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'The thing that sets us apart is just that grit': Inside Roosevelt High School's Bridges 2 Harmony

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger - Des Moines Register

Devon Steve is bouncing in front of his students. His hands leading them on, a big smile assuredly on his face (though hidden by a COVID mask), he is a ball of energy as he directs the Des Moines teens.

The Roosevelt High School students return that energy, their bodies swaying, their hands moving expressively, their connection pouring out in their glances. At one point, Steve interrupts them with a screech. "Ahh! That was so good," Steve says.

This inspiring scene was an early December Bridges 2 Harmony Gospel Choir class and rehearsal. Bridges was created in 2008 to "give students at Roosevelt a high quality musical experience in the gospel genre," its website says. But it gives more than that.

The choir has collaborated with people from across the world and provided inspiration at events from Gov. Kim Reynolds' 2019 inauguration to high school sports games. It has shared its knowledge in hundreds of performances, as many as 30 a year, with people across the state and beyond Iowa's borders. It has become one of the "last big gospel choirs in the state," Steve said, and one of the very few gospel choirs in an Iowa high school.

It has taught a disparate group of teenagers about quintessentially American music while expanding their knowledge of the Black experience in this country. But the choir, which has as many as 150 students audition for two dozen open spots in a typical year, keeps giving. "I've been watching Bridges since about fourth grade," said Kiana Collier, a 17-year-old senior. Her sister was in the choir before her, and Collier is now in her second year as Bridges' elected president. "I came to every concert, I was in Junior Bridges every single year I could, and I just fell in love with the choir, to be honest."

Seeing the choir gave the church-raised, music-loving girl "inspiration and hope and motivation." Junior Theo Linebaugh, one of this year's 38 members, also watched the choir since middle school. Now that he is a member, "more than anything, it just feels like family here, singing with everybody. We all have those moments. It's really hard to describe," said Linebaugh, 17. "I just love this choir, I really do. I'm honored to be part of it."

Steve, who became the choir's artistic director five years ago, uses breaks in the music to ask the students to talk with the person next to them about their favorite food or what they're looking forward to doing for the weekend. He participates in those chats. "I'm with them in building that family," he said. Those connections come through in their voices.

"It's different when you are wanting to support that person next to you, when you have that desire to sing for them and with them," Steve said. That day the connection was clear as Des Moines Register photographer Kelsey Kremer and I listened to the choir click into a complicated warmup round of "Do-Re-Me" or the so smooth "Sing Noel" that caused Steve to burst in with appreciation. This was no group of cynical, tuned-out teens. This was a cohesive unit of talented singers who bring joy to the world through their voices. "The thing that sets us apart is just that grit, that drive to really find that connection and let that sail through in the voices. And really just kind of let loose with the voice. When you are feeling that, when you believe that, when you know those words, that passion comes through — and through that, they are able to be purposeful," Steve said.

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