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Podcast Transcript: The Musical Peace Corps: Kiff Gallagher's Music National Service Initiative

Below is the transcript for your podcast The Musical Peace Corps: Kiff Gallagher's Musical National Service Initiative. You can listen to the show here.


AMY POTTHAST: Welcome to the Idealist Podcast. I'm Amy Potthast and this is the New Service Podcast from Idealist.org moving people from good intentions to action. Today's guest is Kiff Gallagher, founder of the Music National Service Initiative. One of the programs of Music National Service Initiative is MusicCorps – a developing AmeriCorps-type program that will enable musicians to serve in low-income schools. In 2008 the Aspen Institute named the MusicCorps as one of the top ten public policy proposals that would strengthen the United States. Like many people that I've had the opportunity to interview on this show, Kiff's career path has been utterly unique, colorful, and perfect preparation for his current venture. He served on the legislative team that developed AmeriCorps during the early Clinton Administration and he went on to work at the Corporation for National and Community Service. He has also worked in the field of corporate, social responsibility and sustainability as an adviser at Odwala and is president of the Social Venture Network. More recently Kiff has returned to his passion for music to serve on President Obama's National Arts and Policy Committee as well as an adviser on Obama's transition team.


AMY: Hi Kiff, and welcome to the show!

KIFF GALLAGHER: Hi Amy, thanks.

AMY: I was hoping you could start by off by introducing yourself and the Music National Service Initiative.

KIFF: I'm Kiff Gallagher and I'm the CEO and Founder of the Music National Service Initiative. We're launching a couple programs: one called Musician Corps and another called Musician Mentors that will apply a successful national service initiative and volunteerism models to at-risk communities both in school and after school to address both social and educational goals.

AMY: Where did the idea for the Music National Service Initiative come from?

KIFF: It comes from my personal and professional experience, my career in national service and social entrepreneurship, and from music. And it seems like an obvious thing at this point for the MusicanCorps concept; but for me it's a culmination of a lifetime.

AMY: Do you want to explain maybe a little more about the two programs?

KIFF: I think MusicanCorps is a little more like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Kids for Peace. Maybe some folks know about City Year. This is like a full-time commitment either a year or two, and it's part time or half time, so it's 20 hours a week. And in return you get a living-wage stipend and housing and healthcare. Musician Mentors is for people who may want to give back to their community, musicians who maybe have another full time job or can afford to take a year off at a low salary but are willing to mentor and instead of a year, give a couple hours a week. So it's almost like a Volunteer Match for musicians and young people who want to learn an instrument but can't afford maybe the instrument or the private lessons.

AMY: So I'm curious, like, how you feel a service corps that focuses on music is something that is important enough to get donations, and funding, and possibly federal funding for; because most people wouldn't think of music, or any art form, as a school subject that kids really need as part of their education or that would somehow benefit their future. So I'm wondering if you could connect the dots for us?

KIFF: You know that's sort of been the problem. You kind of hit the nail on the head that a lot of folks have kind of lost track of the value of music and the arts, and it's sort of disconnected how much they value it 'cause all the studies show that like 95% of people feel like music plays a big role in their lives. In fact, MTV did a study a couple of years ago on what teens want, and the question was, "What defines you?" Most teens put music, and that was before family values, religion, and even style. So people obviously care a lot about music. Music plays a huge role in peoples lives. It's just become kind of disconnected from the education system. And I think it's – I mean I have the long social entrepreneurship answer about how it motivates and drives people and everything – and I think we've become lost in how to connect the dots, and how people learn to learn. Actually what music and the arts do is that they teach the core skills of creativity, innovation, and self directed learning. The skills l like. How to imagine a possibility, and developing the kind of the courage and persistence and the discipline to pursue those possibilities, but also how to work in a group. How to integrate feedback. How to reflect. I think these skills have never been more important than to learn than they are today because we're facing problems that we've never faced before, and they're more complex than ever. And they're connected globally. So when you look at the crisis in the economy, in our environment, in our national security-- solving them, as President Obama tells us, is more about blustering will and the ability to say "yes we can!" which is really an emotional and social intelligence. And we can do this together. These are skills that almost matter more than the ones of reading writing and arithmetic, or at least they have to be there to provide meaning to reading, writing, and arithmetic, because even though we've had lots of brilliant people with those skills – financial engineers, folks who come up with various weapons and national security strategies -- here we are, and it's sort of coming down to our collective will, and desire, and empathic skills, and emotional skills, and social intelligences to solve these problems. You know it's more about people being able to sit around a table and create new models and solutions to these problems than it is about complex financial engineering.

AMY: What kind of schools are you looking to be working in?

KIFF: Public schools and after-school programs where music and arts programs have been cut and where kids aren't currently getting access to quality music education. But we're also thinking long term, not only in terms of education space but also in other areas where music has been shown to make an impact. So with kids with disabilities and returning veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, music therapy, music diplomacy, internationally music for public health, advocacy strategies. It's really just the idea of connecting these successful national service models and volunteerism models as a kind of low cost high impact delivery system and combining them with the power of music--with trained and talented and civil minded musicians to address a need in number of areas. But our first focus is in education and that's in public schools in low-income communities.

AMY: You've mentioned national service a few times and I know you have your own history with national service and with AmeriCorp; and I was wondering if you could talk about your service on the legislative team that drafted the original AmeriCorp legislation.

