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Music and youth-driven social justice movements return to Lawndale—former hub of Jewish life and activism

Founded in 2012, MeMA-Music is an eight-week program that operates in Chicago Public Schools, teaching students about social and political activism through the lens of the groundbreaking music of the 1960s and 1970s.  

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MeMA’s Founding Director Jeanne Warsaw-Gazga teaching the program to an eighth grade class at Langford Academy in Englewood.

At the entrance of Lawndale Community Elementary Academy on Chicago's Far West Side, there are collections of posters mounted on the walls that passersby can flip through like great storybooks. These posters hang in what was once the Jewish People's Institute of Chicago-the former hub of Jewish life in west Chicago-and detail the Jewish community's deep involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

Today, an elementary school in a largely African-American community, Lawndale Academy continues to play an essential role in civil liberty movements as a new partner in the Motivate and Encourage Music Appreciation (MeMA-Music) social justice-based arts curriculum.

Founded in 2012, MeMA-Music is an eight-week program that operates in Chicago Public Schools, teaching students about social and political activism through the lens of the groundbreaking music of the 1960s and 1970s.  Combined with current news clips and (age-appropriate) contemporary music, these classic songs, and the revolutionary, non-violent perspectives of their authors, help MeMA-Music students gain the tools to process and discuss modern issues such as race, class, violence, and gender. After several weeks of theory, analysis, and student-led discussion, the MeMA-Music program culminates in a showcase, for which seventh and eighth grade students research and present on a current social issue of their choice. Much like the curriculum itself, end-of-session projects are "art-infused" multimedia presentations featuring songwriting, spoken word, drama, and visual artwork.

"I think it is so incredibly important for young people to have a safe space to discuss their feelings, good or bad," says MeMA-Music founder Jeanne Warsaw-Gazga. "They need to be heard. They need encouragement and a hopeful path toward their future with all that is going on in our world today. I worked in the music industry for 25 years and I grew up on the music from the '60s and '70s.

"This music was powerful…positive…[it] connected everyone and kept everyone moving forward" during a very difficult time in American history, according to Warsaw-Gazga. Music of this era had "black and white and Jewish soul" and was created for a greater purpose. At a time when segregation still existed, pop, rock, and R&B music brought the people together.

"The idea was to introduce [students] to this music to a time when genres of music and people of different backgrounds were working together to put this music out," and to introduce creative outlets to young people "at a really important time in
their lives."

This past June, Autavia, an eighth-grade student at Stone Scholastic Academy, where MeMA-Music got its start in 2012, delivered a stirring spoken-word performance as her social justice project. In her piece, she draws listeners back to a time when music had this unifying soul. She calls out:

"Something I don't understand about music today, / what happened to all of those heroes speaking out without getting paid, / all those rappers who spoke the truth about the world, /now the music playing today has the message all blurred. / It's all about money, gangs, drugs, and naked girls, / what about freedom, equality, peace, and especially love?"

Warsaw-Gazga is no stranger to the healing power of music on a young mind. After moving to a new high school at age 13, she was relentlessly bullied for being Jewish. "Music is what kept me going," Warsaw-Gazga recalls, as did her mother Janine-nicknamed "Mema" by her grandchildren-for whom MeMA-Music program was named.

It is particularly meaningful for her to begin teaching the program on the west side. "I love. . . the fact that I'm going to be teaching at Lawndale, which was once the Jewish People's Institute," remarks Warsaw-Gazga. "So many Jews participated in the Civil Rights Movement," and in a way, it's like the program is coming back home.  

To learn more about MeMa-Music visit

Follow MeMA-Music on Facebook at and Twitter at @MEMA_Music.

Jenna Cohen serves as Grants and Planning Associate for Jewish Child & Family Services and is a freelance writer living
in Chicago.

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