Affordable Housing the Musical: A Study of Socially Engaged Art Making and Microactivism in
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
By Rachel Despard
Senior Honors Thesis (Music)
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
April 24, 2020
Thesis Advisor: David Garcia
Reader: Mark Katz
One freezing December evening, just before a snow storm, I sat around a round, white table
filled with plates of food and friends. It was the annual CEF (Community Empowerment Fund)
Holiday Party, and every corner of the meeting hall at Chapel of the Cross Church was filled
with warmth and seasonal spirit. In between bites of homemade green bean casserole and
pumpkin pie, members of the organization stood to express their gratitude for the organization.
After members had finished their emotional remarks, the CEF choir got up to sing. Almost
instantaneously, the room filled with an uproar of excitement. The choir proceeded to give
rousing, soulful renditions of a number of holiday classics. The audience couldn’t get enough.
When the group finally exited, they were met with howls of approval. In between claps, one of
my friends said “these guys should really record an album!” I thought, maybe they should.
Established in 2009 by Maggie West in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, CEF serves
individuals experiencing housing insecurity. The Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition
found that in Orange County, “20% of households make less than 30% of AMI (average monthly
income) ($22,470) and are left with less than $600 a month to spend on housing and utilities.”1
Additionally, “In 2015, only 3% of the total housing units in Orange County were permanently
affordable (by HUD2 definition), yet 43% of households make less than 80% of AMI and are
eligible for most affordable housing.”2 Chinita Howard, a teacher in Chapel Hill Public Schools
and CEF member, stated “(in 2016) my rent went up from $680 per month to $2,110 at my lease
1Orange County Affordable Housing Coalition, “Orange County Affordable Housing Summit,”
Community Empowerment Fund, October 1, 2018, 9, https://communityempowermentfund.org/wp-content/uploads/ 2018/10/180928-Summit-Report-2018_FINAL.pdf.
renewal. More than triple. This was more than I could possibly afford, and with just 30 days’
notice, I moved into my housing of last resort: my Jeep.”3
Housing insecurity and lack of affordable housing afflicts people across the country.4 In
the United States, there is a shortage of seven million homes that are affordable and available to
low income individuals. For every ten people living on a low income, there are only four homes
that are available to them.5 From 2000 to 2016, funding for public housing repairs was cut in
half, leaving many units in poor condition.6 Although the issue has gained major news coverage
in cities such as San Francisco and New York, it also affects suburban and rural areas across the
United States.7 Due to the severity of these issues, the National Low Income Housing Coalition
identifies this as a housing crisis.
The members of CEF have worked tirelessly to make affordable housing a priority in
Chapel Hill’s local government. In 2018, the organization successfully advocated for the passage
of a $10 million housing bond. However, despite the seemingly large sum, it has become clear
that the sum will only partially address the need for affordable housing in Chapel Hill.8 To
highlight the persistence of this problem, CEF members created and performed Affordable
Housing: The Musical to educate community members on issues of affordable housing and, in
the process, reduce the stigma of homelessness. Members hope this will encourage a more
holistic effort from different parts of the community (i.e. developers, the University, and
3 Chinita Howard, cast member and CEF leader, in discussion with the author
4 National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis,” National Low
Income Housing Coalition, August 15, 2019, https://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/Solutions-to-the-Affordable-Housing-Crisis.pdf.
5 National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis,” 1. 6 National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis,” 1. 7 National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis,” 2. 8 Editorial Board, “Rent Is Too Damn High,” The Daily Tar Heel, February 27, 2020.
To help support this project, I collaborated with members and leaders of CEF to create a
professional recording of Affordable Housing: The Musical (Figure 1). The recording sessions
took place on November 10, 2019. In the spring semester, I aided in the production and
distribution of a CD of the musical soundtrack. This included mastering, artwork, and physical
distribution. In order to further aid their efforts as an organization, all funds from purchases of
the CD will go back to the organization, and may serve to promote the services they offer to
For my thesis paper, I will present a study of socially engaged art making and
microactivism. Socially engaged art making is art created with the intention of social change.
Microactivism is engaging in personal connections with vulnerable members of society to
provide empathy and care, as opposed to macroactivism which involves advocacy for wide-scale
policy change. Social change through macroactivism at the federal and state level is possible, but
only occurs incrementally. However, social change at the local level can and does happen
through microactivism. Microactivism through music, specifically, is a powerful tool for
community collaboration and for providing visibility for vulnerable populations. In this paper, I
will argue that socially engaged art making and microactivism through music is a viable policy
option for addressing systematic inequalities.
These projects are important for greater human understanding in a time of tremendous
division and social stratification. A deep misunderstanding and mistrust of others has been
cultivated by biased media images, sensationalized news coverage, and a culture of racism and
unconcerned capitalism in the United States. Art allows for the public to engage with truthful and
informative stories of misrepresented individuals in an accessible and impactful way. It was with
this idea in mind that Maggie West decided to create Affordable Housing: The Musical with the
members of CEF.9
My collaboration with Affordable Housing: The Musical, along with my study of existing
scholarship on artistic advocacy, will inform my argument for the significance of microactivism
and socially engaged art making. As Chérie Ndaliko has shown in her work, socially engaged art
making is a realizable way to bring communities closer together, support its more vulnerable
members, and inform the public of social and political issues.10 This paper will include three
parts: 1) the importance of socially engaged art making, 2) the process of creating the musical
and the CD, and 3) a case for microactivism and arts for social change.
