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Corey DePina is the Youth Development and Performance Manager for ZUMIX. Corey is an accomplished rapper, a skilled workshop and program facilitator, and a long-time participant in ZUMIX programs. Corey served on the Youth Advisory Board for several years at ZUMIX, and has done workshops on the history of Hip Hop, Creative Writing and Performance at numerous city-wide agencies. Corey’s professional career outside of academia includes serving on the committee and hosting Boston’s largest and longest-running all age open one mic event, Critical Breakdown, as well as a considerable career as a freelance facilitator for local and national nonprofits, schools and community centers. Corey was influential in helping ZUMIX develop its award-winning curriculum that was been nationally recognized by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities in 2011. In 2015, Corey completed The Institute for Non Profit Management certificate program at Boston University. In 2019, Corey was a recipient of the 2019 Institute for Non Profit Management Change Maker Award.
Lindsay Gearheart: What is your background, and how did you find your way to ZUMIX?
Corey DePina: I grew up in Roxbury, a first generation immigrant from the Cape Verdean islands. My family immigrated here in the late ’50s. I’m the youngest of three, and because of busing, which had kids go to school in different neighborhoods, I ended up going to school in East Boston. In the eighth grade, one of the instructors knew about ZUMIX, so we took a trip there one day during school and I never left. At that time, it was around ’92 and ZUMIX was about a year and half old and still in the director, the founder’s, home in Maverick Square. So instead of taking a school bus back to Roxbury after school, my eighth grade year, I would just go to ZUMIX. I would skip the school bus, go to ZUMIX, and then take train home. Then I would wake up, take the bus back to school, then after school go to ZUMIX. And I kind of never left.
I left a little bit when I was 18 to go try to do my adult thing and work in the auto field. But it was miserable because I wasn’t doing anything expressive, I was just selling auto parts and helping customers with their cars. But when I was at ZUMIX, I was always put in a leadership position and given the opportunity to facilitate, and to go to meetings and learn about community organizing. So they kind of helped mold me into the really cool teaching artist I am today.
LG: What is ZUMIX’s mission, and how do you go about achieving it?
CD: We actually just recently through a strategic plan changed our mission. The original mission that we had was “Empowering youth through music to create strong positive change in their lives and their communities.” The new mission statement incorporates professionalism and pathways, the idea of giving youth the opportunity to not only just create art but envision a life where they can make a living off of being creative or in the audio-music world. The new statement is, “ZUMIX empowers young people to build successful futures for themselves, transforming lives and community through music, technology, and creative employment.”
We have all types of programs that we offer, so we wanted to give kids not just the skill of being an artist, but also teach how to get paid to be an artist, so you don’t end up working for someone else or giving up on your dreams.
LG: That newer mission sounds like it aligns really well with your own experience, because you grew up going to ZUMIX and now you do work in the arts, so that’s awesome.
CD: Oh yeah, I definitely lead by example, and I model it. It’s one of my positions now as a manager to teach the ZUMIX pedagogy and youth work approach that I helped develop so that they get it and understand. We’re different from either a music school or institute or drop in program, like we have our own areas of development and growth that I helped create, and I believe in it because I lived it, which is kind of cool.
LG: How does ZUMIX create a safe space for kids of all backgrounds and abilities?
CD: A lot of the safe space really starts with some of our core areas of development, which is personal development. So we spend a lot of time doing group-building activities and creating a space where young people can share and feel like they bring something to the table, and where their voice is valued. Ever since I was a teenager, we always had a youth advisory board. We always had a program leader, who helps assist in classes and facilitate. We also within the program have group leaders who help take care of everything from attendance to setting up equipment, to picking up and sharing responsibilities.
A lot of our practice is also based on circles. We usually meet in a circle, and we have a talking stone sometimes. There’s a lot of talking circles, our approach is based off of that, where we create a space where everyone can give input. And then at the end of stuff we always reflect and give a space for people to give feedback on how things went. Even with our programs or our meetings, we try to structure everything that way. So we usually set up in a circle, classes are usually set up in a circle, spend time doing introductions. We ask people to introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns. All of that helps to create a space where everyone can bring themselves.
We’re lucky because we have music as a tool, so we can always get back to styles of music, tastes of music, and what type of music you like. So you can imagine you get a diverse group from like Latin artists, to jazz, to punk rockers, to hip-hop to rap, so having music as a tool helps a lot with diversity to create a space for sharing and understanding that art is art, and we appreciate art and share art. You can’t really create art if you don’t feel comfortable in the space.
LG: I know you talked a little bit about personal development, can you talk about the role you believe music plays in community development?
CD: Well first, there’s the whole idea of it unifies a community just by sharing it. By hosting events and creating spaces where people can see concerts. A long time ago, we started with a thing called Music in Maverick Square. Before Maverick was redeveloped, we would go there once a week with a sound system and have a local band perform. People would be dancing and getting to know their neighbors. And when Maverick got redeveloped, we continued to do the concert series but we started to hold it in local parks. We do it still to this day every Sunday at Pierce Park in our summer concert series where we hire a band, we have our youth technicians use that as their time to learn how to set up a live sound system, become band engineers, and we also hire local bands. People come out and picnic and share that space, so that’s one element of it.
