Amplifying Youth Voices and Elevating Black Futures
By Amber Hamilton Executive Director, Memphis Music Initiative
When The Hershey Company first approached our organization, Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), about a partnership, I was excited but cautious. The enthusiasm was easy; I am a Kit Kat® girl all the way (I have to hide them at Halloween because I’ll easily eat them all before a single trick-or-treater arrives) and the Hershey brand has traditionally enjoyed a strong reputation both for their products and community engagement efforts. We love any opportunity to highlight the artistic talents of our young people in Memphis — to show the world how unique, thoughtful, and soulful their voices are, literally and figuratively. But as someone who is charged with ensuring extraordinary care of the young people we engage, I have to be absolutely sure that our young people are never exploited: never used to show that a company is now “woke” in this post-George Floyd era; never activated as a marketing tool showcasing their creative genius while their humanity is repeatedly denied. In this majority-Black city overflowing with talent and promise, but often deficient in ladders to economic mobility, we don’t need marketing and superficiality — we need commitment and solidarity.
So how do we make sure a partner truly understands who our young people are and what we are trying to accomplish at MMI? How do we make sure this is authentic community partnership and not a gimmick?
We observed very closely how Hershey engaged with us. They listened carefully to our approach to the work, to our commitment to music instruction, creative expression, creative liberation and anti-adultist practices. They welcomed the opportunity to work directly with our young people as they developed this campaign. Executives from across their organization generously gave their time to meet with our youth and share insights into how a company puts a campaign together. They listened to those students’ ideas about how they would want to be represented. They honored our work, asked how they could help, respected our knowledge in the creative youth development space, and demonstrated that they saw the tremendous talent we see in our young people every day.
More than Music
At MMI, we work very hard to ensure that our programs don’t just make young people better musicians, but that they also promote whole child development. For us, music is a starting point to encourage young people to map ambitious journeys for themselves using the skills and conversations we build together in music classes. Memphians come from a long line of musical innovators who not only changed the music world, but penned soundtracks to social change. We want young people to become creatively immersed in their past, critically engaged with the present, and more able to determine their future through the power of music and arts.
Memphis is a city where 51 percent of Black workers make less than $15 per hour, and where the Black child poverty rate is more than 40 percent. It is also ranked the fifth most segregated city in the nation. The solution to those problems isn’t better saxophone players. So, while we teach music instruction and host creative tracks (including production, songwriting, composition and more), we make sure to involve youth in a dialogue about what they want to say and change in the world.
We co-design the curriculum activities with them, listen to their ideas on what they want to focus on, and create leadership roles for them within the supporting activities. During music instruction time, this usually looks like leadership circles where different participants have the ability to “conduct” the group, assigning help for those who need it and ensuring that the group is progressing as a whole. During other discussion-focused activities, young people do everything from curating and leading the topics for the day to evaluating each other and giving useful feedback. When we have open positions for staff who will work directly with youth, we include those young people in the interview process as well. Youth voice and leadership is at the heart of our work. If young people are to move to the pursuit of collective liberation and mobilize power for change, they have to know how to lead.
A Vision for a Bright Future
As you can see, we have a lot to do. My vision is that in 10 or 20 years, many of our current program participants will be using their creative talents to lead this city, from the mayor’s office to organizations like MMI. Partners like Hershey show our young people that they are valued, seen, and heard even on the largest platforms in the world. Everyone is so excited to see themselves reflected on those wrappers! To have the right partner highlight our work in all of the right ways, is simply a dream come true.