PART 1 - SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART MAKING
What is socially engaged art making?
Music has always been an enormous part of who I am. Since I was very young, I was enthralled
by music. I started taking piano and voice lessons by the age of ten. I performed in talent shows
in elementary and middle school and sang in various choirs. In high school, I participated in
musicals and masterclasses. Growing up, music was a huge positive force in my life and the lives
of those around me. It helped me form some of my strongest relationships and helped manifest
some of my most profound experiences. It has pushed me, and continues to push me, to become
a more confident, empathetic, and open-minded person.
The same can be said for my passion for service and social justice. Helping others and
standing up for what is right has always been important to me. I participated in service
organizations all throughout my middle and high school careers. At UNC Chapel Hill, I was
lucky to find a breadth of service organizations that supported various social justice agendas as
well as a strong activist tradition. I quickly got involved with a number of service organizations,
including HYPE (Helping Youth by Providing Enrichment), a tutoring and mentoring afterschool
program at the Hargraves Center in the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill. To support
activism on campus, I got involved with the movement for the removal of Silent Sam, a
10 Chérie Rivers Ndaliko, Necessary Noise: Music, Film, and Charitable Imperialism in the East of Congo
Confederate statue on UNC’s campus erected by Ku Klux Klan supporters in dedication to white
With music and service being integral to my life, I began to think of their intersections. I
felt that each world was missing something. The music groups I was involved in were missing a
sense of social awareness and willingness to take action on issues affecting groups on and off
campus. In the Department of Music, although many professors and students acknowledged
social problems, they largely existed inside of an isolated sphere of music. In service groups, I
felt I couldn’t share a large part of myself and my passion toward music. I also felt that these
service groups were overlooking just how effective art making can be in helping to achieve their
goals. I wanted to use my skills in and my passion for music and service to inspire others and
make a difference in their lives.
This prompted me to get involved in my sophomore year with Musical Empowerment, a
nonprofit student-run organization at UNC that offers free music lessons to young musicians.
Musical Empowerment serves 272 students in “communities lacking or underfunded in music
programs” across six chapters at regional universities.11 I watched my voice student, Gigi, grow
in her self-efficacy and musicianship. After our first year, her mother told me how music lessons
had given Gigi a new sense of identity and curiosity. I began to see music as a powerful medium
The following year, I became an intern in Engagement at Carolina Performing Arts
(CPA). The office is responsible for building and maintaining a connection with university
academic programs and the community. I learned how to create meaningful and long-lasting
artistic collaborations with other organizations and how to address the challenges that come with
11 Musical Empowerment, “2018 Annual Report,” Musical Empowerment, July 2, 2019,
establishing ties between the campus and the community, especially in Chapel Hill. My work
included coordinating a community choir for a visiting music collective Wild Up and projects
with the Flutronix hip-hop duo, both of which included members of the Community
Empowerment Fund. Each of these events was impactful for CEF members, the artists, and CPA
staff alike. Organizing these experiences demonstrated to me the incredible positivity artistic
engagement can bring to the lives of participants. Through these roles, I learned how I could use
my art, or artistic knowledge, to address social justice issues in what I will present in this paper
as socially engaged art making.
Although my other service ventures, such as mentoring through HYPE (Helping Youth
by Providing Enrichment), are impactful in their own ways, music runs deeper. From religious
services to rock concerts to protest songs, it is clear music is a powerful medium of human
expression. In each of these scenarios, music brings people together from vastly different life
experiences and social backgrounds. Ethnomusicologist Michael Frishkopf states that “music is
the most powerful available social technology forging human connectivity across system induced
Why do we form such powerful connections through music? Doug Borwick, a scholar in
artistic engagement, states“it’s not about the art; it’s about the art’s interaction with people.”13
Borwick asserts that the power of art lies not in the object itself, but the degree to which an artist
affects people. People do not gauge whether they enjoy music purely on the technical precision
or skill with which it is performed, but rather on the emotional impact that it has had on them.
We do not remember the great performances of Bob Dylan or Freddie Mercury for their musical
12 Michael Frishkopf, “Music for Global Human Development and Refugees,” Ethnomusicology 63, no. 2 (2019): 281.
aptitude. Although this element can be impressionable, what truly stays with us is the way they
made us feel.
Collective Listening and Social Resonance
Practicing music as a group has an even stronger emotional effect on people. Frishkopf takes this
concept more in depth with his theory of collective listening. Collective listening is the process
of being an “active, engaged listener,” through music and conversation.14 This process “generates
both common knowledge and empathy.”15 Intently listening to the voices of others humanizes
them. This happens through a phenomenon called social resonance: “an intensive
cognitive-affective social state resulting from cycles of sonic feedback through a social network.”16 This
resonance amplifies common thought-feeling: “recognizing each other as fully human and
recognizing that shared recognition.”17
Social resonance may occur through cycles of sonic feedback between the audience and
performers within the space of a single performance. However, Frishkopf asserts that sustained
relationships of musical creation are most likely to induce social resonance. Frishkopf’s theories
of collective listening and social resonance were developed through his work with Music for
Global Human Development in Ghana. This project is a musical collaboration between Canadian
scholars, local organizations, and musicians for the purpose of supporting refugees.18 The project
was established in 2007 and has continued into the present. Based upon this project, Frishkopf
believes that repeated collective creation will be most likely to induce social resonance.19
14 Frishkopf, “Music for Global Human Development and Refugees,” 305.
15 Frishkopf, “Music for Global Human Development and Refugees,” 305.
16 Frishkopf, “Music for Global Human Development and Refugees,” 305.
Creating music with others is a potent tool for increasing empathy and understanding. It
is a key asset for communities to use to bring different members together and help them see new
perspectives. However, nonprofits and service organizations often overlook creating music as an
asset. If service organizations do support musical programs, they often underestimate how
impactful they can be in individuals’ lives. As Borwick argues, if more service organizations
encouraged music creation, then “art (could be) the means of interaction and the vehicle through
which individual and collective lives are improved.”20
How is socially engaged art made?
