Pittsburg community college hosts gospel celebration
By Lou Fancher
Music heals and connects humanity.
Ever present in the five-word phrase too often used throughout history and in contemporary society to excuse or “Band-aid” the wounds of racism, sexism and other institutional biases, the words nonetheless speak truth and hold power.
Which is why no other message will ring as profoundly May 6 in the Los Medanos College Recital Hall as the LMC Gospel Choir launches into “Rock of Ages,” “Jesus Died for You,” “Brighter Day” and other gospel songs. Joining the choir are honey-and-spice vocalist and special guest Anita Wilson; the African-American keyboardist/musicians of Sons of Mr. Gospel; duo Casey & Erica Pringle; recently formed Tri-Valley Component Community Choir; and additional artists. The headline speaker is Dr. Ameer Thompson, director of Caminos a Las Ciencias (CALC) for Saint Mary’s College. Music Director Silvester Carl Henderson says the concert’s themes and mission are embedded in its title: “Black Gospel Music — An Urban Celebration of S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts/Music & Math).”
If Wilson’s delivery of “I’ve Seen Him Work” and other selections from her award-winning repertoire cause people to dance in the aisles, Thompson’s powerful life story might rock the audience to respectful stillness. Raised in Oakland by a single mother with limited resources, Thompson went on to attend community college, earn an undergraduate degree in biology from California State University, Sacramento, and a doctorate from Cornell University. A postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at Columbia University capped his academic years before he went on to work in legal and academic posts. His role with CALC comes as the result of a five-year, $2.7 million HSI STEM grant awarded to the small private college located in Moraga from the Department of Education.
“The goal of the program is to take a strengths-based approach to increase the success rates of Latino and low-income students in the sciences,” writes Thompson in an email.
Launched in 2016, the program includes a partnership with LMC. “We are developing a comprehensive articulation plan for students transferring from Los Medanos College,” says Thompson. “This will allow them to transfer efficiently and graduate from Saint Mary’s College with a STEM degree within four years of starting school.”
Thompson’s motivational message during the concert will focus on the intersection between music and science. Throughout history, musicians have explicitly or implicitly become versed in math, as patterns, symbols representing time, and other concepts blend arithmetic, geometry, eighth-notes, crescendos and other elements into one endeavor. The collective nature of music and science holds true for contemporary urban music especially, according to Thompson. Math concepts have always been a tool used by composers of music. Current music adds and incorporates technology — electronics, computers, cloud-based delivery or storage, and more. “Music is a great way to help young scholars develop critical skill sets that will allow them to compete in a technology-driven economy,” Thompson suggests.
Even so, obstacles arise. “One of the biggest challenges that scholars face is the feeling that they don’t belong in the sciences. This internalized discord is reinforced by the fact that there are very few examples of people of color in their classrooms, either in the form of peers or professors,” he says.
The psychological tension of feeling “other” is compounded by the difficult curriculum in courses like physics, computer science and calculus. Awareness and increased effort by primary and higher education systems to counter the imbalances are only gradually correcting the negative experiences for students of color or students from disadvantaged communities. “Collectively, we understand the problem,” says Thompson. “The hard part is trying to implement sustainable strategies that will create an environment where all aspiring scholars, irrespective of their background, are able to reach their fullest potential.”
Which is where music floats in — or charges in like an icebreaker ship — to croon or herald the enduring strength found in harmonic or melodic hymns. Through song and the human voice especially, obstacles of the spirit are crushed, the heart hears healing, and a bridge forms from pain to precious possibility. To use a well-worn phrase, music heals and connects humanity.