the government. They have formed a relationship with the Community Capacity Development Office (formerly Weed and Seed), a major initiative through the U.S. Department of Justice that develops violence prevention programs. With the help of consultant Nicholas Moore ’80, they are spreading the word about CUMEP’s success, and in August they presented their initiative at the Law Enforcement National Convention in Phoenix.

“Quality performing arts education is attractive to large cities because they’re removing arts education from many public schools,” says Nunn. “Our idea is to put it back in via after-school and housing development programs. Down south there’s a particular need — with gang wars and the way the housing facilities are falling apart.”

Nunn’s enthusiasm and energy are staggering, but it is easy to see why he is so excited. His once-tiny program demonstrates how quality performing arts education can help foster self-esteem, academic success, and social and civil responsibility, leading to a more egalitarian society. “It’s more than just learning about a violin, it’s about learning life skills. It is an unbelievable thing to watch happen,” says Nunn. “It’s what I’m living for.”

— Julie Waters, M.M. ’91

Wouldn’t you love to help Ithaca College support initiatives like CUMEP, in which Ithaca College students and faculty help others? Your gift to the Ithaca Fund can make a world of difference, allowing the College to initiate or promote programs for youth empowerment, music and arts programs, student teaching, and community involvement, just to name a few.


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