When Beyond the Bars first hit the scene years ago, the nonprofit music program was aimed at youth who were incarcerated in the City of Brotherly Love. But soon after, the creators of the organization saw a need to expand their offerings to more of the population after seeing the effects the music had on participants.
“We would see them grow and find music as their outlet in their passion and be supporting each other and growing as leaders. Just all these beautiful things,” says Matthew Kerr, Co-Executive Director of Beyond the Bars.
The program then expanded four years ago to begin offering community-based music programs for youth who had been impacted by violence.
“If a person was a victim of violence, exposed to violence, faces homelessness or housing insecurity, we look to try to make as many accessible music programs throughout our city for our youth as possible,” says Kerr. “We say that we work to try to interrupt the school to prison pipeline at every phase of the pipeline. Along with a large amount of community partners who are working within the anti-violence or trauma informed community, one of the main ways we work is to try and create musical spaces throughout the city where students learn through songwriting.”
According to the official site, while the program began as merely an instrumental music program, it grew and adapted to students’ wishes and added a production program and focused primarily on songwriting for students to be writing their own music. Beyond the Bars eventually developed two strong programs: The Student Driven Music Academy and the Practical Producers Program where students throughout the city would have multiple pathways to express themselves through music.
“Really the kind of genesis of our work comes from these conditions within our city and the conditions with the inner city. The lack of funding in the school systems, the lack of programs in music programs, creative programs, sports programs at this point versus the kind of dearth of funding that the police have or the jail system,” says Christopher Thornton, Co-Executive Director of Beyond the Bars. “So, we really are positioning ourselves as working to help to meet the needs of the city. We just believe that music is kind of one of these needs. We see music as one part of that kind of pie that makes a healthy city and healthy individual.”
Beyond the Bars has been able to be adaptable by creating their curriculum with the students—and only the students—in mind. With different areas of focus, young city musicians can forge their own path into the field. Beyond the Bars offers different programs where youth can learn to play different instruments, begin to start songwriting, record their own original music then learn how to market it, and just consistently build up their toolkit to express all the things that they’re looking to get out there.
That adaptability also rang true during the pandemic. Early on, the leaders of the organization were able to shift any in-person offerings they did have to the digital sphere, or paused programs that weren’t able to—like the ones that actually take place in prison. Until it’s safe from COVID-19, those programs have to wait to resume, but Beyond the Bars did receive some huge help in the form of a grant to maybe help kickstart more ways to reach a larger population.
That grant was The Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator Award.
Founded in 2018 by philanthropist Daniel R. Lewis, The Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator Awards provide multi-year support to enable leaders and organizations to make sustained progress toward ambitious community change initiatives that align with the grant’s values and vision. Out of almost 200 other organizations, Beyond the Bars was one of four chosen around the nation to receive the grant.
“We were always a small budget organization, so we didn’t think we were going to get it,” explains Kerr. “We became a finalist, which meant we were in the top eight. Then, they had a site visit with us where they met everybody. They met our students, they met our staff, they sat with me and Chris and then met our board. They also met about 15 community partners who came out in support of us and advocacy for us—so it was like a six hour long, beautiful, amazing meeting where they really, really got to know us. Eventually they they let us know that that would be a recipient.”
Beyond the Bars, along with the three other chosen organizations, received $500,000. After being largely unfunded for the past five years, this is a huge step for the program. For the Co-Executive Directors, this is huge and will allow the leaders to focus more time on the organization, which before was a struggle due to the lack of funding.
“It just feels surreal because this whole time we’ve been just working with our community, doing this and having a great time doing it,” adds Thornton. “Our teachers love it and students love it, and now we’re kind of at this next point where we’re receiving a substantial amount of funding. That’s really going to put us in a position to expand our programs, expand the number of students we can teach and just really make it bigger and then put in a more long term structure a for our students to [someday] lead the program.”
Funding has always been a huge need for any program or organization, but funding during a pandemic is paramount. For Beyond the Bars, this financial help will provide continuous artistic expression and healthy outlets for the community—something that is priceless.
“We really believe in the of strength of our program,” finishes Kerr. “We’re really working to magnify and shine light for the students on things that they can do and ways that they can work together with the community and with other people and with themselves, you know, to create music and to kind of really enter this world. That’s what we’re all about. I view this the entire last five years as a success, not just now that we’ve gotten this grant. The students have made this program their own and made it and for me personally, an incredible experience.”
To learn more about Beyond the Bars, visit beyondthebarsmusic.org