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Guitars Over Guns reaches at-risk youths with music

Chad Bernstein says involving students in an after-school music program hones their problem-solving skills and creative abilities – and keeps them in school.

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    Chad Bernstein founded Guitars Over Guns in Miami to offer an after-school alternative to the streets.
    Courtesy of Jason Koerner
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Several years ago, accomplished musician Chad Bernstein was invited by a friend who worked at a juvenile detention center to lead a workshop for some of the youths there, presenting music as a positive alternative.

“We went in and started talking to them, but realized that they were very difficult to get through to,” Mr. Bernstein recalls. “When we started to play, we could tell based on their body language and their reaction that it was a very concrete way of reaching them. It was obvious that music was able to open doors that were previously locked.”

That power of music to reach and inspire youths drives the work of the Guitars Over Guns Organization (GOGO), founded in 2008 by Miami-based Bernstein and his father, Bob, a financial professional in Chicago.

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The objective is simple: Provide at-risk youths with the opportunity to learn how to play music, training that due to tight budgets is rapidly diminishing in schools. The father-son duo also wanted to better organize some of the mentoring that members of Suénalo, the Miami band of which Chad was a member, was providing in the local community.

“Even though every kid may not become the next Jimi Hendrix, music and the arts in general have this unique transformative power,”  the younger Bernstein says. In a recent conversation, he discussed the many benefits that come from engaging youths with music, from the development of problem-solving skills to the honing of creative abilities, not to mention the benefits of learning to work together with others toward a common goal.

“The arts are also a great equalizer – you may be the coolest kid in school, but you put an instrument in front of two kids, and they [both] are struggling with the same thing,” he says.

When GOGO first took shape, Bernstein, a Philadelphia native, was a student at the University of Miami. It started off small and grew through a partnership with Communities in Schools of Miami. After first mentoring students at a North Miami middle school, the program began to grow.

GOGO also became a support to its musician-mentors. Bernstein wanted to create meaningful employment for musicians, who often earn little despite their unique talents. Mentors who participate in after-school GOGO programs – an ideal schedule for a musician who might have played a gig into the early morning hours – receive a small stipend.

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That timing and stipend created interest in GOGO among musicians. The program expanded to its second school in 2010. It also benefitted from Bernstein’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Miami, which focused on the effectiveness of music mentoring for at-risk youths, evaluating the GOGO model and identifying its strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement.

Last fall, GOGO expanded to a second city, Bernstein’s hometown of Chicago. And in January, with his doctorate in hand, Bernstein took the helm of the nonprofit as president and CEO, charged with managing its tremendous potential for growth.

“There is nothing else that I could think of doing that could be more important than the work we are doing now,” he says. “We serve at the center for creative expression and empowerment through the arts.”

Since its launch in 2008, GOGO has reached hundreds of students, including some 500 this past summer alone, another 100 this school year in Miami, and roughly 40 more in Chicago. Student participants have produced their own music, including videos; been accepted to performing arts schools; performed on radio and television; and played alongside their mentors.

The number of GOGO students continues to grow, as do indicators that the program is successful. A vast majority of participants have improved their grade point average, decision-making skills, and school attendance records. Nearly all of the participants who had been previously suspended from school were not suspended again once they joined GOGO.

Now GOGO is preparing for a year-end fundraising campaign and its Nov. 21 Choose Your Sound benefit concert, geared toward raising funds to help it reach more youths.

“There is something really special about watching kids have an ‘aha’ moment when they figure out that they can do it themselves,” Bernstein says. “I have kind of lived my life based on the feeling of that moment on stage, when you are lost in the music and the audience is lost in the music, and there is that space in the middle that people exist in that just transcends whatever is going on in your life.

"Watching these kids actualize that moment is truly special.”

• To learn more visit Guitars Over Guns at www.guitarsoverguns.org.

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