Symposium 2016: “Our Songs Know Who We Are”

Remember that our songs know who we are, and take courage from that, because that’s what they’re for.”
~Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell

On Tuesday, August 30, 2016, Starr King School for the Ministry held its 5th annual Symposium at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. An tradition founded by former Provost Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje, Symposium is an annual gathering of our entire student body, faculty, staff, trustees, and community members. This “urban retreat” serves as a day of study, dialogue, food, art, music, community-building, service, and celebration of the Spirit of Life, as we cultivate multi-religious, counter-oppressive, just and sustainable communities. Symposium was convened by The Rev. Dr. Gabriella Lettini, SKSM Dean of Faculty.

This year’s event, titled Our Songs Know Who We Are, featured a series of workshops by Our Honored Teacher Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. She is a commissioned composer, arranger, author, actress, professor, and former member of the African American female a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock. For almost thirty years, and across three continents, Dr. Barnwell has led the workshop Building a Vocal Community – Singing In the African American Tradition, which utilizes oral tradition, an African worldview and African American history, values, cultural and vocal traditions to build communities of song among singers and non-singers alike. In the year leading up to Symposium, she delivered a TED Talk, appeared in a UU World Article, and was selected by President Obama to serve on the National Council of the Arts. Her pedagogy is highly respected among musicians, educators, health workers, activists, organizers, and members of the corporate and non-profit sectors.

Following a community breakfast, Symposium began with an Opening Worship and Conferral of the Sacrae Theologiae Doctor Honorary Degree. Dr. Barnwell then led the group in a series of vocal workshops and discussions exploring the African American oral tradition, cultural responses to struggle, and the role of shared communal experience. Between moments of spirited song, audience members had opportunities to ask questions, share personal experiences, and discuss the historical, social, and political significance of songs like Amazing Grace, Wade in the Water, and the Star Spangled Banner. Before long Dr. Barnwell had the entire room singing polyrhythms and four-part harmonies.

Throughout the afternoon, participants took to the internet to share their experiences. The live tweets can be found under the hashtag #SKSMSymposium on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

Watch highlights from our day at Symposium:

To see additional photos, visit our Symposium photo album on Facebook.

Songs are like single celled organisms. In each culture, songs hold the nucleus of how life began. They know from where we have journeyed. They know who and what we have encountered. Our songs know in what we have believed; in whom and in what we have put our trust and faith; with whom we have been at war and at peace; how we have evolved and have been transformed as individuals and as communities. Our songs know how we have survived. Our songs know who we are – lest we forget.” ~Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell