Through her non-profit, Decolonizing the Music Room, Brandi Waller-Pace teaches educators how to create class environments that celebrate, reflect, and speak to Black, brown, Indigenous, and Asian cultural perspectives that are routinely erased. In this episode, you’ll hear about Waller-Pace’s own school experiences, the "decolonizing" lessons that matter most, and why she always maintains the mindset of a student.
Hosted by Tori Marchiony. Mixed by Teng Chen.
Sally in the Garden, Brandi Waller-Pace
Hello, happy Black History Month! And welcome back to the HearTOGETHER podcast from The Philadelphia Orchestra. I'm Tori Marchiony. And this is a space to hear from artists and activists working hard to build a more equitable future. The music you just heard in the intro is an excerpt of the American folk song, Sally In The Garden performed on banjo by our wonderful guest for this episode, Brandi Waller-Pace. But she's not only a gifted musician. She's also a dedicated educator and visionary leader for more than a decade. Waller- Pace taught music to elementary schoolers in the Fort Worth independent school district- administrators there encouraged experimentation in the classroom- but figuring out what to try was up to her. Years of reading, Googling, asking, discussing, working, and learning later, she felt ready for the next step- turning around to make the path she had just walked a little easier for those coming after her to navigate. So in 2019 Waller-Pace founded Decolonizing The Music Room, a nonprofit that helps train teachers on how to mindfully center, Black, brown, indigenous, and Asian perspectives in their classrooms and de-center the dominant white Western ones. To be clear, this doesn't look like handing out worksheets and certified “non-problematic song lists”. Decolonizing is not a destination. It's a process
Brandi Waller-Pace: Kind of like a teach-a-man-to-fish idea. Um, I really appreciate our organization being able to like take its name and really elaborate on that. But it's almost like the colonizing has kind of been in the realm of a lot of other teacher-y buzzwords- “decolonize the book,” “decolonize a song list”, which, um, kind of misses the point. Like, in order to talk about what decolonizing could mean, which is just kind of a part of our approach, you have to know, like, ask- what is colonization in the first place? What did it do? What are the ramifications of it? What does it mean to different racially minoritized groups? What does it mean to different people who are descendants of colonizing groups? And a lot of our work centers on just getting people into the headspace of taking a look in the first place. It's just really important for educators to understand that a level of rigor that is generally applied to, um, white Western European art music, classical music, we need to apply that level of rigor plus critical thought of all of that, to all the other traditions and all the other dynamics that make up society and educational systems and understand how broad-ranging it is. So that teachers aren't constantly coming back for, um, a prescribed thing that makes them feel like they're doing something, which is why you don't say “decolonized”. That's not a thing. Decolonizing in the approach is a process that you're going through. When we talk about anti-racist work and we talk about, um, you know, patriarchy racism, um, cisgender is, and just all of these things that are really huge parts of essentially what is a white supremacist, um, societal system that we're dealing with.
Host: That was one of my favorite things as I was writing up the description of what you do. That, yeah, part of it is de-centering whiteness. And part of it is centering all of these other things. And I think sometimes we can get like getting caught up in the decolonizing de-centering whiteness and then almost replicate the problem of like still focusing on whiteness.
Brandi Waller-Pace: It’s interesting. Our mission has changed very slightly over time. And it used to say de-centering whiteness first. And I got to a point where I was like, I'm still putting whiteness first, aren't I… we're still talking about whiteness a lot, but what are we actually trying to do is like you said, center the other stuff. And so it's really important to always evaluate like, are we, “are we actually decentering whiteness?” Are we putting so much attention on whiteness and what it does? Like, we always have to name it, right? But we don't always have to center it. It's like the stuff we're swimming in. Right. So it's just a constant thing.
Host: One of the things that makes me think of is that on the one hand, it's a great opportunity to start thinking this way and be like, “wow, I have so much responsibility for the choices that I make for what I bring into my classroom”. But on the other hand, I know teachers are really busy and sometimes it's easy to just sort of receive what's always been done before. I'm thinking of the song, like Ring Around The Rosie. And I learned at some point that that was about the plague, but like—
Brandi Waller-Pace: Interestingly, that's actually apocryphal. It's not about the plague, but I didn't learn until maybe two years ago that Ring Around The Rosie is not really, that would have been something I have to send the citation were actually found, found out it wasn't what I thought it was because I had spent years, like “this is the actual background”. I got to find a citation for you.
Host: Like I- I'm sitting here thinking I've discovered it and I've figured out the hidden meaning. And then there's even another layer. And that's like a silly song that you sing and fall down to. Right? So how's-
Brandi Waller-Pace: Always something. Yeah.
