Childhood on the margins informs Ethos director’s approach to community music education

Originally published February 16 in PQ Monthly.

Ethos executive director Jedidiah Chávez believes in the transformative power of music. Photo by Xilia Faye, PQ Monthly.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Growing up, Jedidiah Chávez didn’t have a lot, but there was always music. His mother, a concert pianist, bartended and waited tables to support her son and provide for his musical education.

“She had a jar she would put her tips in, and she would put a couple dollars in another jar for music lessons,” Chávez, 32, recalls. “I just remember feeling really guilty that she was working so hard to provide music lessons for me.”

It’s a memory that is triggered every time he sees parents walk into Ethos Music Center to register their children for sliding-scale music lessons. Unlike his mother, these parents don’t have the resources to pay for full-price classes, and their children’s schools may not offer any form of music education.

Ethos exists to bridge that gap. Chávez, recently named executive director of the community music school, is there to ensure Ethos remains financially strong and programmatically focused so that young people can continue to reap the broad benefits of music education.

“Music really has this transformative sort of ability to reach at-risk youth,” Chávez says, citing studies that show music education increases SAT scores and improves academic performance. “So when we look at the evaluations and see that increase in academics, it’s really a simple solution. I think music can reach a lot of kids that are traditionally underserved. Music has the ability to engage students who may otherwise fall through the cracks.”

Chávez, who first joined Ethos in 2008 as a grant writer and was soon promoted to director of development, knows firsthand what a lifeline arts education can be. As a “chubby” queer Latino kid growing up in Loveland, Col., he sought and found solace in the art room from an otherwise torturous high school experience.

“I dropped out of school when I was 16. High school was a very difficult place for me,” Chávez recalls. “Had it not been for my art teacher I probably wouldn’t have stayed till I was 16.”

Fortunately, that love of the arts stuck with Chávez, inspiring him to continue his education outside high school. After attending community college, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in art history from the University of Northern Colorado and a master of fine arts from Vermont College.

Although Chávez prevailed over the challenges he faced in his early education, his experiences as a youth on the margins continues to inform his work with Ethos.

“I think that my identity certainly frames how I view our programs, specifically access to our programs,” Chávez says. “My mother was a single parent, my father was undocumented, from Mexico City, so I was also raised as ‘the other’ in a lot of different ways. I will never forget that experience and it absolutely shapes my leadership.”

And it’s clear that Chávez’s leadership has shaped Ethos. In the last four years, he increased contributed revenue by 30 percent, helped secure $1.5 million for capital improvements to Ethos’ North Portland headquarters, and partnered with the Corporation for National and Community Service to place 10 AmeriCorps-affiliated music teachers in small towns across Oregon.

But it’s not all about the numbers. By coming up with creative ways to keep Ethos afloat in the face of decreasing foundation support and increasing economic hardship, Chávez is setting the stage for the measures that matter — namely, staying in school and out of trouble.

“We had a student in Fossil who took lessons with one of our AmeriCorps members. He was in and out of juvenile detention and not doing well in school. Last spring, he was accepted into Berklee College of Music,” Chávez recalls, adding that the musical accomplishment is not the highlight of the story. “We are not necessarily interested in preparing students to be performers. We see the ability music has as an intervention tool.”

When 41 percent of Portland high school students fail to graduate in four years and an 11-year-old is accused of flashing a loaded gun on a Max train, the need for an intervention is clear.

“The great thing is that music can reach kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks and give them a voice. They may still be bullied, but they have an outlet and a mentor in their instructor,” Chávez says. And when it comes right down to it: “If they have a trombone in their hand they don’t have a gun in their hand.”

To learn more about Ethos Music Center, visit

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