Liberating Learners Outside of School – Harvard Graduate School of Education

Ed.L.D. student Charli Kemp is well-acquainted with the saying “life’s not fair,” but she believes life is what you make it — “and we can make it fair,” she says. As the founder of the nonprofit organization Change the Tune, Kemp is working to address the root causes of inequity, not just in education, but in society as a whole.

A former math teacher and administrator, Kemp felt that the school system alone wasn’t enough to correct systemic inequities. “Schools start by asking learners to be the best you can be, ignoring all the other needs that come before that kind of self-actualization,” Kemp says. Her students couldn’t learn if they were hungry. They couldn’t learn if they didn’t feel welcomed, safe, or loved. She knew the academic work she did with students wouldn’t be enough to significantly reduce disparities in education and opportunity if she couldn’t address factors outside the school building and school hours. What was needed, she felt, was a holistic approach — culturally responsive learning that nourished the body and spirit as well as the mind.   

Yet rather than overhaul the whole system, Kemp wondered if there was a way to work alongside schools and districts, filling in the gaps as needed. She launched Change the Tune in 2017, serving young people in Los Angeles and, more recently, the Bahamas. Change the Tune forges partnerships between families, schools, businesses, and local community organizations to provide learners with summer and afterschool multidisciplinary learning experiences. Its goal is to liberate learners, by creating experiences in which they are able to deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

Unlike the traditional classroom, Change the Tune doesn’t use academic achievement as a measurement of success, but instead centers its work on building compassionate relationships with the self and community. Kemp imagined a learning space where a child’s mind would have an opportunity to grow and thrive, but also where kids would be able to build strong bodies with healthy food and nurture their creative passions with music and art. Learners are taught to care for themselves through cooking, mindfulness, and yoga classes. They then learn to care for their communities using their strengths and passions to build social justice business models that work to solve larger problems. The strands of the curriculum are united by a culturally responsive pedagogy that lets learners know they are cared for and a valued member of a community.

“Charli actively exercises a viewpoint that outcomes can always be better if we allow ourselves the space to approach problems and solutions in nontraditional ways while valuing all voices,” says friend and fellow Ed.L.D. student Adonius Lewis. “Change the Tune translates Charli’s theory into practice by providing a unique, hands-on space for youth to realize their gifts and equip them with the tools to navigate our complex world.”

Change the Tune tries to cultivate the skills children will need to effect the change that will uproot inequalities across the board. “We want to see a world where our learners have the capacity to lead, to take care of themselves, and go on to build organizations that are equitable,” Kemp says. And she’s already starting to see the program’s impact on learners, who, in a survey, reported that mindfulness techniques learned at Change the Tune have helped them through quarantine. They also credited Change the Tune with helping them think bigger and develop confidence. Attendance rates for the program are higher than those of LAUSD and all students are showing growth in their exit surveys. “To me, this means students are actually leaving with the tools and the skills to communicate, to think critically, to think about the bigger world and what they want to impact,” Kemp says. More importantly, “the number one word students used to describe the program was ‘fun.’”

Her belief and success with this innovative vision for education has inspired and brought together other members of the HGSE community. This past year, Kemp and fellow Ed.L.D. students April Finlayson, Lin Johnson III, and Alpachino Hogue worked together to place second in the Harvard-wide President’s Innovation Challenge — a pitch competition for student start-ups. Though each team member brought a different area of expertise, ranging from college admissions to personalized learning, they were united by a desire to close the opportunity gap. “We noticed we were all outliers in our respective communities but, together, we all wanted to make learners who look like us no longer outliers but the norm,” Kemp says.

As a 2020 Cheng Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Social Innovation and Change Initiative, Kemp is working to scale Change the Tune and expand its reach. “It’s been exciting to support Charli as she broadens her vision to ensure viable scale and sustainable impact,” says her advisor, Irvin Scott, noting that Kemp has also worked as a teaching fellow in two of his classes. “Students like Charli are not satisfied with the status quo. Rather, she uses her rich professional experiences, as well as her deep commitments to equity to explore, test, and implement new ways of having system-level impact on behalf of children and communities.”

Uprooting systemic inequity is no easy feat, but Kemp has found hope in her work and has connected with likeminded colleagues at HGSE who help her sharpen her vision. Kemp, an avid music lover, reminds herself, “Even though systems are large and oppressive there are some glimmers of positive things. I don’t need to start from scratch — [at HGSE] I’ve learned everything is just a remix.”