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 sis­ter­cit­ies­

You can reach Julie Zeglen at

Read the original article in Star Newspaper here