Over the past few weeks, I've interviewed several musicians and artists who've shared about their own creative lifelines and the impact those lifelines have had on their broader communities.
This morning, I’m so excited to interview Jessica Craft, founder of Rock to the Future, an incredible organization that provides free and low-cost music education to low-income kids and teens in Philadelphia.
A: Jessica, thanks so much for chatting with me today!
J: Thanks for having me!
A: How did Rock to the Future come about?
J: In 2010, I started Rock to the Future with seed funding of just $15,000 from Women for Social Innovation. I worked with Josh (my then boyfriend, now husband) on a volunteer basis for two years, and we worked odd jobs at night and on the weekends to make ends meet (catering, focus groups, odd jobs). In 2012, I received a large grant of $214,000 from Delaware Investments & Macquarie, which we used to hire staff and expand and improve the programs. Since then, we’ve gradually grown the organization, and now provide free music programs for over 300 disadvantaged Philadelphia youth each year in-school, after school, and during the summer.
We have seen incredible successes as our students improve academic performance, behavior and social skills, and musical ability, including a 100% post-secondary education rate for our MusiCore after school program. Through the magic of music, we are preparing our students for every stage as they build confidence, feel pride, and ignite passion and creativity.
A: What inspired you to launch such an ambitious program?
J: I grew up in the Upper Darby School District, where I started playing violin in 3rd grade and then clarinet in 4th grade when I found my mother’s clarinet in my grandfather’s basement. I participated in the in-school music programs from elementary school through high school graduation, playing saxophone and then drums in the marching band and percussion in the orchestra, wind ensemble, and concert band. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. I didn’t wear cool clothes, wasn’t trendy, and felt like the weird one in classes. I was frequently picked on. Music always gave me a place to belong. Although I did well in school (AP classes, top 5%), I always dreaded going to school, but daily music class gave me something to look forward to.
I attended Temple University and was strongly encouraged by my parents to pursue a major where I could get a well-paying job and have a stable career, so I studied Business Administration and Economics. In college, I also started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity and taught foreign exchange students English. That was also when I joined my first punk band as the drummer. After college, I worked for a financial services firm, which was mundane but paid well. I continued volunteering and joined Big Brother, Big Sister, where I was matched with a 12-year-old girl from North Philadelphia. I started to learn about the struggles that students faced in school, the lack of resources schools and families had, and the challenges families faced as they tried to improve their lives but continually hit road blocks. From my own experiences growing up, I knew the power of music could transform lives and create purpose. As I grew more disenchanted with my corporate life, I had a vision of providing underserved youth with the chance to not only learn music but create their own music in bands with their peers, to create a judgement free and supportive environment where kids could grow into thoughtful and compassionate leaders. I also envisioned providing direct academic support through homework help and post-secondary education help that students lacked in school or at home.
Music is an incredible force that can change the way a person feels about himself and about the world. It’s an opportunity for people to gather and feel pride, and it’s a way for individuals to find release from the daily world. Music programs shouldn’t be considered a luxury - all children should have the chance to learn and create music and experience the benefits of music education.
A: I’ve shared here that writing LIFELINE was an important outlet for me throughout my family’s experience with addiction. I’ve also interviewed a few other musicians on the blog that have talked about how making music helps them process their emotions and provides an opportunity to feel “seen” and understood. In what ways has this program been a “lifeline” for you?
J: For many people, life doesn’t feel worth living when you have no purpose. I am one of those people. I was diagnosed with ADD as a teenager, get bored easily, and have struggled with depression. Working in the corporate field, I felt as though I was wasting away my life and always sought special projects so that I could continue to develop new skills and stay busy. I struggled with existential questions like, “What am I doing with my life,” and “What is the point of anything?” With my work at Rock to the Future, I’m constantly learning new things and get to problem solve. I have renewed my love for music and the arts and still actively play drums in local bands. I also learned guitar (initially so I could help Rock to the Future students) and have started writing my own songs, which helps me express my own emotions.
Starting an organization from scratch was (and continues to be) the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I’ve never felt more pride than when I see my students learn, grow, and rock. I love the moment when a student has a breakthrough while working on homework or music, and I am proud of the community and relationships we have created at Rock to the Future. At Rock to the Future, I have had the chance to build deep, meaningful relationships with other people, and I feel the greatest joy when I’m helping others. I feel that I am part of something that is so much greater than I had ever imagined or hoped for.
A: Rock to the Future is making a powerful and direct impact on your community. In what ways, has this program been a “lifeline” for the students that you serve?
J: Many of our students have never had the opportunity to learn music. They have faced unfathomable challenges like overcrowded living spaces (a mother and 3 daughters living in one room at an extended family member’s home), the death of a parent / sibling, classrooms where students throw calculators at teachers and learning is impossible, traveling nearly two hours to school each day because the specialty school is on the other side of the city, homelessness, and hunger. City kids are often also held to a lower-expectation than kids in wealthier areas, and I frequently hear “College isn’t for everyone” or “You might want to lower your expectations working with THIS group of kids”.
Rock to the Future uses music to connect with youth and for youth to connect with each other. Our students find a place where they can be themselves and find their identities. They feel accepted and cared about. We have high expectations, but as long as students are trying, they are welcome to attend while they work on themselves. Many students will remain in a Rock to the Future program for more than 4 years and will ultimately find themselves achieving higher grades, building confidence they never knew they had, and working with other kids and teens with different backgrounds from all over Philadelphia. We also have many LGBT students who feel they can be themselves at Rock to the Future, as well as students transitioning from the youth treatment centers or the juvenile justice system who need a place to feel supported and creative. We have created a place where our students can learn life skills that they can transition to school, personal life, and their future professional life.
We also provide an opportunity for the families we serve to find pride as they watch their children take the stage to showcase their musical skills. Families from all different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and Philadelphia neighborhoods have the chance to come together through music and to see their children in the spotlight.
A: I have been lucky enough to hear some of these kids perform, and they truly are inspiring. How can readers find out more about Rock to the Future?
J: Rock to the Future has volunteer opportunities and teaching opportunities, and we are always in need of passionate people who want to get involved. Visit RocktotheFuture.org, email us Info@RocktotheFuture.org, or call 215-302-9633. You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @Rock2Future.
A: We’ll be sure to check it out! Thanks again, Jessica!