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Decoda performs at White House
Ensemble will return to Camden in February
Decoda2 WEB
Claire Bryant (center) and members of Decoda performed at the White House on Dec. 17 as part of Innovation & the Arts: Prison Reform and Re-entry in the 21st Century. A number of performers from across the country participated. With Bryant are (from left to right) are actor Sabra Williams, Meena Bhasin of Decoda, actor Tim Robbins, jazz vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles and violinist John Marcus. - photo by Decoda

Several years ago, when the New York City-based chamber music ensemble Decoda was brainstorming "big dream" proposals, Claire Bryant suggested taking Decoda to the White House.

In late 2015, her dream became a reality.

Bryant and Decoda cultivate a number of community engagement programs in an array of venues including hospitals, shelters, schools and correctional facilities.

It is the latter initiative which caught the attention of the White House.

Decoda has been working in correctional facilities across the country, including a program the group started at Lee Correctional Institution three years ago. Last year, Washington Post Columnist Kathleen Parker joined Decoda at the prison. Intensely moved by what she experienced, Parker wrote about it in her nationally syndicated column; it is largely through Parker’s efforts Decoda’s work found its way to the desk of Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

Not only did Bryant and several members of the group meet with Deputy Assistant to the President Roy Austin Jr. in August to discuss some of the group’s work, Decoda was invited to participate and perform at the White House on Dec. 17 as part of "Innovation & the Arts: Prison Reform and Re-entry in the 21st Century." A number of performers and artists from across the country participated, including actors Sabra Williams and Tim Robbins of the Actor’s Gang Prison Project, a California-based theater organization doing outreach work in California prisons.

"It was quite an experience for us -- it all happened very quickly," Bryant said. "It was very thrilling that there was an event at the White House dedicated to the role the arts plays in criminal justice reform."

While the president was not in attendance, a number his staff and members of congress were, she said. Bryant said it is a given for exposure to and engagement with the arts to help individuals, particularly incarcerated people. However, with legislative bills on the table, she said it is possible there could be changes in policy as well.

"We feel this is a very crucial part of society," Bryant said. "The reality is that over 75 percent of incarcerated people will be released -- they will be coming back to their communities, re-entering society. So do we want them to have a rehabilitative process where they’re being supported to make significant positive changes for themselves or do we want people who have just been tossed away, left to their own devices? For us, that’s what it really comes down to -- these are human beings and everyone deserves the arts in their lives, especially people who are going through difficult circumstances, even if those circumstances were brought on by poor decisions. But the fact is, re-entry is imminent for most people who go to prison. I think that’s why it’s finally becoming a national issue."

Decoda’s efforts have clearly taken root and flowered, she said. At Lee Correctional, the group started with just a few inmates. The following year, more became involved. This year, the program has 10 instructors and 120 participants. Decoda will spend a week in February with 40 inmates at Lee helping and mentoring them to write, arrange, and perform original musical compositions.

"The work we have done inside these prisons is probably some of the best work we’ve ever done," Bryant said. "Artistically, it’s been a gold mine in that people really need the arts in these places -- the level of engagement is off the charts."

Nonetheless, while the prison outreach work has been successful and is an important aspect of Decoda’s community efforts, it is not the only area of the group’s focus, Bryant said. The group does a lot of work in schools and communities across the country.

"We do this because we believe it’s the right thing for us to do," Bryant said. "I think the work we’re doing in schools, especially, is vital and crucial. For young people, especially, there is an air of discovery and an excitement to be invited to participate. The level of interaction is very high.

Decoda will be conducting its outreach program the week of Feb. 6-13. The group will perform Sunday, Feb. 14 at 5 p.m. at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County with the very highly regarded Danish String Quartet as special guests.

"They are probably one of the best string quartets in the world right now," Bryant said. "This will be their only performance over the next several in South Carolina. It’s a huge opportunity to hear this group."