Guitars Over Guns
Interview with Guitar’s Over Guns Regional Director, Andrew DeMuro.
Organization Vision: Guitars Over Guns Organization (GOGO) believes all young people should have the opportunity to reach their full potential through the transformative nature of music, mentorship, and performance.
Organization Mission: GOGO is committed to curbing youth violence through providing students with productive options for creative expression – namely, music education, performance, and mentoring. GOGO’s mentors are professional musicians who use music as a vehicle to support the holistic development of young people, while providing a stable relationship with a caring adult. During the 2016 – 2017 school year, GOGO’s team of 35 mentors served nearly 650 students across 16 school- and community-based sites in Miami and Chicago.
Population Served: GOGO targets youth between ages 11-16 who may not otherwise have an opportunity to take part in the artistic process at school or at home. 98% of GOGO participants live at or below the federal poverty level, as defined by the US Department of Health & Human Services 2017 Poverty Guidelines. GOGO was inspired in part by the unfortunate reality that arts education is being slashed from school budgets, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color.
Founding Year: 2008
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem. Three quarters of Chicago’s of violent crime incidents take place outside of school hours. GOGO views this violence as an attempt to combat the pain borne out of broken homes, insufficient options for productive after-school programs, and the feeling of not being heard. Our unique approach aims to develop a community that is both inclusive and bound by the power of music. Through high-quality instruction, community-based performance opportunities, and meaningful relationships with professional musicians and peers, Guitars Over Guns exposes youth to the value of their own choices and the weight of their own voices.
How and why did you end up working for this organization? For most of my adult life, I’ve straddled myself between two important, seemingly unrelated industries: music and education. As an undergrad at the University of Miami, I logged over 700 hours in Miami’s low-income schools & communities while also finding time to sing in the University’s top Jazz and R&B Vocal Ensembles. I moved to Chicago in 2012 to join Teach For America, and was employed at an all-boys charter high school on the city’s West Side. While teaching, I founded and directed our charter network’s first extracurricular choir, which twice earned superior ratings at Illinois state music competitions. I joined the GOGO family in 2015 in hopes of combining my two passions, and became a founding mentor and site director at Evergreen Academy on Chicago’s Southside. The following year, I was honored with the unique opportunity to represent ‘Team Adam’ on Season 11 of NBC’s ‘The Voice’. Following my time on the show, I immediately returned home to take on a new role as Chicago’s founding Regional Director for Guitars Over Guns, in charge of managing the experiences of our four sites, 11 mentors, and nearly 350 students. In my current role, I hope to continue striking that balance between my two purposes.
What kind of trends do you see in your area of work? As curricular music and arts programs seem to shrink, I notice more empirical data surfacing to show the value – socially, emotionally, and neurologically – of a well-rounded, arts-based school experience. While emotions manifest in a host of different ways – from laughter to tears; from giving a hug to throwing a chair – music is a language our brains process almost universally in an effort to make sense of the world. For youth, especially those dealing with the stress of living in poverty, the ability to identify and use music as a tool in this way can be monumental to their holistic development.
Along with the importance of the arts, I also notice a fundamental shift in attention to the habits and mindsets that build great learners beyond a simple test score – particularly, social-emotional learning and development. As musicians who understand the roles effective communication, creative problem-solving, and perfect practice play in achieving success in our world, Guitars Over Guns mentors are positioned uniquely to improve student metrics like school attendance, positive behavior and social interactions, GPA and test scores, by teaching habits and mindsets that transfer across different worlds. During the 2016-17 school year, 88% of GOGO participants grew in these metrics.
What do you think will change most about your work over the next 5 years? Over the next five years, we plan to expand our footprint in each of our flagship cities by engaging and training high caliber leaders in the artistic community who are prepared to put their skillsets to work in our GOGO programs. We also plan to continue refining our curricular methods to break new ground in evidence-based practice. Considering our Chicago programs will see its first two classes of high school graduates in five years’ time, I hope the focus of our work will shift toward supporting and preparing our alumni base to take ownership of our organization on every level. By implementing the GOGO ‘Alumni Band,’ which allows our program’s current graduates to earn community service hours through training and serving as peer mentors to our current students, we are building a feeder pattern which empowers our students as the primary change agents in their own schools and communities.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in the population you serve? Why? Our most effective GOGO programs encourage positive social-emotional skill, without forcing a change in people. First, GOGO students learn the importance of vulnerability by building a safe space that respects their own unique abilities. We then zoom out to teach students that empathy, or the ability to consider others before acting, is the source of all positive social interactions. Teamwork and effective communication become everyday points of practice in our ensembles, private lessons, and genre-focused programs alike. Finally, we allow for students to take initiative and practice creative problem-solving by expanding habits from the GOGO stage to the community at large. By cementing these habits as mindsets, our students understand the power and impact of their creative voices, and the data is compelling: 85% of participants have shown improved academic outcomes, stronger attendance, and less severe behavior infractions; 82% reported using GOGO strategies to face challenges in school or at home; 100% agreed that GOGO provides opportunities to build confidence and take healthy risks.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in your staff? Why? As a staff made up entirely of creatives, we understand the monumental importance of creating a space to learn and grow that is truly mentor-led, celebrating successes and milestones along the way. We encourage our mentors to ‘make practice public’ by growing comfortable with the discomfort of sharing their work with peers in a live setting. Our ‘Mentor Exchange’ initiative allows for cross-program, peer-to-peer observations and feedback conversations among colleagues. We continue to grow in evidence-based practice by using data to inform programming decisions. Twice annually, students and school partners take authentic program quality surveys which help mentors to analyze and adjust their practice to meet the needs of their dynamic population.
