ITHACA, N.Y. –– In its 17th year of operation, the Community Unity Music Education Program (CUMEP) was presented with a major hurdle –– finding a way to transform its month-long music, art and social justice curriculum into a completely virtual setting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just one year ago, it was completely normal for campers in the program to sing, dance, play instruments, and learn together while standing shoulder to shoulder at Southside Community Center in Ithaca. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then with the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Like so many other organizations in Ithaca, COVID-19 forced Southside to scale back their in-person operations, push events online, and alter usual in-person programming, so campers and their families could function in the safest possible environment.

“This virtual year absolutely, is quite different,” Southside Board President Dr. Nia Nunn explained. “But we insist on connecting with our families and keeping the energy and flow of CUMEP alive.” 

Dr. Nia Nunn and some of CUMEP’s leadership team, Jonathan Keefner, Ian Cummings, Jacob Yale, and Shannon Frier –– who are all self-described “artivists” or artist-activists –– spoke about transforming CUMEP into a digital setting.

2020’s “Virtual CUMEP” ran from July 21 through August 13. During that time, Dr. Nunn, who also serves as the CUMEP Director, worked with the leadership team to brainstorm eight 25-minute “video lessons” that were sent out every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the duration of the program.

The videos included footage of the curriculum from past summers, mostly during CUMEP 2019, including discussions with the campers about the Southern U.S. Border humanitarian crisis. New curricular items this year also intersected with programming that Southside Community Center arranged for this year’s virtual Juneteenth.

Outside of producing the virtual video lessons, a big portion of the team’s Friday was spent visiting the kids and their families at their respective homes, to drop off books and other activities –– while maintaining social distancing requirements.

“We welcome some safe closeness, so we’re doing cartwheels on front lawns and reading stories and hula hooping; just trying to bring life to a variety of spaces,” Dr. Nunn said. “And it’s just so cool, when we come we come up to the door with our green shirts and that child that we adore comes out and…we literally lose our minds like there’s this celebrity and it’s glorious.”

Come 4:00 p.m. every Friday during the three week session, CUMEP leadership would gather back at Southside Community Center to dance altogether, and videographers would capture the scene to share in subsequent lessons.

Just like in-person CUMEP, the videos aim to teach campers about racial injustices and structural inequalities in our world. Along with those lessons, the producers also included slides reminding campers to hug someone they love, and of course, the phrase we’re all used to hearing now more than ever –– wash your hands!

Jacob Yale, a longtime CUMEP leader who is also a Teaching Assistant at Beverly J. Martin Elementary, noted that “all of our communications are online, so that’s another thing we’re working on is…making sure our online presence is updated.”

This took form in a number of creative ways, including pictures of CUMEP campers and staff washing their hands in their own homes. One of the social media posts calling for submissions featured a video of Dr. Nia showing off her hula-hoop skills to the digital world, donning a kelly-green CUMEP polo and even matching sneakers. In response, a camper sent in her own vignette of different hula-hoop tricks to the tune of Dead or Alive’s 1985 hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” And yes, there was even a socially distanced hula-hoop dance party.

In looking at these pictures and videos from the summer program, it’s clear that even with wearing masks and staying far apart, the participants still get to experience the pure joy of the Community Unity Music Education Program. And, in the digital lessons, they were also able to witness the talents of another celebrated leader at Southside Community Center. 

“My father Fe Nunn, who’s one of the founders of CUMEP is skeptical to come out [to gather in-person] as many are, but he’s made his way out a couple times,” Dr. Nunn explained. “He wrote a song about rising up, like taking a stand but then there’s this other part about making sure you wash your hands.”

Fe Nunn’s song is actually an offshoot of a past lesson and song about “personal space” that is already taught to the CUMEP campers. The chants and lessons explore Black Joy, the range of “smarts” a person can have, to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, LGBTQ+ rights, the power of perseverance, and words.

The lesson of “Black Joy” includes verses such as “…interrupting internalization [of] anti-blackness across the nation…” and this theme plays into the events of the last 3 months, with the nation taking to the streets to speak out against racial injustices, white supremacy, and police brutality, sparked by police officers killing George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other innocent Black and brown people.

This surge in the movement for Black Lives has further affirmed the message that Southside Community Center has strived to cultivate for the last 80 years. 

