Soon, hundreds of voices will not only speak up in support of displaced Ugandan families; they'll sing out. And the sounds of jazz, heavy metal, folk, country and alternative music will rouse thousands to action.
This October, an unprecedented concert series called "Voices for Silent Disasters" will swing, groove and rock Portland, Oregon in support of Mercy Corps. Stephanie Schneiderman and Gordon Heady, the event's co-directors, can't contain their enthusiasm.
"Getting this thing together I've felt constant energy, like a never-ending fuel system," Stephanie said.
"I feel like, for the first time in more than a decade, an idea has come and is pulling me," Gordon agreed. "I can't wait to see where it goes."
Portland better get ready.
Setting the stage
When I met Stephanie and Gordon at a neighborhood brewpub to talk about the concert series, their energy was immediately contagious.
It wasn't the first time I experienced these two in action: a couple weeks before, I participated in a brainstorming session with several of their friends and colleagues. For three hours they engaged and drew ideas from some of Portland's most creative folks, including musicians, writers and artists. When the evening was over, what had started as an already well developed, determined and driven concept took further shape.
Stephanie and Gordon want to launch an annual humanitarian concert series and, in true Portland style, they're building grassroots support one person at a time.
"One thing we've done really well is to gather the right people at the right time," Stephanie said.
"Stephanie's so familiar with these artists - and so fluent in blues, jazz and rock - that she can speak their language and have conversations," Gordon added. "They trust her."
Before the brainstorming and planning began, though, the whole thing started two people who shared a vision of change.
Connecting through music
Gordon, a management consultant, met Stephanie three years ago at one of her shows. Stephanie, an acclaimed musician whose style draws upon blues, jazz, folk and rock influences, had already performed many benefit concerts. But when they started talking about music and its power to unite and move people, Gordon and Stephanie realized that it could be so much more than a single show to support a cause.
"When I was playing a benefit for Africa, someone told me that all it takes is one person with an idea," Stephanie remembered.
Two people: even better.
The two talked about ways that they could organize a series of small, intimate concerts at friends' houses to raise money for Mercy Corps. They wanted to raise money and awareness at the same time. And, to them, Mercy Corps was the best match for many reasons.
"Choosing Mercy Corps was probably the easiest part of beginning to put this together. It's so trustworthy," Gordon said. "And the organization has such deep roots here."
"Plus, you don't have to re-invent everything, it's already done," Stephanie continued. "Mercy Corps is already in these places, doing the work that needs to be done."
So, a few months ago, Stephanie and Gordon took the seeds of their idea to Mercy Corps - and something began to grow, both in Portland and half a world away in Uganda.
Raising voices for Uganda
In talking with Mercy Corps staff, the two found out more about the current crisis and mass displacement in northern Uganda - a situation that the organization describes as a "Silent Disaster." The challenges - mostly overlooked and unpublicized - of Ugandan families resonated with Stephanie and Gordon.
"It's very Portland to embrace a crisis that's been overlooked. The Silent Disasters message - and especially what's going on in Uganda - really made sense," Stephanie said. "There are some really cool programs that Ugandans are doing on the ground over there and I think this celebration in Portland can reflect that."
Their humanitarian concert series now had a name that fit both the medium and the cause: Voices for Silent Disasters. It's a concept that not only gives musicians and artists the chance to come together for a worthwhile purpose, but also raises the consciousness - as well as galvanizes the commitment - of everyone involved.
"I'm excited for the awareness this will raise, the buzz it will create around Portland," Stephanie enthuses with palpable energy. "There's going to be a lot of education about what's going on in Uganda."
Voices for Silent Disasters will begin on October 9 - Uganda's Independence Day - and continue for more than a month. The lineup of artists is both diverse and impressive: Storm Large, Dahlia, The Stolen Sweets, MarchFourth Marching Band, Three Leg Torso, Liv Warfield, Patrick Lamb, Tom Grant, Climber, Lions of Batucada, Tony Furtado, Pepe and the Bottle Blondes, Vagabond Opera, Scott Fisher, Devin Phillips, The Third Angle, Richmond Fontaine, Jackstraw, Hoskins and Brene, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Wade McCollum and the Portland cast) and Dirty Martini - Stephanie's own band - will perform at a variety of local venues.
And those venues speak to the groundswell around the concert series - as well as the talents of the series directors. Many of Portland's most sought-after theatres, including the Crystal Ballroom, the Bagdad and the Portland Armory's Gerding Theater - have agreed to donate their space for the benefit shows. Since the artists are already donating their time that means proceeds from ticket sales will go almost entirely toward helping displaced Ugandan families.
"The money raised will go to Mercy Corps programs and change lives in a significant way," Gordon explained. "That makes me excited for this to really start."
"I'm excited for the actual differences this will make," Stephanie agreed.
"For families we've never met - or may never meet," Gordon added.
Even though the inaugural concert series is still nearly four months away, Stephanie and Gordon can't help but think about future possibilities around Voices for Silent Disasters.
"We'd love to create a new approach for how humanitarian concerts are done," Gordon detailed. "We want this to be a draw for artists from all across the country to come to Portland and participate in something worthwhile."
"We want to make this about more than music," Stephanie elaborated. "We want to involve the city's film, food, fine arts and fashion subcultures to raise awareness. That not only helps Mercy Corps, but celebrates the uniqueness of Portland."
Come October, Portland will have plenty of chances to show their support for Uganda. Stephanie Schneiderman and Gordon Heady will be leading the chorus, raising their voices for peace and change.