I met Elise Witt years ago when she came to Minneapolis to lead a singing workshop. In that afternoon together, I learned songs from her that I am still singing today. It was also the beginning of long, deep and inspiring friendship, fostered by my frequent visits to Atlanta. What a blessing that she lives in the same town as my brother and his family! We have sung a number of concerts together and always cherish the way our work – like our voices – intertwine.
Elise is a remarkable person. For starters she speaks five languages fluently (German, French, Italian, Spanish and English). She writes lovely songs – ones that are as wide-ranging, clever, wise, snazzy and surprising as she is. Her faithfulness to her calling as an artist/activist has spanned decades as she seeks ways to bring singing alive in her own life and in the lives of people around her.
I am especially inspired by the work Elise is doing with The Global Village Project, a middle school in Decatur, Georgia for teenage refugee girls with interrupted educations.
The forty girls who attend this school generally arrive having lived through war, displacement, trauma and loss. Most of them speak no English, although most arrive at the school speaking three to six languages. Elise uses singing to help them acquire English, but that is only the beginning. Elise believes that the singing is also crucial for them to build confidence in presenting themselves and fostering community.
Elise co-creates songs with the girls and includes them in her own concerts and events. They created a song called “Break the Silence” in honor of V-Day, an international call to end violence against women and girls that was first initiated by Eve Ensler. They performed their song for a large audience at the Atlanta V-Day event.
They also contributed to one of Elise’s songs called “I See You With My Heart” which incorporates words in Burmese, Karen, Pashto, Kirundi and English. You can see Elise perform it with several of her students here.
She also teaches the girls songs from the traditional American folk songbook. When these girls sing “This Land is Your Land,” it brings deeper meaning to the song, especially in this time of xenophobia and fear of immigrants. You can see some of her students singing the song along with Elise’s commentary in this piece from Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Elise’s work inspires me to ask new questions about where singing can be put to use in the world. This ancient practice that unites many into one, that creates harmony among strangers is more essential than ever in these fractured and frightening times. May her good work and brilliant vision awaken your own calling – to bring beauty and joy to the challenging work of healing the divisions among us.
This video was created about Elise and her work when she received the William L. Womack Creative Arts Award.
And finally, you can purchase Elise’s latest (and gorgeous!) recording, “We’re All Born Singing,” here.