July 20, 2023 | Alumni
New grad creates spaces where equity, mental health and music thrive
By Alexa Battler
Delicia Raveenthrarajan is a decorated mental health advocate, public speaker and music educator.
Delicia Raveenthrarajan (BSc 2023, UTSC) always loved singing and making music — she was 16 years old and recovering from surgery when her passion stopped in its tracks.
She’d just transferred to a performing arts high school program, where post-op complications and other health issues made her miss music rehearsals. Another musician told her, “You’re too sick to be a performer.” So she stepped away from the arts.
“There are some spaces where well-being is second priority to the quality of music. Some people think that to be excellent you have to sacrifice personal values and well-being, but that's a really ableist notion,” she says.
Even her non-musical peers were forgoing well-being in pursuit of high grades, and just as the music world seemed tunnel-visioned on everything Western and classical, she found mental health supports skewed the same way. Raveenthrarajan became a staunch activist for student mental health and culturally responsive care — she joined clubs, advocated at the G7 Summit, became a public speaker and penned an article published in Teen Vogue, landing the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers in 2016 for her work.
She eventually returned to her original high school, and when her former teacher asked her to conduct the school choir, she took up the baton. While conducting at a spring concert, she unwittingly impressed members of the leadership team at Sistema Toronto, a free after-school music program for students living in underserved communities. They offered her a job as teaching-artist-in-choir, and for the past four years, she’s created classes where well-being is the purpose of making music, not the price.
“It’s really important that all of the students I work with are seen as whole human beings first. Their well-being takes top priority,” she says.
In warmups, she asks students to stand only if they’re able. She invites them to speak with her any time. She teaches not only how to perform pieces from a range of genres, but the social, cultural and political context behind them — classes on Indigenous music, for example, are grounded in talks about truth and reconciliation, and for an upcoming performance of a song about social justice, her students wrote their own final verse. She was inducted into the Scarborough Walk of Fame in 2018 by winning its Rising Star Award, awarded for her impact as an activist and educator.
Upon graduating high school, Raveenthrarajan recognized a familiar teaching approach in U of T Scarborough’s music and culture program — the curriculum delves beyond Western classical music into a spectrum of genres, and balances lessons on performance with those on culture, socio-political concepts and community engagement. She double majored in mental health studies and music and culture, programs she says are both ultimately “about the human experience.”
She’s been part of several music and arts clubs and initiatives, and played cello in the U of T Scarborough string orchestra. She’s also worked for years as a research assistant with the music and culture program, and, alongside another assistant, conducted a landscape review of music programs across North America that guided the development of Soundlife Scarborough (SLS), a new centre for creating music-making opportunities on and off campus.
“She was instrumental in the creation and development of Soundlife Scarborough,” says Lynn Tucker, SLS lead and associate professor, teaching stream, in the department of arts, culture and media. “I don't think we would be where we are today without her energy, insight and the work ethic she brings to the project.”
In 2019, Raveenthrarajan attended a conference of the Ontario Music Educators Association and while she was struck by the vibrancy of the community, she noticed a Eurocentric focus on music creation and knowledge. She wrote a letter to the organization’s board and became its equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) director in her second year at university. Again, well-being has been paramount to all she does.
“Social justice work is often trauma centered, and it's important to address those issues, but it's also important to centre well-being and spend time intentionally building the things that move toward joy, liberation, community,” she says. “When your identity is argued, excluded, or marginalized, existing, taking up space, creating and doing the things that bring you joy are also acts of revolution. I think well-being is at the centre of that.”
This year, she was shortlisted for a Rhodes Scholarship and a Fulbright Scholarship, two of the world’s most recognized and prestigious grant programs. She’ll begin pursuing her master’s in music education at U of T’s faculty of music in a few months, and outside class, she’s considering dabbling in the French horn.
“She's quite inspiring,” Tucker says. “She's such a bright light. Her star is definitely on the rise.”