|photo - Harmony Project
Dr. Margaret Martin understands the issues of homelessness, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence. She understands these issues because these were once a part of her life. Despite the disadvantages, Martin was able to put herself through college and earn two graduate degrees, including a doctorate in public health from UCLA. She pulled herself, and her children, out of a life of poverty and has dedicated her career to helping others do the same.
Martin is the founder of Harmony Project, a non-profit organization that provides instruments and tuition-free lessons to youth in underserved areas and helps build ensembles and orchestras in which they can perform. Harmony Project, founded in Los Angeles in 2001, makes a commitment to each child for his or her entire childhood by offering instruction by highly qualified artists.
The idea is to offer the students a deeply rewarding experience with music in hopes that they will not feel the need to turn to drugs and crime. Ninety percent of Harmony Project students graduate from college, even in areas in which the high school dropout rates reach 70%.
The idea to use music to enhance a child’s life came by observing her then five-year-old son, a music prodigy. He decided to open his violin case at a local farmer’s market and began to play. She was amazed when her son’s playing caught the attention of tattooed gang members who were captivated by the music and showed their appreciation by adding tips to his violin case.
In that instant, her own, personal transformation became clear. She had been a pregnant teenager, who entered into an abusive marriage. When the situation became unbearable, she left her husband and spent a year being homeless, sleeping on the floor in an office building with her two children.
Martin wanted a better life so she enrolled in classes at Los Angeles City College. Within a decade, she had earned both her master’s and her doctorate degrees. In that moment, she realized the gang members had created their own sense of family and belonging and that they would have made different, better choices had they been given the opportunity.
The outcome of this enlightenment was Harmony Project, which has turned out to be one of the most effective youth intervention programs in the nation. It’s an immersive program in which students, usually between the ages of 7 and 11, are given instruments which they study and practice up to 20 hours a week. They are also given opportunities to perform and share their skills with the public.
The mission of Harmony Project is to promote healthy growth and development of children through the study, practice and performance of music; building healthier communities by investing in the positive development of children through music; and developing children as musical ambassadors of peace, hope and understanding amongst people of diverse cultures, backgrounds and beliefs.
Martin also received the prestigious In Harmony with Hope award from Elvenworks, a non-profit organization that works to create change by identifying issues with a domestic focus and creating partnerships in an effort to address them. At the White House, Michelle Obama presented her with the Coming Up Taller Award, for exemplary arts and humanities programs, from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce named Martin Woman of Distinction and President Barack Obama awarded her the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal, which is the second-highest civilian honor in the United States.
Harmony Project, which began in 2001 with 36 students, has expanded to serve more than 1,400 students in the Los Angeles area. In 2006, Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) was formed as a partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the esteemed conductor Gustavo Dudamel. In 2009, a partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District’s Beyond the Bell program launched the Hip Hop Orchestra, an ensemble that performs contemporary music. Harmony Project operates 17 sites in Los Angeles area and is expanding to other regions.