Kids Facing Racism, Trauma Find Safe Haven At People's Music School

UPTOWN — Senite Barih starts her day at 4:30 a.m., and doesn't even begin her commute home until 8 p.m.

The 14-year-old's grueling day consists of two-hour commutes — including bus and train rides — from her Rogers Park home, to the suburbs for school, and back to the North Side for music lessons at the People's Music School, 931 W. Eastwood Ave.

While the trek is stressful enough, she says her biggest issues stem from her daily interactions with her fellow commuters as well as her classmates.

“There’s a lot of racism at my school, and it's hard to talk to someone at the school, because they don’t understand as much," Barih said. "So I come here and I talk to [Music School President Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa] or my music teachers. They’d be so understanding, because it's such a diverse music school. It's real easy to just have a conversation."

At the private North Shore school that Barih attends on scholarship, she's heard comments from her fellow students rooted in racist stereotypes — implying that because she's black, she's violent, or her father must be in a gang, she said.

Barih said she's usually able to keep her focus on school. But when the burden becomes too great, she knows she'll find comfort at the People's Music School.

"Once I was having a really, really rough day and I couldn’t focus," Barih recalled.

After explaining the problem to her music teacher, "we looked up a song that I related to so much, and it just helped me bring out everything I was thinking in a musical way," Barih said.

The song was "Rise Up," a powerful hymn about perseverance by the soulstress Andra Day.

Moving Backwards

For more than four decades, the People's Music School has offered free music lessons to Chicago-area kids. In exchange, parents volunteer hours of their time, which helps keep the nonprofit's staff lean.

Between four campuses, the school educates about 600 students between the ages of 5 and 18, mostly from low-income families. About 90 percent of its students are children of color, according to the school.

"Whenever I welcome a new family in the door, I want to be able to guarantee their child a space with us until they’re 18. That's the most important thing," said Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, who took over as president and artistic director last spring when the school's budget deficit threatened to force them to close their doors.

"When I first came, we were not in a position where we could guarantee that," she said. "Not only did we pay back the deficit, but I feel like we’re on a very stable growth plan."

At the end of last year the school celebrated its 40th anniversary by performing withYo-Yo Ma and former drummer of the Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin. The students also worked on and premiered a new piece composed by Marcos Balter in honor of the school's founder, Dr. Rita Simo, at the Harris Theater with the International Contemporary Ensemble.

"There were so many moments over the last couple of months where I know the students will just take away that experience and hold it for the rest of their lives," Matsuzawa said. "And think about what it took to be a part of that experience: all the practicing, all the hard work, all the discipline; but also the exhilaration and the pride, the wonder they felt, actually accomplishing that."

A Source of Light In Dark Times

While last year's events were "pinnacle experiences" for the students, the school has noticed the toll of divisive political rhetoric on students over the last year, Matsuzawa said. That, on top of the stress and trauma they've encountered in their young lives.