Ithaca Children’s Music Program Offers Space to Discuss Racism, Social Justice Issues

By Charles McKenzie, August 5, 2016

Ithaca Children’s Music Program Offers Space to Discuss Racism, Social Justice Issues

As the nightly news increasingly warns viewers to send children out of the room, parents struggle to find a happy medium between completely sheltering their children and openly exposing them to the world’s violence and injustice.

A community-based summer camp led by Ithaca College professors and graduate education students is offering a safe but open space to have frank discussions with children about issues like homophobia, racism, Islamophobia and other challenges to social justice.

The Community Unity Music Education Program (CUMEP) is offered at the Southside Community Center in the heart of Ithaca’s black community, and many of the campers are minority children between the ages of 4 and 12. It was founded in 2003 through an Ithaca College grant that bought $21,000 worth of guitars, marimbas, xylophones, keyboards, drums and other instruments. The effort was led by Associate Professor of Music Education Baruch Whitehead and Ithaca College alumnus Fe Nunn ’80.

It’s now led by Nunn’s daughter, Nia Nunn, an assistant professor in the college’s Department of Education. “Dr. Nia,” as the children call her, says the camp is an opportunity for everyone involved, from the campers to the counselors, to do some intense social reflection about their position in society. While some parents worry some of the material might be too heavy or raw, Dr. Nia says that if a child doesn’t get an explanation from a caregiver, they will likely turn to less productive sources.

“Don’t underestimate their ability to engage,” she says. “You need to find authentic tools to support their processing.”

Dr. Nia is quick to point out that the children aren’t the only ones learning. She gains a lot from them, as do a group of teacher candidates just starting their master of science in childhood education at Ithaca College.

As part of their field experience, they participate as camp counselors. Dr. Nia says most refer to the program as “a home forever,” someplace they can always come back to, which is important because Dr. Nia, an Ithaca native, hopes that after they graduate, they’ll stay in the community, or at least in multicultural education.

Their classroom professor says the mornings at the camp give the future teachers a greater understanding of practice, and they bring richer fodder to her afternoon lectures.

“It adds value that can't be replicated in any other way,” says Jeane Copenhaver-Johnson, chair of the Department of Education. “They can readily offer examples of how to explain these complex issues at a developmentally appropriate level.”

Shannon Frier, who earned her undergraduate degree in music education in 2016, has worked with the program for four years and is now among the graduate student counselors. She also has a growing administrative role there.

“Children live in the same world we live in, and they aren’t immune to the problems,” says Frier. “They know. They see it, and they feel it, and they already have questions. You just have to give them the safe space to air their concerns.”

While music is at the heart of much of the learning, the term “music camp” does not accurately summarize the depth and breadth of the conversations that occur there. The campers also learn other creative and productive ways to express themselves, like dancing, journaling and just sharing their own realities.

Dr. Nia says the campers even go home and help educate their parents, who can learn not just the social justice lessons but perhaps, more importantly, their child’s approach to difficult topics.

“Children are so open and allow themselves to be wrong and vulnerable,” she says. “We don’t as adults. We always want to be right and we worry we’ll be called racist, so we too often don’t want to say anything.”

The CUMEP summer program culminates in an evening of music, dance and spoken-word poetry.

“After all those weeks of tears, laughter, timeouts, snot, it is amazing seeing how the students and counselors bring all of these different skills and components of social justice into one event,” says counselor Namarah McCall ’16.

The Southside Community Center, where both the camp and show are held, has a rich history. It was founded in 1927 by a black women’s club. When the center was razed and rebuilt by the Works Progress Administration, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended its 1938 dedication.

“It’s long been at the forefront of social justice in this community,” says Whitehead. “Today, CUMEP continues that tradition. This is bigger than all of us.”

Dr. Nia’s Tips for Parents

When it comes to answering challenging questions, Dr. Nia, a former school psychologist at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School, suggests that parents use their awkwardness for motivation, and she offers four tips:

  1. Stop and immediately do some self-reflection. Think about what you know and don’t know.
  2. There’s no parenting manual, so check in with somebody else. Ask, “What do I say?” Get some language to use and some resources.
  3. Reflect on your style of communication and parenting. Think about how you were parented and how that influences your approach, and what cycles you might want to break.
  4. Recognize and “get hip to the changes” in generations and their language.

To the last point, Dr. Nia asks students to correct her own language choices: “Don’t call me out. Call me in. I don’t claim to know it all, but I’m fully present and willing to learn.”