Ben Shinaberry, founder of the Dick and Jane project, teaches middle schoolers how to make radio-ready songs. Credit: Lantern File Photo

In 2010, Ben Shinaberry, founder of The Dick and Jane Project, had a theory that kids are capable of writing good song lyrics. To test this idea, he created after-school programs and workshops with young students, which resulted in the conception of the Dick and Jane Project.

In the past eight years, the nonprofit, which gets its name from the Dick and Jane book series, has evolved into a rigorous program where professional producers and musicians collaborate with middle-school students from schools with limited arts funding and schools for those with special needs to create radio-ready songs, Nick D’Andrea, operations director of DJP, said.

The process starts by talking about what music the kids enjoy. Because the students have different preferences, the most challenging point is to find common ground, whether it’s the theme or the genre of the song, Glenn Davis, a producer at DJP, said.

The workshops are driven by the students, and the artists and producers provide guidance. D’Andrea said that the kids need to feel that they are steering the ship as far as what the song sounds like.

“We are trying to do everything we can to keep the kids in the producer’s chair the whole time,” D’Andrea said.

The kids get to experience recording when they spend time in a studio with the producers and local musicians, who have been commissioned to work on the written songs, D’Andrea said.

Keeping the sound of the songs in mind, the diversity of the Columbus music scene helps cater to the needs of each song, as the organization can invite various artists from across Columbus that fit the specific sound the kids are looking for, D’Andrea said.

The kids and musicians both inspire each other, and as a result, many of the songs will end up using multiple musicians, leading to collaborations that no one thought of before and creating fun, unexpected results, D’Andrea said.  

“It’s just a rare opportunity to pass along their love of music and see the younger generations grow into that,” Davis said.

Once the song is completed, it is aired on WCBE 90.5 radio, which has a partnership with DJP, at 11:55 a.m. Fridays and 8:01 p.m. Tuesdays. The program also incorporates interviews with the kids, explaining the song’s meaning.

“The best moments are when you really see those kids, you see that switch flip on for the first time where they feel proud of something that they’ve made,” Davis said.

Most of the time, the songs will be about emotional topics, which is not something one expects from a middle-school student, D’Andrea said.

D’Andrea said the workshops aim to empower kids to express the emotions they have and give them a platform to do it.

“The best case scenario gives them an opportunity to express themselves and learn that they have a voice,” Davis said.

The workshops act as group therapy sessions. Kids who previously might not have had a lot of friends find themselves having candid and honest conversations with each other, D’Andrea said.

“It’s like the language of music is able to break those walls down,” he said. “Music is one of those rare things that means something to everybody.”

D’Andrea said the workshops are also a way of telling the kids that they are being heard and taken seriously.

Davis said the idea is to nudge the kids in the right direction and give them confidence to create something good in whatever field they choose.

“It’s just a rare opportunity to pass along their love of music and see the younger generations grow into that,” Davis said.

DJP strives to inspire the students to want to write and be creative, far beyond the purview of the workshops, according to its website.

“It’s just a really powerful thing to sit down with the kids and say, ‘Hey, you can make something awesome. Let’s do it together,’” Davis said.