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Kids Facing Racism, Trauma Find Safe Haven At People's Music School

By Josh McGhee | March 31, 2017 5:07am | Updated on April 3, 2017 8:39am
 Senite Barih, 14, has been receiving music lessons at the People's Music School in Uptown since she was 5 years old.
Senite Barih, 14, has been receiving music lessons at the People's Music School in Uptown since she was 5 years old.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

UPTOWN — Senite Barih starts her day at 4:30 a.m., and doesn't even begin her commute home until 8 p.m.

The 14-year-old's grueling day consists of two-hour commutes — including bus and train rides — from her Rogers Park home, to the suburbs for school, and back to the North Side for music lessons at the People's Music School, 931 W. Eastwood Ave.

While the trek is stressful enough, she says her biggest issues stem from her daily interactions with her fellow commuters as well as her classmates.

“There’s a lot of racism at my school, and it's hard to talk to someone at the school, because they don’t understand as much," Barih said. "So I come here and I talk to [Music School President Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa] or my music teachers. They’d be so understanding, because it's such a diverse music school. It's real easy to just have a conversation."

 President Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa helped erase a 6-figure deficit and double its enrollment.
President Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa helped erase a 6-figure deficit and double its enrollment.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

At the private North Shore school that Barih attends on scholarship, she's heard comments from her fellow students rooted in racist stereotypes — implying that because she's black, she's violent, or her father must be in a gang, she said.

Barih said she's usually able to keep her focus on school. But when the burden becomes too great, she knows she'll find comfort at the People's Music School.

"Once I was having a really, really rough day and I couldn’t focus," Barih recalled.

After explaining the problem to her music teacher, "we looked up a song that I related to so much, and it just helped me bring out everything I was thinking in a musical way," Barih said.

The song was "Rise Up," a powerful hymn about perseverance by the soulstress Andra Day.

Moving Backwards

For more than four decades, the People's Music School has offered free music lessons to Chicago-area kids. In exchange, parents volunteer hours of their time, which helps keep the nonprofit's staff lean.

Between four campuses, the school educates about 600 students between the ages of 5 and 18, mostly from low-income families. About 90 percent of its students are children of color, according to the school.

"Whenever I welcome a new family in the door, I want to be able to guarantee their child a space with us until they’re 18. That's the most important thing," said Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, who took over as president and artistic director last spring when the school's budget deficit threatened to force them to close their doors.

"When I first came, we were not in a position where we could guarantee that," she said. "Not only did we pay back the deficit, but I feel like we’re on a very stable growth plan."

At the end of last year the school celebrated its 40th anniversary by performing with Yo-Yo Ma and former drummer of the Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin. The students also worked on and premiered a new piece composed by Marcos Balter in honor of the school's founder, Dr. Rita Simo, at the Harris Theater with the International Contemporary Ensemble.

"There were so many moments over the last couple of months where I know the students will just take away that experience and hold it for the rest of their lives," Matsuzawa said. "And think about what it took to be a part of that experience: all the practicing, all the hard work, all the discipline; but also the exhilaration and the pride, the wonder they felt, actually accomplishing that."

A Source of Light In Dark Times

While last year's events were "pinnacle experiences" for the students, the school has noticed the toll of divisive political rhetoric on students over the last year, Matsuzawa said. That, on top of the stress and trauma they've encountered in their young lives. 

"The people that we serve have always faced extreme violence in the communities that they’re from," she said. "To a certain extent, we’re used to dealing with students going through trauma, but I have to say the last couple of months we’ve just seen so much of that heightened, with all the rhetoric that you hear out there. A lot of information, a lot of rumors, a lot of misinformation, some fear mongering. But all of that, whether it's true or not, these stories and rumors still have the same impact on our kids."

 Students at the People's Music School performing.
Students at the People's Music School performing.
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Some students fear a parent may be deported: that their family may be broken up, or they'll be treated differently at school because they are a different race.

The fears aren't new, but are definitely "more intensified" given the political climate, she said. The school wants to make sure teachers and volunteers are ready to address these fears. 

"There have been more distractions," Matsuzawa said. "More questions being asked [by] students that the teachers need to be trained in how to answer."

A Family Tradition

While most of the students can estimate how long they've been coming to the music school, the reality often seems to be off by three or four years. Not because the students have difficulty with math, but because their family has been associated with the school longer than they've been alive.

"Since all the parents have to volunteer, her mother was cleaning the floors while she was pregnant with her," Kim Matsuzawa said of Barih, who is the latest member of her family to join the school. "So she says she’s been here since she was a fetus."

John Yolich, a history teacher at Uplift High School, remembers waiting alongside Barih's parents to secure a spot for his daughter more than a decade ago.

Back then, students were accepted on a first come, first served basis. He took three days off work to wait in line, along with hundreds of other parents, to ensure their kids got a spot. People would camp outside for days to get their kids a music education. 

"My [students] walked right by me in line because I wasn’t at work... It was really important to me that [my kids] be a part of this school. Those were sacrifices my [students] understood, my principal understood," he said.

"It was a rite of passage," Yolich said of the sacrifices parents had to make just to get in the door. "It kind of gets you prepared for what you’re about to do while you’re here."

The school now accepts students through a "lottery," but the people haven't changed, he said.

"The same types of families come to this school. The parents who want to provide opportunities for their kids. Parents that want them to come to a safe place and want to get all these wonderful people around them. Educated, worldly, sophisticated, musical," he said.

There are Ivy Leaguers like Matsuzawa and teachers who have traveled the world. There are students born to single, teenage moms and children traveling from all over the city to play music, he said.

"There are all kinds of stories in this building, and people in this building share those stories with kids. You don’t find that a lot," Yolich said. 

"I think they’ve gotten something they can pass on to other people. A good story, a good experience. 'I was a part of the People’s Music School and we did this.'"