Katie Weinel knew that a stellar GPA was key to getting into medical school.
“But I think that while I was an undergraduate at UNC-Chapel Hill, I learned the most not from my classes, like biochemistry or molecular biology, but from leading Musical Empowerment,” said Weinel, who is in her first year at the UNC School of Medicine. Musical Empowerment matches UNC students with children in the community to give them private music lessons.
“Music taught me perseverance and how to have confidence when playing in front of an audience,” said Weinel, who plays the flute and violin. “These are skills that you carry with you always.”
“I think the arts, and music in particular, are amazing tools for social change, bettering a community,” she said. “It is a language that everyone understands.”
Her senior year Weinel learned from her faculty adviser, Emil J. Kang, UNC’s executive director for the arts, that there was talk of forming a new service group related to the arts which would be a subset of the Carolina Center for Public Service’s Buckley Public Service Scholars program. The BPSS program gives UNC students who want to be involved in public service a framework. Undergraduates pledge to do at least 300 hours of community service. Weinel asked to help push this arts initiative to an immediate reality.
With a lot of hard work from key players, including Ryan Nilsen and Lynn Blanchard at the Carolina Center for Public Service; Aaron Shackelford, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts; Weinel and Kang, the new program, Arts in Public Service Fellows recently accepted its first 20 students. Two weeks ago, they began journeying out, volunteering at arts organizations, and exploring how the arts can be a tool for social change.
Some of the groups they are working with are Hidden Voices, Sacrificial Poets, The ArtsCenter, Durham Arts Council, Theater Delta, Boston Urban Music Project, and Triangle ArtWorks.
‘A huge challenge’
After Kang began at UNC in 2005, he took the Tar Heel bus tour, which is a five-day trip across North Carolina.
“I realized from this trip that the university’s commitment to the state was such a big part of what makes up the university,” Kang said. “It seemed to me like a huge challenge – what could we do at Carolina Performing Arts that has some connection to this commitment that did not seem contrived or fly-by night?”
Then in 2007, Kang went to a presentation by students involved in the Carolina Center for Public Service, which Blanchard leads. “I asked Lynn if there was any way that we could create a dedicated program that looks at the arts in public service. She thought it was a great idea,” Kang said. But the barriers that often exist for new ideas, including funding, were there.
In 2013, the perfect storm occurred. Weinel got involved, and seed money became available via The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create and support the Arts@TheCore program that puts the performing arts at UNC’s core. Shackelford agreed to create and teach a course as part of this new program. Service-Learning in America, offered through the American Studies Department, explores how the arts are tools of social change in our country. Course requirements include the students doing service hours in art organizations.
“We are approaching it as an historical overview and looking at a number of different movements,” said Shackelford. Movements since abolition are explored. The last three weeks of the course focus on Art and Social Change in North Carolina.. “We will look at Moral Monday and how North Carolina musicians have responded to this movement.”
Last year, a choir visited an American Studies classroom. “They talked about how their music is an expression of their faith, and started singing a hymn. Members of the choir and students started crying from the sheer beauty and power of the moment,” Shackelford said. “I had no idea of the religious convictions of the students, but it tied the entire room together in a way that no lecture could accomplish.”
The 20 students who were accepted into the APSF had to first be Buckley Scholars, like Aditi Borde, a UNC junior chemistry major.
Like most of her fellow students, Borde does not intend to make her living in the art world. She chose to do her service hours with Carrboro’s nonprofit Art Therapy Institute..
“I thought volunteering with this group would relate back to my premed background and my interest in the arts.” said Borde, who is on a UNC dance team. “This has offered more connections in my life and opened my eyes to what is out there in ways to give back to the community.”
Though it took several years to happen, Kang is thrilled that this idea is now making its first ripples in the community.
“I like to think that we had to wait for the right set-up. We had to have Aaron and Katie here for it to work,” he said. “We see great potential.”
Deborah Meyer writes about the arts every month. Contact her at email@example.com