Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Paraeducators Supporting Students with Disabilities and At-Risk

Singing for Social Justice: The Syracuse Community Choir


Pam Walker is Research Associate with the Center on Human Policy, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York.

Danielle lives, works, and volunteers in Syracuse.

The Syracuse Community Choir is a “community” of people who gather to sing songs of peace and social justice. They rehearse weekly, and perform several times a year at concerts and various community events, vigils, rallies, and celebrations. The membership of the choir includes a wide variety of people of varying ages, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and abilities. What brings them together is an interest in music, a desire to work for social justice, and a quest for community connections.

The involvement of a diversity of people, including a few members who have severe and multiple impairments, is made possible by a number of factors. First, it is due to the vision of the choir’s founder and director, Karen Mihalyi. Part of her vision for the choir is creating an “inclusive community.” She traces this, in part, to her childhood in a small town where everyone was part of the community. She comments, “This does not mean that there was no prejudice…but at least people met up with each other.” She adds, “To create community today is difficult – so many forces work against it – but people are hungry for community.”

Second, the diversity of the choir is intentional, not accidental. It happens as the result of a few things: a) intentionally inviting a diversity of people to join; b) creating a welcoming environment where people feel comfortable, listened to, and know that their presence is valued; c) singing a wide range of music that gives voice to people’s issues; and d) making the choir accessible in a wide variety of ways (e.g., using wheelchair accessible spaces; offering music in large print and Braille; having child care available at concerts and rehearsals; having sign language interpreters; helping with transportation, etc.).

Over the years, the choir has had to address certain issues raised by the participation of people who are supported by human service agencies. For example, some agencies initially brought groups of people to join the choir, rather than approaching it on a more individualized basis. Some agencies have assisted people to come to rehearsals for a specific concert, but then not made an effort to assist the person to participate in the concert itself. To enhance the participation of individuals with disabilities who are supported by agencies, the choir attempts to establish a collaborative relationship with the agencies.

Building inclusive community is hard and sometimes uncomfortable work, requiring long-term commitment. Connections between people who have had significantly different life experiences do not necessarily occur quickly. Over time, however, opportunities to be together and share experiences help people get to know one another on a personal level and to both see commonalities and appreciate differences. This, in turn, helps to foster relationships and a sense of community. As Karen sees it, building inclusive community with people with disabilities is the same as for all people: “It has to begin with relationships – which come from meeting each other, knowing each other, hearing each other, learning about each other. We have to spend time together to get to know each other.” Through its music, the choir sings about issues of peace, social justice, and equality; and through its example, the choir promotes both the vision and reality of inclusion.

Danielle’s Story

Danielle describes herself as a person who likes to keep busy. “I hate sitting home,” she says. One way she keeps busy is through doing volunteer work, both as a teacher’s assistant for the children’s Sunday school class at her neighborhood church and as a choir member and board member for the Syracuse Community Choir.

When she first joined the choir, Danielle lived in a family care setting across town. She took Call-A-Bus to choir rehearsals and performances until the choir was able to find someone to give her a ride. Soon, she moved from the family care home into a group home just two blocks from the community center where the choir rehearses. Since she has difficulty walking, she still gets a ride from choir members. Danielle reflects on her nervousness when she first joined the choir: “I didn’t know people and I was afraid people would laugh at me.” She also had difficulty with the notes on the music sheets: they were too small for her to read easily. After she raised this issue, she found out that the choir had large-print copies of its music available, which benefits a number of other people besides her.

After awhile, Danielle started to get to know some people in the choir and began to feel more comfortable there. Some of the people she has gotten to know through choir live in her neighborhood, and she sees them at other community places and events. One, in particular, has become a close friend.

Around the same time that she joined the choir, Danielle also got involved with a self-advocacy group. When the self-advocacy group was notified of a class that would be given for self-advocates about joining boards of directors of agencies and organizations, Danielle decided to take this class. After taking the class, she decided she wanted to join the choir board. Danielle feels that being on the board has been a good way for her to get more involved, help out the choir, and get to know more people. At first, at the board meetings, it was difficult for her to hear what was going on, as a number of people were talking at the same time. Since she raised the issue, board members are now more careful about speaking one at a time. Also, in addition to their usual typed minutes of meetings, the board records minutes on tape for Danielle.

Overall, Danielle says, “Choir is great. I’ve met lots of new people and made good friends. Being on the board, I feel like I’m helping the choir out.” She hopes to continue this involvement for quite some time.