KIFF: I was in my early 20s and when Bill Clinton was elected I had a great opportunity to work in the White House in the Office of National Service. We were taking charge of an idea that had taken a lot of focus on the campaign and bring it into reality. The first thing we needed to do was sort of address the field and then write a piece of legislation; and I was on a small team of about four or five people within that office that worked on it. I sort of did whatever they told me to do, frankly. It was a great opportunity, I went up to the hill and worked with the congressional committees to actually draft the legislation the set the path and crafted the programs that created AmeriCorps and the new CNSC.

AMY: So I'm thinking time has definitely passed since then… Have times really changed? Have you found that what you learned during that process is helpful now, as you're building your own national service program?

KIFF: I think times have changed, and in some ways for the better. I've learned a lot; I think the whole field has learned a lot. There were pockets going on around the country and a few sort of leaders that we used as models to sort of design AmeriCorps program. We wound up putting two thirds of the money through states through a competitive process to really develop a national quality standard around evaluation, or around training and around activities, and then implemented the program in partnership with locally driven non-profits, basically, and some national non-profits. And I view this field [Music National Service] as kind of similar; that we're at an earlier stage and not 15 or 20 years into it like we are now with regards to AmeriCorps obviously; but there are excellent organizations around the country that are using music to complete social and education goals, not just classic public school education arts education programs. What I mean is non-profit community based programs that are doing this kind of work. And what I think their sort of not getting the benefit of -- of best practices, leadership of national quality standards and studies that the national service field has gained in a number of other areas. So I hope that Music National Service Initiative can provide that connectivity and find that wisdom and talent that's currently out in the field and then bubble those best practices up and apply them with a national training. And then we'll partner with these existing entities for placements. So that's one of the ways that I hope to apply my learning from AmeriCorps to this.

AMY: So you went on from their to roles in the public and private sectors for non-profits and corporations and now you're fighting for music in education – very typical of public service careers. You probably couldn't have predicted your path when you set out on it. I'm just wondering what you've learned along the way and what's the driving theme of your work?

KIFF: It's really just a culmination of a personal, professional, and creative journey. I had no idea how it would unfold but I realized that over time the things that made me the happiest and the things that kept me the most grounded are service and music. And when I left the service and the sort of service-oriented business, I left that to do music and I realized that music is a sort of service in and of itself. And if I can potentially combine the two, then that not only will make me happy but also might create a new channel of service and work for a lot of other people who might feel the same way. That's been one of the most inspiring things in the last year and even most recently since we got a grant and I've begun to start hiring folks. The interest of that has been just so broad and wide that the people who are showing up are just reinforcing this notion that we're building something innovative and new. It's like there's a lot of folks out there doing lots of different things who have a deep passion for music and the arts and they never thought necessarily that they could find a career that combined a professional job that is service oriented and allow them to be around music and the arts regularly. So it's exciting but that's kind of been the path.

AMY: So this winter you were highlighted on NPR, and I'm just curious how that came about.

KIFF: Yeah. It's just good reporting; someone got in touch with me. She originally wanted to do a story on what is going to happen in the arts in the Obama administration and I was on Obama's National Arts Committee and I was like, "I'm not really authorized to talk about that, I'm in the transition, and I think the administration is really just trying to get it figured out." And then she started asking me about Music National Service, and I said "Yeah, I'd be happy to talk to you about that." And she started to explore my music and she was curious about that, and I guess, the whole story kind of just shifted. Yeah, she just called me out of the blue.

AMY: That's cool.

KIFF: Yeah.

AMY: Okay, so what can we expect to see out of the Music National Service Initiative this year?

KIFF: Well we're launching right now. I mean I've been working on it full time for a couple of years, but we just got our grant and we're looking to raise more money of course. First, honestly, is just trying to get the organization off the ground. We're in total start up mode, moving out of my house and into an office and all that kind of stuff. But also growing the program, partnering reasonably with institutions and collaboratives around the country so we can develop placements for MusicianCorps fellows and to have little Musician Mentor Pods. And then in August we are going to have a national Musician Corps training. And then in September we will be putting our first fellows out into the field working with schools and community based organizations for 10 months of service. Then if all goes well in June we'll have our first national summit where we'll bring all of our fellows together and learn about their experiences. Hopefully enhance the quality of the program and expand it going forward from there. So it's a big year for us.

AMY: Sounds fabulous. And what is the website address where people can learn more?

KIFF: It's musicnationalservice.org.

AMY: Well, thank you so much, Kiff, for your time.

KIFF: Thank you so much for recording this.


Since recording this in January, Musician Corps has opened an office in New Orleans, hired staff, and has received more financial backing, including funders such as: the New Orleans' Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Ruth Youth Foundaiton, and the Academy of Country Music Charitable Fund, and the Catherine Child Foundation. Look for internship postings coming soon on Idealist.org. Read more about the Music National Service Initiative on the New Service blog at Idealist.org/thenewservice. A special thanks to Douglas Coulter. The music in this episode is from the Flamenco guitarist Mark Ferguson's debut album. I'm Amy Potthast, thanks for listening. If you have enjoyed our podcasts please show your support by going to iTunes and leaving a review and for this episode and others you like. You can also send us feedback to podcast@idealist.org.