Foundations for Melanie DeMore Residency

I recently needed to go back to collect a little of the verbiage from a big grant application I submitted (with essential help from Follen mainstay Jack Donahue) to the Unitarian Universalist Association to support the Music Friendships Initiative/Follen Responds to Racism project hosting song activist Melanie DeMore in February and March of this coming year. In reading this long document, I realized that it was a deep dive into the reasons behind this project, so I decided to share it with you! And before you read it, you might like to draw some sustenance and inspiration from the fact that we were not only awarded a $5000 grant straight out, we were also given a $2000 Challenge Grant that needed to be matched by members of the congregation and we’ve done it, thanks especially to the efforts of FRR in collecting donations at the recent Deeper Than The Skin event. Thank you to everyone!

This is the grant narrative in its entirety except I’ve removed the budget (because it’s changed) and some of the timeline specifics (which have also changed). Enjoy reading what you can, and please have a conversation with me about this exciting endeavor! Formal announcements of the activities associated with this residency will be out in the next two weeks – I can’t wait to have Melanie here with you and our musical friends in Roxbury.

-Vivian Montgomery


An Application for Support from the Fund for Unitarian Universalism: Greater Boston Collaboration with Song Activist Melanie Demore

The Urban Church Music Friendships Initiative of Follen Church, Lexington, MA

Vivian Montgomery, Director of Music


  1. Summary of Project.  Follen Church pursues an ambitious campaign of musical collaboration with urban religious communities of color. Next year, the initiative expands by bringing renowned song activist Melanie Demore to a diverse musical multitude in the Boston area. This requires resources beyond generous internal support or realistic expectations of our partners.


  1. Inception of Project.

In the summer of 2018, the Unitarian Universalist Musicians’ Network conference in Portland, Oregon featured several workshops and interactive presentations by song activist Melanie Demore. The impact was extraordinary – her music, her voice, her words, her ideas about building community and forging understanding, her storytelling, and her empathetic attention to the experience of enslaved people. Vivian Montgomery, then completing her first year as Music Director at the historic Follen Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, was hit hard with the certain knowledge that Melanie’s presence was needed to help Follen and the greater Boston UU community pursue its higher purpose of reaching out and doing its part toward mending the world.

Follen Church has stood as a beacon of activism and justice for nearly two centuries, a hub of abolitionism and civil rights action. Over the past three years, the community has committed itself anew to being an intentional force for working against racism. And yet, and yet… this well-meaning, committed community remains isolated from the very people they seek to support and assist because of socioeconomic, racial, cultural, geographical, and religious divides. “Proximacy” isn’t a real word, but it’s definitely something real that is lacking in this suburban congregation’s efforts to bridge such divides. Not just physical proximity, but “getting proximate,” developing deep familiarity and trust through collaboration and ongoing presence in the “other’s” realms, while sharing of our own realm as though there was nothing getting in the way.  This has been the foundation of Vivian Montgomery’s “Urban Church Music Friendships” initiative: to get disparate musical populations into the same room regularly to sing, to laugh, to stumble together, to admittedly misunderstand one another with compassion and hope.

What Melanie Demore so freely teaches her crowds of participants is the power that collective music, singing, and story have to dissolve obstacles. In the words of her colleague and NY folk music icon Sonya Heller, Melanie is “…an emissary of tolerance, kindness, and harmony through the sound of her golden voice…Nothing is closer to her heart than bringing people together wherever she is to experience the healing power of music…her mission is to make sure you unlock the key to experiencing yourself in all your Glory and return home with the very same excitement and passion for living that she herself has….She has taken troubled children and turned lives around. She never gives up…She transforms the raw energy of human beings into flowing rhythms, self empowering awareness, with a sweet top note of humor and not taking oneself too seriously…In the words of her song that has been performed by choirs and choruses all over the world and has given hope and comfort to so many…’I’m sending you light, to heal you, to hold you…I’m sending you light, to hold you in love.’”


