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Bob James founded Student Voices & Power of Song with the belief that music can be a powerful force in bringing youth together. After completing his first project with Buffalo’s Lafayette High School, he is even more certain that youth-led music opportunities will help pave the way towards a brighter future.

His first project brought together a diverse team of high schoolers to write, create, and record their own song and music video. Many of the students were immigrants or refugees from Congo, Malaysia, Puerto Rico, Somalia, Syria, Tanzania and Vietnam. The students were representative of Lafayette’s incredibly rich student diversity; in fact, the Westside high school has been named one of the most diverse schools in New York State, and there are more than 21 languages spoken in the building. Although the students began the project with different cultural backgrounds and interests, they all shared a common desire to spread a positive message through music. When James asked them to brainstorm ideas for the music video, all of them echoed the same themes: peace, unity, freedom, love and pride in their school.

Giving the students an opportunity to meet with local professionals was a crucial aspect of the project: James explained that one of his primary goals was to introduce students to “career opportunities that they’re not going to hear about in the guidance counselor’s office.” Over the course of eight weeks, James brought in several of Buffalo’s top musicians and producers to help the students turn these themes into a song. They wrote lyrics together, practiced singing with an experienced vocal teacher, met with a professional guitar player and African drum teacher, and visited a local recording studio to learn about the world of digital production. He noted with gratitude, that none of these opportunities would have been possible without the support provided by Rich Family Foundation. He shared, “Rich’s involvement allowed us to bring in so many working musicians who are supporting themselves doing something they love in the world of arts, music, and media. They helped plant seeds in the minds of the kids and expose them to a larger kind of world vision for what careers are possible in music, the arts and other creative fields.”

Student Voices & Power of Song helped expose the students to future possibilities, and also empowered them to develop the skills that will help get them there. In addition to inspiring their musical and technological interests, students had the opportunity to cultivate key life skills for success, such as group problem solving, networking, team building, creative thinking and communication. James explained that the project prioritized student-centered learning, which allowed the high schoolers to become more excited about their education and take ownership of their work. James sees music-based learning as a particularly effective method of increasing student engagement, explaining that music can serve as a “universal language” and a “side door into re-embracing education.”

The project culminated in an assembly presentation where the students shared their finished product — a song titled “We Are Freedom” — which was met with an auditorium full of cheers and applause. The team of students, school staff, participating musicians and associated organizations ended the school year discussing options to build on what they accomplished and continue the project for the 2018-19 school year.

As James reflected on the experience, he was proud of all that the students accomplished and the positive message that they helped to share. James believes that this project was “a perfect way to think globally and act locally, especially because we put our attention on a local community that actually represents the larger world.” Because Rich’s is also based in this community, their support was even more meaningful to James. Looking ahead to the future, he is grateful that Student Voices & Power of Song will continue engaging Westside youth in creating music for a better world as Rich Family Foundation has committed to support another program in spring 2019.