Voices of Our City Choir History
In the summer of 2016, San Diego’s homeless population was exploding. The removal of 10,000 affordable housing units, to make way for upscale condos and housing left the city’s most vulnerable citizens unsheltered.
Musician and jazz vocalist, Steph Johnson, noticed the suffering of her unsheltered neighbors and began to organize outreach that brought food, clothing, blankets and friendship to people experiencing homelessness. Inspiration came from doing outreach and discovering that many people living on the streets were artists and musicians with no outlet.
It was during this time that she met Pastor Chris Nafis who offered his humble church as a meeting place for outreach and community building. Located in the “low bottoms” area of East Village in Downtown, the church was a worn-down metal warehouse that sat in the center of the homelessness crisis. While doing outreach one day, Steph met a woman living on the street who was a singer in a choir for unsheltered people in Chicago. Understanding the power of music and group singing, Steph had the idea to join together and have choral music making available to the people experiencing homelessness in the area.
Serendipitously, Steph had just met a choir director, Nina Deering. Nina eagerly jumped at the opportunity to serve as the choir director. Her dedication and virtuoso musical talent brought an energy that inspired our choir members to learn how to sing together. We are incredibly thankful to have had her influence in our lives.
The beginning days of Voices of Our City Choir, with Nina Deering serving as the choir director, Steph Johnson as the music director and Dr. Leah Bowden as the drummer (and later Board President) were instrumental in creating the foundation for which the organization became. To learn more about those early days, read this insightful piece written by Bowden for TomTom Magazine: https://tomtommag.com/2017/10/voices-of-our-city-choir/
Becoming an Inspirational Performance Ensemble
Today, the Voices of Our City Choir has swelled to more than 225 members and helped over 60 of its members get off the street and into housing. Steph became a spokesperson and the choir grew into a symbol of what a grassroots effort can accomplish.
Steph and members of her staff sit on local homeless committees and boards and advise the city council and the mayor’s office on pressing issues. In addition to advocacy, Voices of Our City Choir is an inspirational musical ensemble that has garnered plenty of headlines.
The choir was the focus of a documentary that aired nationally on PBS stations. The group has performed with the San Diego Symphony and opened a benefit concert at the historic Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles on a bill that featured Jason Mraz and founding members of the Doors. Most recently, the choir auditioned for Season 15 of America’s Got Talent and received the coveted Golden Buzzer for its soul-stirring performance of its original song “Sounds of the Sidewalk.”
The choir is now a nonprofit, and Steph serves as both executive director and creative director. She was named the 2020 Woman of the Year by San Diego Assembly member Todd Gloria.
“I am honored to name Steph Johnson the Woman of the Year for the 78th Assembly District. Voices of Our City, the innovative program Steph co-created to harness the power to change lives, gives homeless men and women hope and a chance to connect with others. The choir not only provides an outlet for unsheltered San Diegans to participate in the uplifting benefits of music and creativity, but also serves as an access point to services. Voices of Our City has provided the perfect vehicle for dozens of choir members to get off the street and into permanent housing, Gloria said.
Important To Note
• Evolving as a nonprofit, the choir focused on becoming a professional performance ensemble and used the money generated from performances to employ a small case management staff that could wrap around services and support for choir members.
• The Choir performs with an award-winning jazz soul band at every concert and rehearsal.
• Voices of Our City Choir is the subject of a national documentary, “The Homeless Chorus Speaks.” The film, directed by Susan Polis Schutz, aired on PBS television for over a year.
• The organization employs individuals with lived experience of homelessness.
The choir auditioned on the season premiere of America’s Got Talent and received the Golden Buzzer for their performance
The County of San Diego proclaims June 2nd as Voices of Our City Choir day.
Steph Johnson named the 2020 Woman of the Year by Assembly member Todd Gloria