First, Kensington Opens Their Doors to Sister Cities Girlchoir

First Presbyterian Church in Kensington was featured in the Star Community Newspaper on February 17, 2015 in an article by Julie Zeglen.


Sis­ter Cit­ies Girlchoir’s Kens­ing­ton branch fosters so­cial change through the power of mu­sic.



For the past few Sat­urday morn­ings, mu­sic has been echo­ing in First Pres­by­teri­an Church in Kens­ing­ton.

The songs are dif­fer­ent from typ­ic­al re­li­gious fare like “Joy­ful, Joy­ful, We Ad­ore Thee,” though there’s some of that, too. More of­ten, they’re something like Beeth­oven’s “Ode to Joy,” South Afric­an folk song “Shosho­loza,” or Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

It’s also the work of a few dozen girls in kinder­garten through 10th grade.

Sis­ter Cit­ies Girlchoir is a free chor­al pro­gram for ad­oles­cent girls that op­er­ates in three low-in­come com­munit­ies: Cam­den, West Phil­adelphia and Kens­ing­ton. About 300 girls par­ti­cip­ate while not only learn­ing to read mu­sic and hit high notes, but be­com­ing well-roun­ded, con­fid­ent young wo­men who can pos­it­ively im­pact their com­munit­ies.

Fishtown res­id­ent Alysia Lee, 33, began Sis­ter Cit­ies in Septem­ber of 2012 fol­low­ing a fel­low­ship with the New Eng­land Con­ser­vat­ory. Lee, a pro­fes­sion­al op­era sing­er, had been look­ing for a way to give back to the world us­ing her fa­vor­ite tool.

“Mu­sic had been a big part of my life as a child, and in terms of trans­form­ing me in­to a per­son that is a pro­duct­ive mem­ber of so­ci­ety,” she said. “I had a lot of trouble in school be­hav­ing and re­spect­ing au­thor­ity, and be­ing a part of a choir helped me to find a fo­cus and be able to com­mu­nic­ate with people.”girlsat

The Sis­tema Fel­low­ship took her around the world to ex­am­ine pro­grams that use mu­sic as a tool for so­cial change. A piece of re­search en­titled “The Girl Ef­fect” was par­tic­u­larly im­pact­ful to the cre­ation of the Sis­ter Cit­ies mis­sion: Lee learned that chil­dren’s moth­ers’ life paths shape their fu­tures more than their fath­ers’ do. Fur­ther­more, she learned that low-in­come, high-arts-ex­pos­ure ad­oles­cents are three times more likely than low-in­come, low-arts-ex­pos­ure ad­oles­cents to earn a mas­ter’s de­gree – of which Lee her­self is a re­flec­tion, she said.

“We want these girls fo­cused, gradu­at­ing from high school, preg­nancy-free when they’re 18,” Lee said. “Then the next gen­er­a­tion has an en­tirely dif­fer­ent level of ac­count­ab­il­ity be­cause they have new pro­tect­ive factors in place that they wouldn’t have had oth­er­wise, be­cause poverty and a lot of these things are cyc­lic­al. [We are] us­ing the power of com­munity to break that cycle.”

Lee also wanted to cre­ate an emo­tion­ally safe space filled with pos­it­ive role mod­els.

“You don’t see wo­men on tele­vi­sion or in the me­dia bond­ing to­geth­er, stand­ing to­geth­er, be­ing strong, sup­port­ing one an­oth­er, so I wanted to show the girls a dif­fer­ent mod­el for how to be a wo­man, what it’s like be­ing part of a sis­ter­hood of wo­men than what they see on TV and what they read,” she said.

The mu­sic sung by the girls comes from all over the world, such as South Africa and Lat­in coun­tries be­cause the rhythms and melod­ies are very singable for young people, but also from the pop mu­sic realm.

