The Knight Foundation has honored VocalEssence, a nonprofit dedicated to building community through song, with a $40,000 grant.
Every year since its founding in 1991, the VocalEssence Witness program has highlighted the contributions African-Americans have made to the fine arts. In 2016-2017, VocalEssence “Witness: Underground Railroad” will illuminate the underrepresented stories of the Underground Railroad and refugees in Minnesota, and tie them to African-American heritage through songs of liberation and freedom.
“Witness: Underground Railroad” received the award as part of the 2016 St. Paul Knight Arts Challenge. A program of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the challenge funds the best ideas for engaging and enriching St. Paul through the arts.
“Our Knight Arts Challenge winners help make it possible for St. Paul residents to experience art that challenges us and inspires us to think differently about our city. This project will not only bring voices from St. Paul’s past back to life, it will also tie them to the experience of so many immigrants. It’s an engaging and unifying arts endeavor that reminds us why organizations like VocalEssence play such a crucial role in creating vibrant communities,” said Victoria Rogers, vice president for arts at Knight Foundation.
“This grant means everything to our organization, and helps us expand our program in 2017 to share even more stories of African-American heritage in Minnesota. We are so excited by our artistic and outreach activities for this year’s VocalEssence Witness program and our partnerships, including with the incomparable singer, educator and vocal activist Melanie DeMore,” said G. Phillip Shoultz, III, associate conductor and education program director, VocalEssence.
DeMore will direct a community sing at Creative Arts Secondary School in St. Paul on Jan. 13, bringing Twin Cities community members together to sing songs of sanctuary and freedom. A partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society will help develop community conversations related to Minnesota Underground Railroad stories, offering oral histories from today’s refugees, and dialogue around race relations in the community. VocalEssence will also host the Bringing Unity to Community Choir Festival on Jan. 14, featuring songs of liberation.
Through the VocalEssence Witness School Program, DeMore has been making regular trips to the Twin Cities to work with students from St. Paul’s Johnson Senior High and Parkway Middle School.
The students, along with Witness participants from schools in Minneapolis, will be offered the opportunity to participate in an overnight Underground Railroad simulation, where they will experience what it may have been like to travel on the Underground Railroad as an escaped slave.