Wednesday, May 21, 2014

30 Years Singing About Peace and Social Justice

1985 Choir: Founder Gaye Fifer 2nd from Rt., Top Row

Estelle Phillips began singing with the Charlottesville Women’s Choir in 1985.  The longest serving member of the current choir, she is also its official archivist, unofficial photographer, and hence its historian as well.

Estelle recounts the choir’s origins this way: “In 1984, a group of women, including Gaye Fifer, used to gather around the piano at the Prism Coffee House to sing after meetings of CLASC (the Charlottesville Latin American Solidarity Committee).”  Gaye proposed transforming this ad hoc group into an ongoing choir to sing about social and political concerns. 
2001 Concert

At its origin, with only five singers, Estelle felt too intimidated to join, but by 1985, when the group had grown to about dozen, she joined.  In 1985, she became one of the volunteer directors, and ever since has been singing and directing with the group.  On June 1, she will direct three pieces in the upcoming 30th Anniversary Spring concert, and a number of her current and former sister choir members will direct several others.  This year, the choir also contracted with retired music teacher Renita Banks to lead two pieces.

The concert scheduled for Sunday, June 1 at 4:30, will be held at the Haven (First and Jefferson Sts., Downtown Charlottesville).  After the concert, the choir will host a reception open to attendees and honoring the early members of the choir, especially Gaye and Deb Shapiro, another early leader.

This event will mark the   30th year since the choir’s founding.  Gaye, who now lives in Pittsburgh, will return to lead a Spanish round from the ‘80s that started it all -- “Nicaragua” (Remember civil war in El Salvador and Ollie North and secret American support for the counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua?)

In addition, the choir will sing a wide variety of other pieces from the past 30 years with themes of women’s rights, peace, social justice, and environmental awareness – including everything from a song of women’s empowerment, “Nana was a Suffragette” to the exile’s yearning for a home in “By the Waters of Babylon” and the comic “Girl Shoes” and “The Royals,” a tuneful commentary on pop culture, performed by a quartet of choir members.

Although, according to Estelle, Gaye did most of the work when the choir was founded, the choir now operates with members selecting music, coordinating appearances, and conducting warm-ups before practices.  In its decision making, it aspires to reaching consensus on major matters.  In day- to- day administration, two or three coordinators or “chords” manage the organization with a treasurer collecting dues that pay the bills.  A half dozen choir members currently also teach and/or direct the songs.  

In addition to the spring concert, the choir also performs a number of gigs throughout the year, including the annual fall vigil for victims of abuse sponsored by the Shelter for Help in Emergency (SHE), the Martin Luther King Day Community Celebration, and a service for imprisoned women at the Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center, one of the choir’s favorite venues.   The group also sings a couple of times a year at Sojourners United Church of Christ, where they practice, and have sung at events sponsored by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church and the Association for Interfaith Ministries.   Each fall, the group opens its membership, and interested women attend several rehearsals before a decision is made.  The group includes women from a wide variety of professions, and includes students as well as retirees, mothers, grandmothers and at least one great grandmother.

The Spring Concert is the culminating event of the Choir’s 2013-14 season before the women disperse for summer vacation.  Donations at the door are requested, and proceeds are shared with a local nonprofit group, which over the past years has included SHE, the Urban Agricultural Group and the Walker Middle School Choir.  This year’s beneficiary will be the Barrett Early Learning Center, which has been providing exemplary day care since 1935, making it the oldest day care center in the Commonwealth of Virginia (so also the oldest in Charlottesville.

  The Charlottesville Women’s Choir 30thAnniversary Spring Concert
Sunday, June 1, 4:30 p.m. at the HAVEN (corner of 1st and Market Sts., Charlottesville)
The Barrett Early Learning Center will share in the proceeds from this event.
Donations appreciated but not required:  Suggested:  $5-$15 adults; $4 children 5-12;
free -- under 5.

2013 Spring Concert at the Haven
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Friday, December 13, 2013

AGING GRACEFULLY (Published in C-ville Weekly December 12, 2013)

Former mayor Kay Slaughter and Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association President Bill Emory want to make aging a more positive experience for seniors. Photo: Elli Williams
When did I get this old?

My friends are aging also. While I used to deplore any conversation that mentioned health for more than 30 seconds, now I relish every detail of surgery for a torn meniscus or a knee or hip replacement. Life has changed.

My friends and I aren’t like our parents were in their prime. We’ve traveled more, and we regularly go to the gym, walk the urban trails, and hike in the Blue Ridge.

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of stories about old people left to die in nursing homes or even in their own homes. Recently I read about a dignified man who —despite the presence of family—died at home covered in bedsores, living in squalor. His daughter received a jail sentence for neglect.

This story and others like it motivate me to look for alternatives to aging. While I am in good health now, I realize I’m an accident or illness away from needing help. I have wonderfully supportive adult children and grandchildren—they wouldn’t leave me to rot, would they?—and friends always willing to assist (except when they have their own mishaps). But I’m searching for other pathways for this stage of life, and I am not alone.

