Old Songs New Opportunities

There are CDs and booklets of the women singing their traditional songs
in their native tongues and in English. They are available at the Erie Art Museum’s gift shop and online store. For more information about the Old Songs New Opportunities Project contact Kelly Armor at the Erie Art Museum, 814-459-5477.

Erie is home to a unique program that brings more music and culture into local daycares. The Old Songs New Opportunities project is a partnership led by the Erie Art Museum with over ten collaborating agencies. Erie is the new home for over 10,000 people who were forced out of their native countries. They have fled genocide, civil war, or terrible persecution because of their religion, ethnicity, or political beliefs. They come from Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, the Ukraine, Bhutan, and other troubled areas. They are here legally and welcomed by the United States government, but they are expected to learn English, adapt to our culture, and get jobs — a large burden for people who have lost their homes, bank accounts, and even family members due to war.

Old Songs New Opportunities addresses financial and cultural needs: Erie's refugee women are culturally rich, but economically poor. They need training and employment opportunities. Their rich folk culture can be an anchor for these women as they grapple with the challenges of a new life in a new country. It can also be a treasure for our community. While most Americans have lost the ability to sing with and to our children, immigrants from traditional cultures instinctively use song to bond with and educate their young. Our city's daycare centers are seeking qualified employees as well as quality multicultural programming.

The Museum first works with local agencies that support refugees (the Multicultural Community Resource Center, the International Institute of Erie, St. Benedict Education Center, and Catholic Charities) in identifying women who love to sing, want to work with children, and have proficient English. Then the Museum’s folklorist teams up with the Better Kid Care Program of the Penn State Co-op Extension Office to give these women over 50 hours of accredited instruction in basic child development theory, discipline and alternatives, the role of the childcare worker, and how art, music, and movement aid physical and mental development. During the class the women teach their traditional children’s songs to one another, and create singable English versions of all the songs. The women all do over 90 hours of internship at local daycares such as Early Connections, St. Martin’s Early Learning Center, the YMCA Downtown Daycare, Mercyhurst Child Learning Center, and Penn State Behrend Early Learning Center where they practice using their repertoire in an American setting.

In the Spring of 2004, thanks to grants from the Erie Community Foundation and ArtsErie, nine African women took part in the first training. The project was a resounding success. Eight of the nine women gained employment in a local daycare, and one of the trainees opened her own accredited, home-based daycare in 2012. The project received additional funding to run a second course in 2005, training an additional 13 women from Sudan, Puerto Rico, Iraq, the Ukraine, and Russia. Despite their cultural differences, the women took on the challenge of learning each other’s songs. They remarked with great humor and irony that although they once complained singing in English was hard, it now seemed easy compared to singing in Arabic (if they were Ukrainian) or in Russian (if they were African.) Again, the daycares that hosted the interns were enthusiastic about the women's presence. The staff and children loved the range and vitality of the many new songs the women taught them. Ten of these women have since been hired to work at local daycares.

In 2011 we finished a third training with 15 women from Bhutan, the Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. This was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the PNC Foundation. Seven of these women were hired in childcare positions, and all the women have presented their songs at local conferences, Girl Scout meetings, and community festivals.

This project is gratifying on so many levels. All the participating women remarked that up until this project they had virtually stopped singing their native songs. They were living American lives where, due to school and work schedules, televisions and video games, they had very little direct contact with their children. This project helped them spend more time interacting with their own children as they taught them the songs they learned from the other women. They also made several poignant and heartfelt comments to our child development trainer that the classes had immediately improved the peace of their own households. These women were entirely capable of raising children in their native countries, but felt at a loss to parent their increasingly Americanized offspring. Their experience of childhood was to be respectful and quiet around adults and not to question authority. American children, in contrast, are allowed to be strong willed, ask bold questions, and complain. The training gave the women concrete skills to redirect their own children, and to see their behavior not as bad, but different and typical of the American way children become self-reliant and discover their own identity.

The songs are truly a treasure to anyone who works with young children. There is a reason that they have been passed down generation after generation. They are catchy, encourage physical coordination, strengthen improvisation skills, teach co-operation, and bring real celebration and joy to any classroom.

It is wonderful to see these immigrant women valued as a resource, and that properly leveraging their indigenous knowledge has turned them into marketable employees. Those working in daycares have blossomed. They have more confidence, and clearly love their jobs. One daycare supervisor who hired several refugee women was effusive about what they brought to her center. She was humbled by their gratitude and constantly amazed at how much patience they had with the children. She related that one worker discovered that a particular traditional lullaby was the only thing that would calm a sick baby. She sang that song for four hours straight, something that an American would never have had the stamina for.

In September 2012 the Erie Art Museum was awarded a National Leadership Grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Service and a matching grant from the Erie Community Foundation for an expansion of Old Songs New Opportunities (OSNO). Over three years the Museum and partner agencies will carry out these activities:
    • Professional development at every site of Erie County’s three largest child care providers, Early Connections, the Y of Greater Erie, and GECAC HeadStart. All childcare professionals will learn how to fully integrate song into their curriculum and why singing is vital to children’s development. Each site will choose and learn three to five songs that can be used throughout the facility. These songs will be chosen from a repertoire of over 50 songs from over 10 different languages that have been collected in Erie from the refugee community. All songs have singable English versions and are already being used in many daycare classrooms with great success. The training team will include recent OSNO graduates.
    • Follow-up training for the early care providers that includes producing new media and a parent out-reach event. Every site will produce short videos featuring their children singing and information about music’s importance for child development.
    • Job training and internships for 30 more refugee women who want to learn to work in an American daycare and to use their traditional songs on the job.
    • Presentations at national conferences and the release of a CD featuring international children’s songs collected in Erie.

The project directly address the fact that one in four Erie City residents—and almost one in six Erie County residents live in poverty which is well above state and national averages. Children suffer disproportionately; approximately 25% of those living in poverty in Erie County are under the age of 18. This has a detrimental overall impact on the community’s quality of life and economic growth, and on children’s chances of future success. Children growing up in poverty are often not prepared to start school compared to their more affluent peers. This project will reach 409 staff the the three partnering childcare agencies, the 1800 children and infants they serve, and all the children’s parents.

The outcomes of this project are to improve the lives of Erie’s young children by making their environment musically rich. This will build children’s social, cognitive and motor skills and allow them to start kindergarten at the same level as their more affluent peers. Benefits will also accrue to the daycare teachers and parents as they learn to use music effectively. Finally, this project assists refugee women in leveraging their traditional knowledge to gain employment.

Putting traditional songs to work has put women to work, and the benefit ripples out to touch American daycare workers and the daycare children. Music makes for strong cultures, strong education, and strong economic growth!