By Ed Flanagan, NBC News
BEIJING – On his first trip to China in 2009, President Obama pledged to significantly expand the number of American students studying on the mainland as part of what has been dubbed the “100,000 Strong Initiative.”
Making such an ambitious pledge a reality during such dire economic times can be problematic, especially for students from one of America’s most infamously low-income areas: Crenshaw, Los Angeles.
Our colleagues at “Morning Joe” though switched us on to a great story last week about students from Crenshaw High School coming to China on Thursday as ambassadors for Los Angeles. The students will work with their academic peers from Beijing’s Renmin University to teach them about African-American culture, while also learning first-hand about the global economy.
The exchange program is similar program to countless others, but this group has one amazing ace-in-the-hole: also traveling in the group is one of the world’s most celebrated gospel choirs, the Crenshaw High School Choir.
The trip was organized by the Los Angeles Urban League through its Neighborhoods@Work initiative. The program helps foster student leadership at Crenshaw High School and was the pool from which students were selected for the “Crenshaw2China” cultural exchange program.
Students selected for that program were placed in a ten-week course to prepare them for their primary role as teachers and ambassadors of African-American history and culture. They were also given lessons in Mandarin and Chinese culture to better equip them for any culture shock.
Perhaps more intriguing was how the Crenshaw High choir secured its berth to China. After the choir made an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show on June 10, host Mika Brzezinski began poking around seeking someone to sponsor the choir on the trip.
Hal Rosenbluth, a former executive at Walgreens, quickly stepped up to sponsor the trip and with that the mad dash to secure visas, flights and accommodations for the dozens of students in the choir began in earnest.
Explaining his motivations behind the donation, Rosenbluth spoke of a desire to improve inner-city educational opportunities through global experiences, saying, “I think it’s so important in this global economy that we live in, they [the students] see not only what their future competitors are going to be here in the United States and what they need to be successful, but also in China.”
“You know, it’s a country that I think will open their eyes and will help them compare and contrast and it will be great for their overall education,” Rosenbluth said on Morning Joe.
It will certainly be a long way from the coast of Los Angeles, a sight that the choir’s director, Ira Stephenson, noted many in her choir had never even seen before until recently.
“We took a field trip to Pacific Palisades and we were taking the 10 Freeway right to the Pacific Ocean and everybody stopped talking,” recalled Stephenson. “They saw the beauty of the ocean and they just stopped talking. It just stopped their conversation all the way… So this is a great opportunity for us to be able to go beyond the Pacific Ocean, but over to China.”
Surprisingly, this is not the first time Crenshaw’s choir has come to China. In 2006, the choir was selected to represent the United States at the World Choir Games in Xiamen where they won gold in the “Gospel and Spiritual” category and silver medals in both “Scenic Folklore” and “Jazz.”
On this trip, the choir will be traveling to Beijing and Shanghai. There are currently no details yet on where the choir will be performing, but Stephenson has one performance already in mind:
“We’re going to Beijing and so while we’re on tour in Beijing we’re going to not only go to the Great Wall of China, we plan on singing!”