  1. Project Description.

Follen Church is strategically using its strong musical identity to energize and enrich its commitment to social responsibility. The church has long had a robust Social Justice Action Team and, since 2017, a high-profile “Follen Responds to Racism” campaign. This agenda has become both more prominent and more entwined with Follen’s signature musical heritage since the arrival in 2017 of Music Director Vivian Montgomery, who brings both diverse musical expertise and an ambitious social-justice agenda. Montgomery has assembled support from all corners of the community to launch the Urban Church Music Friendships initiative. In its first year, the Music Friendships include Charles Street AME Church and the Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts Academy, both in Roxbury, and Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. Collaborations are also in the works with other Boston-area institutions serving people of color. Music Friendships transmute a mutual passion for music, both sacred and secular, into the seed kernel for meaningful connections between a suburban church with abolitionist roots and urban communities of color.

The music program in general, with the Friendships Initiative in particular, is enthusiastically supported by internal Follen resources.  But we intend to expand the initiative next year in ways that will require some external support. Follen plans to be the lead host for a 2019-20 sojourn in the Boston area for San Francisco composer, song-leader, and activist Melanie Demore. Melanie uses singing and Gullah stick-pounding workshops as community-building, division-bridging vehicles, and she leads anti-prejudice events in religious institutions and schools across the country. We envision a two-pronged residency involving at least three AME churches—Charles Street, St. Paul of Cambridge, and Bethel—as well as Follen’s choirs and broader community. Beyond the workshops, sings, and services we have already tentatively mapped out, bringing her to Massachusetts two times in the course of the year, for more than a week each visit, would give other congregations and organizations, along with the UU Urban Ministry, the opportunity to host her for additional activities or to join in as co-presenters or co-sponsors with Follen. These relationships are opportunities for us to build greater understanding and trust among diverse individuals and communities through the honesty, humility, joy, creativity, and simple humanity that mutual immersion in music can provide.

About Melanie’s residencies and workshops: she has visited elementary schools and high schools, college groups, detention centers, churches, and a homeless shelter. In her own words: “I don’t like to just come and do a concert, I like to involve as many people as possible, to have that experience of pounding, making music together. It’s not so much a spectator sport as much as something we get to participate in one way or another.” Melanie’s says about her workshops: “I love to get folks to sing together who normally don’t. There’s nothing like presenting to a convention of psychiatrists and having em’ all singing at the top of their lungs and grinning like big dogs! I design all of my programs to fit your group’s needs and goals. From choirs to corporations—why can’t we all just sing along?”

About learning the basics of Gullah Stick Pounding: “We will create a foot stomping, hand-clapping rhythmic community and combine it with singing spirituals and songs of protest and peace. Participants will learn about Gullah/Geechee culture through its dynamic music and rhythmic heart. We will, as a community, turn the whole place into a living, breathing drum.” And about Melanie’s workshop entitled Full Body Forward: “For all those who have longed to raised their voices with power, determination and energy. Participants learn songs from various vocal and communal traditions and how to sing from, and with, their whole selves. Through a series of vocal, verbal and physical warm-up techniques, participants will learn how to fire up their inner and outer voices…for all skill levels and will help revitalize and inspire you to sing from the inside out.”

Beyond offering these workshops, which can encompass a large number of people from a wide range of ages, musical backgrounds, and locations, one of the outcomes of Melanie’s residency will be performance of her extraordinary pieces “Freedom Land” and “Sanctuary.” This will involve teenage and adult singers from choirs of a number of congregations and institutions, and will engage them in a stick-making and stick-pounding intensive, several rehearsals to learn the pieces, and at least two performances. The pieces are profound in their evocation of the enslaved person’s human experience – fear, prayer, determination, and elation are captured in intense rhythms, incantation, rich harmony, and profoundly interactive delivery. But why use words?  Here are the links to a performance of “Freedom Land” with VocalEssence Chorus and Patrick Henry High School Choir at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.          1. Which Way?            2: I’m On my Way 3: Oh Freedom

And here’s her piece with Gullah clapping rhythms, “Free Free Free”:


Project Goals and Anticipated Outcomes

This undertaking recognizes the potential for our music program to serve a much broader purpose, with real social consciousness and community building (across racial, economic, and geographical divides) at its center. Music is unique in its ability to create proximity and meaningful, healing, shared experience where we learn about one another without a lot of potentially alienating discourse, and Follen has a music director who holds that purpose as her central vision, manifesting on many planes. This request is an immediate investment in that future where Follen as Lexington’s  “music church” takes a new form and direction, merging with the activism for which the church is also well known.

