One Person Can Make a Big Difference
Music Education Advocacy at the Local Level
By Andrew S. Berman
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 Teaching Music.
Nicole Worzel successfully advocated for a state law mandating music performance programs in public secondary schools.
When Nicole Worzel—who is director of bands at Woonsocket Middle Schools and Advocacy Chair with the Rhode Island Music Educators Association (RIMEA)—was growing up on Long Island, New York, she developed traits that would help her in her future career. “My father taught me what I know,” she says, crediting him with the determination that led to her success in getting a music education bill through the Rhode Island state legislature.
Ten years ago, Worzel’s inner-city middle school had a robust music program with 650 students enrolled. Shortly thereafter, state-level cuts to education funding resulted in a reduction in the music faculty from 11 to three, and only 30 students in what became a before-school music program. Worzel recalls thinking, “This is unacceptable.” Following a student letter campaign, she met with State Senator Roger Picard who advised that a law mandating middle school music programs was unlikely to pass. She replied, “That’s the point. We need to wake people up!”
Worzel spoke with teachers, lawmakers, policy analysts, professional musicians, and community members. During her quest to reverse these cuts to music education, she became Advocacy Chair of RIMEA. She formed an advocacy team that assembled and distributed folders with materials to help Rhode Island music teachers advocate for change. At times it was lonely work, but on reflection, Worzel imagines that many of her colleagues throughout the state called their representatives.
In 2014, Worzel testified for her bill at the Rhode Island State House. It didn’t pass, but her public efforts led to an influx of people rallying to the cause. A policy analyst who lived in her district helped her rewrite the bill. A stronger delegation from RIMEA joined Worzel at the State House in 2015 and, with its revised wording, the bill passed.
Worzel’s efforts at the Rhode Island State Legislature underscore why music teachers do what they do. The ensemble is a place where students can go to feel that they are part of a team, and to see the tangible results of hard work. “Programs that made them feel accepted were being cut,” she says. “I saw so many students cry.” In a poignant moment, her students staged a mock funeral for the music department at her school. The cuts were having observable effects on the kids in her district; this was the impetus for her fight.
“When somebody says, ‘You can’t do that,’ look at them and say, ‘Watch me,’ and then walk away.”
To fellow music educators who want to help bring about change in their district, county, or state, Worzel says to remember that it’s about the children. Keep the fight about them, about giving them the best education possible, which is what they deserve. Plus, a little fierce determination doesn’t hurt: “When somebody says, ‘You can’t do that,’ look at them and say, ‘Watch me,’ and then walk away.”
Tips for Working with Legislators
“Really listen to them,” says Worzel of legislators. “I learned a lot from them; I learned patience from them. I just couldn’t understand ‘Why is this not happening?’” Just as in music, listening is a key skill when advocating for a cause. If you fail to listen, “you’re going to miss the big picture,” she says. So, be aware of what’s going on in the room. Pay attention to who says what, and their body language. This will help you craft careful responses.
When it’s your turn to speak, “Have a clear picture of what you’re looking for,” advises Worzel. Knowing what you’re asking for down to the last detail will be helpful when it’s time to negotiate—and, by the way, “Be willing to negotiate,” says Worzel.
In more general advice, Worzel also suggests going through the representatives for the district where you teach, not where you live, and to “make friends with policy analysts.” Lastly, be ready to take on a lot of work by yourself. “You have to be the one who does it,” she cautions. “No one hands you anything.”
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