Wednesday day was THE BEST! I think it's better explained through the photos I have on Facebook, but seeing the escalators outside in the previously most dangerous neighborhood in Medellin which was the murder capital of the world now decorated with beautiful murals was absolutely incredible! I also got to eat my first real salad and wheat bread with a friend of a friend from Luther who has been one of the most helpful, kindest persons towards me, doing things only close friends/family would do back home. It seems there is no such thing as a stranger here-paisa, as locals are called here, will follow you when you're going the wrong way after you ask for directions, they'll find someone who is going that way to accompany you, they'll pay the difference when you don't have change, nothing but kind, helpful, hospitable people (though I've been warned this isn't the case in Bogota). Not to mention Wed. was topped with biking in the middle of a highway and all over the city for 18k (a little over 11 miles) with HUNDREDS of other bikers and to think they do this on a weekly basis! Oksy to return to the electric stairs as they're called here.
To think that this is where guns sounded, people were forced to join guerrilla groups, and people had to climb 385 steps and then go down a steep hill to get to any type of manner of city center, is dumbfounding!!! I went up the escalators saw the beautiful mist kissing the tops of the mountains and overlooking the entire city of Medellin. The only sounds I Heard were of kids playing and people talking. The only things I saw were beautiful murals, a kid playing with a recycling bin, and lots of plants. I was even thanked for visiting. The locals didn't even know about this and thought it was still a very unsafe place. I wish we as a northern hemisphere would accept we don't know everything (not even close!) and would bumble ourselves to look at our "less developed" counterparts in South America. Those stairs, the metro, the gondolas, a free bike-loan system (like NiceRide), and more than weekly road closures for bikes only, and the incredible free, fitness complexes in multiple neighborhoods throughout Medellin, not to mention La Red itself, available to any youth in the city, in all 27 neighborhoods!, are just some of the lessons we can learn. I saw true access, adaptation, and more than anything, an increidbly investment in arts and culture, both the physical capital and the art itself. La Red de musica is only one of the many programs, they also have dance, acting, visual arts, ceramics, and of course this doesn't include sports programs. Music is certainly the most intensive, but Medellin is a true model for other cities to follow.
And the stats match the investment: <5 teen pregnancies (used to be an epidemic), 1/350 students joined a combo or gang in a neighborhood notorious for them, not to mention how articulate EVERY student that I interviewed was. I'm still tabulating surveys, but it is sufficient to say according to the ARC tool I used, these kids are pretty dang self-determined. I think a lot of it comes from the focus and need/opportunity to practice. In addition to ensemble rehearsals here, which only happen weekly, so they have to practice. Instruments are kept at the sede and they can come between 8-11 and 2-6 to practice. I'll write more on the exact structure of La Red later, but structured time is only 3-6 hours/week maximum. THat means the rest of the time is them practicing, planning, conversing, for themselves. And youth are choosing this program from many other options. So why aren't we looking to Medellin as a model? Because they're not spending their money on marketing, on international tours, on being missionaries elsewhere-they're investing in their community, every single dollar.
Of course, nothing is a panacea, and being 100% funded by government funds has its challenges-particularly guaranteed work (you are lucky to have a 9 month contract), budget cuts (the city accord says they have to guarantee funding for the program, but doesn't say how much), and like any government, the politics that go with this. They let go of an amazing woman who was the director the past three years because a new mayor took hold and they've switched locations of many of the veteran directors of each sede, one may suggest, to gain control. I'll stay neutral, and will say the new director is wonderful and very focused on adding more cultural ensembles-an African ensemble is due to begin in October, and I had the pleasure of watching a Colombian ensemble, made up of entirely Colombian instruments, and a "contemporary ensemble" that gave an amazing concert, all music from Latin America. I didn't have the pleasure of seeing the tango orchestra (I chose to go to the parent choir instead), but I know it exists. Some of the directors said youth chose 70% of music and when I walked into any rehearsal, I didn't hear the traditional, Western European classics-they do 1 or 2, so the youth know them, but I heard directors arranging Grease, students asking to play soundtracks like Titanic, lots of Colombian rhythms, learning about the music of their own country!
A director said something yesterday that has really stuck with me-Latin America used to only see these instruments on television. THere was an incredible colonization and if you had the grand privilege of these instruments being available it was guaranteed you would play "their' music-the classical standards we're all accustomed to. But La Red offers something different-in addition to a familial environment where you learn about yourself and others, La Red offers a chance to practice one of these "televisoin instruments" in your own neighborhood-and to play music that is from here. That doesn't happen elsewhere! Of course I'm paraphrasing, but he's right, and now I understand why so many Sistema programs are instrumental. Sadly, the voice isn't seen as a hot commodity because it's something we already have, (I won't make the counterargument of that being why it is the most powerful and accessible here!), but now I understand at least, to some degree, why these youth are so determined, disciplined, and tenacious!
I also found it interesting that the only time the students I interviewed had worked was during holiday. Without tabulating exactly at least 75% of interviewees were studying music and 100% were studying something with about 95% of them in formal univeristy. This is noting that there were probably students working who couldn't attend the site when I was there, but the majority of students of this age group (18-22) were studying. Definitely surprising. Because even 10 years ago, in some of these neighborhoods it would be unthinkable that their child was going to college, let alone to study music. One of the teachers did mention the problem this is creating in Medellin of having 42 of one instrument, for example, with only so many professional ensembles, increasing the competition and the possibility of low wages, etc. He thinks the next step is to create a Simon Bolivar equivalent. But this won't happen because the program is purely social-yes some are first chairs in Brussels and Italy (which was news to me!) and 80% of the professional ensemble players were students in La Red, but the money they invest is only towards a social aim. My point is not to argue whether this is good or bad, but rather to demonstrate the possibilities and opportunities that La Red has made possible to ALL children (in those 27 neighborhoods, they do have programs in the wealthy neighborhoods too!). Equal opportunity for all-5300 youth choosing this over other extracurriculars and street activities.
Get ready St. Paul. I'm ready to make a proposal to whoever the new mayor is!!