Statements from the different “action teams” of the church speak to the project’s far-reaching goals: Follen’s Worship and Music Action Team is coordinating this enterprise with funding from other sources to fulfill our racial justice aspirations for the coming year. It is an opportunity for the church to show a baseline and continuing commitment to these valuable efforts to bridge racial and socioeconomic divides through musical collaboration. The Religious Education Action Team states that this program directly supports their intent to be “an intentionally and proactively antiracist congregation” and is an opportunity where “Follen will provide ongoing, intentional learning spaces for Follen members and friends and the wider community to deepen understanding of racism in the United States and to organize for racial justice” as outlined in the resolution to advance Follen as an anti-racist congregation.   The Pastoral Care Action Team identifies the proposed residency as a way to support the mutual goals of the “Caring Congregation” and “Welcoming Congregation” committees to deepen understanding and compassion, and are particularly pleased to be able to continue commitment towards anti-racism in a way that has appeal to all ages. They are committed to supporting the broadening of the music program, which is an integral part of Follen’s spiritual well being.


  1. Project Timeline

Our timeline is well under way:

September-October 2018:    Communication with Melanie and our Boston-area partners began.

November 2018: Formation of a Music Committee, geared especially toward planning and facilitating the Urban Church Music Friendships Initiative.

December 2018: Dates were confirmed for the residency and a Follen budget request was submitted.

January 2019-present: Ongoing information and advocacy campaign, both in all corners of the church and in the Greater Boston community, has taken place to spread the word and garner support/collaboration for the proposed activities.

May 15 – June 15 2019: Target for confirming funding and co-sponsorship for all proposed project components, mapping out detailed timeline for summer and fall planning.

February 1-9 2020: First leg of Melanie Demore residency – Stick making workshop (Adult Choir, teens from Youth Choir, other Follen Youth, HGMAA choir, Charles St. AME Youth Choir, Bethel AME Youth Choir, St. Paul AME singers, Temple Isaiah singers), introduction to stick pounding (same), 2 early rehearsals (same), 2 large community singing workshops (open), hospice choir workshops, Adult choir rehearsal visit, Children’s Choir rehearsal visit.

March 22-30 2020: Second leg of Melanie Demore residency – Rehearsals and performances of Melanie’s compositions  “Freedom Land” and “Sanctuary,” with Youth Choir consortium, Adult Choir, Children’s Choir, Food For Thought, March 28 concert at Charles Street AME Church, March 29 Music Service.


  1. Plans for Raising Income and Sustaining Project.

It is important to point out, as both inspiration and explanation of Follen’s financial need, that the church is in the midst of a major building project, to be completed this summer, that will result in an extraordinary new space for musical and community activity. While the promise of this new facility is part of what’s propelling the development of such initiatives as the one proposed here, the capital campaign that made this construction possible, and the belt-tightening of a year under construction (and no rental income), make it difficult for the congregation to fully fund a new and bold project like Melanie’s residency on its own. However, support and enthusiasm is universal across the Follen community: the coming year is seen as a rebirth, a time during which the reach and mission of the church becomes far larger than itself, far more integrated into the world surrounding, and far more palpably in service to the causes it has championed since its beginnings. Follen has shown itself to be a dedicated high-level contributor to the UUA for 25 years, in part because of its commitment to programs such as this one.

  1. Strengthening Unitarian Universalism.  Especially at this moment in history, nurturing meaningful connections that bridge cultural, religious, economic and ethnic divides is a first-order priority for Unitarian Universalism–advancing many of the 7 Principles, but especially the First, Second, and Sixth.  Follen has long sought to contribute to this UU priority, and the broader Urban Church Music Friendships initiative partnership is very much in this spirit. A risk of social and racial justice efforts–especially on the part of suburban and predominantly white congregations–is falling into a tacit sense of “acting for” less-privileged communities of color. Music Friendships are very deliberately a matter of “acting with” these communities. And the envisaged Melanie Demore sojourn takes this a step further, with a queer African-American artist in the lead, and our Urban Music Friends–more familiar with and expert in Ms. Demore’s genres–cast as teachers to Follen and other Boston-area UUs.  Celebrating the experience of being the “junior partners” in this musical venture, while facilitating and contributing from our more secure financial resources, can usefully model a broader repertoire of relationships between UUs and faith communities of color.


