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Arranging the Puzzle Pieces

By Dayton Kinney

I have always loved a good jigsaw puzzle. It always featured elaborate scenery or my favorite cartoons with its unmistakable layout: four corners and sides with interlocking pieces in the middle. As a child, I was always excited to rip the plastic off, open the box, and dump out all the pieces. The jumbled jigsaws would hit the ground and I would begin organizing the shapes into categories: corners, edges, and middle pieces. Twenty years later, I found myself applying my early knowledge of jigsaw puzzles through my Duke University Versatile Humanists internship with El Sistema USA. This summer, I was tasked with implementing El Sistema USA’s biannual census survey. This survey became the tool of understanding how each member organization fits together and supports the overall picture. It meant that the survey had to engage with ESUSA’s mission and our member organizations’ unique qualities.

Implementing and designing sections of the survey was approached like a jigsaw puzzle. The national picture was clear like the box cover art from all those years ago. We began with ESUSA’s overall mission “to support and grow a nationwide movement of programs inspired by El Sistema to effect social change through music for children with the fewest resources and the greatest need.” This meant that the questions had to reflect ESUSA’s mission statement. We would need a survey that could capture and understand our member programs’ approaches and effect on social change through hard data. Therefore, we designed specific questions about our children, our program types, our staff, and our budgets. These questions would serve as future datapoints, graphs, and successes to continue reaching more ESUSA-inspired organizations and serve more children.

However, ESUSA is interested in more than just datapoints. Our members have stories, heroes, vision, and purpose that drew them to the ESUSA mission. They are many and diverse like the individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This produced the challenge to create a survey that would meet the needs of all ESUSA member programs and go beyond statistical data. To date, ESUSA is comprised of 97 unique organizations. Each one functions like an individual puzzle piece; every shape is different, but complementary to its neighbors. Some are large anchoring corners with ties to professional orchestras. Others clearly line the borders with affiliations to local schools. The rest weave and overlap in an array of shapes, creating an excitingly diverse set of perspectives and focuses. Together, all 97 organizations form a single picture, vision, and idea. To acknowledge this, our team added open-ended questions to learn about different strategies that our 97 programs use to inspire and thrive, including retaining interest from middle and high school students to navigating other community music programs.

After two months with ESUSA and working on the biannual census survey, I have learned subtle nuances of survey design from proposing questions to creating greater accessibility for users while gaining hands-on experience in a non-profit environment. My hope is that my contributions and implementation of member and ESUSA board suggestions will encourage all our members to participate. Their answers will allow us to create a complete picture of ESUSA through their unique distinctions that complement one another. I look forward to becoming more acquainted with all of you through this process. If you are one of our member organizations, please join us in completing our 97 piece El Sistema USA Puzzle through the biannual census survey!

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