Participatory Action Research
Through his work with refugees in Ghana, Frishkopf presents a succinct methodology for
humanitarian ethnomusicology, which he calls participatory action research (PAR). The purpose
of PAR is to work towards positive social change in a community. He emphasizes the necessity
for egalitarian participation from both researchers and community members and to avoid these
title distinctions all together.
Frishkopf has two primary prongs to this methodology, the first being that researchers
should not have a “predetermined research agenda.”21 Instead, the team makes a plan, reflects on
the experience, and refines it. The process is rooted in feedback and the acknowledgement that
the process will change and adapt. The second prong is the formation of social networks. Social
networks are developed and expanded through interactive sound, action, and discussion. This
will result in social resonance.22
20 Borwick, Engage Now!, 9.
21 Frishkopf, “Music for Global Human Development and Refugees,” 307.
When planning, recording, and releasing the CD for Affordable Housing the Musical, I
employed Frishkopf’s PAR methodology. I began this project with no expected findings, but
rather, let my thesis statement evolve alongside the project. Maggie and I worked together to
develop a vision for the CD project and establish goals. As priorities and circumstances shifted
throughout the process, we adjusted our plans. Through the interview process, the cast and I were
able to build upon previously established social networks. Finally, through rehearsing, recording,
and performing the musical, every partner in the project (cast members, Maggie, Christian
Green, the audience, and myself) were able to engage in a process of active listening that allowed
for social resonance and greater empathy for one another.
Citizen Art Making
In Chérie Ndaliko’s work with Yole! Africa, an NGO in the Congo that acts as a community arts
center and training ground for performing artists, she explores the crucial role of citizen art
making in the midst of conflict.23 Ndaliko recognizes citizen art making as a political act, and
specifically as a means for affecting visibility. She uses her art to realize three major goals:
representation and humanization, creative autonomy, and storytelling as a means for survival.
Ndaliko further explains that citizen art making is meant to cut through the commotion of
media images and stories to show a genuine picture of everyday life and to humanize those in
conflict zones. She identifies film as a key medium of representation and the importance of it
being created by those who are misrepresented.24 She also stresses the necessity of the films
being made by the artists of Yole! as a means of empowerment after feeling without control
amidst conflict. Finally, she identifies storytelling through art as an act of survival. She cites
hop as a dynamic method for storytelling. She recognizes music is a particularly accessible and
powerful way to express oneself, one’s culture, and carry out a political message.25 While
receiving aid is still necessary, art, too, is necessary to affect purpose and hope in a bleak
In his book, Engage Now!, Borwick creates a blueprint for arts engagement: motivation, effort,
results. For motivation, he states practitioners must embrace the role of the arts in addressing the
needs and interests of the community. For effort, he states they must have the mechanisms in
place to learn the interests of those communities. Practitioners must accept that their work will be
altered as they develop an understanding of those needs and interests. Finally, for results, he asks
how many individuals are taking advantage of engagement opportunities and how frequently do
communities seek your assistance?26
Borwick cites Ballet Memphis as an example of positive engagement. The ballet supports
two different successful education-based programs, Dance Avenue and Youth Villages. Dance
Avenue offers dance instruction to third graders in three elementary schools, and Youth Villages
offers lessons to highly troubled teenagers in a secured facility.27 Each program works in
collaboration with community partners to feature works that reflect the spirit of the city and
address its challenges. For example, the educational dance programs incorporate elements of jazz
and blues music into the ballet. In 2012, a work called Connections: Earth and Sky was
performed to process the horrible flooding that had been plaguing the city.28
Ndaliko and Borwick both emphasize the importance of being in touch and connected
with the needs of your community, as well as being transparent about your intentions when
getting involved in the first place. When developing the CD with CEF, being transparent about
the intention behind my involvement, addressing the needs of an existing project, and being
flexible as their priorities shifted were all key in making this project what Borwick would refer to
as positive engagement.
Additionally, Yole! Africa and the Ballet Memphis programs both share three common
goals that are key to socially engaged art making: to inspire visibility, healing, and hope for
participants and community members. These elements were also key in the process of rehearsing
and performing Affordable Housing: The Musical. Through written and musical expression, cast
members were able to process their experiences with one another, as well as share them with a
Why is socially engaged art important?
These projects are important for encouraging empathy in a period of incredible disunity in the
United States. Political polarization, unfettered capitalism, and nationalist fervor have turned
opposing sides further against each other and even against those in our own communities. In the
case of homelessness, the astonishing wealth gap and inequality in our country has caused us to
turn our backs on those who have been hurt by our ruthless economic system. It is important for
Americans to combat their biases through listening and engaging.
