By Christian Hetrick
In 2014, Ifunanya Nweke met a middle schooler named Ruben who’d change the course of her career.
Nweke, an alum of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, was training to be a behavior therapist at the time. As part of her instruction, she spent the day following Ruben – a seventh grader with autism – from class to class. Nweke noticed the boy usually kept to himself in the corner of classrooms, where he was the only student on the autism spectrum.
But when Ruben entered music class, he transformed into a leader. He played piano and sang with a beautiful, velvety tone. He corralled the rest of the class behind him. One student joined him with a guitar, another on bass. With his presence and musical talent, Ruben had influenced his environment and communicated with his classmates. Nweke was blown away.
“I couldn’t unsee that,” Nweke said. “I figured there must be other individuals who are on the autism spectrum that music may be at least one way for them to connect to their peers, build community around themselves and eventually be leaders of that community.”
That unforgettable moment proved to be the beginning of Jazz Hands for Autism, a nonprofit Nweke launched later that year. Nearly a decade later, the Culver City-based group has provided music training, vocational development and job placement for more than 150 musicians with autism. Jazz Hands has become an advocate for neurodivergent people in the music industry, getting the attention of Billboard magazine.
The nonprofit recently hosted its 18th concert, where musicians with autism performed in front of friends, family and the community.
“It helps us change the way that autism is perceived in our social landscape,” Nweke said of the winter concert that featured 19 musicians. “When you see somebody on stage performing and they’re having the time of their life – singing their heart out and having so much stage presence – something powerful happens in the way that you perceive them.”
“You see them as more able, more capable,” she continued. “It creates inclusion by allowing the general public to see individuals with autism as people who have something to offer.”
If the idea and inspiration for Jazz Hands came from that moment in the middle school, the tools and network needed to run the nonprofit came from the USC Price School. Months after launching Jazz Hands in 2014, Nweke enrolled in the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program. She learned how to manage a budget, recruit board members, form partnerships and evaluate programs. Her time here was a “life-changing experience,” she said.
“Jazz Hands pre-Price and post-Price are very different organizations,” Nweke said. “Jazz Hands post-Price is a lot more structured, a lot more targeted, a lot more strategic, a lot more impactful and just a lot more connected in the community, so that we can bring resources for those we are supporting and those who need it the most.”
Nweke, who is pursuing a Doctor of Education degree (with a focus on Educational Psychology) from the USC Rossier School of Education, has stayed connected to the USC Price School: She’s a co-chair of the Curriculum Subcommittee within the USC Price School’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion task force.
And she isn’t the only USC Price School connection to her nonprofit, either. David Horn, the USC Price School’s director of data analytics, has volunteered at Jazz Hands for five years, playing music with the students during training sessions.
“What’s unique about Jazz Hands is the emphasis on music as this vehicle for self-expression, self-actualization and community building,” Horn said. “A lot of the musicians are able to express themselves and communicate with one another through music in a way that they might not be able to otherwise.”
One of those musicians is Felipe “Phil” Juarez, a 25-year-old singer from Hollywood. Growing up as a fan of heavy metal, Juarez longed to learn music and start a band. A few years ago, his mom discovered Jazz Hands and signed him up. Juarez has since learned to control his breathing while singing, play the drums and guitar, and understand music theory and editing software.
“It’s helped me a lot with my confidence,” Juarez said, noting that he didn’t want to disturb neighbors by singing at home. When he goes into Jazz Hands, “I just want to sing my heart out. It’s helped me improve a whole lot.”
The hard rock fan’s taste in music has evolved too, and in November he was able to give his parents an early holiday gift. For Jazz Hands’ winter concert in Culver City, Juarez picked a song just for them: “Feliz Navidad.”
“They’re from El Salvador, and they’ve been wanting me to learn how to speak Spanish,” he said. “I figured it’d be a nice song.”