I dedicate this song to depression *yesss* recession *yesss* and unemployment. This song is for you.
Rooms go silent when they hear those first few words from Ms. Yvette, the director of the Advocacy Choir and a part of the Orange County’s staff team. What follows is the CEF Advocacy Choir’s signature cover of Smile. At this point, two years after the choir began, anyone who frequents CEF events knows the words by heart.
In an effort to pass a $5 million housing bond in November 2016, Maggie West, former Co-Director of CEF, and Yvette Matthews, Chapel Hill Advocate Program Associate, were searching for new ways to engage in advocacy in the Chapel Hill community.
“We had just moved into our new office,” says Maggie, “and as a part of our housewarming party, we organized a sing-along, and it was beautiful. So that spurred our thinking about how people like to sing together.”
Ms. Yvette says, “we sat round kind of brainstorming on what we could do and because I have directed choirs all my life and sang all my life, we came up with the idea of having a CEF Advocacy Choir.” They knew they could use that musical potential as an approach to cultural organizing, which Maggie defines as, “using culture as a tool for advocacy and organizing, because those tools are the things that change hearts and minds.”
So the first opportunity to try it was when we were trying to encourage voters to vote yes for the bond referendum on their ballots that election period. It just wasn’t super well-known.” The original group of CEF staff, Advocates, and Members that started the Advocacy Choir began covering ground on a daily basis to spread the word about the bond. They went to every church and community event in Chapel Hill that would let them sing, sometimes going to as many as three a day. In November 2016, the bond was passed.
Since then, the Advocacy Choir has endured. “We’ve still got a good eight people as the core group,” says Ms. Yvette, “so we continue to do it. Anytime we’re invited we go. If everybody can’t go I’ll go by myself, you know, and just represent.” In just the past several months, the choir has performed at the Loreleis Spring Concert in Memorial Hall, the CEF Art Show, the Northside Festival, the Maggie-We-Love-You-Party, and a few other smaller events. They perform in a variety of environments, from town council meetings to festivals, giving people a voice, uplifting crowds, spurring joyful dances all at once.
While one component of the choir is to encourage celebration and cohesion in the community, the choir, as seen in the housing bond campaign, is also a strong force for political activism and social justice. Ms. Yvette points out one aspect of the choir that makes it especially effective. “The CEF Advocacy Choir has the element of surprise because people don’t think that we can sing,” says Ms. Yvette, “but we get up there and we blow them away, it’s always good to have the element of surprise.”
It makes sense that people are surprised by the choir—it’s not your typical sort of activism. “In campaigns since [the housing bond] we’ve been super effective singing at town council meetings where in that context, it’s both invitational and disruptive in a powerful way,” says Maggie. “It sort of makes you take a step back. I think it just changes the space entirely and I think what I’ve noticed in that context is it’s also like a rallying moment for the Members and Advocates. It’s like, ‘All right, we’re owning this conversation.’ And seeing the effect it has on people’s pride is really powerful.”
David, a CEF Member and one of the original members of the choir, says that in the choir, “We love to sing because we are family. We’re just strong together because, you know, if anybody’s got any difference in the choir, it disappears when it’s time to sing, because everybody’s ready to go for it.”
As a co-founder, Maggie has seen CEF evolve from the organization’s very beginning. To her, the choir represents a resurgence of some of the values and culture it was founded upon. “CEF came out of another organization that was based really in storytelling and art,” Maggie explains, “what I’ve seen over the last couple of years is a resurgence of that in our community and in our space. The choir being part of it, as well as quilting, Talking Sidewalks, the art show—things that are about lifting up people’s own voices and creativity. That was our roots really, it was where we came from, and seeing it come back to that is really powerful. This is not just as a service organization, this is a place you belong. This is a vibrant place where we want you to bring all of your gifts.”
David says being a part of the choir and the CEF community is “an experience like, you know, somebody can bake a beautiful cake, and maybe you can taste the cinnamon in it, but the person over there might taste something else. But still, that’s a good darn cake.”