Socially engaged art making allows for the public to engage stories of misrepresented
individuals in an accessible and impactful way. It also provides a more palatable way for people
Affordable Housing: The Musical, satire was used to help lighten difficult topics and localize
issues so that they resonated with the audience. Christian Green, the musical director for
Affordable Housing: The Musical, stated, “yeh we’re frustrated with the people on the other side
but we’re not just gonna go be mean. And we’re not gonna go be unkind. We’re gonna be
creative and find an outlet like this; that’s what I loved about it.”
PART 2 - AFFORDABLE HOUSING THE MUSICAL
1. The Birth of the Project
I originally connected with CEF through benefit concerts. Several friends of mine worked with
CEF and spoke very highly of the organization. Three years ago, one of these friends told me
that CEF was looking for a musician to perform at their Steel String Fundraiser, a night of music
at a local brewery in which a percentage of the proceeds would go to the organization. Inspired
by the work CEF had done in the community, I happily volunteered my time and music.
After the success of the first fundraiser, I continued to perform at several large CEF
events thereafter. I sang at a social justice gathering in the Campus Y and Financial
Independence Day, among others. Through each of the events, as well as events I worked with
Carolina Performing Arts, I got to know Maggie (the musical’s organizer) and Jon (the
Executive Director of CEF), as well as many of the members, including Chinita and Fred, who
were both cast members in Affordable Housing: The Musical (AHM). At these times, before the
musical had come to life, I had many conversations with members who were craving more
Upon hearing about the planning for the musical, I volunteered to help out. Jon shared
classes at UNC and having spent lots of time in the studio, I offered to help with the recording.
Maggie enlisted the support of another engineer to help with the session.
Figuring out the space for the session, the timing, and organizing the cast was no small
task. Maggie and I spent a month planning before the day came about. I offered to book the
Kenan Studio (Kenan Music Building, Department of Music at UNC Chapel Hill), which I have
access to as a music student, while Maggie convened with the cast. We finally found a date in
early November 2019 when the stars aligned and both the studio was open and the thirty-member
cast and engineer were available. In order to encourage a fresh performance by the cast, we
recorded on November 10th, the weekend before the musical’s premier.
2. Writing the Musical
The creation of the musical was an enormous undertaking. Maggie first offered the idea in
summer of 2018. She knew that members were looking for more means of artistic expression,
and thought a musical would be a great way to combine different people’s talents. So, Maggie
sent out the idea to the organization and began to hold meet-ups at her home in Chapel Hill to
discuss creating a show. These conversations turned into brainstorming sessions on what the
show would be about. Members felt strongly that the show should explore their various
experiences with homelessness.
Eventually, it became time to consider the other art forms. George Barrett, a leader in the
Jackson Center29, was recruited as choreographer, to utilize dance as an extension of musical
expression. He then convinced his friend, Christian Foushee-Green, an independent musician and
the musical director of the historic St. Joseph’s Church, to come on board. Christian said, “Going
29 The Jackson Center is a hub of creative action dedicated to preserving the future of historically Black
back to the beginning when they were doing a lot of movement stuff with George. Trying to
express a movement for people who have dealt with homelessness, and how they felt. There
were a few lyrics they had written to a few songs, so those songs I would put melody and chords
and stuff to, just from reading the lyrics. That’s a fun way to write. Or I would clean up some of
the lyrics. Make them more in song form-verse/chorus.”30
With a date for the musical set in Current Arts Space (November 14–17, 2019), Christian
quickly got to work. He stated “They would get together for some rehearsals and do like cast
writing to talk about people’s experiences. They would lead these workshops. . . . [Maggie would
ask] How did this make you feel? The members and the advocates co-wrote this stuff at
rehearsals, and I put them into song form. I wrote it by getting into an emotional space from the
lyrics I was reading from some other songs . . . thinking about what life would be like if there
were people to be there for everybody. . . . Everybody needs somebody to step in. I wrote that
full lyrics, full melody, but then somebody who had actually been through that experience took it
and rewrote it, and then mine came in at the very end.”31
Liz Evans, an early cast member, stated, “We kept getting together and trying different
things and finally came up with a musical. It’s been a very different kind of process, . . . and I
really appreciate it because we all care about people having a safe place to be. . . . It was very
collaborative. . . . We all wrote different stuff and some of it very naturally became a part of the
In Ndaliko’s work with Yole!, Frishkopf's work with PAR, Borwick’s example of Ballet
Memphis, and Affordable Housing: The Musical, egalitarian collaboration by diverse voices was
key to each project’s success. Each project sought equal contributions from individuals of
30 Christian Foushee-Green, composer and pianist, in discussion with the author, January 2020.
31 Christian Foushee-Green, composer and pianist, in discussion with the author, January 2020.
different racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds, with diverse artistic and personal views.
There are enormous benefits to having a myriad of voices represented. With more diversity
comes a broadened range of perspectives, and as a result, richer and more complex development
of ideas. Additionally, art impacts people when we feel it reveals an element of our reality. When
a number of different perspectives are represented, art feels authentic, relatable, and accessible to
a wide range of audience members.
3. The CEF Sessions
The recording session on November 10, 2019 took place only after the musical’s participants and
I had a series of conversations, made compromises, and worked together. This was a key lesson
in community work: it is a continuous balance of give and take. When working on a socially
engaged art project, all partners must be adaptable, flexible, and find creative solutions to
logistical problems. In the end, the cast and I were able to meet in the middle and create a
Throughout planning and during the session itself, however, I was aware of my privilege
as a white college student. I was aware of my affiliation with a university that has historically
exploited town members for the sake of research and acted with detached elitism. Most
importantly to the members of CEF, UNC Chapel Hill students have indirectly been responsible
for the rent increases that have pushed town members out of their homes. Land lords know that
wealthy students, or their parents, can pay high rents, and have raised rates exponentially.
