Friday, July 11, 2014

Parts & Labor

“Your songs makes me feel emotions, and Mom says it’s good to feel emotions. Sometimes I don’t feel emotions but then your CD helps me remember.” 

 — Isabell, Age 6

I squinted into the sun as I strummed my banjo for a churning crowd of people mostly too distracted by the July heat to listen. Today I left work early and drove an hour to play a pre-party for the Baltimore Orchestra outside of the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. My guitar player and drummer were unable to make it, so I instead played to the hum of generators on food trucks. It was the sort of gig that can take a spiritual toll—until a young girl in a plaid dress shyly approached the stage and and shared with me this affirmation.

I believe that we live in a society that doesn’t fully value the emotional and spiritual side of our existence. I’ve heard this concept explained in left-brain/right brain terms: Our right brains are more comfortable with the abstract: colors, art, emotions, stories, relationships—things that expand the horizons of our reality. The left brain has an affinity for the finite: anything with numbers, words, lines, definition, clarity—always seeking to narrow down the options to something concrete. One can find evidence everywhere that our culture is dominated by the left brain. For instance we tend to build roads in straight lines in order to achieve the greatest efficiency of travel—no matter what forests, homes, or streams are in the way. Our education system judges our capacity as human beings with rankings, rubrics, and percentages.

Nowhere is this obsession with numbers more apparent than in our economy. Our capitalist system slaps a numerical value on things that can only be described as priceless: our time, our land, our natural resources. Our economy has turned into a giant machine that treats people and places as nothing more than parts and labor for its relentless pursuit of profit. When these people and places are no longer useful, they are cast aside and the machine thunders onward, leaving communities like Detroit and Baltimore in the dust, and abandoning thousands of individuals to the soul-crushing specter of unemployment.

We created this machine, so we can fix it. I often wonder what our country would be like if everyone were more in touch with their emotions; cultivating concern and empathy for one another. After working in Washington DC for four years, I have noticed that statistics and theories rarely change anyone’s minds, not least politicians. It seems that one of the only things that seems to have an impact is the use of personal stories. This is part of my motivation for creating my band’s upcoming album, Parts and Labor.

I play in an Americana/indie folk band called Letitia VanSant and the Bonafides. I do most of the songwriting and am the lead singer. David McKindley-Ward, Will McKindley-Ward, and Tom Liddle play guitar, upright bass, and drums. We seek to share songs that are built on true narratives of the way that our economy affects the people and places we hold dear. Instead of advocating for a particular plan for a new economy, we rather seek to foster greater emotional and spiritual connections among and with our audiences, and to participate in a conversation in which we can all share our own stories and seek the way forward together. The release show will feature personal stories from people from a variety of walks of life. The Quaker tradition of listening quietly to our own feelings and our shared spirit has propelled my songwriting and performing…it’s another way to uncover our feelings and free the spirit.

 The project has tested my confidence in my leadership in many ways. I have largely benefited from our unjust economy, so my own perspective is very limited and can only illuminate a tiny sliver of this enormous topic. I worry that because I come from a position of privilege that this album will unintentionally be more oppressive than empowering; I might take up airspace that should otherwise be occupied by a person from a more marginalized community. I fear that I don’t have the intellectual rigor to counter any critics of the project. The activist in me balks at the idea of taking on such a project without tying it to a clear action plan; I worry that it will be perceived as more self-congratulatory than effective. But these doubts bring me face to face with one of the key lessons of leadership: that we are all imperfect people with limited time and resources living in an imperfect world; there is no such thing as a perfect plan. We must proceed with faith despite our limitations and our fears.

 In the past month I wrote the final song of the album as a way to cheer myself on when I am visited by these doubts:

Once I was a fly, flew from room to room

Now I am a pen, write the story of a greater hand

I am a road and I’m headed for the promised land

We’ve all been told there’s not enough for everyone

We guard what we hold dear with laws and with guns

Instead of all these walls let’s build the kingdom come

Used to knock on all the doors that shut us out

Now we build our own house

One with no walls that will shelter us all

I am weak I don't know the plan

But the load is made light by all these hands

Come with me, we are building up the promised land

We have been in and out of the recording studio for the past year recording songs, and we hope to have our final mixes off to master by the end of the summer.  I've had two meetings about concept visualization with our artist, Katherine Fahey, who will be creating the images to go with the CD.  Once they are done, we face the even greater challenge of finding ways to share it with the world.


  1. Sandy, you rock! Really, in so many ways. Thanks for the wonderful post and for sharing your music and leading with the world. Your leadership among young Friends is a true gift to our community, and your commitment to your music while also working with FCNL is inspiring. I love the lyrics to the final song of the CD! How can we order it?
    in peace,

  2. Sandy became a Quaker on her own, at the age of 13, by learning about the Friends' pacifist philosophy and synching it with her father's antiwar ideas (he is a Vietnam vet {drafted}) He later changed from attendee to Quaker. She was raised in a quiet safe suburb of Baltimore, and never exposed in person to poverty and the inner city until she got her license and drove downtown and talked to a homeless woman on the street.
    I her mother spent most of my career as a physician working with very poor people in community health centers and schools. I never thought to talk more about my work to her or her siblings. But somehow she wanted to learn and do more. She is an activist in multiple sorts of social and environmental causes: we wonder how she manages to manage to do so along with her work at FCNL and her music. I know her being and knowing Quakers has had a profound influence on her direction in life, and am so glad she is able to pass it on to others through FCNL and her music. The new CD really provokes thought on many different issues-as does the commentary she makes before each song in live shows. Thank you Picket Foundation to help make this possible.
    From her adoring and astonished mother-not a Quaker but sometimes attendee.
    Letitia Pierce Robson

  3. Letitia VS album can be purchased or downloaded from