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Raising their voices to raise awareness

A new service-learning course at VCU connects music and social work students with the RVA Street Singers — a choir made up of individuals experiencing homelessness.

RVA Street Singers is a community choir for people affected by homelessness that celebrates the j...
RVA Street Singers is a community choir for people affected by homelessness that celebrates the joy of singing, seeking to build community through song. Here the choir is conducted by Rebecca Tyree, assistant professor of choral music education in the VCU Department of Music. (Photo by Leila Ugincius, University Public Affairs)

What human endeavor engages the entire body, challenges the brain, elevates the spirit, is inclusive regardless of origin or experience, and allows everyone's voice to be heard?

Singing.

The activity is so beneficial that it inspired a new, innovative interdisciplinary service-learning course this semester at Virginia Commonwealth University. Music and Social Justice Engagement with the Homeless Community through Song connects students in the School of the Arts and School of Social Work with the RVA Street Singers — a choir made up of individuals experiencing homelessness, the first of its kind in the metro-Richmond region.

Brian Donovan, a rising senior majoring in music with a vocal concentration who has volunteered with various groups in the past — including children with chronic illnesses and mental disabilities — jumped at the opportunity to take the class. 

“When I heard about this opportunity, I [thought] this would be a great thing, to not only get to volunteer, but also work towards my degree at the same time,” he said. “I work full time as well as go to school, so I don't have a lot of time to volunteer like I used to.”

The course is the brainchild of Rebecca Tyree, service learning faculty fellow and assistant professor of choral music education in the Department of Music; and Cameron D. Carter, associate professor in teaching in the School of Social Work. 

“We are hoping that this will continue to grow and endure for years to come,” Tyree said at the choir’s first full performance Sunday. 

Lawrence Jasper Johnson, a community member who joined the choir because he loves to sing and wants to help people affected by homelessness, performs a solo during a performance of the RVA Street Singers. (Photo by Leila Ugincius, University Public Affairs)
Lawrence Jasper Johnson, a community member who joined the choir because he loves to sing and wants to help people affected by homelessness, performs a solo during a performance of the RVA Street Singers. (Photo by Leila Ugincius, University Public Affairs)

Through the weekly cycle of choir practices alongside homeless individuals and community members, class activities and reflections, VCU students acquire a deeper understanding of the issues faced by individuals experiencing homelessness while at the same time building relationships that create a sense of community and accomplishment through music and song.

“I sing because the Lord has blessed me with the voice to make noise,” said Debbie Burgess, who works security at the historic Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond where the weekly choral practices are held. “Not that I have the best voice in the whole world, but I use what God has given me just to sing. … I have not been directly affected by [homelessness] myself. On Mondays we have a lunch program, where some of the people that come are homeless, and I hear their stories and that touches everybody.

“My experience with this choir has been absolutely wonderful. … They get the opportunity to come in in fellowship with one another to sing songs and … they get the opportunity to show their talent. Hopefully more people will come forward and volunteer to do this if they continue this next semester.”

Robert Rosenbrook, a junior studying music performance, agrees.

“The biggest thing I can drive home is that music offers a level kind of ground for people to meet each other,” he said. “I can't imagine another scenario where [you’re] meeting people in this way, and it just offered a way for us to create something and get to know them through that. 

“Everyone just loved to sing. That was the biggest thing I learned. Everyone would show up super stoked to sing. We would start rehearsals at 1:30 on Mondays and people would show up at 1, ready to go.”

Music majors Robert Rosenbrook and Jenny Snyder perform Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasilieras" at the RVA Street Singers' debut concert. (Photo by Leila Ugincius, University Public Affairs)
Music majors Robert Rosenbrook and Jenny Snyder perform Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasilieras" at the RVA Street Singers' debut concert. (Photo by Leila Ugincius, University Public Affairs)

While the number of people who attended practice each week varied from five to 40, one community member showed up every single time.

“I love to sing and dance,” said Lawrence Jasper Johnson, a community member who joined the choir. “I love it. [This has] been great, something to do that’s enjoyable and positive. Something to get with people and sing together and learn to get along, harmonize our voices together.

“[And] I've always had a special place in my heart for people that need transition. I have a compassionate heart. Jesus Christ gave me a compassionate heart and I feel for people that are out there. I wish I could do more for them.”

Tyree will present her work with this project at the annual meeting of the Street Choir Directors collective in Los Angeles in January 2019, establishing VCU as a global leader in this area.