Although many of the volunteers for CEF are white UNC students, the negative
associations with the university cannot be overlooked. Even Maggie and Jon themselves, the
people of color who are economically disadvantaged. I cannot say that the cast members were
not resentful of these associations. However, during the session, I did my best to make everyone
feel welcome and comfortable, complimented singers on great takes, and thanked everyone for
their time. Most importantly, I made sure to play an assisting role.
To ensure egalitarian collaboration, I was guided by the principle of the community
partner steering the project. I offered the skills and resources I was able to provide, which were
my production capabilities, the Kenan Rehearsal Hall space, and my pre-established distribution
partnership. Apart from suggesting to add the liner notes to the CD, I only asked Maggie what
was needed of me. During the session, I was aware of the roles that were already filled. John was
the lead audio engineer, Christian was the musical director, and Maggie and Jon were CEF
leaders. I made myself available to help out when any of these individuals needed an extra hand.
Otherwise, I tried to be a source of positivity and encouragement for the cast members.
The session brought together about thirty singers, all CEF members and advocates, to
Kenan Rehearsal Hall, which is adjacent to the Kenan Studio. The members gathered to record
before their upcoming performance of the musical, which they had been writing and rehearsing
since September 2018. The session ran smoothly thanks to a team effort by everyone involved. I
was fortunate to work with three key leaders on the project: Maggie (director), Christian
(musical director), and John (audio engineer). Maggie made everyone feel comfortable and eased
performance anxieties. Christian made sure the singers stayed focused and musically accurate,
while also providing the accompaniment on keyboards, which was recorded through a direct
input. John and I made sure all the audio sounded clear and checked levels throughout.
The session overall had a warm and laid-back tone. The group knew each other well, as
adjusting as they needed to with the mic placement and multiple takes at a time. Mistakes and
mishaps were taken with good humor; the singers simply laughed them off and kept going. This
was a testament, it seemed to me, to their level of comfort and trust in one another. The singers
were very supportive of one another. They clapped and cheered when someone had a great take,
and listened closely when someone performed a vulnerable life story. Although CEF is already a
large part of many of the singers’ lives, it was clear that this music had brought them closer
together. Liz said “it’s a good feeling . . . for everyone to lift their voices together. . . . It’s a
really good way to come together.”33
For some, recording can be a nerve-wracking experience. The need for accuracy and
permanence of a recording puts the pressure on artists to have a great take. However, despite
some initial nerves, the group seemed to simply enjoy being together and making music.
33 Liz Evans, cast member, in discussion with the author, February 2020.
The music in the session was fun, lively, and striking at times. Christian crafted beautiful
melodies and arranged complex large group pieces. His songs stayed true to classic musical
theatre form, but with soul and gospel flair. He was able to take all the energy and passion of the
group, some of whom had never performed music, and structured it in a meaningful way. The
music offered plenty of humor with its satirical representation of Chapel Hill or “Church
Mound.” One of my favorite lines was “even the trees have PhD’s!”- a line that pokes fun at the
fact that Chapel Hill is one of the most educated places in the country (Figure 2). This element of
humor allowed for comic relief in a musical with otherwise very serious subject matter.
The music was also very emotional at some points, such as in “Something Has Got to
Give (Figure 3).” The lyrics read:
I’ve been trying, trying to hold on
Sometimes when I feel like I’m giving up, on everything
Figure 3: Liner notes of "Something Has Got to Give"
Christian said “it's so powerful . . . in that music there’s a lot of pleading. [When I was writing it]
I was just trying to get that agony. Just hearing people’s voices, and their stories and their
pain.”34 The members performed this piece, among others, with audacious honesty. Although the
tone remained light for most of the session, the room was silent during these moments. You
could feel the gravity of each of the members’ stories and the extent to which it affected those in
the room. Many tears were shed and hugs were given between cast members. Through collective
listening, the group found social resonance.
This emotional outpouring of music allows listeners to empathize with the performer.
The cast members committed to performing the musical, and the recording session, because they
wanted to share their stories. The recording session not only allowed cast members to further
experiences. The CD has the potential to extend the emotional impact to those who could not
attend the musical. By striking a chord with people locally, and perhaps even nationally, there
will be greater awareness of the affordable housing crisis, which is affecting individuals across
the United States.35
4. The Performance
On November 14, 2019, I attended the dress rehearsal of Affordable Housing: The
Musical in Current Artspace in Chapel Hill. Although I had heard all of the music, this was the
first time I saw the show in its entirety. Seeing the show with the full script, choreography, and
set was an even more impactful experience than simply hearing the music. Of course, hearing the
music in the session had a first-reveal wow factor. But seeing the full production added context
and greater meaning to each of the pieces. The effect of social resonance in live performance
creates a unique moment of bonding between the audience of the musical and performers.36
It was wonderful to see the members I’ve worked with many times over the years share
their talents with an attentive audience. For several of the members, the dress rehearsal was the
first time they had ever performed, and many were quite nervous. Although the newness of
performance was intimidating to some, everyone in the cast participated because they have a
passion for the arts and a passion for the message CEF was sending. When a wrong note was
sung, Christian was there to help find the right one, and when a line was forgotten, another cast
member was there to help remember it. Every barrier was worked through with good natured
humor and overcome with a commitment to the greater importance of the project.