Finally, if our mentors cannot be themselves or ‘embrace their weird’ in the workplace, it becomes difficult to expect the same of our students. We hope to maintain an environment that evolves, but also stays authentic to our soldiers in this work – we want to be a caring adult community that completely accepts its members for who they are. Modeling that sense of love and belonging is contagious, and builds similar habits for our students to adopt and own themselves.
How has technology influenced the way your organization works? Like in the music industry itself, technology in the GOGO classroom evolves along with the artists who utilize it – namely, our students. We utilize the communication platforms they are using – typically Facebook messenger & WhatsApp – to stay in touch outside of regular program hours. Our most effective programs give youth access to the state-of-the-art digital media and education needed to succeed in the current industry. At our Haven Studio in Chicago, GOGO mentees are versed in peer-to-peer writing, studio engineering, and production, using programs like ProTools, FruityLoops, and Abelton to polish musical creations. 80% of our in-school program sites have recorded original music in professional studio environments, and completed student-led music video projects to address issues such as self-esteem, police brutality, mourning and loss. We also use technology in our reporting and data collection, and to share best practices between mentors in Miami and Chicago. In the coming year, we hope to build collaborative structures for students from our sister cities to virtually connect, make music with and learn from one another!
Do you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are or what you do? Tell me about them. As an educator and a leader, I draw influence from Mr. Jack Hart, my mentor teacher during my student teaching experience at Booker T. Washington Senior High School in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. A 20-year veteran in one of the nation’s most under-resourced schools, Mr. Hart taught me the power in listening twice before speaking once, in beginning each day with a positive interaction, and most importantly, in eating my vegetables. When it comes to staying on the cutting edge of social-emotional learning innovations and evidence-based practice, GOGO certainly looks to the SCE as a leader in the industry, and we hope to mirror their practices in our organization’s leadership and approach.
If we talk one year from now, reflecting on what a great year it’s been, what did you/the organization achieve? Next year at this time, I want to be able to walk into a SCE workshop for non-profit professionals and leaders and have everyone in the room know of our work. I understand that in order to increase visibility we must also increase our reach; therefore, we will work hard in the coming year to recruit the highest quality talent to build two new school programs to reach 50 additional students in our target communities. Finally, given that we will be one year closer to our first class of GOGO high school graduates in Chicago, I am also hoping to increase membership in our Alumni Band and Peer Mentor groups to ensure that our alumni begin to own our collective identity.
What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to? In the early months of 2018, we are preparing for a year-long relationship with Edelman Marketing & Communications and Social Venture Partners of Miami, building our GOGO alumni base as competent musicians and peer mentors in both cities, and actively recruiting new musicians to serve as mentors for our growing family. There are so many ways to invest in the work that we do, but in my opinion, no way is more valuable than making a genuine, face-to-face impact on our young people. To anyone who is considering becoming a mentor for Guitars Over Guns, please understand: our youth are in need of your time and talents; you will be valued and supported in this incredibly important work, and it will change your life. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about our programs and the many ways to get involved.
What do you wish others knew about the organization? Despite its name, Guitars Over Guns is not a politically charged organization. The purpose of the ‘Guitars Over Guns’ name is to signify our core belief that every student holds the power to choose their sound, and that the choices they make have the potential to profoundly impact their lives. By encouraging our youth to actively engage in the music-making process, GOGO mentors teach kids to take risks, build confidence, and practice positive decision-making skills on stage and in life.
- Windy City Live Feature (February 2016)
- Steve Harvey Show Segment (February 2017)
- ‘How Guitars Over Guns Organization Gives At-Risk Kids Hope’, People Magazine (September 2016)
- ‘Can Art Help End Violence? Guitars Over Guns Lets Students ‘Find Their Sound’ & Choose a Better Path in Life’, Chicago Sun-Times (November 2017)
- ‘Go Innovate – Guitars Over Guns’ Haven Studio’ (July 2017)