Host: How do you deal with that feeling of like, “oh man, there's always more”?
Brandi Waller-Pace: So, you know, kind of that whole lifelong learner idea, knowing that you're perpetually in a space of learning a new thing is really important. And as educators we talk about, um, building like growth mindsets in children and we understand they're learning as they grow, but then teachers forget that we're always going to learn something new. We haven't gotten to a stopping point. And, um, sometimes the, the new thing might make us feel really silly. I think when we talk about race because, um, the non-profit, um, has a racial lens focus. I talked to people who are not racially minoritized, who are not Black, brown, indigenous, and Asian, like I talked to white educators and they, um, they express that concern about feeling that discomfort about filling that embarrassment. And so I try to reframe that for them. And I think, um, you know, like you, you kind of build that muscle as a Black person in, in us society. I, I was never not allowed to deal with that. Right. And so there's a level of building that we just kind of have to do that we need to normalize for all educators, but of course, beyond that is just like, who wants to be embarrassed and who wants to find out they did something, um, wrong because it's, it's very humbling and we care about students and we never want to hear we caused harm. So I think the combination of understanding that some people don't have the choice of building the muscle, but then collectively, like we just have to normalize like, “oops, I was wrong. Sorry, this thing that I held as, as a capital T truth no longer is". And I look back in my own practice. I feel like, gosh, like every three months I'm like, what was I even thinking? I feel like I'll listen to this podcast and go what? There’s always something I'm finding out.
Host: Well, that's comforting! So what was your experience like as a student, did you feel seen and cared for? Was there a disconnect between the curriculum and what maybe you were learning at home? Um, or did it all feel quote unquote normal until you got a little older?
Brandi Waller-Pace: Yeah. I don't know if there was much, I would have questioned until I got older. My parents maybe brought up just a little bit here and there, but now like looking back as an adult, I can, I can give name to more stuff. When I was in first grade, I started participating in an integration program. And so I grew up in Atlanta and I grew up in, um, the Southwest suburbs of Atlanta. And so I was bused to the north side of the county, which is more, more affluent and predominantly white. And I spent from first grade to eighth grade in schools there. So there was a difference, there was some things that were very observable. So I did gifted classes and all that stuff, whatever. Um, but there are very few Black kids in those classes compared to Gen Ed. So like in middle school, you'd have your, what would now be, I guess, pre-AP or something. And they were all up on a higher floor and then the general ed classes and my grades were on the bottom floor. And so I'd be one of the few Black people on the upper floor. And then you go down to the bottom floor and that's where most of the Black kids who were bussed in were from, and it's stuff like that, that I remember noticing. Um, and you know, we know that it has nothing to do with actual intelligence of children. So we are able to now look more at what's behind that. Um, music-specific? I loved my teachers, they were so great. I love music anyway. Um, I felt very cared about and loved. And in the music classroom, I don't recall feeling like my particular cultural background was really part of the music classroom. I don't remember as a child having a problem about it. I just remember as a child having the feeling of, “oh, I'm learning about all these new things outside of my own experience”. And I think it would have been cool to also feel like I was learning with something that included my own experience too now looking back. But, um, yeah, I felt very cared for, and I felt like I got a really good background. And I just wonder if on top of that, um, or amongst that, I guess there, there would have been the type of stuff that I talk about now, how much more of a difference would it have made? In fact, in high school, I started dancing pretty seriously alongside my choral, my choral activities. I went to an arts high school and looking back, I mean, I love dancing. I absolutely love it, but that was also the place where I was getting like, like predominantly Black teachers talking about all this history with it and just kind of all this, you know, in high school, I was thinking about it like that. But now I look back and I'm like, “oh, I just remember feeling an extra affirmation there”. And aside from loving dance, I bet that had to do with why I particularly liked it, where I was at that point. And I'd been, I recall, going to dance and other places where the teachers didn't behave like that and still enjoying the dance, but seeing how much worse it felt to deal with the actual teachers.
Host: Interesting. When, when you were in the situation in middle school being one of the only Black students going upstairs, was that socially alienating for you?
Brandi Waller-Pace: I think so. I actually have one particular memory. I can't remember which class it was, but, um, I was in the class and there was one other Black girl in the class and we, we still keep in touch now, but we never were great friends. We just were the only two Black kids in the class. And I remember we would go to lunch and we would always be just alone at a table during lunch, not once did any child come try to sit with us. And it was so weird at the time. I just was like, “well, you know, we're here, whatever”. But as an adult, I'm like, gosh, that was really, that's kind of a big deal, looking back at it.