35 National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis,” 2019.
After the show, the cast expressed how moved they were to see such a huge crowd come
and support them. I was informed that the dress rehearsal was only supposed to have about thirty
guests, yet, over 150 people ended up coming to see it. With support from the Carolina
Performing Arts Marketing Department, the show sold out for the whole weekend in only 10
days. The enthusiasm for the project revealed the positive impact CEF has made on so many
lives in the area.
Figure 4: The cast of the musical showing the facts of housing insecurity in Orange County
The musical was effective in being both informative and entertaining. The cast creatively
incorporated facts and statistics about housing insecurity in Chapel Hill along with the members’
true stories toward producing the musical (Figure 4). The musical painted a very realistic picture
of what housing insecurity looks, sounds, and feels like in town. These very serious moments
were balanced with spoofing some of the more ridiculous aspects of Chapel Hill, such as
salamander enthusiasts and avid pickleball players. These characters, called the “Not in My
members, and wealthy citizens) who are sometimes hilariously out of touch with the issues that
pervade their own city.
It should be noted that this satire was not taken lightly by all. Although the jokes
certainly gained laughs from the audience, the Mayor of Chapel Hill and several Town Council
members declined to attend the performance, even after the cast explained the parodies were not
pointed at an October council meeting.37 The Jackson Center, a partner of CEF, refused to be
associated with the musical due to its provocative subject matter. This poses an interesting
question for future socially engaged art projects: should they seek to challenge the audience in a
way that is thought provoking but may cause discomfort for some? Or should they seek to unify
a community and include as many people as possible to spread a social message? Some might
see the choice of satire in AHM as limiting, while some may see it as productive means to push
social thought forward.
The musical was successful in drawing a large audience and receiving a largely positive
response from all who attended. Witnessing the session and the live musical further emphasized
the strength of the CEF community and its importance in Chapel Hill and the area. CEF has
clearly changed the lives of both members and advocates alike and established itself as a pillar of
this community. As Chinita stated, “these are the people that give you support when you’re
falling.”38 It has effectively brought together members of both the university and the town to
advocate for those in need of support. This strong foundation is the reason for the musical’s high
attendance and popularity. When CEF had a message to share, the community listened. Chinita
said “this is our problem as a community, and the audience thought, this could have happened to
37 Jon Young. “What We Mean When We Say Satire.” Community Empowerment Fund, October 30, 2019, http://www.affordablehousingmusical.org/what-we-mean-when-we-say-satire/.
me…”39 The musical exemplifies the power of socially engaged performance and its ability to
communicate a social need to the community.
5. Development and Release of the CD
After the sessions, from November 2019 to January 2020, John worked on the mixing of
the audio files. Maggie and I put together the cover art and liner notes. Meanwhile, I submitted
the information for copyright and got to work on uploading the tracks through CD Baby, an
independent distributor with whom I had previously established a membership. By March,
everything was ready to be shipped off to the manufacturer and released into the world.
In April, Maggie and I planned to host an album release party at Current Artspace in
partnership with Carolina Performing Arts, who have generously supported this entire process,
before the COVID-19 outbreak in March. Although the virus has disrupted millions of lives and
left us with an uncertain future, for many, music is providing a sense of calm, reassurance, and
community. Despite facing quarantine, Italians have been performing music from balconies and
rooftops. Every day at 6pm, musical flashmobs have broken out across the country, from “Three
Little Birds” to the national classic “Viva l’Italia.” This speaks to the power of music to find
healing and hope even in the darkest times.
I hope that this project will open the door to more collaborations in the future and that the
album will sustain the message of the musical long after performances have run their course. As
Ndaliko argues, it is crucial to have a project that may be sustained after it is created. Otherwise,
as was the case with countless NGOs in the Congo, the actual impact of the project is minimal,
and can even cause disruption.40 Without a sustained impact, effective collaboration, and mutual
39 Chinita Howard, cast member and CEF leader, in discussion with the author, February 2020
benefit, this project could have left the members of CEF feeling used and with a greater distrust
of college students and the University. However, it is my hope that with the CD, the cast will
have a document of this amazing endeavor, and can share it and their experiences making it with
friends and family for years to come.
PART 3 - MICROACTIVISM AND ARTS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
A Case for Microactivism
After I started college and jumped into service organizations, it felt like a natural progression to
choose a major in public policy. I knew I wanted a career with impact on people’s lives; policy
seemed like the most effective way to do that. I even joined UNC’s student run think-tank, The
Roosevelt Institute, and co-publisheda policy brief for Roosevelt National.41
By the end of my sophomore year, however, I became unsure how much of a change I
could really make in policy. I learned that while policies can have an enormous impact on lives,
many fail or don’t even make the political agenda. Incrementalism is key to writing change into
law. I grew increasingly frustrated with the slow delivery of aid, assistance, and protections that
vulnerable populations desperately need.
