Second in a series about the 2013 Manhattan Institute Simon Prize and Cornuelle Award winners for social entrepreneurship
It is Saturday morning in Harlem, but, outside a townhouse on 126th Street, it sounds like a Sunday. This is no storefront church but an institution that is preserving the great musical tradition of African-American gospel music and passing it along to a new generation that may never have heard of Mahalia Jackson or Sam Cooke. And its helping to steer kidssome of whom take long bus and subway rides to get hereonto the right path.
Gospel for Teens began when founder Vy Higginsens daughter Noel was admitted to New Yorks well-known Professional Performing Arts High School. Higginsen, a New York radio and advertising industries veteran, expected that Noel would be exposed to the full range of musical styles and history. As pleased as she was that her daughter would, in fact, become versed in everything from Bach to Gershwin, Higginsen found herself disappointed because she believed that some core African-American contributions to American music were not well represented. In particular, this daughter of a Pentecostal minister was disappointed that students were not being introduced to black gospel music, an inspiring art form at the heart of much contemporary American popular music.
Higginsens inspiration was artistic, not religious. Her goal was to foster an appreciation and continuation of gospel music as an art form not connected to a specific religious denomination. ("Gospel" music here is not to be confused with traditional spirituals; rather, it is the music that evolved from the services of the Church of God in Christ that shaped such performers as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Whitney Houston). A longtime Harlem radio host, musical theater producer, and Ebony magazine advertising sales executive, Higginsen put her entrepreneurial skills to use by starting the program that has become Gospel for Teens. In the years since its 2005 establishment for a small group of high school students, Gospel for Teens has not only created a structure for passing on the gospel music tradition; it has become a haven and engine of uplift for African-American adolescents from throughout the New York metropolitan area. On any Saturday morning during the school year, teenagers (many with their parents) from the Bronx, Brooklyn, New Jersey, and even eastern Pennsylvania, come to the small brownstone on the block where Higginsens family has lived for 100 years. They come first to audition for a freshman beginners choir. This past year, there were 145 applicants for 72 spots ("They have to at least be able to carry a tune," says Higginsen). Veterans of the program continue in the advanced and performing choirs. Over the course of the school year, the choirs include a total of 350 students. Board members include Cissy Houston, mother of the late global superstar Whitney Houston and herself an accomplished singer and member of the legendary Sweet Inspirations, which backed Aretha Franklin.
A two-part feature about the organization on 60 Minutes led to national acclaim (the segments won an Emmy award for CBS) and interest from cities around the country. Such acclaim rests in no small part on the fact that Gospel for Teens has become more than just an art program. It has become a way for teenagers, including some from troubled families, to find encouragement for their talent along with a family-style group of peers and mentors. Such benefits were the focus of the uplifting 60 Minutes segments, which is well worth watching: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7361574n. Its nondenominational perspective notwithstanding, it would seem that singing about a higher power and "living the life I sing about" (in the lyrics of one Mahalia Jackson song) simply must be a better influence than rap and hip-hop. Whats more, Gospel for Teens requires members to agree to its "terms of engagement," to which those who get through the audition program (about one in two) must agree, at the risk of expulsion or suspension. There have been a handful of suspensions, sparked by uncooperativeness rather than anything more seriousbut they send a general message.
Far more common are the sorts of testimonials like that of 14-year-old Lorna Courtney, a student at LaGuardia High School, who says that Gospel for Teens "helps me get through my days. Without it, I dont know what I would be doing." She now dreams of Broadway. Seteena Turner credits the program with helping her become an honor student, thanks to its offering "a safe haven and a home away from home."
None of this is to say that there are not a good many participants from strong middle-class families here. Parents attend rehearsals and performances and, like suburban soccer moms and dads, plan wholl bring the drinks and snacks next week. These parents appreciate that theres more than music here. A Columbia University representative meets with students to assist, says Higginsen, "in directing them to appropriate colleges and universities and helping them understand how to finance their education."
Still, the music is the key. The vocal and performance instruction is of the highest quality, with rehearsals aimed at teaching choir members such techniques as how to project their voices effectively and present themselves publicly ("Dont slouch. Youre on stage."). As a result, Gospel for Teens choirs have toured the U.S. and Europeearning pocket money and gaining invaluable experience. Some of the best singers get to perform at the famed Sunday gospel brunch offered by Harlems Red Rooster restaurant, where community residents and tourists alike line up. Some join another project of the Mama Foundation for the Arts: the gospel-based, off-Broadway musical titled Mama, I Want to Sing, based on the life of Higginsens father, a Pentecostal minister, and her sister Doris Troy, a legendary rhythm-and-blues singer in the 1960s and 1970s. The show has played more than 2,500 performances in New York and another 1,000 performances throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. Along with concerts and private grant support, Mama, I Want to Sing helps finance Gospel for Teens.
This is not a program where one looks narrowly to measure specific resultswhether the number of paid performances or the number of college admissions. It has already accomplished the goal that Vy Higginsen set out to reach: the preservation of gospel music within the black community, not just as an aspect of religious worship in a specific church but as an art form that engages and inspires.
Since 2001, Ive helped direct the award program at the Manhattan Institute that recognizes top social entrepreneursthose who develop effective and original approaches to dealing with social problems and who rely mainly on private funding and volunteers to see their idea to fruition. They are leaders of our civil society, doing the things that government cant door cant do as well. We grant up to five $25,000 awards, named for the libertarian thinker Richard Cornuelle (who coined the term "independent sector"), to promising, growing programs. An annual $100,000 lifetime achievement prize, the largest such award for an American nonprofit leader, is named for William E. Simon, the investment finance pioneer and U.S. Treasury secretary, whose book A Time for Truth sounded an alarm about the growing dependence of nonprofit organizations on government funding. Simon Prize winners have included Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Childrens Zone; and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN.