Sing­er Alicia Keyes retweeted a video of Sis­ter Cit­ies per­form­ing her song “We Are Here.” The group has mixed the tune of “Ode to Joy” with Bey­once’s “Single Ladies” with new lyr­ics writ­ten about Sis­ter Cit­ies. A mashup of Bey­once’s “Pretty Hurts” and TLC’s “Un­pretty” will be per­formed for the girls’ par­ents around Moth­er’s Day.

This past Sat­urday was only the Kens­ing­ton group’s second re­hears­al at First Pres­by­teri­an Church, 418 E. Gir­ard Ave. The group pre­vi­ously op­er­ated out of Wal­ter D. Palmer Lead­er­ship Learn­ing Part­ners Charter School in North­ern Liber­ties, but was left home­less when the school closed sud­denly in Decem­ber.

hyska2Lee was in­tro­duced to Rev. Shawn Hyska of First Pres­by­teri­an Church via the non­profit Part­ners for Sac­red Spaces, which fosters com­munity use of re­li­gious build­ings. After learn­ing about Sis­ter Cit­ies’ mis­sion, Hyska and the church’s eld­ers jumped at the chance to host the girls’ re­hears­als.

“There was just the in­stant con­nec­tion between the choir and what the church stands for, in a sense of bring­ing people to­geth­er [in­to] one lar­ger com­munity,” Hyska said on Sat­urday while wear­ing a purple Sis­ter Cit­ies shirt – a gift from the group for al­low­ing it to use the space.

The group will op­er­ate out of First Pres­by­teri­an Church through at least this school year, he said.

Some of the Sis­ter Cit­ies loc­a­tions are based in schools, and re­hears­als take place after classes end. Con­versely, the Fishtown site pulls girls from dif­fer­ent schools, and from all over the city: Girls travel from the sur­round­ing neigh­bor­hoods like Kens­ing­ton, Port Rich­mond and the North­east, but a few also come from South­w­est Philly and oth­er areas, ac­cord­ing to Lee.

This al­lows the girls to lose some of the con­straints they may feel in their usu­al so­cial situ­ations, teach­ing artist Anne Dugan said.

“It’s a total clean slate to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent at­mo­sphere for them­selves, to show up as some­body dif­fer­ent than maybe they show up as at school,” Dugan said. “There’s a lot of free­dom for them now.”

The girls are grouped ac­cord­ing to age, not tal­ent, though next year, girls in grades fifth and up can also au­di­tion for a trav­el­ing choir. Next year, too, girls will be able to join the group through high school; cur­rently, the cutoff is eighth grade.

Some of the sing­ers have mu­sic pro­grams in their schools, some don’t. There­fore, some come to Sis­ter Cit­ies with the abil­ity to read mu­sic and prop­erly use their voices, but some need to learn, Dugan said.

When asked why they par­ti­cip­ate in Sis­ter Cit­ies, girls gave en­thu­si­ast­ic an­swers.

  • “You get to spend time with one an­oth­er and do something that I really like to do, which is singing,” said Tyler, 11. “It really helps me ex­press my­self more.”
  • “I have learned lan­guages that I don’t speak on the reg­u­lar,” said Allyson, 16, ref­er­en­cing a Por­tuguese song the group sang. “And my singing has im­proved a lot.”
  • About why she likes mu­sic, Ruth, 13, spoke of mu­sic’s emo­tion­al power.
  • “If I’m mad or sad about something, I’ll just start singing,” she said. “It makes me feel bet­ter.”
  • Jada, 12, was straight­for­ward about why she chose to re­turn to the pro­gram for a second year.
  • “I came back be­cause of the simple fact [that] it’s awe­some,” Jada said. “You can be your­self and nobody will judge you.”

A Sis­ter Cit­ies Girlchoir fi­nale con­cert will be held on Sat­urday, May 16, at the River Stage at Penn’s Land­ing. The event will be sponsored by the City of Phil­adelphia. For more in­form­a­tion about Sis­ter Cit­ies Girlchoir, vis­it sis­ter­cit­ies­

You can reach Julie Zeglen at [email protected]