Through studying various policy cases, I also learned that the reason why so many
policies fail is the lack of direct knowledge policy writers have of the communities they intend to
service. Policy makers have innovative ideas that are often incongruent with constituencies. A
famous case of this dilemma is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban in New York City, which
was enormously unpopular and regarded as ineffective from a public health perspective.42 A key
reason why Bloomberg’s ban failed is that he did not recognize that New Yorkers love their Big
Gulps and would respond very negatively to a government restriction on a personal lifestyle
choice. The ban also failed to address the true cause of obesity, which New Yorkers had cited for
years: food deserts and lack of safe places for exercise in low-income neighborhoods.43 By
failing to listen to the needs of his community, Bloomberg’s policy was ineffective.
In more extreme cases, policy interventions from outside of the community can even be
harmful. In Necessary Noise, Ndaliko vividly describes the disruption of US relief programs in
the Congo, which have tried to aid the conflict, but have furthered difficulties. Ndaliko recalls
one situation in which a respected Congolese singer, Tonton Lusambo, was approached to
perform in a festival which would “bring peace to the region.”44 Due to the high-budget spending
and national broadcast of the program, locals assumed he was given generous compensation for
his performance. In actuality, he did not receive a single cent, not even for transportation.45 When
he failed to pay his rent, his landlord, believing he had the money, called him a liar and threw
him out on the street. Ndaliko states, “volunteers . . . equate hearing the words and voices of
locals with listening to local needs.”46
Ndaliko instead advocates for locally-based organizations, with the support of outside aid
workers, to direct relief efforts. Her organization, Yole! Africa, was started by her husband
Petna, who is from the North-Kivu province. The organization employs and is led by locals, with
42 Grynbaum, Michael, and Marjorie Connelly, “60% In City Oppose Bloomberg’s Soda Ban, Poll Finds,”
The New York Times, August 22, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/23/nyregion/most-new-yorkers-oppose-bloombergs-soda-ban.html.
43 New York Department of Health, “The Burden of Physical Inactivity and Poor Nutrition,” New York
Department of Health, December 1, 2015.
https://www.health.ny.gov/prevention/prevention_agenda/physical_activity_and_nutrition/. 44 Ndaliko, Necessary Noise, 7.
some foreign workers who have come to act in an assisting role. Through film, dance, music, and
song, Yole! launches the careers of young artists through training programs. Like CEF, the
organization is built on a member-advocate model, which encourages individualized relationship
building. The nonprofit has been successful in using microactivism to inspire hope and empower
thousands of young artists to establish their careers.
Another difficulty I had with policy work was the lack of direct impact. What I love so
much about serving in Musical Empowerment is being able to directly see the impact on an
individual’s life. Even if policy makers are effective, they often cannot physically see the change
they have engendered. However, I found that music did have the individual impact I was looking
for. When you sing a song for an audience, you can immediately witness their reaction and feel a
connection. Within the strong relationships that are built through music, participants in collective
creation can see others change over the course of a musical project or collaboration. This was the
kind of impact I was searching for, and one I witnessed through Affordable Housing the Musical.
This is not to dismiss the importance of policy altogether. Changing the law is crucial to
our rights and protections. However, while this long process is playing out, policy makers should
seek the support of microactivist organizations such as CEF to have a quicker and more direct
impact. Rachel Schaevitz, a Chapel Hill Town Council Member, shared her experience
addressing affordable housing in Chapel Hill. She stated, “this is a complex problem with a
constellation of solutions. . . . I can only control so much. We’re limited by the state legislature.
There are so many things I would love to do but I can't. And people are angry; rightly so . . .
local government, lots of different people . . . should take responsibility.”47
Microactivism’s power lies in the small moments of acceptance. As Christian states,
people “need a lot of love and fixing and care and compassion. . . . If a person’s already
broken… they shouldn’t be further ostracized; that’s not gonna make them any better; you’re just
gonna get worse behavior at that point.”48 Chinita states, “When I lead the CEF training, I want
to create a non-biased, non-judgmental environment. I want everyone to feel like humans,
period. I want everyone to explore their gifts and their talents and know you’re not alone.”49
The government should provide funding to local organizations addressing social issues in
the communities they know so well. When shaping laws, policy makers should be in
conversation with microactivists. Policy makers should ask microactivist organizations the ways
in which they believe a law will be most effective. As Christian states, “In any situation there’s a
lot of leaders, but what would the world look like if people really did collaborate. It doesn’t
always happen in the arts, it doesn’t always happen in activism, it doesn’t always happen in
politics . . . it doesn’t always happen period. There’s not many places where there’s not an
outright leader. . . . More input for all can go a long way.”50
What would the world look like if community members and political leaders
collaborated? The egalitarian collaboration of Affordable Housing the Musical sets the example
of what should be happening on a larger scale in our governance. As council woman Schaevitz
stated, there should be a “constellation of solutions” from different members of the community,
and diverse voices should all come together to collaborate on complex challenges. A variety of
life experiences offer a more well-rounded perspective that will ultimately result in better
solutions. If Chapel Hill were to elect a CEF member to the Town Council, that would be a step
in the right direction. This would certainly be productive in shifting the power imbalance from
majority middle to upper class, highly educated council members to individuals who have faced
48 Christian Foushee-Green, composer and pianist, in discussion with the author, January 2020.
49 Chinita Howard, cast member and CEF Leader, in discussion with the author, February 2020.
Arts as a means for social change
As was stated above, music is an ideal medium for microactivism. Music allows for great impact
in both performance and collaboration. Performing, live or studio setting, can emotionally
influence the listener long after the performance ends. Musical collaboration allows for social
resonance and builds trusting relationships that can have a big impact in participants’ lives.
