Theme Speaker: Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell

CERSI’s Morning Theme Speaker in 2019 will be Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, an inspiring and beloved workshop leader in the UU community. Barnwell, a former member of the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock, has a deep knowledge of the African-American vocal tradition, and of music’s power to connect, motivate, inspire, and teach.

At Summer Institute, Dr. Barnwell will present a five-day version of her award-winning workshop, “Building a Vocal Community,” in which all participants—singers and non-singers alike—will experience the awesome power of the collective human voice, and share the common experience of learning in the oral tradition.

Dr. Barnwell will teach us the rhythms and music of the African Diaspora, including chants, ring shouts, and other traditional African songs, as well as African-American spirituals, hymns, gospels, and songs from the Civil Rights Movement. We will also learn the historical, social, and political contexts of the songs we are singing. Together, from an African-American world view, we will explore the values imbedded in the music; the role of cultural traditions and spiritual rituals; the ways in which leadership emerges and can be shared by and among community members; the nature of cultural responses to and influences on political and social struggle; and the significance of a shared communal experience in one’s personal life.

When uncommon voices are blended for the common good, we become a ‘vocal community’ at our best. Come share in the experience of building beloved community through a collective voicing of our shared joys, concerns, and humanity. All that is required is a willingness to open your mouth and make a joyful noise!


Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell is a native New Yorker, currently living in Washington, D.C. She is the only child and the perfect blend of her mother, a registered nurse, and her father, a classical violinist. Barnwell studied violin for 15 years beginning at age 2½, and after studying music in high school, went on to earn degrees in Speech Pathology (Sc.B. SUNY Geneseo, 1967; Sc.M. SUNY Geneseo, 1968; Ph.D. University of Pittsburgh, 1975), and Public Health (Sc.M. Howard University, 1981). 

Dr. Barnwell performed as a vocalist and instrumentalist on worldwide tours and on over thirty recordings with the vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock, and composed many of their songs. For the past thirty years, she has spent much of her time off-stage working as a master teacher and choral clinician in African-American cultural performance. She has been commissioned to compose for numerous choral, film, video, dance, and theatrical projects over the years, including Sesame Street, Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh, David Rousseve’s Reality Dance Company, The New Spirituals Project, GALA Festival Choruses, MUSE: Cincinnati’s Women’s Chorus, The Steel Festival: Art of an Industry (Bethlehem, PA), and The King’s Singers in England.

For her professional accomplishments and her musical and cultural contributions to society, Dr. Barnwell has been awarded honorary degrees from SUNY Geneseo (1998), Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary (2009), Virginia Theological Seminary (2011), and, along with the other members of Sweet Honey In the Rock, Chicago Theological Seminary (2012).

Four axioms have proven significant in Barnwell’s life:  To whom much is given, much is required.As one door closes, another door opens. Everything matters.Say “Yes!”