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Rachel Herndon

Rachel Herndon | Martin Scholar

Toward Sustainable Sparkle: Examining Peace Choirs as Engines of Change

by Donna Emert
Originally written Spring 2013

Martin Scholar Rachel Herndon is taking a hard look under the hood at what appears to be a beautiful engine of change: peace choirs.

She wants to make sure that peace choirs are viable, sustainable tools for cultural exchange and international peace keeping. So she’s researching their effectiveness at promoting peace efforts in regions of conflict. It’s part of her yearlong research project through the University’s Martin Institute.

Peace choirs bring vocalists from around the world to the U.S and other nations, to sing timeless music that is often central to their culture. Clothed in traditional forms of dress, they sing, show, and tell their own stories and the stories of their people. They also provide a vehicle for American children to travel abroad, with the same goal of cross-cultural exchange and personal connection--- the underpinnings of peace.

Herndon, a double major in applied music: voice, and international studies, has experienced first-hand the magic of the Asante Children’s Choir, a peace choir comprised of about 24 East African children, ages nine to 12.

“One of things that I was absolutely blown away by is hearing the stories of these children and their circumstances,” says Herndon. “They come from way more difficult backgrounds than anyone you probably know in the U.S., but they still have this amazing joy. It’s not just that they’re your average, everyday, happy kids; they have a sparkle.”

The choir’s performance is high energy, igniting audiences with both the music and the authenticity of the joy the kids bring to it, says Herndon.
“When they perform music, it’s more than a performance. It is connected to their culture and to their experience. And they have this gratitude that maybe a lot of U.S. children are lacking because they have so much. It’s just beautiful to watch, just the smiles on their faces.”

Between sets of the Asante Choir performance, one child comes forward to tell their own experience and their circumstances. Many of them are orphans. Most live in poverty. Their goal is to bring awareness to the needs of children in their home countries.

Herndon finds children to be powerful ambassadors.

“At the concert I went to there were upwards of eight hundred people in attendance,” she recalled. “So all those people are getting exposed to Rwandan culture, and how the war there has affected these children’s lives. It allows the audience to gain a personal appreciation of what they’ve been through, and makes them want to do something about it.”

In addition to better quantifying their impact, Herndon is investigating how non-profit efforts to support peace choirs are funded so that she might identify some best practices that can be applied to make these efforts sustainable. Acquiring that information makes advocacy for the programs possible.

On the international studies side of her double-major, Herndon’s looking at global resources and development.

“With these kinds of projects, you get to experience the sparkly side of things--the concerts and the interaction with the children. I am looking at how effective one program is in comparison to similar programs: How are they using their funding? What have they learned is a better way to do things?” she asks.

Herndon has some inside connections: Her former Pasco High School choir teacher, Mel Haug, works very closely with the Asante Choir. And she knows the choir’s sound engineer.

Haug went to Africa with several others and auditioned hundreds of children. The Living Room Church helped fund the long, costly flight of the selected choir members to the U.S. Many peace choirs are funded by churches.

The choir has been performing on the West Coast, staying with American families whenever possible, so that choir children too are exposed to a new culture: They experience American family life and traditions—like the thanksgiving feast—first hand.

Herndon’s project is groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary, globally focused stuff.

“To do something that combines both of my majors, rather than just always having my music on the side, helps me see the possibilities of working in an occupation that makes use of both of them,” says Herndon. “Dr. Smith and all the advisers want to help you take advantage of and incorporate your focuses. And they want to help make you the lead candidate for that career.”

The great advantage of combining music and diplomacy, she suggests, is that music actually is a universal language. “Speaking” it offers a huge diplomatic advantage:

“People have an interest in creating stronger intercultural relations, and in using music as a tool to do that,” says Herndon. “Everybody understands music. Even if they don’t have a background in it or speak the language of the lyrics, they can still connect with it.”