The Story of the Fight for Our Choir
By: Leroy Lewis Jr. (11th grade) & Porsha Jackson (12th grade)
As we develop as youth, educational opportunities should increase to prepare us for life in the real world. Of course, an education includes math, science and so forth, but there is also a broader education that everyone is entitled to, including, but not limited to, music, art, drama and dance. These programs make it possible to express your TRUE self, and also, to perform well in society.I am a Detroit Public Schools student, who attends Southeastern High School of Technology* and Law, and my, as well as others’, opportunities are vanishing rapidly. We are treated like we are not worthy of a first class education: 1) our fine arts programs have been taken away and 2) even required classes, like English, are being attacked by teacher layoffs and an overflow of students in each class. We will not accept any of this. We ARE worthy and we will continue to demonstrate our collective power until we win.*No longer technology because our robotics program has been canceled.
—Leroy Lewis, Jr., Member of the Voices of Southeastern Choir and Organizer with BAMN (The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary)
INTRODUCTION TWO: My Song, My Dream Deferred
Without music, I feel bound by the limits, only to look at the walls that I bear face to face. I reflect on how life could be, how it should be. Only going to classes where my opinions/thoughts may not be heard, going to classes where its hard to EXPRESS my true feelings and thoughts. Those are the limits that I inherit without music, being in the choir was my ALL! Music was and still is not just a hobby, it was/is my LIFE! I eat, sleep and breathe music, to not have music is to not have life.As a black student in DPS I already feel as if my dreams/goals don’t matter. I feel as if getting money off students and allowing us to graduate is the only goal of local, state, and national POLITICIANS. But in my high school career, I want to be more than just a dollar sign. I want to do more than just get a diploma, I want to EXPERIENCE. Even with all the obstacles for my community/PARENTS/friends I will not and cannot give up on a better education for my generation and the upcoming generations. My DREAMS will NO LONGER be deferred.
Southeastern High School is proud community Detroit Public School located on the east side of Detroit. Just two years ago we had a marching band with lots of instruments, but by the beginning of this year, we were down to just a choir. On February 4, 2011, we were told that our Accompanist, Rev. Lewis, was laid off. He played with us one last time at a competition called Solo&Ensemble without pay. Our Music teacher, Ms. McCall, was left to teach the music classes, direct and play the piano for the choir by herself. This made learning for the students more difficult. Then, two weeks later, she was transferred to another school, and we were told that our whole music program was cancelled – after the semester had already gotten fully underway.
We were devastated and angry but we were determined to get the program back. With Voices of Southeastern we able to creatively express ourselves through music – a common language. We played at churches, concerts, and other places in state and out of state . We even performed the Star Spangled Banner for Congressman Hansen Clark’s Inauguration. We have a tradition of never turning down an invitation to sing because we took pride in our music. In addition to singing just to share the joy of singing with others, we sing competitively.Just this year we performed in two competitions and there are more coming up. We have practiced for the past six months for these competitions and we want to compete!
They are trying to to defer our dreams by denying us a teacher and a program.
How can Detroit students show the talent that we very much so have, if the very programs that help us do it are taken away?We knew that if the political and appointed leaders of the school would allow for this to happen, they had given up on us.
But we had not given up on ourselves, and we knew that we were and are equal to every student in this Nation and that no matter what, we would fight for our right to sing. If the Banks and Corporations can get tax breaks and bailouts, then surely children can get music and arts. As the cancellation of our program became closer, we decided that we had to have a series of mass actions, in an effort to save the program.
We decided to do walkouts – leave school and march in protest of the cut of the music program, the firing of our teachers and other cuts the school faced. In addition to the music program, drama, chess, robotics and pre-engineering were cut also. Some of the choir members were student organizers with BAMN since the previous year and the knowledge we we gained there helped us to organize the support of other students and the community. As we helped the music teacher pack away her class, she told us not to walk out. She said that there were other things that could be done like writing letters.
We did not listen to her because we needed to take bold actions. The letters were weak and would not work. We understood that this situation would come down to power, and “power cedes to nothing with out a demand- it never did and it never will” (Frederick Douglass).
We immediately started to plan the walkout.
We knew from our studies with BAMN that it would not happen spontaneously, but that it would have to be organized and led. We went on Facebook, made calls and talked with students within the school, both who experienced cuts and those who knew that if our choir was allowed to be taken, without any objection, their programs would be next. That night we got pressure from parents and even some teachers to not do the walkout. But we did it any way because we love music, our programs and nothing could break our overall determination to have an equal opportunity to a quality education.
The day of the first walk out was Tuesday, Feb 15, 2011. That morning the walkout was on everyone’s mind. As time came closer, a larger portion of students decided to do a sit-in, because they feared the consequences of the walkout. This may have been due to the principal making an announcement saying he was aware of the action we had planned, and if we wanted to improve our school, we should “pick up trash in the hallway” because they had recently fired all of the janitors!The first walkout consisted of 30-40 students, none receiving punishment, but the large number of students who did the sit-in, were heavily maced in the school. The students who tried to do a sit-in in support learned that the walkout gave us more freedom of expression and allowed us to cover more ground in terms of getting support.
The next day, Wednesday the number of students who walked out increased to a little over 100 and it was understood that we were not yet done. Therefore, on Friday we had our largest walkout to date of about 140 students.The following week we participated in the March 2nd National Day of Action to Defend Public Education. We spoke about what happened at our school. We received support from the college and other high school students that were there and we helped to lead the first militant civil rights march in the street of Woodward (the main street in Detroit) in 40 years.
