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From D.C. to Johannesburg, music makes STEM learning sing

By Charlotte Steinecke

“If you’re passionate about anything, there really is no limit to what you can do,” says Lemond Brown, president and CEO of Swaliga Foundation. “That passion is contagious. People want to know ‘Well, why are they so passionate about that? How can I have that same thing?’”

“Swaliga,” meaning “passion,” comes from the island of St. Martin. It’s the watchword for an innovative afterschool program in Washington, D.C., that connects youth with innovative education opportunities by uniting a love of music and arts with science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) learning.

Since opening at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington in 2012, Swaliga Foundation has served more than 6,000 youth worldwide. In the next five years, they’re looking to connect with 1 million young people worldwide – a goal Brown and his team are passionate about.

“Our mission is to become the world’s premiere source for innovative youth education.”

How do you innovate youth education in the age of the iPhone? Swaliga Foundation aims to change the way young people use technology by making technology producers out of technology consumers. They teach the technological skills necessary to effect that transformation by tying them to the interests students already have—their passions for sound-mixing, composing music, shooting videos, and beyond.

Plugging into the culture of young people is the key to unlocking their educational and academic potential. Talking about the first few years of Swaliga Foundation’s efforts, Brown recalls, “The kids that we were working with couldn’t remember a lot of the concepts that they were supposed to be learning in school, but they could remember every song that they heard on the radio. I went, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how to make it more relevant, then.’ The youth have their own unique individual culture; they respond to things they remember for a lot different reasons. What we do is make sure [the things they learn] are culturally relevant to them.”

Teaching STEM skills in conjunction with arts offers kids a new way of understanding how they learn. It’s a concept Brown understands deeply; as a music artist, he found himself struggling in college when it came to the technical components of his studies.

“If they don’t have a mentor or if they don’t have somebody showing them the way to study and learn, kids fall between the cracks. Kids with a lot of potential get left behind because they don’t make it to that point before they get to college, where learning how you learn is up to you.”

Exploring the world starts at home

Lots of afterschool programs offer STEM and arts programming, and many of them combine arts with STEM to teach both. But there is another component that sets Swaliga Foundation apart: travel.

“In the afterschool space, you don’t always get to see the full extent of our impact,” says Brown. “But when we went to South Africa, in the ten days that we were there, there was a noticeable difference in the young people that were there. They noticed and talked about how it changed their lives. Even their parents commented on it. It definitely showed me the direction that we needed to keep going.”

The benefits start before the plane tickets are even purchased. Partnerships with local universities, local businesses, and community members are crucial to getting the resources and support in place for the trip to happen – and the youth see it.

“We understand that in order to really empower our young people, we have to really rally behind them. For them to see other institutions and other adults take an interest in what they’re learning about goes a long way into shaping that experience for the learner.”

Raising youth voices across the globe

Why travel to South Africa in particular?

“A lot of the statistics that we see in Washington, D.C., are mirror images of the townships in Cape Town, near Johannesburg. A lot of kids aren’t finishing high school and deal with unemployment as a result. Often that leads to crime, making high-crime, low-income areas, which leads to a vicious cycle that is all rooted in education. When you talk to these young people, some of them understand how these problems are related and how some can be fixed, but that goes back to them having a voice. … When you have a high school senior working on a music project with a kid his age on the other side of the world and they’re both describing where they’re from and realizing how similar those places are, it helps them understand that they’re not alone. It’s part of the reason we’ve seen so much growth and impact from taking these trips.”

For Swaliga Foundation, giving students the opportunity to explore their voice, talents, and perspective is as important as the afternoons spent learning tech skills through apps and building rockets from recycled material.

“The biggest thing that I wish I knew is that when it comes to STEAM education our philosophy is that you’re the learner. Everybody in the room is a learner. … When you’re able to tell a student, ‘You’re the one that has to tell me, the educator, what the right answer is,’ that’s mind-blowing for them. And you’ll see how not only their attitude changes, but that end result changes.”

The projects developed and designed by the students at Swaliga Foundation can be viewed at