Renowned choir director Pastor Chantel R. Wright seeks to effect change in the lives of New York City’s detained youth by spearheading an effective and well-received music program focused on bringing reform to juvenile detention centers through music. As founder and director of the nonprofit organization Songs of Solomon Academy for the Arts, Wright has been tapped to implement a trial choral program, the Sounds of Hope Chorale, which will run November 2014 through April 2015 at New York’s Rikers Island and Horizon Juvenile Center in Brooklyn.

The program’s aim is to foster creativity and music appreciation while creating a safe haven for detained youth in an environment free of prejudice and judgment. Up to 50 participants will be encouraged to participate in the program after being selected by the facility’s staff and will develop vocal skills through a structured method of instruction. Participants will learn goal-setting and team-building techniques through activities that enhance self-confidence and self-esteem and offer an opportunity for participants to positively interact with peers and adults. Over the course of eight sessions, participants will find the correlation between the musical creative process and citizenship in the outside community. The eight-session program will culminate with a final concert performance featuring musical selections that were curated and learned throughout the program.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the launch of the Sounds of Hope Chorale program, because it is not just about giving a group of kids who made mistakes an opportunity to put on a show,” says Wright. “It’s about striving for excellence and learning how to achieve excellence through music appreciation. It’s about these kids recognizing that if you work hard, your hard work results in excellence.”

The Sounds of Hope Chorale is an extension of songwriting and choral workshops Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute has supported in New York City’s two secure detention facilities since 2009. Drawing on strength-based approaches to juvenile justice, major city and states are rethinking the current system and seeking reform. The strength-based approach refers to how the years between 12 and 24 can be a time when young people realize their talents and cultivate their ability to empathize with others if they experience positive connections and engagement in tasks related to community leadership and adult responsibilities. Arts programs have a long history in justice systems as tools in rehabilitation based on the premise that the arts can play an important part in changing individual, institutional and social circumstances that promote criminal behavior.

In the 2012–2013, season the Carnegie Hall choral workshops expanded, becoming a 12-session, two-week choral project that was open on a voluntary basis to as many as 25 to 30 participants at each facility. Wright, the artistic leader of both residencies, was assisted by six of the senior members of her Harlem-based Songs of Solomon choir, a collective of young New Yorkers from neighborhoods and backgrounds similar to those of the residents. Research conducted in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute in collaboration with New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services shows compelling preliminary evidence the role ensemble music-making can play in creating environments where positive behavioral change is possible, safe and attractive for young people.

With more than 2 million youth in U.S. juvenile corrections, the system has lifelong negative consequences for young people even beyond reoffending, such as school failure and unemployment, particularly for poor and minority youth from resource-poor communities. The current system multiplies pre-existing vulnerabilities and erodes chances to thrive, hence the reason many states and cities are seeking programs such as the Sounds of Hope Chorale to reform their juvenile justice systems in ways that focus on more positive approaches and thus outcomes.

At the conclusion of the Sounds of Hope Chorale pilot program at Rikers Island and Horizon Juvenile Center, plans will be discussed to roll the program out nationally. The Sounds of Hope Chorale is a division of the nonprofit the Songs of Solomon: An Inspirational Ensemble, which was established by Wright in 2001 as a 501(3)c. For more information on the Sounds of Hope Chorale, visit www.SoSInspirations.org.