Host: And then how was it when you're getting back on the bus to your neighborhood, with people who aren't in your classes, were you making friendships?
Brandi Waller-Pace: Only a very little bit? I don't want to put this on the integration situation, but I was a very awkward kid. I've no idea how it would have gone had I been on my side of town either, but, um, it was like a lot of loneliness in that experience. And then of course, you know, when you're bussed in, like an hour-long ride is a whole thing, even stuff that kids don't think about, like, you know, “am I going to have an accident on this bus?” Because my trip is so long. “Am I going to get home half an hour later?” And now it's dark because of traffic and just like all this stuff that, um, even for my own children is not at all anything they can relate to.
MARSALIS, Blues Symphony, The Philadelphia Orchestra
That was The Philadelphia Orchestra performing Blues Symphony, composed by legendary trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis. The influence of Marsalis's jazz roots can be clearly heard throughout that piece, which is why I'm using it to transition into mentioning that Brandy Waller-Pace studied jazz in college! Specifically, at Howard University in Washington, DC. Something you should know about Howard, in addition to the fact that it's a prestigious research institution whose notable alumni include Thurgood Marshall, Kamala Harris, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi coats and Sean P. Diddy- Puff Daddy Combs, is that Howard is an HBCU. That means Historically Black College or University. It's a classification held by 101 private and public institutions of higher learning in the United States. All of them were established between the end of the civil war and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And though students of all races have always been admitted, these schools were founded for the express purpose of serving African-Americans. Howard has been around since 1867.
Brandi Waller-Pace: For me, there's just nothing that beats, like, being surrounded by like a billion different types of Blackness. And the thing for me being like, I can be like the lazy kid or the anxious kid or the talented kid or whatever, but I'm not The Black kid, right? Like it's just all the other stuff.
Host: Are you going to encourage your kids to go to an HBCU as well?
Brandi Waller-Pace: Specifically Howard!
Host: Love it. I had a friend growing up- who interestingly was one of the only Black girls in my honors classes- who our senior year got super into the idea of going to Spellman the HBCU women's college. And she was wearing Spellman gear and talking all about it all the time. And we were just kind of like, “okay..”. But now years down the road, I'm like, “oh, that's why you wanted to go there and be a part of that.”
Brandi Waller-Pace: Yeah. And it's so interesting. I have, you know, people kind of put HBCU’s - misinformed, people- put HBCUs like in a lower tier. Um, you know, I've seen and heard some communication where it was like, “these are, these are the real schools and these, the HBCUs” if it's not, um, the level of rigor. Yeah. It's pretty ridiculous. Like even just looking at Howard, the amount of scholars and artists and like the research that has come out of that school. Um, it's, it's really amazing. And to know that, you know, first of all, a lot of people don't know what an HBCU is, which is a whole other issue. But then for them to not understand that, um, Black things, aren't lesser things, which is implicitly reinforced a lot, is that like Black things in specific, or, you know, even more generally things that are not predominantly white, there's a lesson is to them. And so, yeah, I just, I can't even, I encounter that sometimes when, when people speak about use or when HBCU grads talk about the way they've been treated, when they say the school they went to.
Brandi Waller-Pace: It's very interesting. I talked to people who are like, oh, that's ridiculous. Or people who are completely clueless. There doesn't seem to be much of an in-between.
Host: It's funny. Cause when I hear that, don’t people call Howard “the Black Harvard?:
Brandi Waller-Pace: It's it's the Mecca. That’s like calling um, Chevalier de St. George, the, um, the Black Mozart. He was just St. George.
Oooh, oops. Well, no time, like the present to build our learning muscles. Huh? I must say I was impressed with how skillfully and elegantly Brandi educated me there. Anyway, here's some Chevalier de St. George Symphony Number Two, performed by The Philadelphia, Orchestra.
SAINT-GEORGES, Symphony No.2, The Philadelphia Orchestra
Host: So I came across an interview that you did a while back and you're talking about giving up some song or another, and you were like, “look, there's nothing to hold on to here. There's no reason not to cut this. There are so many other ways that we can accomplish whatever learning this was supposed to achieve. Goodbye.” And I'm wondering if in the process of your decolonizing work, if there has been anything that was hard to get rid of that you were attached to?
Brandi Waller-Pace: So I will say there have been things in my work that I have been attached to. I don't want to call it hard though. I feel like that's thinking about it in a different way. Right? Because we all, we always have our own stuff to contend with in our own stuff to process. But if something is more difficult than something else, that’s, for me, that's not for the people who benefit from taking it out. Right? So I can say that sometimes I have to grapple, but, um, I like the attention to be on, you know, “what's the cool thing I could use here instead? What's the really great history I learned or like, whatever, whatever else is there?” Right?
