El Sistema: A System For Change

El Systema

In Caracas, Venezuela, approximately 120,000 Caraqueños live in the compacted shantytown known as Barrio José Felix Ribas. Aerial photos depict a pixilated tapestry of houses built upon houses, rising up the hillside. Millions inhabit such slums. Despite the fact that Venezuela has seen considerable economic growth under the Chavez administration, the effects of poverty, violent crime, and substance abuse remain staggering, especially among children. But there is hope.

Since 1975, over 800,000 children have found respite from Venezuela’s endemic impoverishment. El Sistema is a publicly funded program that trains children in classical music. In a 60 Minutes interview, the founder and director of El Sistema, Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu, states, “Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty. A child’s physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides.”

Beginning at age two, children begin to visit El Sistema’s local centers, or “nucleos,” six days a week, three to four hours a day. Before enrollment, teachers visit homes to explain how the program works, and how the family can cultivate a child’s practice. The family also receives a stipend intended to offset the common need to pull kids out of school for work.

Studies show a related increase in school attendance, lowered dropout rates, and a decrease in crime rates. The most compelling effect, however, is the inherent joy children rediscover each day while immersed in music. In the documentary film El Sistema, beaming faces convey the beautiful link between rigor, devotion, and art.

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