One Song, One City Unites Community Around Music

In an effort to build stronger bonds between College and city communities, Oberlin’s Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue and the Office of the Ombudsperson have created a series of music listening and sharing sessions called One Song, One City. 

The bi-monthly meetings, which began in March 2019, are held at the Oberlin Public Library and the Lewis House, bring community members together to discuss the historic and emotional contexts of songs that attendees care about. 

Conservatory junior Griffin Woodard, who started the program through his work as a community relations intern for the Office of the Ombudsperson, explained that the purpose of the series is to facilitate interactions between Oberlin residents who may not otherwise meet. 

“I believe that these little exchanges are powerful,” Woodard said. “If you met someone that you didn’t know before … through this program and you met them over this song, in a little way that’s strengthening our whole Oberlin scene, our whole Oberlin community.”

Woodard was inspired to begin the program by a similar series called One City, One Book, which began in 1998 in Seattle, Washington. Originally called “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” One City, One Book attempted to create community engagement through a citywide book club. Since its inaugural year, the idea has grown increasingly popular, and cities across the country have adopted the model as a method for community building and literacy promotion. 

Although Woodard initially considered directly replicating the literature program, he decided instead to go in a more musical direction.

“I’m first and foremost a musician,” he said. “So I realized that it’s not really going to be possible for me to continue working on [a reading program] because I don’t even have the drive to do that. So I meditated upon how to do it with music instead.”

While listening to John Coltrane’s “Love,” Woodard came up with the idea of holding group listening sessions for music that spoke to individual community members. 

“I was listening to [“Love”], and it made me want to share this music with people,” he said. “It touches me so deeply that I’d like to bring that to other people.” 

Members’ stories connected to specific pieces of music are a key part of the sharing sessions. 

“The concept of telling your story, that’s what we really want to do,” Woodard said. “I learned that from a fellow YBCD mediator who advised me about this program, [Religious and Spiritual Life Affiliate] Meeko Israel— [he told me] that telling each other stories needs to be part of it because that’s the way we can really reach each other.” 

College senior Chloe Falkenheim agrees. 

“It’s very refreshing to talk about music in terms of how it connects to us personally, which is different from a lot of academic discussions in classrooms here,” she wrote in an email to the Review. 

Ombudsperson Kimberly Jackson Davidson credits Woodard’s goals with the program’s success so far, including the decision to shift from books to music. 

“As the final plans to launch a small scale pilot of what would have been One Book, One Oberlin, Griffin proposed that we consider shifting to music instead,” Davidson wrote in an email to the Review. “I believe this suggestion on his part was motivated by cautions that were being expressed about the ability of a book discussion to be a draw in Oberlin, where there are so many book discussion groups. I think his own passion for music and conversations with his friends and mentors might also have prompted him to think in this direction. I really appreciated the fresh consideration of what can draw people together from disparate experiences to listen to and value one another.”

While different from other One City, One Book programs, Oberlin’s One Song, One City series represents one of many community-building programs that Davidson’s office and the YBCD have pursued in recent years. 

“When I entered the office in the summer of 2016, Oberlin College had experienced 2–3 really challenging years in terms of campus climate,” Davidson wrote. “The nation was being rocked by tensions spurred by police violence, and we were enduring an acrimonious presidential election campaign. I kept hearing the question regarding … how can [the Center for Dialogue] be involved in improving communication in ways that are proactive and that do not wait for full-blown conflict to arise … As I hired student interns to work in the office, I engaged them in conversations about projects the Center might take on that would not distract from its mission of conflict resolution, initiatives that would make space for enhancing communication in our community.”

One Song, One City is one such initiative. Remaining meetings this year will take place at the Lewis House on April 27 and May 4, and at the Oberlin Public Library on May 18, all from 2-3 p.m.