Defining, dividing lines

Posted on December 9, 2013


It's not always so clear

It’s not always so clear

Earlier in the year I was invited to contribute a chapter on el Sistema to a book being published by Music Mark, the national music educators’ association in England. The book was originally titled “Hard to Reach”, a reference to the many people bypassed or unengaged by music education. No sooner had I submitted 5000 words anchored around this concept, the editors changed the title of the volume to “Reaching Out.” I might bear some responsibility for my subsequent literary woes, having suggested in my article that calling any population “hard to reach” unfairly implied they were at fault for the lack of connection. The relationship between cause and effect in our society is far more complex.

That’s just a minor point within the chapter, not its principal thrust. Out of deference to the publishers, I can’t make the text available online here, (the volume is available through but the incident of the book title was just another reminder of the ongoing challenge the entire social sector has in categorizing those they try to serve. We cycle through an array of synonyms either for reader variety or for the purposes of euphemism, often ignoring the implications of the words we choose.

This is not a question of semantics, but of accuracy. In this instance, the act of describing goes a long way to defining not just the people Sistema should serve, but the social objectives it should pursue as well. Outside of Venezuela, Sistema programs generally serve poor children. This focus requires no defense in a giving landscape heavily skewed towards addressing income inequality. But what constitutes poor? In the US, the legal definition of poverty is set federally, but what constitutes munificent income in one corner of the country may barely keep a roof over a head in another. The vast variance in cost of living in America has spawned a number of additional proposed metrics for poverty, accounting for local economic contexts (relative poverty), but none of these has managed to address the issue completely, nor can any be used legally for the distribution of federal funding. And so the terminology, like the measures, remains painfully imperfect. “Underserved” is very commonly used, but as a descriptor it is as erroneous as it is popular. In reality, the groups often described as “underserved” are anything but, having the greatest array of social services or support systems directed towards them. “Underprivileged” or “disadvantaged” are no better, by their nature engendering class conflict. If one group is underprivileged or disadvantaged, then there must logically be another group enjoying privileges and advantages that it quite sensibly would wish to retain. “Deprived” or “needy” are virtually synonymous with “poor,” and correspondingly subject to far too imprecise a definition.

There is no simple or perfect solution to this problem, but the phrase I choose to use most often these days is “at risk.” Obviously, there is a clear correlation between family income and particular kinds of risk, but this phrase take the issue of socio-economic standing off the table entirely and focuses attention on the nature of the intended intervention and its objective. Sistema on its own will not alleviate financial poverty. What it can do is help participants develop both the strong social networks and sense of self-identity required to navigate or supersede some particular personal and social risks. Some of these risks, such as victimization from bullying, are income-insensitive, while others, such as potential for heroin abuse, are directly correlated with socio-economic standing. Children from affluent backgrounds can be neglected or abused too, physically or emotionally, and remain at-risk for any number of anti-social or self-destructive behaviours. This condition of alienation, anomie or dissociation, more than any theological, philosophical or aesthetic construct, is what Abreu describes as “spiritual poverty.” Were there a measure for it, it would likely bear no relation to material poverty. Others would go further: Pope Francis (Paragraph 4) identifies the relationship as inverse. (It should be noted that the concept of “spiritual poverty” can also mean something quite different, and in fact something quite desirable, for certain religious groups, referring in specific contexts to a complete dependence on God.)

There is no specific measure for spiritual poverty, unfortunately. Programs world-wide will continue to use government-established metrics for financial poverty because they must, but if targeting the financially poor is considered the extent of the program mandate, then significant social benefit and impact will be lost. We live with the consequences of our society’s current spiritual poverty – we know we are all susceptible to the risks.

Postscript: I did an interview for Strad Magazine on the subject of Sistema in Britain about two months ago. Fifteen minutes of conversation yielded two quotes and one extended paraphrase in print, which, when stripped of 14.5 minutes of context, created the impression that I was quite hostile to the idea – a ludicrous proposition to anyone literate enough to examine four years of blogging and over a dozen print publications, a number of which were actually peer-reviewed. As a multiple past contributor to Strad, I made my concerns known directly to the editors and was granted an opinion column in which to present a contrasting, contextualized perspective. The column should appear in print in the January edition.





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