Zealot: a person who has very strong feelings about something and who wants other people to have those feelings.

Susan Zemlin

Susan Zemlin

I think I must be a zealot — about inclusion. We’ve heard the word many times in recent years. Education is full of buzzwords, acronyms and catch phrases. For me, inclusion is not something to consider as a passing trend or mandate. It is a way of being and interacting in the world. Each of us has experiences that inform what we do in our choirs to create an inclusive environment. We start there and keep building and growing on a continuum moving toward choirs and communities that are so inclusive that it is commonplace. The journey is adventurous, even risky, but well worth it!

You Won’t Hear The “R-Word” At Blaine High School

We’re not all that different.

We like the same things.

When we’re all together,

You give me wings.

-by Blaine HS Reppin’ Blue Choir

My experiences with the idea of inclusion began at an early age, but without really knowing or understanding. I have an uncle with developmental and cognitive disabilities. He is currently 80 years old and living in a wonderful group home in St. Paul. In the 1950s, public schools did not have the provisions that exist today for students with special needs, so my grandmother became a fierce advocate for educational rights.

She and other moms sacrificed much to fight for their children to be treated like everyone else. She would only talk about their capabilities and the ways they could use their gifts to benefit our society. It is only in the last five years that I have begun to truly understand why my grandmother was the way she was.

I have been blessed with opportunities to collaborate with our Special Education department, including a wonderful gift from Caroline Hand, a conductor completing her D.M.A. at the University of MN a few years ago. She did one of her recitals with three of our choirs and our DCD (Developmental and Cognitive Disabilities) program, commissioning her friend Nathan Jones to write a work for choir and wind ensemble titled Gamble Everything For Love. That project included a campaign to “Spread the Word to End the Word” – eliminating the derogatory use of the “R-Word’ (retard, retarded). Thanks to many other activities in our school also embracing inclusion, a football coach and I were just remarking recently that we don’t hear that word anymore in a building of 3050 students. If someone slips, a student takes care of it quickly.

We ended up taking Caroline’s project to MMEA the following year, and evolving one of our choirs into a fully inclusive ensemble with Ben Henschel last year, sharing adventures and experiences that were both joyful and deeply emotional. This year, that choir has 51 singers, some of whom requested to be in that specific ensemble. The “buddy system,” pairing each student from the DCD program with a student from the general education population and identifying those capabilities I always heard my grandmother talk about, has been the secret to our success. These relationships are mutually beneficial and bring great joy to our choir program, our audiences, and our school. Look for us at ACDA Twins Night!

If You Take The Risk to be Inclusive, You Might Trend On Social Media, Make Fox News and Experience Some Hate

Sometimes you have to witness the ugliest traits in humanity to move toward an inclusive community or choir program. Columbia Heights choir students and their teacher, Alex Jacques, led the charge to take a stand for their classmates when a school board member made derogatory comments about Muslims. Their choir, school, and community became stronger as a result. I did an audience participation sing-along at our December concert that included recognizing holiday traditions celebrated by the members of our choirs. This meant that we sang a song about Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. One of my Muslim students gave me the song a couple of years ago, letting me know that all the Muslim kids would know it and that it was a children’s song not meant for worship in the Mosque. The first year we did it was relatively uneventful, just some minor questioning from conservative Christian kids.

Because of world and political events in late 2015, one parent put an inflammatory post out on social media (loaded with expletives) that went viral and took on a life of its own. We became the target of some very hateful individuals and organizations overnight and our students were badly shaken, especially our Muslim students, who were reading comments from strangers wishing them dead. Our school district, the Blaine Police Department, and the faculty at our school joined forces to stand behind our decision to respect and include all of our students. Reporters were not allowed near us. Ben Henschel and I kept rehearsing for our concert and told the students that they were supported and should take care of each other and express themselves through the music. We also told them that hate and retaliation are not Blaine Choir values. They were remarkable.

The song in question happens between the choirs, while one choir leaves and another takes the stage. Jan Scovill and I were the only ones on stage for those 40 seconds or so. She and I gave each other a look of strength I will never forget, and we led the audience in singing a cute song about Eid. The ice was broken. Nothing bad happened. The Tenor/Bass Breakfast Ensemble went on to sing a jazz version of Rudolph.

The next day, our Superintendent and the Commissioner of Education, who brought the thanks of the Governor and spoke privately to two of our Muslim students, visited Ben and me. The sun still rises and sets, and we will continue sharing the traditions of all of our students through song. Our students became closer, and many of them became more respectful and empathetic toward each other. Our faculty saw how ugly the hate was and is engaging this year in learning more about Islam and how to help our Muslim students feel welcome and safe in our school. They are the population that needs special attention today. There are many others who need our attention as well. It is a journey, not a bandwagon with separate cars. I constantly remind myself that the hate I experienced temporarily in December is a small glimpse into the daily reality of some of our singers.

Title IX Reminds Us To Be More Accurate With Our Vocabulary

You may have noticed that we have changed the names of several of our honor choirs, events, and Repertoire and Resources Chairs. This is in response to a growing need to avoid gendered terminology. We have wonderful singers in our state whose gender identity might not be the same as their voice part. Instead of naming our choirs by gender, we are now naming them by voice part, which is more accurate and respectful of all of our singers. In your choirs, you might encounter a singer who wants to be addressed by a name that is different than the one on your class roster, or wear a uniform that matches their chosen identity. Having open, respectful conversations about meeting these requests is not difficult and goes a long way toward making a vulnerable singer feel safe in your community.

Who Will Be Our Next Zealots?

A few years ago some of us asked Mike Smith, one of our organization’s great mentors, if these are unprecedented times. He said something like this: “No, there is always a battle. In each generation of conductors a zealot always comes forth to tackle the fight. It will be an ongoing process. The battles will change. The need for zealots will not.” So . . . who among you will be our next zealots for the inclusion of all singers in choirs in Minnesota? In my own corner of the world, I have grown to realize that we have come a long way toward inclusion, but we are not there. We will know we are really there when we no longer need a word for it. Then a new challenge will arise and a conductor will be there to meet it!