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Northeast Ohio Students Write Songs of Protest and Hope

Students from Garfield Middle School in Lakewood perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. [Photo: Maltz Museum]

Lakewood choir teacher Lisa Richards doesn’t typically talk about bullying, racism and gun violence with her students at Garfield Middle School.

Nevertheless, the students have a lot to say about the topics and recently wrote songs promoting social change.

One of their songs, “Guns Down,” is a response to mass shootings and calls for amending laws and spreading awareness that no one person is alone.

Another song, “Turn Around,” carries a message of redemption.

“’Turn Around’ was based on an idea that anyone at any point can chose to turn from hate and become a positive force in the world,” Richards said.

Richards’ middle school students recently tied for first place with both songs in the annual “Stop the Hate Youth Sing Out” competition.

Students from 16 Northeast Ohio middle and high schools wrote songs for the contest, organized by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. After a visit to the museum, students create songs with their peers about standing up to hate with the help of teaching musicians with Roots of American Music (ROAM), a local non-profit.

“Part of the mission of Roots of American Music is to provide arts education,” said Kevin Richards (no relation to Lisa Richards), artistic director of ROAM. “This is a perfect fit for us as we are using traditional American music – blues and jazz and folk or gospel, Cajun, bluegrass, early country music – and we’re preserving and presenting that type of music, but combining it with a positive message.”

The students determine what they want to write about and the songs come together within seven days.

“We start with a concept,” he said. “Maybe a chorus is written on day one. Day two a couple of verses are written.”  

About 1,000 local students performed their songs together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this month, according to Dahlia Fisher, director of external relations at the Maltz Museum. The winning schools received anti-bias education grants.

“The students become so empowered,” Lisa Richards said. “It goes beyond the songwriting. It becomes a part of them, and they carry that with them throughout their life.”  

Now in its 10 th year, the “Sing Out” is in tandem with another Maltz Museum contest, “Stop the Hate Youth Speak Out.” Students in grades six through 12 write essays about real-life experiences and compete for scholarships. That competition is open with deadlines in January.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.