Last year, hen we hosted the Huntsville Music Cities Convention, we launched the first edition of our Music Advocate Programme. Through this initiative, Music Cities Events and the City of Huntsville delivered free access and specialized networking opportunities for a handpicked gathering of participants of the Convention.
This exciting group was composed of a dynamic fusion of music advocates hailing from various corners of the United States, including Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
Before the end of last year we checked in with one of the advocates of the programme who's been really active in the past couple of months. We’re talking about Sydney Guerrette, Founder and President of Be The Change Youth Initiative and part of the indie duo In the Company of Wolves.
Together with her brother, they travel around the U.S.A. to perform shows, do workshops and undertake different types of projects to help young people address their mental health struggles.
As you’ll see in the feature below, you’ll discover that the work of Be The Change Youth Initiative is very unique and caring. So, if you’re interested in the intersection of music, youth and mental health topics, dive into Sydney’s takeaways, which you’ll probably find very inspiring and will give you some on point methodological references for any artist interested in working with mental health topics.
One more thing before we dive into the interview: We’re excited to share that as a result of Sydney’s participation in the Music Advocate Program at the Huntsville Music Cities Convention, Be The Change Youth Initiative has been invited to perform at this month’s Orion Amphitheatre’s “Non-Profit Mix & Mingle” event, with the goal of expanding their collaboration in 2024, supporting the youth in the Huntsville area. Congrats Sydney and the Be The Change team!
Challenges and lessons from connecting mental health journeys: How Sydney Guerrette is using music to help young people find a community and improve their well-being.
Hi Sydney! it's great to catch up with you after we met in Huntsville a few months ago. The idea of this interview is to ask you about the challenges you've faced while working with your Be The Change Youth Initiative and give us some insights that might be helpful for anyone interested in carrying on a project that mixes music and mental health topics such as yours.
To begin, which would you say is the biggest challenge of using music to help young people find a community and improve their well-being?
As singer-songwriters, my brother and I use our music and our storytelling to share our mental health journeys with students; however music preferences can be a huge obstacle. What one individual finds therapeutic and community-building may not resonate with others. Balancing diverse musical tastes and ensuring inclusivity is a significant challenge. Yet, despite genre preferences, we've seen how music can transcend cultural and socioeconomic boundaries. Music is truly a universal language and can have positive effects on mental health. But, we're facing a mental health crisis, especially with our youth. It's essential to address the mental health needs of participants effectively and this includes recognizing when professional mental health support is required and integrating it into music programs where necessary. Partnering with mental health organizations is essential to our work.
How have you overcome that challenge?
When it comes to music, Brayden and I have learned how to integrate different genres and instruments into our music. However, we are NOT mental health professionals. When performing on the road, we learned VERY fast how important it was to partner with mental health organizations.The most irresponsible thing we can do is come into a school, share our stories, which dive into topics like, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation, and then leave. At every performance, we are approached by students who bravely want to share their own mental health stories with us. We've also talked to students who have experienced assault, addiction, and self-injury.
Before we go into a school, we sit down with administrators to see what issues are affecting their students and then adjust our presentations to meet their needs. Our work is not one-size-fits-all. We then make sure the school has extra counselors, or case workers, on hand to better meet the emotional support needs of the students at that moment, but to also follow-up with them after the event. We also work hard to create relationships with LOCAL non-profits who work with youth in the community. This is truly what makes our work unique. We see a huge part of our mission lived out in our ability to create bridges and make connections that benefit students after we leave.
It's very inspiring to read how careful is your approach to the shows and workshops that you do in schools. Which would you say the main concern driving the work that you do?
Our biggest concern is always making sure the youth we speak to feel SEEN, HEARD, and LOVED. It's our motto and we truly try to live it out in everything we do. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 14. These are elementary and middle school students, and despite the gains taken over the last few years to normalize the conversation around mental health, there is still a stigma in our society.Right now, approximately one in five youth between the ages of 12 and 18 are currently suffering from at least one diagnosable mental health disorder. Statistically speaking, that means if you know five teens in that age range, one of them is likely affected. We can't reach every single youth, but if we all become proactive in checking in with the youth in our lives, we might be able to change those statistics.
Tell us a bit more about Be The Change Initiative and what other kind of projects you'r doing as part of your objective.
For the first five years, the tag line for Be The Change Youth Initiative was: EDUCATE, EQUIP, EMPOWER. But, over the past couple of years, we've come to learn that as noble and needed as those things are, if students aren't given opportunities, we'll never achieve the level of change needed to truly impact our communities. So we've started integrating those opportunities into our work. We're launching our Ambassadors of Change Initiative this fall, giving local high school students the chance to gain public speaking and leadership experience.We also run two afterschool programs in Hamilton County, Tennessee, in partnership with a local non-profit. Each week we bring in local artists who share their medium with the students, talking about how they use art to help process and cope with their mental health struggles. They also help the students work on their own projects. This year, local businesses are creating spaces for us to sell the student artwork. We also have business professionals coming in to share their stories and expertise with the students as we work towards helping the youth create businesses for themselves. (The commission split for the youth art work has 75% going directly to the students and 25% going into a scholarship fund for a graduating senior at a local high school.)
So far, what would you say have been the biggest success or milestone of Be The Change Youth Initiative?
Last fall, Brayden and I spoke to eight middle and high schools about 20 minutes outside of Nashville. After one of those presentations, a freshman handed me a piece of paper asking me to read a poem she had written. This student, at the age of eleven, witnessed her older sister attempt suicide with a gun and her poem not only shared this story, but shared how this student was struggling with her own mental health in the aftermath of that experience. I was incredibly honored this student would trust me enough to share this story, but that wasn't the end of the conversation. She asked me to write a song, based on the poem, and to share it with adults at our shows in hopes that maybe they would listen to me and Brayden. This underscores our motivation, especially in light of what's happening in the world around us today. In August, Brayden and I shared this song during a Tedx presentation in Chattanooga. We're humbled by the opportunity to share this song and take great responsibility in sharing her story.
Finally, do you have piece of advice that you would like to share to fellow music advocates that are using music to help young people with mental health struggles?
The biggest blessing AND hindrance has been our age. At 19 and 22, Brayden and I are young enough to relate to the youth we speak with, but not "old enough" for many of the adults in these circles to take us seriously. Additionally, many of these adults are working from funding systems and infrastructures that have been in place for decades, if not longer. Be The Change Youth Initiative doesn't operate like most non-profit organizations, which has led to many obstacles when it comes to funding. We've been asked to change our programming, our methodology, and our metrics for measuring success in order to receive funding. One organization wanted us to ask students how many of them were suicidal BEFORE our presentation, but were no longer suicidal AFTER our presentation. So many funding organizations make determinations based on criteria we'll never be able to measure, or questions we would never ask. We truly believe the outcome of our work will result in building a stronger, more resilient community, and we've come to believe this only happens when we each use our gifts and talents to help others. Funding is the most difficult part of our job right now, but the key has been thinking outside the box.
If you're also working on a project that uses music to make your community better, make sure to check out and apply to the 2024 Music Cities Awards. This year the Award Ceremony will take place on November 14th at the Riyadh Music Cities Convention in Saudi Arabia. Applications are currently open.
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