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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, 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,

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.


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

for service.

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


Engagement Blueprint

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

wider audience.

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.”


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

performance opportunities.

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

meaningful experience.

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,


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.


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.

43 New York Department of Health, “The Burden of Physical Inactivity and Poor Nutrition,” New York

Department of Health, December 1, 2015. 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

economic hardship.

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

and supported.

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.


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



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