Sister Cities Girlchoir all about Girl Power

Members of the Sister Cities Girlchoir perform during their fundraising concert Sunday at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Center City.
Members of the Sister Cities Girlchoir perform during their fundraising concert Sunday at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Center City.
Posted: May 21, 2014

I WENT TO Harrity Elementary School in West Philly last week to get a sneak listen to the Sister Cities Girlchoir before their big concert.

I don't use the term "big" lightly here. On Sunday, about 700 proud relatives, friends and supporters filled Center City's Church of the Holy Trinity for their annual fundraiser.

It was a sight to behold, especially when just two years ago founder Alysia Lee was new to town, and knocking on doors looking for funding and girls to join the choir.

Sister Cities is now made up of six music choirs, which are free to 250 at-risk girls ages 6 to 13 in Philadelphia and Camden. It's expanding, too, because under the direction of this 33-year-old firecracker of a founder, of course it is.

In a basement room at Harrity, I witnessed the downright magical way Lee deals with all kinds of adolescent personalities - and hormones. I also got to hear a little of Tyanna Johnson-Deshield's solo. Small wonder the eighth-grader was recently admitted to the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush.

And even smaller wonder that Lee has made such an impact in such a short amount of time.

Long after the rehearsal was over and the school emptied out, Lee and I sat in a cavernous stairwell talking about the importance of helping girls find their voice and claim their space in the world.

It's been a recurring theme recently - last week the Stoneleigh Foundation held a symposium asking: "What about the girls?" It's an incredibly important conversation to have because, as I've said in previous columns, young women hold the key to putting an end to what ails so much of this city, including poverty and violence.

If only they realized how much power they have.

"It would change the world," Lee agreed. And it has a lot to do with why she started the program that uses music to equip at-risk girls with the academic skills, healthy habits and support to tackle many of the obstacles they face in their neighborhoods.

Growing up in Baltimore, Lee said she remembers feeling as though she didn't have a say in her world.

"I just remember thinking, 'How come my voice doesn't matter?' " she said. That frustration led to a lot of academic and personal trouble.

But Lee eventually found her voice, and power, through singing. The classically trained mezzo-soprano went on to teach and sing professionally in New York. But she wanted to use her music to build community.

One night someone sent her a YouTube video of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. The orchestra is part of El Sistema, a tuition-free music-education system founded in Venezuela as a way to encourage disadvantaged young people to set and achieve goals.

"I was mesmerized," Lee said. "No. 1, they were all brown. And they were playing classical music excellently, and with such exuberance. I was really inspired."

That same night she discovered a Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory for people who were passionate about music and social change.

Perfect, except for two minor details: The deadline was just days away and they were not accepting singers.

Lee convinced them that was a mistake.

"You cannot launch a movement and ignore the power that singing has to transform a community," she told them.

After completing the program she came across the "Girl Effect" theory in a 2011 World Bank report that, in essence, said by investing in girls early we can potentially break the cycle of poverty.


"All of a sudden, I could just see what I was supposed to do so clearly," Lee said. "I knew that this was going to be a girl choir. I knew that there were girls out there waiting, just like I was, to find their voices."

In the first year of the program, one girl was so shy Lee wondered if she was mute. It turned out that she had been so mocked for her learning disabilities that she felt safer silent.

"A year later that same little girl sang a solo in front of a sold-out crowd," Lee said, choking up.

The transformation for this year's soloist was similarly striking. Johnson-Deshield said she always loved to sing, but was too shy to do it outside of her bedroom.

"The program taught me a lot about singing, but also a lot about confidence," she said.

As she took her place at the front of the church on Sunday, I couldn't stop thinking about why she said she finally took the scary step to sing in public.

"I want to be heard."


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