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Artist Corps Informance

The Millennium Stage at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center echoed Wednesday night with the music of professionals and amateurs alike in celebration of President Barack Obama’s signing of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which includes an Artist Corps among other provisions aimed at expanding national service.

The Center for American Progress hosted the celebration in partnership with the Music National Service Initiative, or MNSi. The performers included members of Congress Joseph Crowley (D-NY) and Dennis Moore (D-KS); Peggo Hodes, wife of Rep. Paul Hodes (D-NH); the local Sitar Art Center’s Saints Band; and Josh and Cora Dunham from Prince’s rhythm section.

“You are all here on a very historic week. Yesterday President Obama signed into law the Serve America Act,” said Shirley Sagawa, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress, in her introductory remarks. The act, which received bipartisan support, will expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 people, focus service on achieving specific goals, and increase support for innovative high impact programs.

Congress also made special provisions to make music and arts corps eligible for AmeriCorps funding. “This language makes it quite clear that not only will music and arts programs be eligible for this funding but that the policymakers are looking for organizations like the MNS Initiative as models of success,” said Sagawa.

Cora Dunham emphasized the positive potential of these programs. “The arts and music become an outlet for young people,” she said. “Maybe there’s anger that a young person has and they release it through music.” The nearby Sitar Art Center provides local kids with such an outlet: For only $15 a month, children gain access to unlimited music and arts classes throughout the semester.

MNSi, a social enterprise that uses music as a strategy to address civic and social needs, will launch a program this fall to place musicians in underresourced schools in low-income neighborhoods nationwide. “Music and the arts not only expand creativity, but they can also be used as therapeutic tools,” said Kiff Gallagher, CEO and founder of MNSi. “More and more data comes out every day about what music and the arts can do, not only to teach but to reach people, and to heal people.”

President Obama made an Artist Corps part of his campaign platform, and now that promise is coming to fruition. The Serve America Act’s funding provisions for music and the arts will allow programs like the Sitar Arts Center and MNSi to provide kids with forms of creative expression and will serve as alternatives to negative activities. This legislation is vitally important, as Kiff said, “[because] the lessons from the arts are the same lessons that make us successful human beings.”

The night’s performances were a fitting celebration for the launch of these new programs. Congressmen Crowley and Moore—alongside Peggo Hodes—serenaded the audience with Buddy Holly’s “Oh Boy”and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” The energy in the crowd was high and clapping hands and tapping feet filled the performance hall. “My life wouldn’t be what it is without music and the arts,” said Congressman Crowley. “They bring people together. They bring Democrats and Republicans together.”