All award winners direct organizations that they founded themselvesand that rely minimally, if at all, on government funding. They are more than just "points of light," however: many seek to extend their reach, whether by growing larger and branching to other cities, or helping others to start similar organizations elsewhere.
Award winners are nominated by donors who have seen the nominees work firsthand, and they are selected by a panel that includes: Les Lenkowsky, professor of philanthropic studies, Indiana University; Adam Meyerson, president, the Philanthropy Roundtable; William Schambra, director, Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal; Anne-Marie Burgoyne, former program officer, Draper-Richards Foundation; and James Piereson, president, William E. Simon Foundation.
This years award presentation will take place in New York on November 5. This is the second profile of this years award winners.
Heres the list of winners from years past:
BUILD, Suzanne McKechnie Klahr, Redwood City, Calif.
The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention, Daniel Reingold, Riverdale, N.Y.
Getting Out and Staying Out, Mark Goldsmith, New York, N.Y.
IDignity, Michael Dippy, Orlando, Fla.
Simon Prize: Brian Lamb, C-SPAN, Washington, D.C.
English @ Work, Maile Broccoli-Hickey, Austin, Tex.
Glamour Gals, Rachel Doyle, Commack, N.Y.
Work Faith Connection, Barbara Elliott and Sandy Schultz, Houston, Tex.
Improved Solutions for Urban Systems, Ann Higdon, Dayton, Ohio
MedWish, Lee Ponsky, Cleveland, Ohio
Simon Prize: Geoffrey Canada, Harlem Childrens Zone, New York, N.Y.
Cristo Rey Network, Rev. John P. Foley, S.J., Chicago, Ill.
REEO, Scott Stimpfel, South Pasadena, Calif.
The Mission Continues, Eric Greitens, St. Louis, Mo.
Civic Builders, David Umansky, New York, N.Y.
SquashBusters, Greg Zaff, Roxbury Crossing, Mass.
Simon Prize: Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, The Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, New York, N.Y.
Rocking the Boat, Adam Green, New York, N.Y.
Cincinnati Works, Dave and Liane Phillips, Cincinnati, Ohio
National Kidney Registry, Garet Hil, Babylon, N.Y.
United Neighborhood Organization, Juan Rangel, Chicago, Ill.
Simon Prize: Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), San Francisco, Calif.
C-CAP (Careers Through Culinary Arts Program), Richard Grausman, New York, N.Y.
Beacon Hill Village, Susan McWhinney-Morse, Boston, Mass.
Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, Robert L. Woodson Sr., Washington D.C.
St. Bernard Project, Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney, New Orleans, La.
GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), Rachel Lloyd, New York, N.Y.
Simon Prize: George T. McDonald, The Doe Fund, Inc., Ready, Willing & Able Program, New York, N.Y
A Home Within, Toni Vaughn Heineman, D.M.H., San Francisco, Calif.
More than Wheels (formerly Bonnie CLAC), Robert Chambers, Lebanon, N.H.
Friendship Circle, Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov, West Bloomfield, Mich.
Reclaim A Youth, Addie Mix, Glenwood, Ill.
Prison Entrepreneurship Program, Catherine Rohr, Houston, Tex.
Simon Prize: Daniel A. Biederman, Bryant Park Corporation and 34th Street Partnership, New York, N.Y.
Inner City Neighborhood Art House, Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, Erie, Pa.
Project K.I.D.Responding to Kids in Devastation, Paige T. Ellison, Fairhope, Ala.
Project Lead the Way, Richard C. Liebich, Clifton Park, N.Y.
Taproot Foundation, Aaron Hurst, San Francisco, Calif.
Volunteers in Medicine Institute, Amy Hamlin, Burlington, Vt.
Mexican Institute of Greater Houston, Jose-Pablo Fernandez, Houston, Tex.
RISE (Resources for Indispensable Schools and Educators), Temp Keller, San Francisco, Calif.
Philadelphia Futures for Youth, Joan C. Mazzotti, Philadelphia, Pa.
Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal, Reverend Mack McCarter, Shreveport, La.
Bridges To Life, John Sage, Houston, Tex.
Center for Teaching Entrepreneurship, ReDonna Rodgers, Milwaukee, Wisc.
Reading Excellence and Discovery Foundation, Al Sikes, New York, N.Y.
Upwardly Global, Jane Leu, San Francisco, Calif.
The First Place Fund for Youth, Amy Lemley and Deanne Pearn, Oakland, Calif.
Living Lands and Waters, Chad Pregracke, East Moline, Ill.
Think Detroit, Michael Tenbusch and Daniel Varner, Detroit, Mich.
Working Today, Sara Horowitz, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Year Up, Gerald Chertavian, Boston, Mass.
Shepherds Hope, William S. Barnes, Orlando, Fla.
College Summit, Jacob Schramm, Washington, D.C.
New Jersey Orators, James G. Hunter, Somerset, N.J.
JUMP: Junior Uniformed Mentoring Program, John and Catherine Dixon, Buffalo, N.Y.
Neighborhood Trust Federal Credit Union/Credit Where Credit Is Due, Mark Levine, New York, N.Y.
The SEED Foundation, Eric Adler and Rajiv Vinnakota, Washington, D.C.
Steppingstone Foundation, Michael Danziger, Boston, Mass.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/howardhusock/2013/09/23/not-from-government-here-to-help-2-gospel-for-teens-in-harlem/