Executives of Tulsa Club Speech - 10/14/16
by Jose Luis Hernandez
It is an honor to be able to speak at the Executives of Tulsa Club. I am grateful to Tom Campbell for inviting me. Exactly two years ago I arrived here as a new Tulsan. Now I can proudly say that I have embraced this city as my own. And what a wonderful city it is! We have some much: parks and trails, our annual fair, ballet, and the touring Broadway shows. And of course, we have the Philbrook, one of the most beautiful museums in the world.
I really enjoy the many options for recreation that the city gives us—every week I get to visit at Lafortune Park to play tennis and then I do a few runs on the Riverside trail, just between 41st and 71st. That distance over and back covers about a 5K. I will be participating in the Tulsa Run this year, my first race ever! (I’ve really come to enjoy running, especially because you can easily gauge progress and with the new technology available you can also track your pace and distance, all in real time.)
In Tulsa, a lot of people care about education and philanthropy. I’ve gotten to meet so many leaders in the field through my work as director of Sistema Tulsa. Interestingly enough I am part of a new wave of educational, religious, and artistic leaders who have also recently arrived or started new leadership roles in the city. People like educator and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gist, Signature Symphony conductor Andres Franco, Philbrook Director Scott Tullen, or my own colleague David Wiggs, the Senior Pastor at Boston Avenue. Many institutions are celebrating major anniversaries (30 and 40 year anniversaries). So it is time to learn from their accomplishments and move them forward into the future.
I am glad that some very traditional institutions are now looking to millennials like me for leadership. And that is good, but even better when we can strike a compromise with colleagues who can remind us of the culture and traditions of the institutions where we serve. I am proud to work at the Boston Avenue church, a community that is open to all who would want to experience God’s love. We are lot of more than iconic building and we want to continue to play a role in the progress of our city. Come visit us, we think deeply and let think for yourself as well. (I think David Wiggs would be proud of me for putting in this plug here this morning).
Now that I’ve touched on the subject of millennials I should say (and quoting data from the Pew Research Group), that this group represents the most diverse population in the history of our country. So obviously this same group will bring about a long lasting change to the American way.
We are very optimistic in spite of the tragic events that have shaped our generation—9-11, Columbine, Katrina. We are more tolerant of races and other groups different from our own. Unfortunately, as a whole, we have become less and less engaged in the political process. I noticed one of your members today brought in signs regarding one of the questions on the next local ballot. That’s good. Regardless of where you stand on the issues it is good to engage in conversations about our future.
Millennials also long for more and deeper human relations, but at the same time, in the Age Facebook and virtual realities this has actually become harder to achieve.
I was born in a small Texas town very close to Mexico. I learned English when I attended a US school for the first time in the 4th grade. I am proud to be a first generation American. My parents grew up in Mexico and met in college. My dad was the book worm, my mom the social butterfly. Opposites attract, right? Here is an explanation by way of physicist David Bohm—when we see seeming polarities, look for the larger truth that contains them both. And so my parent’s larger truth fell into the realm of fear of God, hard work, respect for others, and the belief that strong families are pillars of successful communities.
My early experiences as a volunteer at church and at the local Lion’s Club led me to discern the responsibility to care for others less fortunate than I. At the same time my journey as a student musician taught me how to harness my own imagination. I remember fondly the eye-care crusades that we led for very poor families through the Lion’s Club. I also remember my first piano recitals, how I felt so special because people cared about my work.
I don’t mean to make this autobiographical speech, but I think it is important that I share at least a little bit of my own story because ultimately our stories and experiences clamor to become intertwined. By invoking our shared stories as a metaphor for community, we honor the ultimate goal of our citizenry. The Founding Fathers called this building a “more perfect union.” And yet in spite of our progress, this public “union” is still both the greatest virtue and challenge of our times.
Our personal stories also shed light on why we do what we do. Eric Booth, a teaching artist active at Lincoln Center and a mentor of mine, often quotes an idea that affirms that 80% percent of what we teach is who we are. You can substitute what we teach, with what we think or what we care about. As leaders it is important for us to be mindful of how we conduct ourselves, what we feed our mind, body, and soul. It all makes an impact in how others perceive our influence. Hopefully this 80% analogy is a golden nugget for you to take home.
About 5 years ago, I took a sabbatical and moved to Boston to take part in a special training program for young musicians who are passionate about social justice. (Taking a sabbatical makes me sound like a professor on the verge of retirement, but I was only 27!) I would call this training program a music educator’s version of AmeriCorps. For a year I studied methods to nurture human development through the practice of music alongside fellows from across the US. Together, we became missionaries of the social mission of art, as our sponsor Dr. Abreu would call us.
Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu has been a boundless source of inspiration and energy for me. His educational philosophy, which was first applied in Venezuela is known as El Sistema (or the system). It is thriving in 25 countries around the world and now in Tulsa. There is a new book called "Playing for their Lives" that chronicles the expansion of this important thinker's ideas. I would say that El Sistema works as a living and breathing experiment of how the learning of music can nurture the individual and how the individual can transform his community and lead a fruitful life. And because it is an experiment, there is room for leaders to model each chapter after the needs of the community they serve, and as a natural consequence, after their own aspirations for shaping the common good. This is something that is very appealing to me.
In Tulsa, I am now working with close to 100 students and families who attend the program as members of orchestras and choirs. Each orchestra and choir is a public space that brings students from across the school district to form a diverse community. We do not charge tuition or require an audition. Everyone is free to attend the program if they make a commitment to put in the work (and it is hard work!).
An orchestra is a community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself, says Abreu. And what is it that they need to agree upon? They agree to make music together. And what does that imply? That is a question that I constantly ask myself.