We also within the programs have our young people go out and perform and do workshops to talk about their experiences as an artist with other kids, hopefully encouraging them to then create and be inspired. Then on a teaching artist level, we go to different communities and offer workshops on hip-hop history and performance and creative writing and expression. So we have a partnership with schools, where we go in and do stuff.
And then when you talk about the community radio, that’s a whole other world. We have a radio station, 94.9 FM, a community of people doing shows in the morning ‘til about 2:00 pm, from 2:00–8:00 is youth program shows, and they do everything from community issues, to playing music, to having guests come in. We have a senior show, we have “What’s Up Eastie,” we have a little community politics, and community discussions. It’s a little power FM station so people can tune in and listen to it. So there’s multiple levels that I’ve seen of the effect that music and our programs have on the community.
And even on a visual artists level, in the beginning, when the local artist group in East Boston started meeting, they would meet at ZUMIX, until they found their own space on Border Street. So we’ve always been a little mecca fostering art in our own neighborhood and being able to share with the community and with the rest of the greater Boston area. Either through offering our performances, offering our experience or professionalism, or our radio station, which is pretty dope.
LG: That’s incredible, it sounds like you have so much going on.
CD: It all started in someone’s living room and writing songs. It was like, “So now that we have these songs, we need some music.” “Alright we’re just going to develop a whole program area to incorporate musical instruments.” Like “Alright now we need speakers and microphones,” and “Alright, let’s develop a whole program for that stuff.”
And the cool thing is that the young people are involved in everything, so the empowerment and the leadership is woven in, like “Alright let’s make it happen.” We gotta give you the tools and we’ll see what they can build. To the very point where it was like “What’s next?” “Let’s get a radio station!” “Alright, that’s sound crazy, but why not!” And it came true!
LG: Talk to me about the growing arts community in East Boston, and how things have changed since ZUMIX set up shop there.
CD: It’s kind of interesting. So East Boston is a harbor away from the city, so you kind of do your own thing here and not necessarily be caught in the chaos of the metropolitan area of the city. We’re still one of the only music organizations in Boston that serves youth the music the way we do with all the programs that we offer. The visual artists ended up doing their own thing, but we always partner with them and try to do murals or have them do some of their programming and outreach through us.
Just recently with the whole gentrification of the neighborhood, the waterfront has been booming. The Shipyard also has a cool art gallery space there, we work really closely with the ICA. They also have the Watershed right here in East Boston, a gallery space, and they reached out to us letting us know they were going to be our neighbors, so we work really closely with them, both on a youth level and on a community level, with letting people have access to that, and specifically our community and low-income families that might not know about those type of experiences and opportunities because they don’t have a direct link to that. Even with the Boch Center, we’ve had a great partnership with them for years, so they always give us concert tickets so we’re able to invite our community members to go out and see productions of theatre, bands that they would never be able to spend the money leisurely to watch, which is really cool.
It’s kind of a connector, we play a really good role connecting people with our resources. Both artists who come in and say “Hey, I’m new to town, do you know anybody who might be able to help me out, or do you have a space?” or “Hey, I have this idea for this yoga class, could we rent a space out here? Can you connect us with the East Boston community?” Cause people see us as a really good connector for this part of town that usually feels really separated from the rest of Boston.
LG: What does the future look like for ZUMIX?
CD: That’s such a great question cause it’s like, this was built off a dream, right so we gotta dream. We know that we want to continue to work at doing what we do very well. So continuing to have conversations about core values and pedagogy and approach. We also have to work really hard on finding ways to be sustainable, as far as financing and raising money. So we’re finding creative new ways to be able to pay people, hire people, really support our young people also, not just with classes but with dollars. So there’s a lot of the professionalism thing that we’re really focusing on.
I think once we get it, we know that our recipe works, and it’s really easy to teach other people and have other people believe in it. Then we can think about expanding and offering what we do to other neighborhoods that really need it and that could really grow from what we already have in place. It’s kind of like sharing pie, right. “It’s a yummy recipe, you should check it out. We spent 30 years making this pie, and it works!”
But one of the scariest things about this type of work is the funding, we’re strained with our development team. They’re trying to find creative ways to talk people into supporting. Always looking for grants and opportunities and ways to generate income and all that, so that’s part of the scariest thing about the future, it’s never guaranteed. We have this beautiful firehouse and 30 employees that we care a lot about and want to give living wage benefits to, and because we’re not offering what other places are offering, just because we don’t have the money to offer it, all those little details are things that make the future a little bit scary. But we just keep going. It’s the music first, you know.
This Change Maker interview was originally published August 2019 on the HubWeek blog.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.