‘Sing’ for social justice

Thursday night, Dwight Hall combated near-freezing temperatures with hot apple cider and singing.

Community Sing is a project initiated by Micah Hendler ’11 and Mari Oye ’11 to unite students with the surrounding New Haven community through song. The marketing fellows of Dwight Hall, the largest student-run nonprofit organization in the country, hosted an event in the Dwight Hall Chapel Thursday to promote the cause of Shelter Now, a movement to provide housing for the homeless this winter. Although donations were collected at the beginning of the event, students present said the benefits were mostly intangible.

Yalies and New Haven residents come together in song with a message of social justice and community. Dwight Hall hosts regular community sings in its chapel.
Eva Galvan
Yalies and New Haven residents come together in song with a message of social justice and community. Dwight Hall hosts regular community sings in its chapel.

Thirty participants, mainly Yale students, sat grouped in a half-circle in the middle of the chapel, all intently gazing at Hendler as he taught the songs and strummed his guitar. The doors were left open and the music spilled out into the crisp, clear fall night.

Hendler and Oye decided earlier this year they wanted to host a community sing at Yale, after both had participated in local ones in their hometowns.

“Community Sing has been around since humans started singing,” Hendler explained. “It’s just people getting together singing.”

Both sophomores said they had a plethora of reasons why they wanted to host the Community Sing — from encouraging their friends who had sung in high school to contribute their talents non-competitively, to enhancing solidarity in the community.

Stasha Rosen ’11, a participant of the night’s gathering, said she only started singing after coming to Yale — before, she only sang to and for herself. Rosen said she came to Community Sing without really knowing what it entailed, but the allure of singing was too great to miss out.

“Music is one of the best things that we as humans do,” Rosen said, smiling. “So that is why we share it with other.”

Alex Knopp, the recently-named executive director of Dwight Hall, shared his beliefs on the importance of community singing — he even showed his old banjo head, his “most prized possession,” signed by folk musician and political activist Pete Seeger, and a photo of 10-year-old Knopp with Seeger, a family acquaintance.

The first song taught, coincidentally, was Seeger’s classic, “If I Had a Hammer.” Other songs included one by a Palestinian poet and put to music by an Israeli composer and a song from Senegal, with lyrics that roughly translate to “Let us not walk separately, let us walk together.” Music of kinds can be an effective agent for social change, Knopp said.

And, indeed, social reform was on the minds of the organizers of Community Sing: Representatives from Shelter Now, an advocacy group working to reopen the New Haven Overflow Shelter, after it shut down due to city budget cuts in New Haven, were asked to attend the event, give a brief overview of their mission and raise funds.

Hendler participated in a community sing in his hometown of Washington, D.C., with composer and member of internationally acclaimed vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. Hendler said Barnwell ran her community sings by teaching the songs by ear, thus eliminating the ability to read music as a requirement.

Hendler said that one of his goals is to bring all varieties of people out and singing together — regardless of actual ability.

“In vehicular Western culture, you’re a talented musician or you’re an audience member — and I think that that is not the way a lot of other cultures function,” Hendler said. “I think it’s ridiculous that you don’t sing because you don’t think you’re good enough.”

The organizers said they hope the event will not be a one-time recurrence; their ultimate goal is to host Community Sing bimonthly.

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