Brett Dennen: My Most Important Songs

A little-known album by pop star Brett Dennen is still changing lives at The Mosaic Project, teaching kids to stand up to intolerance.
The Mosaic Project, Brett Dennen

Pop star Brett Dennen's music inspired
The Mosaic Project
, a curriculum to tackle stereotyping in young children.

Seven years before pop star Brett Dennen climbed to the top 10 of the indie music charts, he spent much of his time singing to children about peace, discrimination, and acceptance.

His first album, a simple recording with kids as backup singers, didn’t make waves in the music industry. But it helped launch his music career and became the centerpiece of a program called The Mosaic Project, which uses Dennen’s songs to get fourth- and fifth-graders talking about subjects that are tough even for adults—like stereotyping, violence, and empathy.

The songs are lighthearted, with lyrics that tell kids, “Everybody’s got a different point of view,” and, “Don’t put me down and don’t hurt me.” But they speak to a difficult problem. Schools across the country are more segregated than they have been in more than four decades. Since the 1980s, federal policies have dismantled plans to integrate students from racially isolated neighborhoods. Now a rising number of black and Latino children attend schools with few resources in poor neighborhoods, and the average white student goes to a school that’s more than 75 percent white, and less than 30 percent low-income.

Even in diverse schools, kids have a tendency to separate into social groups by race and socioeconomic background, a behavior pattern that few schools know how to counteract. Paradoxically, as American society grows more diverse, children have fewer interactions with kids who don’t look like them.

Dennen, who was homeschooled by progressive parents in Oakdale, California, may seem an unusual champion for diversity. The shaggy-haired musician, now 30, looks like a high-school kid trying out 1990s grunge.

But in 2000, he met Lara Mendel. The granddaughter of Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany, Mendel had spent years working on anti-racism projects for teens. She felt schools were waiting too long to talk to kids about racial, cultural, and gender differences. Research backed her instincts, demonstrating that children can start exhibiting prejudice before they turn three.

Dennen was in college, a community-­studies major planning to work in child education. They got to know each other in a wilderness-safety class and wrote a humorous song together (on backwoods diarrhea) for a class assignment.

Mendel saw an opportunity to use Dennen’s musical talent. She enlisted him to cowrite songs for a curriculum to tackle stereotyping in young children.

She chose the name “Mosaic” as both a metaphor for diversity and an acronym for the values she wanted to teach: mutual respect, openmindedness, self-respect, attitude, individuality, and community.

Now Mendel’s lessons and Dennen’s songs are changing how California teachers and kids approach everything from behavioral problems to bullying.

Crossing the Lines

Nearly 900 kids in total attend the 10 week-long Mosaic Project sessions offered every year. They come from every part of the Bay Area—the West Oakland community that once headquartered the Black Panthers; historic Berkeley farmhouses; the polluted Richmond neighborhoods next to the Chevron oil refinery; and the gentrifying Potrero Hill in San Francisco. The kids are bussed north through wine country to a retreat center outside Napa with a cluster of cabins, a dining hall, a lake, and nature trails that loop through redwoods and madronas.

The Mosaic Project, Kids Playing

The Mosaic Project uses songs, games, and imagination to teach kids to be more comfortable with cultural, racial, and identity differences. Kids from low-income, affluent, and mixed-income schools in California's Bay Area form new friendships at the outdoor sessions near Napa.

Photo Courtesy of The Mosaic Project

On the last day of this mid-October Mosaic session, there’s something striking about the kids. At breakfast, instead of clustering into cliques, they’re jaunty, at ease, and so thoroughly racially mixed they look like an ad for UNICEF. You don’t see many hunched shoulders, hands in pockets, or stares directed at the ground.

Lyrics to Dennen’s songs hang on the wall, reminders of what the kids have learned all week. Until 2006, Dennen attended every Mosaic Project session. Now he drops in when his tour schedule permits.

The din of nearly a hundred high-pitched voices and the clatter of plates settle as Mendel walks to the front of the room. She’s wearing a brimmed cap, from which escape waves of blonde hair, and a purple tank top with the Mosaic logo. At about 5 feet, she’s only a little taller than some of the children.

“Hello, my amazing allies,” she shouts. “Let’s have a moment of silence and appreciation for this beautiful day, our last day. So let’s breathe in deep Mosaic breath number one.” The noise drops to a few murmurs, kids shifting in seats, and shoes scraping across the floor. “And now deep Mosaic breath number two.”

Once the kids have quieted, Mendel rouses them into a cheer. “Drum roll, please,” she says, and the children pound their hands on the tables. She announces an award for the cabin that has done the most to act out the Mosaic lessons. Today every cabin gets the award. The kids whoop, and Mendel runs a mini victory lap at the front of the room. Then she cues the staff, who circulate through the room, distributing closing-day surveys.

