For the past few Saturday mornings, music has been echoing in First Presbyterian Church in Kensington.
The songs are different from typical religious fare like “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” though there’s some of that, too. More often, they’re something like Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” South African folk song “Shosholoza,” or Katy Perry’s “Roar.”
It’s also the work of a few dozen girls in kindergarten through 10th grade.
Sister Cities Girlchoir is a free choral program for adolescent girls that operates in three low-income communities: Camden, West Philadelphia and Kensington. About 300 girls participate while not only learning to read music and hit high notes, but becoming well-rounded, confident young women who can positively impact their communities.
Fishtown resident Alysia Lee, 33, began Sister Cities in September of 2012 following a fellowship with the New England Conservatory. Lee, a professional opera singer, had been looking for a way to give back to the world using her favorite tool.
“Music had been a big part of my life as a child, and in terms of transforming me into a person that is a productive member of society,” she said. “I had a lot of trouble in school behaving and respecting authority, and being a part of a choir helped me to find a focus and be able to communicate with people.”
The Sistema Fellowship took her around the world to examine programs that use music as a tool for social change. A piece of research entitled “The Girl Effect” was particularly impactful to the creation of the Sister Cities mission: Lee learned that children’s mothers’ life paths shape their futures more than their fathers’ do. Furthermore, she learned that low-income, high-arts-exposure adolescents are three times more likely than low-income, low-arts-exposure adolescents to earn a master’s degree – of which Lee herself is a reflection, she said.
“We want these girls focused, graduating from high school, pregnancy-free when they’re 18,” Lee said. “Then the next generation has an entirely different level of accountability because they have new protective factors in place that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, because poverty and a lot of these things are cyclical. [We are] using the power of community to break that cycle.”
Lee also wanted to create an emotionally safe space filled with positive role models.
“You don’t see women on television or in the media bonding together, standing together, being strong, supporting one another, so I wanted to show the girls a different model for how to be a woman, what it’s like being part of a sisterhood of women than what they see on TV and what they read,” she said.
The music sung by the girls comes from all over the world, such as South Africa and Latin countries because the rhythms and melodies are very singable for young people, but also from the pop music realm.
Singer Alicia Keyes retweeted a video of Sister Cities performing her song “We Are Here.” The group has mixed the tune of “Ode to Joy” with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” with new lyrics written about Sister Cities. A mashup of Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” and TLC’s “Unpretty” will be performed for the girls’ parents around Mother’s Day.
This ast Saturday was only the Kensington group’s second rehearsal at First Presbyterian Church, 418 E. Girard Ave. The group previously operated out of Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School in Northern Liberties, but was left homeless when the school closed suddenly in December.
Lee was introduced to Rev. Shawn Hyska of First Presbyterian Church via the nonprofit Partners for Sacred Spaces, which fosters community use of religious buildings. After learning about Sister Cities’ mission, Hyska and the church’s elders jumped at the chance to host the girls’ rehearsals.
“There was just the instant connection between the choir and what the church stands for, in a sense of bringing people together [into] one larger community,” Hyska said on Saturday while wearing a purple Sister Cities shirt – a gift from the group for allowing it to use the space.
The group will operate out of First Presbyterian Church through at least this school year, he said.
Some of the Sister Cities locations are based in schools, and rehearsals take place after classes end. Conversely, the Fishtown site pulls girls from different schools, and from all over the city: Girls travel from the surrounding neighborhoods like Kensington, Port Richmond and the Northeast, but a few also come from Southwest Philly and other areas, according to Lee.
This allows the girls to lose some of the constraints they may feel in their usual social situations, teaching artist Anne Dugan said.
“It’s a total clean slate to create a different atmosphere for themselves, to show up as somebody different than maybe they show up as at school,” Dugan said. “There’s a lot of freedom for them now.”
The girls are grouped according to age, not talent, though next year, girls in grades fifth and up can also audition for a traveling choir. Next year, too, girls will be able to join the group through high school; currently, the cutoff is eighth grade.
Some of the singers have music programs in their schools, some don’t. Therefore, some come to Sister Cities with the ability to read music and properly use their voices, but some need to learn, Dugan said.
When asked why they participate in Sister Cities, girls gave enthusiastic answers.
“You get to spend time with one another and do something that I really like to do, which is singing,” said Tyler, 11. “It really helps me express myself more.”
“I have learned languages that I don’t speak on the regular,” said Allyson, 16, referencing a Portuguese song the group sang. “And my singing has improved a lot.”
About why she likes music, Ruth, 13, spoke of music’s emotional power.
“If I’m mad or sad about something, I’ll just start singing,” she said. “It makes me feel better.”
Jada, 12, was straightforward about why she chose to return to the program for a second year.
“I came back because of the simple fact [that] it’s awesome,” Jada said. “You can be yourself and nobody will judge you.”
A Sister Cities Girlchoir finale concert will be held on Saturday, May 16, at the River Stage at Penn’s Landing. The event will be sponsored by the City of Philadelphia. For more information about Sister Cities Girlchoir, visit sistercitiesgirlchoir.org.
Read the original article in Star Newspaper here