When funded by policy makers, artistic microactivism has the potential to motivate enormous
social change. Yet, as Mark Katz reminds us in his study of hip hop diplomacy, “just as hip hop
—and hip hop diplomacy—can bridge cultural divides, facilitate understanding, and build
community, it can also be misused, exploited, and hurt those it is meant to help. To explore this
tension is to probe the multifaceted power of art, and thus to gain insight into its significance in
international relations and human affairs.”51 Complex power dynamics must be taken into
consideration in order for socially engaged art to have a positive impact.
So why haven’t socially engaged art projects gained the attention of policy makers yet?
The answer lies in how we view success in our society. In order to deem a program or service
effective, we like to see numbers and metrics. We like to quantify the impact a policy has had on
people to ensure we aren’t wasting time or money. The challenge is that the impact of the arts is
difficult to quantify. How could someone measure the effect of Affordable Housing the Musical
on CEF members? The task would be impossible. There is no numerical way to calculate love,
compassion, and empathy. That being said, it would be beneficial to survey cast members and
audience members on the effect the musical had on them to try and demonstrate its positive
impact in their lives. Allowing those outside of the project to see how many people this process
affected, and to what degree, would make a strong case for future projects like these to be funded
It is crucial to find ways to humanize policy. As the musical brings to the fore, policy
makers overlook our more vulnerable members of society. This may be due to lack of capacity or
ability to provide positive outcomes for everyone. However, failure to make all-inclusive policy
does not permit our leaders to let people fall through the cracks. Even if a policy cannot
realistically serve everyone equally, then there should be external measures put in place to ensure
that vulnerable members of society are cared for. Through socially engaged art making, we must
continue to address the issues that arise from ineffective policy and support vulnerable members
of society through microactivism.
Complex problems demand creative solutions. In a time of great division and inequality,
we must find new ways to address challenging social issues. Given our tense political climate
and bleak social outlook, we must find ways to humanize one another. As I write this paper, we
face the formidable threat of COVID-19, which has already caused great disarray worldwide. It
is sure to continue to cause great suffering, the extent to which is unknown, but will certainly
require an enormous period of rebuilding. Music will be needed now more than ever for a source
of hope, support, and connection.
We must find ways to bring attention to our most pressing social issues and members of
society who desperately need visibility. Socially engaged art making and microactivist efforts are
viable policy options to effect greater social change and, in turn, an improved society. As
Christian states, people need to know “you matter, we love you, we see you. And that’s what
everybody needs. Everybody needs to be seen.”52
COVID-19 has presented significant challenges to the CEF community. Members without
housing are some of the most vulnerable to the virus. Those with housing face financial
uncertainty from economic turmoil. The CEF Office in Chapel Hill is closed until further notice
and regular meetings have been cancelled. This will certainly be a difficult time for members,
who will need additional support to recover from this crisis.
Additionally, in the beginning of March, the final stages of the CD release and the release
party had to be put on hold. Due to warehouse closures as part of social distancing, the physical
CD release has been stalled. The CD release party, which was in the process of being scheduled
Thankfully, the digital release has still been possible, and Affordable Housing: The
Musical can be accessed by the first week of May on all available streaming platforms (Spotify,
Apple Music, Amazon, YouTube, etc.).
Board, Editorial. 2020. “Rent Is Too Damn High.” The Daily Tar Heel.
Borwick, Doug. Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable. Winston-Salem,
NC: ArtsEngaged, 2015.
Despard, Rachel, Shivpriya Sridhar, and Aditi Adhikari. “Addressing the Mental Health of High
School Students: Expanding Training and Tools in North Carolina.” Roosevelt Institute:
10 Ideas 10, no. 1 (2018): 5–6. https://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/
Editorial Board. “Rent Is Too Damn High.” The Daily Tar Heel, February 27, 2020.
Frishkopf, Michael. “Music for Global Human Development and Refugees.”
Ethnomusicology 63, no. 2 (2019): 281.
Grynbaum, Michael, and Connelly, Marjorie. “60% In City Oppose Bloomberg’s Soda
Ban, Poll Finds.” The New York Times, August 22, 2012.
Katz, Mark. Build: The Power of Hip Hop Diplomacy in a Divided World. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2019. Oxford Scholarship Online, 2019. doi:
Musical Empowerment. “2018 Annual Report.” Musical Empowerment, 2019.
National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “Solutions to the Affordable Housing Crisis.”
National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2019.
Ndaliko, Chérie Rivers. Necessary Noise: Music, Film, and Charitable Imperialism in the
East of Congo. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
New York Department of Health. “The Burden of Physical Inactivity and Poor Nutrition.”
New York Department of Health, December 1, 2015.
Summit.” Community Empowerment Fund, 2018.
Stasio, Frank. “Struggles with Housing Explored Through Art and Musical Theater.” North
Carolina Public Radio, November 22, 2019.
Young, Jon. “What We Mean When We Say Satire.” Community Empowerment Fund,
October 30, 2019.
First and foremost, I would like to thank Maggie, Christian, Chinita, Liz, and the CEF
cast and crew for all of their time and dedication to this project. Thank you for welcoming me
into this wonderful community.
I would then like to thank Dr. David Garcia for his incredible support from the very
beginning of this project. I would also like to thank Dr. Mark Katz and Dr. Amanda Graham for
their guidance throughout this project.
Finally, I would like to thank the UNC Music Department for sponsoring this project. In
Music Project (AMP), a community- based music collective, which sparked the idea for this