  1. Individuals Carrying Out Project.

Melanie DeMore

Singer-songwriter Melanie DeMore has a remarkable voice, weaving the fibers of African American folk music with soulful ballads, spirituals and her own original music. DeMore beautifully brings her audience together through her music and commentary. She has toured extensively, singing at festivals, universities, in coffee houses and concert halls. Her recordings Share My Song and Come Follow Me are both heartfelt collections of her music. In addition to her solo work, DeMore facilitates vocal workshops for professional and community-based choral groups and has taught her program called “Sound Awareness” in schools, prisons, and youth organizations in the US, Canada, Cuba and New Zealand. DeMore was a California Artist in Residence with the Oakland Youth Chorus for 10 years and has received an award from the Music Educators National Conference for her work with young singers and artists. She is on the music faculty at St. Paul’s School in Oakland, CA where she teaches a cappella singing. DeMore is also a founding member of the Grammy nominated, critically-acclaimed vocal ensemble ‘Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir,’ a group that tours extensively in the US and abroad. She has shared the stage with numerous artists including Buffy Saint Marie, John Prine, Josh White, Jr., Laura Nyro, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Pete Seeger.

Vivian Montgomery

Follen’s Director of Music has directed baroque opera, orchestras, and choirs throughout the US, and is co-director of the Boston-based baroque orchestra, Eudaimonia, A Purposeful Period Band. For 25 years, she has explored women’s musical lives in earlier centuries, recently as a Resident Scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center, and on a 2014 Fulbright in the UK. Vivian is an award-winning harpsichordist and fortepianist on the Early Music Faculty of the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She is an avid writer of both scholarly articles and personal essay, and is also an accordion player, leading the klezmer band Shir Chutzpa at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland.


  1. Supporting Individuals, Committees and Organizations

In addition to Follen’s own action teams (named in the financial summary above), our activities with Melanie will include participation and interchange from Charles Street AME Church (Rev. Gregory Groover), Hamilton-Garrett Music & Arts Academy (Gerami Groover Flores, director), St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge (Rev. Ellis Washington & Rev. Janine Daley, First Parish in Concord (Beth Norton, Director of Music). We have a team of Follen people who are invested in social justice, anti-racist action, and music as a force for connection, to help in envisioning, planning, raising funds for, networking on behalf of, and executing these endeavors. Mary Margaret Earl and board members of the UU Urban Ministry have been sources of great guidance in developing the working relationships with our AME friends, and two workshops led by Hilary Allen of the UUA New England chapter have been of great help in bringing focus to church-wide and staff collaboration.


  1. Evaluation Plan.  Even if the fundamental goals of this initiative–enriched relationships, dissolved boundaries, enlarged community, and an expanded commitment to social justice — are long-term and hard to measure, there are several interim metrics that can signal whether we are on track toward these goals.
  • Partner institutions participating – One clear process indicator is the number and nature of churches and other organizations who sign up for the activities that Melanie’s visit makes possible.  With respect to the nature, we will consider it a success if a diverse range of Boston-area organizations participate:  UU churches in addition to Follen, African-American churches and other faith communities of color, suburban churches of other denominations, and secular institutions devoted to music, social justice, anti-racism, and fellowship across differences.  With respect to the number, we will consider it a success if there are so many requests for Melanie’s time that it becomes a problem (a problem we will solve, to be clear!) to make sure she isn’t overworked during her time with us.
  • Attendance at events – We will only count this initiative as successful if most or all of the workshops, performances, and other events featuring Melanie are packed with enthusiastic participants.  Given the broader mission of the Urban Church Music Friendships, this criterion is especially important for those events to which both suburban and urban communities are invited.
  • Follow-up and connections forged – We intend and expect two kinds of follow-up to demonstrate the success of Melanie’s visit.  One involves her directly: We hope that other Boston-area organizations, exposed to her art thanks to this initiative, will engage her for future visits. The other is broader: We intend for the events enabled by Melanie’s visit to lend a significant boost of energy to the Urban Church Music Friendships and the overarching Follen Responds to Racism campaign. This should include richer interactions with the three African-American churches with which we are already involved, as well as expanding the roster of these relationships.


It is also worth noting an additional, somewhat subtler evaluation criterion. The goals of hosting Melanie will only be met if at the end of her visit, she is completely confident of our gratitude and respect. She should have no doubts that the time with us has been time well spent toward the achievement of her artistic and activist missions. This is not a simple quantitative metric – but we will know if it is met.