Let’s elaborate on a few ideas—in practice, making music together in an orchestra makes you accountable to the group. You are responsible for the success of the overall music and you cannot let your peers down. This is a quality that is important to succeed in the workforce. Robert Putnam, an academic who has studied the demise and revival of American communities wrote that trust is the dominant predictor of success in any community. If one is reliable; you can surely trust him or her. And if we can trust each other we can make progress.
There are also the physical and metaphysical properties of music. Music is sound but what is sound and what is there? As a musician I have observed several things. First, that sound can move you emotionally—it can lead you to experiences that are sometimes difficult to explain. The fact that you can’t see the sound makes it almost mystical.
I also heard Dr. Abreu refer to the phenomenon of sound as an invisible language. What makes sound so powerful in the context of building community through music is that one does not have talk about the need to work together because integration is already explicit in the goals of music. Voices and instruments in tune and playing in unison or harmony are perfect examples of this same integration. What music does is that it provides a platform where these voices and instruments can meet, without empty rhetoric getting in the way.
When I think of orchestras, I think of the virtues of public spaces. Let’s take parks for example. I am amazed at the new local project called the Gathering Place led by banker and philanthropist George Kaiser. Of course, this will be more than a public park; it is also going to be a platform to bring people together and to interact with each other. When you visit our public parks, whether it is Riverside or Lafortune parks, you can feel the pulse of and celebrate the diversity of our city. These spaces are vibrant and colorful where many languages are spoken and people can experiment with the idea of togetherness. We often hear progressive politicians talk about how we are stronger together; but these promises fall short of ideas for the actual practice of becoming stronger together. Why? (There are no cut and paste formulas that will work for every single city or community.)
Because of this same challenge, leaders must develop opportunities to help people enter into the stories of others. In my case, let me give you an example from a teaching moment at a symphonic rehearsal. There is now a growing anxiety regarding immigration to our country. Our Community Youth Orchestra at Sistema Tulsa was rehearsing a work by Dvorak. Every time I introduce a new work, I like to give a short lecture about its origins, why the piece is important, and what it can teach us. The New World Symphony was composed by a Czech immigrant who in the late 1800’s landed in a small rural town in Iowa. While in America he discovered African-American spirituals and other Native American musical expressions. One of his new friends, a man named Harry Burleigh, sang spirituals to him and he internalized the style and weaved it into a very sophisticated creation that transcends borders and has stood the test of time. “These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil,” Dvorak said. As they play this work, our students are entering into the chronicles of history, negotiating their own identities through the stories and ideas of others. And that is the beginning of a process to discern the potential that we have as a “union,” or at least to begin useful conversations about who we are and what we can become.
What I see as a way to bring us closer together is to learn from experiments like the Gathering Place or Sistema Tulsa. Our orchestra is a microcosm of the entire Tulsa community. We are African, Native, Hispanic, Asian, and White Americans working towards one goal, one ideal. We are also converging or meeting in a church with a membership that has been historically homogeneous but is now slowly establishing a new identity. Of course, these shifts of purpose happen very slowly and gradually, and they can come with certain amount of tension and anxiety.
To alleviate the burden of change, one has to think very strategically and lead by example. One can also apply the rules of public policy. During a professional development course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I learned that people will not only support most what they help create but also what they can clearly understand. I also learned a useful technique that perhaps you could also apply when trying to enact change in your companies or work areas. It brings visioning and public-policy thinking together to bring people into the core of your idea and then invite them to develop and model it after the place or community where it will be implanted. It is called the “Eight-Fold Path” by Eugene Bardach.
The “path” includes several steps: a definition of the problem to solve, collection of evidence pertaining to the problem, identification of alternatives that can solve the problem, criteria by which to weigh the best course of action, a projection of outcomes, examination of costs vs. benefits, and documentation through storytelling.
This is speech is an example of storytelling.
Not everyone knows this but before we started Sistema Tulsa we worked for an entire year to define our mission. We sought out key leaders in the community who could teach us about how to best position our program as a change agent. (Looking for moral support is important.) We looked at resources that were already available in the community, we set up a timeline, and looked years ahead. We asked many questions like – How would we know that the program was actually working? Or how would we know our investment and energy was being put to good use?
After our first year of operation and through early independent research done by OSU-Tulsa we affirmed our program’s ideals—Sistema Tulsa is inclusive of all races and socio-economic groups, it is giving children a better love of music and broadening their horizons, it is teaching lessons in discipline and community.
Also, 100% of parents would recommend the program to other parents. 93% of parents believe that the program has taught their child to work hard to reach his/her goals. And my favorite stat – 97% of students want to get better at playing their musical instrument and 87% of them believe they have made their families proud.
Most importantly, we are learning how to work together and how to build a community that is constantly aspiring to better itself. One of our students said it best: “We learn important things here, and we have the opportunity to do something very special.”
So my friends, all it takes for steady and systematic change is that we bring the best of ourselves to each opportunity and to make sure that those opportunities can also motivate, inspire, and nurture others at the same time. Also, most ideas for innovation can already be found right in front of you. Take what you know, take what you love, and make something out of it. Ideas abound, our job is to experiment and practice connecting the dots to come up with something entirely fresh and new (They call this simple formula genius).
I hope that my message this morning spoke to you in some way. I hope that you can begin to think of music as a metaphor for community building and most importantly, that we can continue to aspire to be good friends, colleagues and neighbors as our communities grow and evolve over time.
If you or people that you know can help me take my work to the next level please let me know. I would be happy to continue the conversation. More about Sistema Tulsa (its mode of operation, funding, and goals) can be learned from our annual report which is found our website
Thank you all. I am so glad to meet you.