Words. Music. Song.
Everyone, regardless of life circumstances, has experienced the power of a song in uniting us in a shared experience. Songs expose injustice; they move us to take action. Songs create change.
When Operation Respect Founder Peter Yarrow first heard singer-songwriter Steve Seskin’s song, “Don’t Laugh at Me,” he immediately recognized how its words and overall message aligned with his vision for creating an organization that would help educators create compassionate, respectful, and safe environments for children.
Once Operation Respect was formed, Yarrow asked Seskin to take on a more active role in the organization by visiting schools and performing his song. Seskin has visited hundreds of schools over the past 15 years of working with Operation Respect. During this time, Seskin also formed his own music education program, Kids Write Songs. (While a separate entity, Seskin describes Kids Write Songs as being “an integral part of the overarching umbrella organization that is Operation Respect.”)
Approximately 10 years ago, Yarrow asked Seskin to take on a greater leadership role by joining the organization’s board of directors.
“I said, ‘absolutely,’” Seskin said. “We (the board) have an amazing group of people—everyone from lawyers to accountants to educators and folks singers. It’s a nice balance and we are all like-minded in doing what we can to make the world more respectful and kind. We all believe that kids are the beginning of that. So we plant seeds and maybe, just maybe, we will change the next generation for the better.”
Seskin describes his nearly two decades of working with Operation Respect as “life changing.”
“I have been a journeyman songwriter for years, but before all this happened, I had never worked directly with schools, with kids, with young people. While I believed in the power of music, I didn’t use my time to forward that effort. Now, for the past 15 years, I spend upwards of 80 to 100 days a year working with kids.”
The Role of Arts Education
Seskin loves that Operation Respect’s programmatic approach is very arts-based.
“I’m constantly seeing, in doing this work, the effect that music has on kids … the idea of spreading the simple philosophy of peace, respect, kindness—that we are all in this together. Kids are drawn to fun ways of learning. I’m a firm believer that there’s really not a much better way to translate these messages than through song, theater, art projects.”
Seskin stressed the importance of educators giving students a safe, comfortable forum to talk about issues such as bullying. “It’s important that we keep talking about this subject. I grew up in a world were ‘boys will be boys, girls will be girls’ … bullying was just a part of life. But it certainly doesn’t have to be.”
Kids, Seskin stressed, “need outlets to channel what they are feeling. Issues cannot be swept under the rug. Kids need ways to express themselves in a directed effort—and the ability to talk about issues (like bullying) in front of each other is a big thing.
“I experienced this when I write songs with a group of kids. Everyone is sharing their different thoughts and a lot is revealed. If you didn’t give kids a forum, they likely will keep their feelings to themselves. We don’t want kids keeping their pain to themselves.
“The emotional well being of children affects everything they do, including academic achievement. Kids need to feel that they are part of a safe and supportive community. That’s what we are trying to do. I have seen the difference in schools that have implemented the program. I went to the kick off implementation for Operation Respect, and then I went back to the school a year later. I felt the difference.”
“My hope for the future of Operation Respect is that it becomes even more of a direct proponent for arts education. I’ve discovered in working with kids and music in schools just how important the arts are in every aspect of a kid’s life.”
“Music was a big deal in my school. I was that kid who needed music to shine. I was the kid who came to school because I got to ‘do’ music.”
Steve Seskin is a member of Operation Respect’s board and is perhaps best known for co-writing “Don’t Laugh At Me”, the song that was the impetus for the Operation Respect program and organization.