As baby boomers age, a tsunami of seniors and their adult children will need to figure out how to acclimate to the later stages of life, as evidenced by the fact that Charlottesville has already seen an influx of newcomers seeking out the area for retirement.

With only modest financial resources, a large number of us cannot afford lifelong retirement communities. Besides, some—like me—prefer living close to town for the libraries, farmers’ markets, movies, live music, theaters, and art galleries. We also enjoy our intergenerational neighborhoods where we see children playing near their homes and on the playgrounds, and young couples doing yard work. I also like walking around my garden and sitting in the woods behind my house.

Ten years ago, I read about communities setting up systems for seniors called villages, where people remain in their homes and receive assistance from neighborhood volunteers, existing social services, and discounted home maintenance services. Boston’s Beacon Hill and Washington’s Capitol Hill Villages were two early examples, but there are now more than 100 nonprofits in the U.S. either coordinating a village or developing one.

Last year, CvilleVillage got started here in town, and I have become one of the worker bees to make it a reality. Our area has lots of services, each in a different location with different qualifications and protocols. A village can simplify the process of finding these services, making everything accessible through one easy phone call.

CvilleVillage’s tagline is “neighbors helping neighbors age safely and happily in their homes and communities.” It’s currently in a planning phase as we identify the needs of the area’s seniors, as well as the people and monetary resources needed to meet these needs. Neighborhoods would supply some volunteers with the larger organization providing additional resources. Until it receives its IRS nonprofit status, CvilleVillage operates under the fiscal sponsorship of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

Most villages in the U.S. operate on a budget from affordable membership fees, foundation grants, and individual contributions. Hired staff connect members with the services they need for small household tasks like changing ceiling light bulbs, climbing ladders, and moving large belongings. Transportation and socializing are also important functions in a village.

Over time, CvilleVillage hopes to identify tradespeople at a discount rate who have been vetted for safety and honesty and who can help with larger tasks such as yard work and household maintenance. Volunteers and others would also be recruited to help with technology (computers, smart phones, DVDs) or paperwork (insurance, taxes, bookkeeping).

Recently, CvilleVillage—in collaboration with the Woolen Mills Neighborhood Association—developed a pilot project to try out the concept. With a small grant, CvilleVillage will recruit and train volunteers to conduct a needs interview with Woolen Mills residents. After compiling the results, the group will begin coordinating some services from volunteers and area agencies. A neighborhood coordinating committee is being assembled, and the project should begin in 2014.

Aging—at least in Charlottesville—now offers an alternative pathway. Fortunately, I’m still chipper enough to volunteer to help my neighbors so I expect to be part of the pilot project. And I’m hoping that when the time is right, CvilleVillage will be here to assist me.

Until then, carpe diem, baby boomers! Sphere: Related Content

Monday, June 3, 2013


I've known I was a feminist for a long time now -- since the mid-1960s at least when I read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.  But over the last two years, I've experienced my feminism in a new way outside of demonsstrations, politics, and essays -- singing with a woman's choir!

Yesterday, at our annual spring concert, I thought about this as the Charlottesville Women's Choir sang  songs of justice, peace and freedom.  For example, "Never sit Down" about the Suffragettes -- Elizabeth Cady Staunton, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony -- and "Warrior" about women standing up for themselves in the face of discrimination, abuse and violence against women. 

The great thing about Feminism is that it embraced diversity and justice not only within its own ranks but also within the broader world.  So yesterday, the Choir also sang "By the Waters of Babylon"  about how difficult it is to "sing" your song in a strange land.  While it's based on a gospel song about the Israelites going into Egypt, it reminds us  of the history of American slavery, and also now -- as we think about immigration reform -- about the feelings of all immigrants coming to the new world.

In our four part harmonies, we're not always pitch - perfect but we sing with passion and heart.    And we keep working on our musicality.  Our directors from within the choir  radiate the strength of thier individual feminism in  the way they lead us through out numbers.

Expressing  politics through music is a good thing:  The medium becomes the message without a lot of fanfare.

We sing of peace and justice -- "Lo Yisi Goi" --  a Hebrew song  -- and of rejecting the false religions that teach us to hate and separate rather than "do unto others that which you'd have them do unto you."--  "I ain't afraid."

Every year our choir chooses a recipient to share concert proceeds.  this year, the recipient was the Walker Upper Elementary Choir, to whom the funds will be allocated to help pay for field trips and excursions that some families would not otherwise be able to afford.

Our audiences seem always to be appreciative, and especially heart warming are the several elderly mothers of choir members who show up.  .   . and our daughters, my own dear Margaret especially a boon as she helps us collect donations at the door of the Haven -- a stained glass church hall turned into a place of respite for the homeless of Charlottesville.  And yesterday, a sanctuary for song and celebration.

As a choir member, I especially loved  watching a small group perform "Places in the Choir" celebrating God's love for ALL his creatures - human and otherwise.  The children joined us to make this piece especially adorable and fun.

Sing, my sisters, Sing on . . .

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