The Moniker warehouse is home to multiple nonprofits, each with a distinct vision for the city of San Diego. The David’s Harp Foundation, featured below, is one example of the dreams-turned-reality that fill the warehouse. The Moniker space exists in large part to enact transformation in its neighborhood. Housing everything from a church to a recording studio, the warehouse is an agent of local change.
Brandon gestures toward the recording equipment as he talks. Colors blip and pulse across soundboards, lighting the small studio. The room is quiet thanks to soundproofed walls, and another glass-walled recording room stands adjacent. I’m surprised at the professional quality of the equipment, and Brandon notices. He explains, "The vision was to have students come into a state-of-the-art environment, because that's the only way to illicit state-of-the-art results. The students know they are somewhere serious, and they respond." This explanation sums up his vision for reaching at-risk students: invest in their lives in a significant way, and they’ll respond to the invitation.
In 2006, Brandon Steppe was working as an audio engineer, making music in his personal recording studio – a garage. The music producer never intended to work with students, but the studio was a magnet for neighborhood kids. As they began to inhabit his garage, Brandon learned about their lives outside the studio. He realized that, as fascinated as they were with music production, they were equally disinterested in school. Their grades were bad. They were removed, unmotivated, and disenchanted. Their lack of academic success translated into few opportunities for the future – something the at-risk students desperately needed. Suddenly, the kids in his studio were no longer neighborhood kids. They were the catalyst behind an idea that unfolded into The David’s Harp Foundation.
Before its official birth in 2009, The David’s Harp Foundation underwent a slow and organic formation. Initially, Brandon allowed the students in his garage to trade their grades for recording time. A student could raise his C to a B in English and earn a half-hour of time in the studio. If he bumped it to an A, he could make music for an hour, and so on. The results were remarkable. Brandon sensed he had inadvertently discovered a powerful motivational tool for helping the students improve their grades: music. It was at this intersection of academics, music, and multimedia production that the mission of David’s Harp was solidified. Through audio art, The David’s Harp Foundation inspires, educates, and empowers at-risk youth.
Fast forward to the present. Following its formation, the nonprofit rented studio space in the Moniker warehouse. The downtown location still allows David’s Harp to serve the neighborhood kids through partnerships with inner-city high schools and homeless shelters. Brandon says that shelter attendance increases notably when David’s Harp programs are offered, helping get teens off the streets for one more critical night. Through partnerships with nearby high schools, at-risk students are offered a unique enrichment opportunity to explore multimedia arts in a professional studio – something few students have access to. In exchange, David’s Harp receives a steady influx of students each semester. After years of steady growth, Brandon says the organization is poised for major expansion. The staff is currently raising $15,000 to build out a second studio and video editing suite, introducing kids to video as well as audio engineering.
Since its inception, the program has grown in complexity and scope, and no longer trades grades for recording time in a one-to-one format. Curriculums are customizable and students create their own programs based on personal academic needs and goals. “There's a demographic of students that are entirely focused on music,” says Brandon. “For these kids, music is their life. They just don't care about school. They'd rather be listening to headphones.” Students in this category have few opportunities to dive into music production in an uplifting, educational setting. Through the David’s Harp curriculum, students learn skills that are directly applicable to life outside the studio, including group goal setting, brainstorming, music collaboration, audio engineering, and computer literacy. Students are held to high standards and expected to participate actively both in the studio and at school. “They’ve been entrusted with a lot,” says Brandon. “Nothing is free – the students have to earn it.” In exchange for their work, David’s Harp offers students the chance to come alive academically through audio art.
When I visited the official warehouse studio, a former student was also present. Kyle began making music with David’s Harp when he was fourteen. Eight years after entering the program, he now works on staff as a music instructor. He says he sees himself in the younger students he mentors. Because David’s Harp hinges on relationships, the staff is committed to personally investing in students’ lives. Often, they represent the only source of accountability and support students can count on. The organization’s name was derived from the biblical story of David and Saul, in which David plays music for King Saul. In this story, David plays his harp to calm Saul whenever he becomes vexed, and the King is given relief. Fittingly, The David’s Harp Foundation is just that: a reprieve for students from the stresses and uncertainties of daily life.
In walking alongside students, Brandon has seen everything from success stories to suicides. But overwhelmingly, he’s seen students step into their full potential. David’s Harp is ultimately a sacred space where students come together to collaborate, create, and become better versions of themselves. When asked to name the impetus behind founding the organization, Brandon struggles to pinpoint it. The music producer never anticipated translating his love for sound engineering into serving at-risk students. But he adds, "My faith is something that's really important to me, and at the heart of my faith is service. So if there was an exact impetus to David’s Harp, it was that. My students become friends. I never pictured working with kids, and now I can't imagine doing anything else."
*image courtesy of davidsharpfoundation.org