Maiya Evans, a staff facilitator, pulls aside a brown-skinned little girl with hair in tight braids.

“What did you learn here at Mosaic?” Evans asks.

“We-eeell,” says the girl, swinging her feet, “I learned that if you get into a fight, you shouldn’t yell at each other. You should listen. And you should cool off and take a deep breath.”

She’s describing the first steps of conflict resolution, a skill Mosaic teaches using a song and kid-inspired team activities that involve monsters, cookies, and crossing an imaginary river.

Every session includes fourth- and fifth-grade classes from a balance of affluent, low-income, and racially mixed schools. The staff assigns kids from different schools to each cabin.

On the second evening, a game called “Cross the Line” helps them understand how their differences affect their lives. Mendel recites statements that describe a tough experience a child may face. “Cross the line if you’ve ever been called a mean name or put down just because you’re a girl. Cross the line if you’ve ever been judged or teased because of the color of your skin. Cross the line if you’ve ever been yelled at, slapped, or hit.”

In silence, kids walk over an imaginary line when they hear a statement they identify with.

Ten-year-old Tanaya McCoy, a white, lawyer’s daughter from Berkeley, was stunned to see so many kids walk across the room when Mendel called on those who’d experienced gunshots close to home. “You learn that not everyone has the same thing. Not everyone gets to go to bed with a full belly of food,” McCoy says. “One of my friends that I met here, I thought it was interesting because she used to actually be homeless.”

“Cross the Line” helps children see that they are not alone—others have been teased, hurt, or felt afraid. It’s a powerful moment.

“It was pretty emotional,” says Erick Linares, an African American boy from Richmond. “But you don’t have to worry about crying at Mosaic. I learned that it’s OK for a dude to cry.”

Such activities create behavioral changes that show up at home and in the classroom.

“Our school is very, very diverse. And you can look at the playground, and it’s amazingly segregated,” says Mary Loeser, a teacher from Cleveland Elementary School in Oakland. “At Mosaic, you see kids interacting with other kids from their class that they have hardly ever spoken to before.”

The Mosaic Project, Staff Angel Wings

A Mosaic Project staff facilitator narrates a closing-day skit for the kids.

Photo Courtesy of The Mosaic Project

Teachers consistently report noticing positive behavioral changes in the classroom after their students attend the program. Laurie Grossman, outreach coordinator at Oakland’s Park Day School, says teachers play recordings of Dennen’s songs when class behavior deteriorates. The songs remind students to cool down. Grossman has also seen Mosaic graduates put a stop to instances of name-calling and bullying on the playground.

“One parent said that when she went to pick her child up at the end of the week from Mosaic, she didn’t recognize him walking down the trail because his gait was so much more confident,” she says. “She thinks he realized that, since he’s supposed to accept everybody else, that means everybody’s supposed to accept him.”

Such experiences explain why even time-starved and cash-strapped public schools are seeking out Mosaic. Mendel hopes to expand the number of sessions Mosaic offers to accommodate growing demand: She has to turn away several schools every year.

She has also seen a growing interest in diversity training from outdoor programs—a circus camp, an outdoor camp for girls, and a nature center are now using Mosaic methods in their curricula, as are many of the teachers whose students have attended past sessions.

Dennen uses his growing fame to help Mendel raise money and get media attention. He still calls Mosaic “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”

“The work I’ve done at Mosaic has a direct effect on those kids,” says Dennen. “That impact will live on a lot longer than my songs are going to be remembered.”

Planting Seeds

In the last hour of the mid-October session, Mendel stands in the shade of redwood and bay trees, holding a guitar. A staff facilitator narrates a ­fairy tale in which a group of animals forgets how to get along; then they learn about The Mosaic Project. The other staff facilitators are the animals—in dog ears, a green frog hat, blue scarves that represent bird wings, and paper beaver teeth.

The children are rapt and silent, except for moments when the narrator asks them for a sound effect—“knock, knock” to open a door, or “aaah,” when the characters find a magic stone.

At the end, kids and staff break into the Mosaic theme song. “M is for mutual respect … O is for openmindedness.” Then every child is given a bead he or she made days ago from a redwood seed and polymer clay.

Rebecca Torres, from Le Conte Elementary School in Berkeley, shows off her star-shaped bead. She says it represents a sister who died during miscarriage. “I wish she was here with me, because I only have two brothers,” she says. Rebecca’s family immigrated from León, Guanajuato, Mexico, and her father paints houses.

She is so excited that she hardly pauses to breathe between sentences. “Me and my friend made a promise that we can come to Mosaic to be [youth] leaders when we’re 16,” she says. “And when I go home, I’m going to be whoever I want to be. I don’t have to listen to anybody that tells me what to be.”



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