Music workshop brings diverse group together in Williamsburg

Dr. Barnwell (center) leads participants in performing an African rhythm using various percussion instruments.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his young daughter, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, …until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

This sentiment has motivated the members of All Together Williamsburg since its founding nearly 25 years ago. In the aftermath of the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial—which revealed stark differences in how black and white Americans viewed the criminal justice system—a group of curious and concerned people of different races came together to try to understand what life was like in each other’s skin and to consider things from other points of view.

Today, members of All Together continue to work to improve the quality of life of the community of Greater Williamsburg by bringing together people across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines to communicate and engage in activities that foster unity, inclusiveness, and equal opportunity.

Building Community Through Song

One such activity is the “Building a Vocal Community” workshop, which All Together, William & Mary and other community partners hosted in 2017 and again in 2019. The workshop is a powerful journey through African and African American musical history led by renowned singer, composer and educator Dr. Ysaye Barnwell. Attendees of the workshop learn traditional African songs, as well as African American spirituals, gospel hymns, and songs of the Civil Rights Movement, all through the oral tradition, without any written words or musical notes.

In addition to teaching the songs, Dr. Barnwell explains their historical and cultural context, so that participants come to understand the music as an expression of rich cultural values, emotions, and experiences. There is also time during the workshop for participants to share their own reactions and personal stories. (To hear some of the songs and history, click here to listen to Dr. Barnwell’s TED talk.)

Many people are surprised by how quickly a sense of community can be created in a group of 150 people through the act of learning to sing together. One participant wrote of the event, “It has been a long time since I felt that kind of joy in a roomful of strangers…who didn’t feel like strangers at the end.”

In both years of the workshop, participants remarked that it was one of the most diverse events they had ever attended in Williamsburg, drawing people of different races and cultures, genders, ages, faiths, and life histories into a single shared experience. One participant in the 2019 workshop said, “This is my second year participating and this is the main reason I came back, because it is so rare to see.”

The sense of connection and trust that people form with their fellow singers opens up space for the attendees to learn from and about each other in meaningful ways. Another attendee commented, “The depth of voluntary sharing from participants was remarkable, and unexpected.”

Ongoing Community Events

Workshop participants discover the power of song to build and strengthen a sense of community.

The “Building a Vocal Community” workshop is a special, occasional event, but All Together offers many other opportunities for members of the community to learn with and from each other about racial/cultural issues and how they affect us. Brown bag lunch discussions on timely topics are held at noon on the first Friday of each month at Williamsburg Baptist Church. Events are also held in the evenings and on weekends, including film screenings, dialogue circles, an annual tour of local African American historical sites, and occasional field trips to sites like the Moton Museum in Farmville.

Members of All Together can also be found near the Williamsburg Farmers Market on Saturdays from 10-noon, handing out free lemonade and engaging in conversations about whatever race-related questions and thoughts people want to talk about. In all of these efforts, All Together’s goal is to create opportunities for people to ask honest questions and explore together what race, ethnicity, and culture mean for us and for others who walk around in a different skin.

Want to learn more? Visit the All Together website ( or Facebook page ( or send an email to