Host: I love that. That's a great way to think about it. So what are you motivated by? Are you motivated by anger or love or guilt or hope, some combination?
Brandi Waller-Pace: Uh, all of the above, depending on, on what it is. I think, um, just like speaking from, from the, of a Black person in America, Black woman, specifically in America, it's easy to be motivated by anger. I like acknowledging that that super valid, um, Audre Lorde has this essay called the uses of anger. And I, I think I like cried when I was reading it the first time, because we're, we're taught to, to feel like anger means that you're doing something wrong or it means your point isn't valid, or it means that whatever you're doing is not well done, that they're useless for that thing. Right? And so I feel like we, we can do that with all the emotions and this idea that, you know, everything's gotta be love and joy and hope and all this kind of stuff is like… but I feel more feelings than that. The things we're talking about make me feel a lot more feelings than that. And so for me, naming it and acknowledging it, and validating it is really important. And just making sure I maintain some kind of balance because what I don't want to happen is to be motivated like, you know, I've had a slight or I've had, um, an offense or a harm or a trauma that I need to acknowledge. Because when that is the only thing that guides my work, then some of my own autonomy is gone. Right? But if I say like,” this is my choice, this is what I'm doing.” And it grew out of being infuriated at this racism or whatever. Like it's, it's channeled a different way. But sometimes like a people want to go off, like some things are to be raged at, and that that's totally valid anyway. Yeah. So motivated by all the things and they're all super valid.
Host: Yeah. I definitely agree. Rather than trying to tamp down any negative emotions, can you use them as fuel? Can you convert it into something else?
Brandi Waller-Pace: And can you give yourself like an emotional break? Right. So like, I can be super angry and like the anger is in my body because the emotions are like overwhelming, experiencing them, but then can I let my body rest and still acknowledge the anger and still work, but not in a way where like I'm physically burning out at the same time.
Host: Yeah. And then that's my last question. Um, how have you learned to take care of yourself to maintain that balance? Are there particular activities you do or warning signs that you have to look out for?
Brandi Waller-Pace: I'm still learning a lot. Um, a warning sign for me is I'm checking social media way more than I should be. And I'm like, “what am I trying to escape from right now?” Or I find myself like sitting and staring off like… what what's happening. So I'm still learning. Um, the biggest thing that is effective is knowing what boundaries are, knowing where they are for me and over and over and over again, like validating for myself that it's okay to draw them. And then being in relationship with people who support that and who do that themselves. So like my deputy director, LORELEI BATISLAONG is, is amazing. And we, we talk about these kinds of things too, because they are very much part of the work, the, the mods and the Facebook group people, we collaborate with people we talk to on people whose work we admire that we just, you know, can communicate with. Like, we talk about this kind of stuff. And we reinforce the idea that the boundaries are valid. So yeah. And then I'm trying to make sure I, I make music. My biggest fear about all the work during this time is that I'll look up and be like, “I haven't touched an instrument and forever I haven't created in forever.” And music is such a big part of, of all of this. So if I, um, made sure to protect that connection, that helps serve me as well. And then, um, just finding space to be alone in silent.
Host: Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything else that is on the horizon that you wanted to share at this point?
Brandi Waller-Pace: Ooh, big thing next month, March 13th, um, Fort Worth African-American Roots Music Festival. I started to plan this festival out of interactions and talks with the Black roots music community. And it was supposed to happen last October. Obviously things got shut down, we moved it to March. Again, things have still been, not quite safe enough to have people traveling come in person. So we're doing a, um, an online festival and it is officially part of DTLR programming. And it's going to be some amazing Black roots musicians who come together and play and talk about the music and really show people how, um, intertwined Black history and Black musical traditions are with this American roots music that you know, has, has had that part has been obscured to a pretty great degree. And I'm super excited about it
As am I. You can also catch Brandi Waller- Pace at the Folk Alliance International conference on February 25th. She's interviewing Dr. Bettina Love, author of We Want to do More Than Survive; Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. In addition to all this, Waller-Pace is pursuing her Ph.D. in music education at the University of North Texas and has a five-year plan to expand Decolonizing the Music Room's programming and impact- making change at an administrative level while also making trainings more accessible to individual teachers. You can keep up with them at decolonizing the music room.com or on Twitter or Facebook. That'll all be linked in the description box, along with a link to that Audre Lorde essay and the real story behind Ring Around The Rosie. And with that, we've reached the end of another episode. Thank you so much for joining us. And please remember to like subscribe, comment, rate, review, share, and tune back in next month for another episode, of HearTOGETHER.