Munificent Maestro

As a youngster, Matthew Kerr, EDU ’14, found that playing in bands contributed to a positive mental outlook and played a critical role in shaping his identity. Today, he and his team of student leaders and community-based artists make sure that 400 youth from across the city—in correctional facilities, counseling centers, foster care, homeless shelters, rec centers and schools—have the opportunity to make music.

Photo credit: Joseph V. Labolito

Unlikely beginnings

Shortly after graduating summa cum laude, Kerr was teaching history at the Charter School for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia. When he realized the school did not have the budget, he created a self-funded after-school music program. The mother of one of his students, a Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center warden, soon urged him to start a similar program in the jail where she worked. Eventually, he showed up with instruments and started teaching and jamming with 10 youths—including some facing decades-long prison terms.

“We worked with so many incredibly talented and compassionate young people who stated that they wished they had this or any music program before,” Kerr stated.

That prompted Kerr, his Co-director Christopher Thornton, and a team of driven community-based artists and activists to launch Beyond the Bars (BTB) in March 2015. Listening to the traumas many of the students who were incarcerated had experienced—abuse, foster care, gun violence, homelessness and overall divestment from resources—BTB expanded to run more community-based music programs for youth who had been impacted by violence in any way.

Powered primarily, until recently, by volunteers, it partners with more than 30 different community-based organizations, including community and rec centers, counseling centers for violence or sexual abuse victims, food banks, homeless shelters, and public schools without music programs. BTB has provided 300 instruments and built 26 recording labs to serve 400 students this year—numbers that will soon mushroom thanks to a major funding coup.

More than a melody

Once youth identify music as their medium for expression and growth, Kerr’s group connects students with other vital community resources. “Systemic problems require systemic solutions,” said Kerr. “BTB does not operate alone as we work to support our youth. We use music to engage with our youth, build up their self-efficacy and self-expression skills, and help them realize the talented leaders that they are. We then work with our amazing partners to ensure we are creating systems that will holistically support all of their needs.”

The importance of youth-driven and community-based programming were all values that were instilled in BTB through the many amazing and powerful community-based programs in the North Philadelphia area where Kerr attributes a strong influence over his life.

Recognized by the Mayor’s Office of Youth Engagement, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office of Diversion and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, this year BTB won a prestigious multiyear Lewis Prize for Music Accelerator Award to the tune of $500,000. The award allowed Kerr to go full time with Christopher Thornton and continue to build the program.

Matthew at a Glance

Temple together

At Temple, Kerr learned from many powerful organizations in the area, such as Treehouse Books, about the importance of community organizing and systematically building with the strengths of others. Kerr, who benefited from a $10,000 a year Temple scholarship, was heavily influenced by Professor of History Benjamin Talton, who stressed the power of communal organizing to combat racial inequities. Today, Kerr’s BTB staff includes fellow Owls Matthew Jernigan, BYR ’17, his curriculum coordinator, and co-teacher Pierce Jordan, CLA ’16. Temple’s Computer Recycling Center has provided more than 15 refurbished computers for the music labs, and Temple students can be found interning with BTB.

Then there’s Rollo Dilworth, vice dean and professor of music education at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance. “I was just a 22-year-old kid fresh out of Temple with an eight-page plan for my nonprofit when I called to ask him to be part of it,” said Kerr. “Even though I knew nothing, he agreed to chair our Board of Directors.

“I draw so much energy from him. Rollo has been super supportive,” said Kerr.