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Remember your favorite high school teacher? He or she inspired you, motivated you, got all Dangerous Minds on your classroom and made you think that once you moved past your hormones, you could actually be the first woman/black/gay/transgendered/clown president? We have no doubt that Katie Wilson is that teacher to her students. A native of Canada, the New York City resident created the Global Studies Workshop with the City University of New York (CUNY) - a global exchange program that begins with an eight month long curriculum on the history of hip-hop before departing on a ten-day, life changing trip with her mostly Bronx born and bred students to Berlin, Germany. In addition to the cross-cultural experience, the students - both American and German – are all aspiring rappers, singers, and spoken word artists and are expected to collaborate and perform during their visit. CultureFphiles spoke to the brilliant and visionary Katie about the origins of the program, the social impact of hip-hop, and hearing Turkish German rap for the first time.
Tell us how the program started and what your involvement was.
I was having lunch with a professor from Fordham, Dr. Naison, and some of my colleagues. He was talking about this amazing half-German, half-American social worker in Berlin named Olad Adden who worked at the largest social service organization in Berlin for youth. Olad created a recording studio for young people focusing on rap and hip-hop. His project started to grow and he received funding from the Goethe Institute in Berlin to initiate [a foreign] exchange. Dr. Naison mentioned they were looking for an organization to host the American side so that the Germans would come to NYC and then six months later, the Americans would go to Germany. Dr. Naison started talking about it and I elbowed my way in and was like, ‘I’m doing it.’ I have a clear and evolving vision of the society I want to contribute to and this was an example of a serendipitous moment when a social interaction provided the opportunity to actually move in that direction.
What about the project piqued your interest?
I used to work as a wilderness guide. It was an international program based in California and I was taking kids whose parents paid a lot of money for 4-6 weeks abroad. I went to Fiji, Australia, Europe…all of this amazing stuff. I would do that during the summer and then I would work at CUNY Prep during the school year and I would think, damn, I want these students [CUNY Prep students] to have a similar experience.
Why did you want to share that experience with the CUNY Prep students?
[Because I saw] the impact on the students I worked with at the wilderness company. I’ve worked with teenagers for almost fifteen years and I see the types of transformation that happen between 16 – 20 years old. With the kids in the wilderness program, there was that experience of being abroad and understanding where they, as Americans, fit in a global spectrum.
Teenagers are asking questions like, 'Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I interested in? What am I good at?' That’s why I love working with teenagers because wherever they are experiencing the ages of 15-20 is going to answer those questions for them. So, a travel program is going to very concretely and powerfully inform the way they see themselves and the world. I found it very frustrating that the [wilderness] experience was only accessible to students who could pay $5,000 for it. My work in education has really been about addressing educational inequalities.
Were most of the students who you were working with during the wilderness program mostly affluent, white kids?
Yes - and the students at CUNY Prep were mostly low-income, students of color. I would say 80% of CUNY Prep students are from the Bronx with the remaining students being from Harlem and Washington Heights. Mostly Latino, African-American, African, Caribbean, and all low-income.
Tell us a little bit about the challenges you faced prior to leaving.
We left for Berlin in 2010 with six students. We were in Berlin for ten days. Honestly, I don’t think anyone actually believed it was going to happen…that we would pull it off. We didn’t have funding for flights until three weeks before and I think I just had to say at some point, the money is going to come and then we finally got it. With the first group it was so powerful because we were scrambling to make it work. I partnered with a MC called Farbeond. So that first year, it was six kids and then we had two students who Farbeond worked with. It was a powerful first 48 hours where it set in like whoa, we’re actually here. This actually happened. The amazing thing was that the kids bonded so much - they really congealed as a group. I saw them peeling away layers of who they need to be to survive in the Bronx and what their capacities are as artists and global citizens representing the US, the Bronx, themselves and CUNY Prep.
How important and instrumental were all of these relationships to building the program?
It’s all about relationship-building. Especially in the field of education and youth development, relationships with colleagues with whom I am collaborating must be authentic. I am humbled by how important my role as a mentor and teacher to young people really is; therefore, I approach collaborations very seriously. We each have our individual talents and skills, but any project, business, or social movement is grounded in human beings working to communicate and collaborate with each other. We are social beings - we are dependent and connected - as families, communities, nations and as an entire planet. I think we forget that sometimes in psycho-individualistic NYC, but at the end of the day we need each other.
What was it like for the kids on a performance/artistic level. What was that experience like for them performing in Berlin?
Some of the students were performing for the first time ever in their lives. ]They were transformed by the experience of getting up on stage and performing their own work and their collaborative work for the first time in a different country.
It must have blew them away.
