Art, poetry, and music fascinated Abena Koomson-Davis from the start. She grew up with music as a foundational element in her home — her parents are immigrants from Ghana, where music is omnipresent — and she is “hard pressed to imagine any kind of social event that didn’t involve tons of music.” She was an introspective child, a “baby intellectual” with a “rich internal life,” and it was in this internal space that she developed a capacity for being creative.
At the same time, she also developed a bent toward perfectionism. After her family moved to Bloomfield, CT, when she was in 5th Grade, striving for perfection became a means to prove herself as the new kid and as one of the few children of color in her class.
In high school, Koomson-Davis realized “there’s a whole adventure associated with mistakes,” specifically in her experience with music. Jazz, with its emphasis on improvisation, encouraged her to deviate from perfectionism. “Anything I could possibly do related to jazz — whether it was to sing, play an instrument, write songs, tap a beat — I tried to do,” she says. Her move away from perfectionism permeated all elements of her academic life, too. “I really appreciated those creative spaces like music class or art class that taught me I could experiment in ways I couldn’t experiment in math or other spaces. And then I learned you can experiment in math! Once you start dealing with equations and theories, it gets fun.”
When I ask her if she was a natural performer as a child, she bursts into laughter, and pauses to greet a passing student with obvious enthusiasm. Her answer is joyful and generous: “I’ll say yes, but so was everybody else! In terms of engaging that creativity, I see it in every single one of my students. Any of them could get up on stage or paint something or recite a poem.”
At Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, she fully committed herself to creative pursuits, studying a broad variety of performing arts including music and drama. Because of her interest in using performance as a means to educate, graduate school in education leadership was the natural path. Koomson-Davis received her master’s degree from Teachers’ College at Columbia University and entered the world of progressive education. Before joining ECFS in 2016, she served as a dean at the Harlem Village Academy, where she focused in particular on restorative justice, a system of conflict resolution that focuses on communication and making amends rather than punishment.
Today, the Middle School Ethics Department Chair is a full-time musical performer and educator, letting her two paths overlap and intertwine. “A lot of people will ask: How can you do both? I think the simple answer for me is that they're not really so separate. Even in spaces where I’m educating, I'm definitely my performer self. In the performance self, I’m thinking about how to share a message and how to reach the audience—not the performer self that’s about me in the spotlight, but the performer self that says: How do I get this message across? What can I teach about the human experience that people can connect to? So the teacher is always the performer and the performer is always the teacher.”
Performance and ethics are natural fits for Koomson-Davis. At Sarah Lawrence, she successfully lobbied the theatre department to mount a production of Once On This Island, which has a song called “Why We Tell the Story” (Koomson-Davis remembers seeing a Broadway production of the show as a child and “weeping profusely” at the moving score). She was touched by lyrics of that song that say “pain is why we tell the story. Hope is why we tell the story. Faith is why we tell the story. You are why we tell the story.” As students and faculty push for more inclusive teaching practices and an education that incorporates more varied perspectives, Koomson-Davis sees those lyrics “as a throughline. That’s the reason why we’re pushing in our curriculum to include as many voices as possible,” she says.
If we leave out parts of the human experience, we're leaving parts of ourselves out.
Koomson-Davis sees students at critical times of academic and personal transition grapple with these stories—experiences of growing pains, identity changes, and finding one’s place in the world. She teaches both sixth graders and ninth graders, each in their first year at a new campus. Her sixth graders are “starting to feel their independence. They’re learning more about who they are in their social circles and fine-tuning their identity and relationships. That comes with a lot of exploration and creativity and innovation and tension. The sixth grade ethics class can serve as a guide for some of those interactions.”
Koomson-Davis’s approach to ethics spans contemplations of the self and of community. “The centerpiece of the middle school ethics program is having students develop self-awareness and empathy.” In the ninth grade, students build on those skills to turn their attention outward, studying how to evaluate moral arguments and philosophy. The concepts have a sense of urgency: philosophy is not just “things that some dudes wrote down hundreds of years ago. It’s actually realizing how those things constructed a society that passed down privileges and biases that we’re still contending with.”
Also critical to an ethical education is instilling a sense of agency in her young students. “It’s important for middle school students to understand that they can do something in their community. That they can have a positive impact. They can be innovative, they can be creative.” She reminds her students that “so many social justice movements happened because of young people. It’s very rare that you see a powerful movement in a society that doesn’t have a child at the center.”
There’s another element social justice movements rarely exist without: “What is most exciting to me about successful movements is that they have powerful music. You look at any movement that has ever occurred and there's some catalogue of songs that has not only accompanied it but that has provided the momentum and spread the message,” she says. In that spirit, Koomson-Davis serves as the musical director for the Resistance Revival Chorus, an offshoot of the Women’s March with the motto “joy is an act of resistance,” based on Toi Derricote poem.
Using performance as a tool for social change is a nod to inclusivity. Koomson-Davis was struck by a quotation from the movie Amandla!: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony: “The revolution is polyrhythmic.” When accessibility is limited in one area of activism—say, a march—Koomson-Davis says that the idea of being polyrhythmic is the perfect analogy for joining in on your own terms. “If the beat or the meter or the measure is this equality that we’re fighting for on all fronts, somebody's playing the bass and some people are playing the trumpet and some people are singing and some people are beating the drum. Whatever it takes, right? You can engage this activism at different paces, at different volumes, but all of it can contribute to the overall movement.”
Efforts towards inclusivity are always a priority for Koomson-Davis, and they are especially top-of-mind these days, as the student body advocates for a curriculum featuring more marginalized voices and stories of varied lived experiences. “We tell these stories because they contain the faith, the hope, the pain, the laughter, the understanding that is part of the human experience,” she says. “If we leave out parts of the human experience, we're leaving parts of ourselves out. So whether I'm pursuing that in the classroom or pursuing that artistically, it's the same mission. That's why I've chosen to do the work that I do.”