“The whole purpose of Southside is to communicate to ourselves and the community that black lives matter,” Dr. Nunn stated. “So the concepts that people are excited about right now are not new –– by any means ––  for any of our community. We have babies that have been teaching the concepts of Black Lives Matter for many, many years. And so…many of them have the language, some of the tools in their back pocket –– tools of consciousness –– through the work that we’ve been doing: the books, songs, the energy of love.”

The “Black Joy” lesson-chant is reflected in this theme, frequently rolling back to a chorus of Black is beautiful, Black is bold, Black is brilliant!

And, this work Dr. Nunn spoke of is also reflected in past lessons from abolitionist teachers like the late Jacqueline Melton Scott, a local educator and activist who passed away in March 2019. Scott was also one of the Black leaders featured in Southside Community Center’s first-ever Virtual Juneteenth program, in addition to the 2019 Juneteenth festival.

CUMEP leadership also chose specific readings to supplement the lessons handed down by abolitionist leaders. This year, CUMEP campers were tuned into the book by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi titled, “Stamped: Racism, Anti Racism, and You” which is a scaled down version of  Ibram X. Kendi’s Award-winning book, “Stamped from the Beginning.”

“We’re taking our participants through this journey of recognizing what they know and what they think,” explained Dr. Nunn. “So we’ve got this whole thing around, ‘how do you think? How do you feel? What will you do?’ particularly as it relates to racial consciousness.”

Dr. Nunn asserted that the work of exploring race, structural inequality, and gender identity is not unfamiliar to campers, nor staff, at CUMEP.

“We’ve been doing this work for 17 years,” she said. 

In July 2015, Chicago-area native Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas for not signaling a lane change, then taken into custody after a heated exchange with the trooper. Days later, she was found hanging in her jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, which sparked renewed outrage over white police officers’ mistreatment of black people. Sandra Bland’s death has been long considered a turning point in the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. And CUMEP did not shy away from broaching the topic with the campers aged 2 to 18.

“That’s when we did the routine to keep the relationship between Black Lives Matter and the anti-lynching movement,” Dr. Nunn explained. “And so what’s fascinating for us right now is to witness our kids, our babies of all colors, but let’s be specific –– our white babies –– who have had exposure to this work. This leaves lessons for the past, five, six years, and now they’re 10, they’re 11 [and] looking at grown ups, like, where have you been?

In addition to her many hats at Southside, Dr. Nia Nunn is also an Associate Professor of Education at Ithaca College. And outside of the Summer months, the CUMEP leadership team are also educators, so they’re familiar with the hurdles of adjusting to doing this work online in the age of COVID. 

Shannon Frier teaches fourth grade at Belle Sherman Elementary School in Ithaca. She pointed out that one of the really powerful things about the 2020 CUMEP experience is the idea to think outside the box when it comes to determining how teaching can be done in schools. 

“Modeling this and coming up with these videos give us a chance to reform education and make it what it needs to be,” she affirmed. “I’ve been thinking about that in my own career through this process. Just thinking about what education in schools can be, and…how we need to change it, and using CUMEP as a way to model that, has been really powerful and getting me to think about what school can look like next year.”

Ian Cummings, who has been a music teacher at New Roots Charter School, echoed this sentiment and expressed his hope that refocusing energy into different ways of thinking and teaching amid the pandemic will carry into the academic year. Jonathan Keefner, a music educator in Cortland, also delved into the camaraderie in producing the remote programming for these kids, especially amid the surge in the movement for Black lives.

“But we’re also a community that’s learning together too. And we’re going through this journey of learning how to do anti racism and how to do…abolitionist teaching in particular, and so that we can bring those into our respective communities and spread this. I don’t know, that ‘CUMEP gospel’ of sorts,” he said. 

And even though the onset of the coronavirus outbreak has upended the lives of every Ithaca resident in one way or another, it seems that not even a pandemic can “pause” the important work of Southside’s Community Unity Music Education Program.

“What we’ve discovered is the power of our curriculum –– and its long lasting reality…there’s so much power in this concept of being a committed family, a lifelong member of CUMEP. And with that being said, you create joy, regardless.” Dr. Nunn said.

While these digital lessons were restricted to campers who chose to sign up for the annual program, Southside Community Center hopes to eventually make the 2020 CUMEP digital experience available for purchase. More information about CUMEP at Southside Community Center can be found at the organization’s website, or the CUMEP Facebook page.

Photos courtesy of the Community Unity Music Education Program