Music for Social Change

A group of 27 self-advocates came together at Augsburg College in Minneapolis for “Music for Social Change” on Saturday, July 21st. Organized by Advocating Change Together (ACT) and the Governor’s Planning Council on People with Developmental Disabilities, the event marked an exploration into the historical and emotional aspects of music as a tool in creating social change. As participant and songwriter Martha Hage states, “Music has played an important role in the civil rights and other movements, but there is a lack of it when it comes to disability rights. We wish that it did play a larger role.” Advocates devoted the workshop to increasing focus on this tool in the movement for disability rights.

The day-long event began with a meditation on just what it means to be a person with a disability. ACT’s Mary Kay Kennedy and Rick Cardenas led discussions which helped participants answer: “What values are important to me?” and “What do we stand for?” Advocates determined that the disability rights movement is committed to courage, justice, freedom, honesty, and action and it stands for the rights to be noticed, to speak up for oneself and others, and to preserve respect for each other.

Fueled with enthusiasm by these definitions, participants “got on board” with the music laid down by folk singers Bret Hesla and Larry Dittberner. As the group sang through affirmations such as “We Shall Overcome,” “This Little Light of Mine,” and “How Great Thou Art,” people held and clapped hands, smiled and cried together. The songs took on new life as people brought their own experiences to them, inventing verses with messages as simple, moving and direct as “We will work together.”

In addition to enhancing the jamboree with guitar and banjo, Augsberg professors of Social Work Maria Brown and Vern Bloom expanded on the historical context of “Music for Social Change.” Brown and Bloom focused on two examples of music’s ability to stir social change. First, they referred to the Southern Tenant farmer movement of the early twenties. Songs of this movement—such as “Bread and Roses”—shattered color barriers between black and white tenants and helped union organizers to stay together through gun attacks on their homes.

The professors also discussed the importance of “We Shall Overcome” in the Civil Rights Movement. They cited a particular incident in 1968 where a non-violent community-living experiment in Highland, Alabama was raided by local deputies. When protesters began to sing the song, their fear quieted, even as men with guns and billy clubs paced through the room and ransacked their belongings. A witness exclaimed, “When we started to sing ‘We are not afraid,’ Nature came into that room. Water and trees came in. The raiders nervously retreated and had to leave.” This evidence points to the unique power of music to bring people together and to organize for social change.

Commenting on this power, Martha Hage stated, “Music can touch people. It can touch your soul. People can remember its message.” Prof. Brown adds that, “Music is something people of all abilities can participate in. It brings a sudden energy to protesters and reminds people of where they have come from. They feel inspiration and discover a ‘we can do this’ mentality.” She continues,”When I’ve sung with people, our relationship changes—I feel closer to them.”

The event closed with participants working together to write their own social change songs. Their compositions admitted pain in questions like “How many times will I be called a ‘mentally retarded’ person?” and included messages that anyone can learn from, such as, “Our spirit is the same as those who think they’re normal,” “Nothing about us without us” and “Label jars, not people.” While the disability community still faces many obstacles in the progress towards free and equal treatment, “Music for Social Change” impacted people like Beth Blick who insists that, after the day of singing, she feels “more hope for what can happen.”