Also that week, we set out to prepare our next course of action.
The MSVMA Choral Festival was coming up. We, the students, had met every requirement needed to perform and we were determined to be allowed to sing. We drafted a petition explaining the situation and demanded that we be able to sing and got students, teachers and parents to sign it, from our school, as well as other schools.(Petition we_will_not_accept_our_dreams_deferred)
We knew that there were a number of obstacles for us to overcome. For example, we needed a teacher and a bus. Ms. McCall, our music teacher, had been made a substitute teacher, going class to class, at the other school she was transferred to, and the school did not have class on Friday, which was the same day as the Choral Fesival. At the beginning of the week she said that she would do it and said that we just needed approval from the principal to get a bus. We were very excited.
However, because the administration had cancelled our program, we knew that we still had to continue our mass actions. We marched down to the principal’s office and demanded to speak to him. He would not come out, but he talked to us on the phone and said that we could go and that we needed Ms. McCall to fill out the paper work. But by the time we talked back with her, she made a call to someone in the system and was discouraged from bringing us to the competition.
That same day, we held a press conference announcing the fight we were making.
At the press conference, we received a phone call from a foundation called Park West. They had gotten our press release because it had been forwarded out so widely, and they said that they would pay for for the bus for the competition. This was very moralizing for us. But, we still needed a teacher.In search for a music director, we happened to find the person managing the choral festival for Detroit. They said that we needed a MSVMA approved teacher and there had to be an opening for us, and we had to pay 150 dollars to compete. There was a vacancy because a middle school had not paid. We went to the middle school to see if they wanted to perform or not. We could help them raise the money and we needed their teacher! The teacher said that we could have their spot, that they were not planning on attending. He also said that he would be our director. This was great.
That night two things also happened. We went to the School Board to ask for their support, and the School Board unanimously voted to allow us to perform and made calls to make it happen, and the President of the school board said that he would pay the 150 dollars for us. The second thing that happened is that the second teacher also got a threatening phone call or he called someone, and he sent us an email saying that he would not direct us at the festival.
The Southeastern High School Choir has been in existence for over 90 years. We have been performing in these competitions since they started. This year, were we not to perform, there would not be a single community high school on the east side of Detroit who performed at this event.
Friday morning we boarded the bus.
It took us a while to depart from the school because we had to wait for choir members, who were being held up by some parents and Ms. McCall to “not get on the bus” and “do not go to the event”. When the bus took off, we had seven choir members (out of 23). In addition to that seven, we had ten new people who had recently joined the choir earlier that week. Finally we had students on the bus to just cheer us on, and hold picket signs and give us all the support they could.
When we arrived, at the church where the competition was held, we were told that we could not sing. They said that they understood our situation, but that there was nothing they could do to help. We argued with heads of the festival that we had met all of their requirements and demanded our right to sing. They gave excuses such as there was no opening for us, even though there was another school that was on the schedule who did not come, and knew were not coming.
We were not surprised at this initial response and we proceeded with our fight to sing because we had the moral high ground – not them. There was no reason to not let us sing, but to aid in the plan to destroy public education and make education as cheap as possible.
At that point, we were in the basement of the church. There was the office of the temporary office of the MSVMA, about 20 tables and a piano. Under the leadership of the president of choir, Porsha Jackson, we gathered around the piano and embarked on the challenge of teaching ten other students the songs – this was their first rehearsal. We chose to perform the two songs Non Nodis Domanie (which is all in Latin) and Total Praise. Our new choir members were very serious and talented and wanted to make sure our voices were heard.
The people running the competition ended up saying that we could sing. This was after one of the BAMN members, Monica Smith, yelled at the whole basement to the top of her lungs that this was a great injustice, a racist attack on the right of Detroit students to expression and education, and that everyone, including all the other schools there or just southeastern, should occupy the stage. That did it. Things were more agreeable for us, until the “music overseer-er” came.
While all of the demanding, petitioning, flyering and signing was going on (not all by the same people), Willie McAllister Jr., the Director of Fine Arts for Detroit Public Schools (DPS) came down to greet us by telling us we could not sing and that he was calling the police on us. For those not from Detroit, our public schools are run by an emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, i.e., a dictator, appointed by the State. He cut much of the finances to music in DPS and his Director of Fine Arts for the schools, McAllister, is a one person office with no staff. He argued with the adults not to let us sing, and said that our program had been ended and that was the end of it. He threatened to have us arrested.
While we listened to him, we really just ignored him,
and we went to the official rehearsal room to do our final rehearsal. Then, we went up stairs and performed. He followed us, he got the judges to leave, but he could not get us to leave. Our Music teacher, Ms. McCall was there, and throughout the day she told us not to perform, that we had not practiced and it would ruin her professional integrity.
Well, we sounded very professional, you can judge for yourself by watching the video of our performance, which will be posted soon.
Even though we were not officially a part of the competition, that did not matter so much. We still achieved a great victory because by singing, we asserted our power. We proved that we can persevere as a result of our determination and desire to fight for what is great about us and about our city.
For the adults that stood in our way, it was about them, and their jobs – we came absolutely last. We felt betrayed because these adults were not protecting our rights, but helping to take them away. Many of them, some of whom were super close to us, did not just passively not support us, but did everything they could to try to stop us.
Well, we know that the students have to lead. We have to be our own heros. Some adults will support and some will even be very active, but many will disappoint. The fight for music and fine arts in K-12 is the fight of our lives, of our generation, should we choose to accept the challenge.