Yeah, it took them a while to get used to hearing German rap. They were like,“what the hell are they saying?” and, “they are rapping so fast!” They were amazed by it but also, like “haha that sounds funny” [laughs]. There’s also a large Turkish population in Berlin so hearing a Turkish kid rapping in German who spoke English with a Middle Eastern accent…it was like, what?! And that’s amazing - that confusion and having your mind blown - that’s what it’s all about. The kids also couldn’t get over how supportive, friendly, and non-threatening the environments [they performed in] were as opposed to where they grew up in the Bronx.
It’s important for young people to see hip-hop performed in a non-machismo, unaggressive way.
Exactly - and music has always been about entertainment and expression but it’s also about having a social impact - whether it’s unconscious or not. You can track historically, in this country, what’s happened in terms of social movements and what music has helped pushed that. As I build the curriculum for this program, it’s important to analyze the history of hip-hop and where it comes from and where it’s going…and hip-hop has just become more interesting globally. That’s why this program is important because youth are inherently selfish, we all were - I don’t think it’s common for a 17 year-old to think, 'oh I’m going to look at things outside of myself' and so we have to facilitate that process.
What specifically got you interested in teaching the kids about hip-hop? What drew you to the music and made you interested in incorporating it into the curriculum?
Something I always say is that I’m Canadian. I was raised in the suburbs in the country. I listened to hip-hop in the 90’s but I was more into reggae and rock. I’m not a super hip-hop head and I don’t purport to be a hip-hop expert. I think it’s actually a benefit in building this program because I’m coming from a youth development perspective and as an educator and I’m really about transformative education.
My love for hip-hop music and culture has deepened over the past 15 years. To be an effective educator, it is essential to understand, give voice to, and build relationships with your students. Youth culture is - and always has been - synonymous with the culture of music. For the past 30 or so years, hip-hop has been a dominant sound in youth culture. Since the genre is also a complex culture, its impact is profound. It is not simply about enjoying the sound, it’s about a message and, in some cases, a resounding call for societal changes. Hip-hop messages range from simple to revolutionary to spiritual. As an educator, exploring this global culture - its past, present and future messages with my students is a very important and powerful lesson.
Many of your students are from the Bronx, what were some of the major cultural differences you all experienced?
The history of WWII, Hitler and the presence of the Berlin Wall is pretty predominant and I think it’s intentional that you’re made aware of that history. I think that in the US, we’re not made aware of what has gone on [historically] and a lot of the students were like well, how come there isn’t that same aspect of playing homage? I thought it was so brilliant that the kids were pointing that out. We went to the concentration camps and took a train way out to the suburbs and there are tons of beautiful houses and then all of a sudden you’re at the end of a lane and there’s a museum and a whole concentration camp with tours.
Many of the students you work with come from challenging backgrounds. Do you feel they were more hopeful after they returned from Berlin?
That was a mixed bag – one of my biggest challenges with this program was [that the kids] said they felt safe, happy, and free traveling but then they return to their struggles. I want to work really hard to make sure this experience is transformed into a lasting experience.
How do you make that transition easier for them?
Both times I had two students who returned and were depressed because they returned to sleeping on the couch and not having enough food in the fridge and were really struggling. Part of my work is to provide them with leadership roles and have them continue to see themselves as ambassadors and world citizens. It’s not about the ten days only of being over there. It’s about building a global community. Most of the kids are in college and have managed to maintain academically which is something I’m a huge proponent of. The testament is that the kids who went in 2010, I would say 5 of the 6 students are incredibly successful right now. One is DJaying, the other won all of these spoken word contests and was in Paris, another girl really discovered her self as a singer [in Berlin]. Another student has started his own business…and these are like 20, 21 year-old students. I’m interested to see this next round of students and what will be some of their accomplishments.
It sounds like you’re giving your students tools to become better leaders.
Yes, a common vision I have in my work as an international wilderness instructor and as CUNY Prep's coordinator for the Bronx Berlin Program has been to guide my students in thinking critically about themselves, the US, the countries we visited, the inter-connectedness of the planet and the ways in which we can participate in the transformation of our world.
In my opinion, much of the US citizens' relationship to the global community is based in the notion that we are the greatest country on the planet and every other country is somehow lesser than. That is just not true and is an incredibly problematic perspective, especially for youth to adopt since the planet they are inheriting is rapidly globalizing.
What do you envision long-term for the program?
I’m still thinking about the possibilities. I just love how it worked out so organically and I don’t want to decide on some outcome of what it’s going to become and then shoot for that goal. Right now, my goal is making sure it’s solid at CUNY prep. I would love to find a grant to fund it. I’m really trying to make the program sustainable and formalize it programmatically. Hopefully, I’ll be able to create other abroad programs at CUNY Prep.
To find out more about the Bronx-Berlin project click here.