We had the good fortune of connecting with Riley Novak and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Riley, do you have a favorite quote or affirmation?
Anne Frank wrote, “How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” This is a quote that resonates deeply with me. In today’s world, we are dealing with so many difficulties…a pandemic, climate change, economic disparities, and deeply divided communities and, at times, it would be easy to fall into a pit of despair. But, we, especially young people, cannot give up hope. We all have the ability to make change in the world in big and small ways. Each time we choose to take a positive step, we make the world a kinder, better place. There are so many opportunities for all of us to make a difference in our own way. Throughout my life, I’ve been involved in a variety of service-oriented activities. I’ve spent the morning picking up litter near my school, wrapped holiday presents for patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, cleaned and repaired bikes for refugees with Phantom Cyclist, and helped to run GOALS, a soccer program that fosters connections among kids with and without disabilities. In 2019, I took a bigger step and founded HeartBEATS. HeartBEATS is a youth-led organization dedicated to creating meaningful connections between newly-arrived refugees and their host community through the power of music. Over the past year and a half, we have hosted outreach events, organized a virtual benefit concert, launched virtual music lessons, and solicited thousands of dollars of donations in musical instruments. Through these programs, we hope to foster an environment of understanding and acceptance to strengthen and enhance our city. Collaborating with peers and friends who also envision a better world is key. The compassion and dedication of other young people inspires me. Some days it seems there is more despair than hope, but watching fellow youth refuse to accept the status quo and strive to make the world a better place is invigorating. Even in the face of an uncertain future, we are steadfast in our willingness to foster change in hopes of improving our world.

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I have been involved in the arts since I was very young and have always had a love for music! For the last five years, I have attended Arts Congress, an annual event where I speak to legislators about the importance of arts education funding in our state budget. I recognized, early on, the power music has to bring people of all kinds together. At the same time, I have been working with the Welcome to America Project (WTAP), a local refugee organization, where I seek to help eliminate anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment. While welcoming refugees over the years, I was often moved by their stories and hopes for their new life. However, in many cases, there were language barriers hindering our exchanges, and I tried to think of ways we could connect, particularly with children. One idea I kept coming back to was music. Since my first choir rehearsal at age 5, I have seen the way music connects people of all ages, backgrounds, and personalities. What if I could employ the power of music with my new refugee neighbors as well? This question helped lay the foundation for what has now become HeartBEATS Arizona. HeartBEATS is the youth-led organization of which I am the founder and program director. Launched in early 2019, we are dedicated to creating meaningful connections between the refugee community and our Phoenix host community through music programs and activities. My hope was that these shared musical experiences would bring joy and healing and help to build bridges of understanding and expand the cultural and arts education for all. I learned that this leap of faith took much more than an enthusiastic idea and a love for music. It took vision, planning, organization, new skill acquisition, accountability, patience, dedication, tenacity, and hard work. Most importantly, it took the sincere belief that this was the best way I could use my strengths to make a difference in people’s lives. Since its inception, HeartBEATS has reached hundreds of refugee families through music outreach programs and the sharing of new and donated musical instruments. In addition to enriching the lives of refugee families, HeartBEATS has also coordinated dozens of enthusiastic donors and volunteers, young and old, who have participated in our various events and activities. In June, our virtual benefit concert, “Music Feeds the Soul,” was viewed by nearly 380 households and featured 45 local and refugee musicians. Together we raised enough money to provide meals for 180 refugee families. For our 2020-2021 virtual music lessons program, HeartBEATS received upwards of $3,700 in donated musical instruments which we’ve been able to share with our students. While the measurable outcomes have been more than I could have imagined, it is the intangible moments when music transcends language and heartfelt connections are formed where I feel I have made the most meaningful impact. In outreach events, volunteers and refugee participants have received rewarding, cross-cultural arts experiences that promote acceptance and strengthen our Phoenix community. Our benefit concert educated viewers about the plight of refugees during COVID-19 and provided an opportunity for local and refugee musicians to forge friendships. Finally, HeartBEATS virtual music lessons have bridged the gap between school-aged refugees and their peers while enabling them to learn a new instrument or continue a lifelong journey with music. HeartBEATS was built on the intersection of two of my longtime passions, arts advocacy and welcoming refugee families. My goal is to continue to build and expand HeartBEATS in Arizona and beyond.

Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If my best friend were visiting the area, the first place I would take them would be the Welcome to America Project (WTAP). I believe that this organization is one of the hidden gems of Phoenix; it is home to kind-hearted volunteers who work tirelessly to make our community a better place. Imagining that my friend’s visit occurred during a non-COVID time, I would make sure my friend and I spent the morning on Welcome Deliveries, where about 10-15 of us share furniture, household items, and a warm welcome with new refugee families. Welcome Deliveries open your eyes to the vibrant refugee population here in Phoenix and provide an education in life and humanity that you could never learn in a classroom or anywhere else. Over the years that I have participated in WTAP Welcome Deliveries, I have heard unforgettable stories of resilience, courage, and love that have made me a more empathetic and understanding student, friend, and person. After our morning with The Welcome to America Project, we would enjoy tableside-prepared guacamole and carne asada tacos at my favorite restaurant, Barrio Queen. For dessert, we would pick up the best baklava in the city from Hope Kitchen. Hope Kitchen is a refugee-owned business and home to a variety of delicious homemade Syrian foods. Since I know my friend would be visiting during the best time of year in Phoenix, the winter, I would take them to the Desert Botanical Garden’s Las Noches de Las Luminarias. Not only are the decor, lights, and luminarias stunning, but the performances by local musicians bring unparalleled joy in a beautiful desert landscape. When I attended last year, I had the fortune of listening to a Mariachi band, classical brass quintet, and various Latinx singer-songwriters. They were all accomplished musicians who used their talent and passion to share happiness with every attendee.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would like to dedicate my shoutout to Francesca Thomas. When I first discovered the Welcome to America Project (WTAP), I received a tour of their warehouse, led by Francesca, a longtime volunteer and board member for the organization. But this was not just any tour- it was an immersion into a new world, and a day that ultimately changed my life. Through Francesca’s vivid descriptions, the winding rows of donated items came alive with testimonies of new refugee families and stories of volunteers moved to tears after a morning welcoming refugees. She made me realize that the WTAP was the organization I wanted to dedicate my time to. As I became more involved with the WTAP, Francesca and I developed a close relationship. She took me under her wing and helped me understand the challenging process refugees face in their journey to a new life. For every question I asked, Francesca directed two more back at me, always encouraging me to look critically at the systems in place and work to fix the problems I saw. Her striking passion and energy for serving the refugee community, coupled with her eloquence and empathy, is a model I try to replicate, and one that motivates me to continue my volunteer work. Francesca’s dedication to social justice extends beyond refugees. Her tireless advocacy inspires others to civically engage in their community and serve marginalized groups. She has volunteered with the Navajo Nation, advocated for the improvement of public schools in Arizona, and assisted in finding safe and stable homes for foster children. Without hesitation, I can say that Francesca has unequivocally changed the trajectory of my life and the lives of so many others. She has taught me the impact that acting with unreserved compassion can have in a community, and the importance of serving marginalized groups. In just a simple 45-minute warehouse tour, she inspired me to take notice of an underserved yet resilient community of people in my city. These new refugee neighbors, along with Francesca, have helped to broaden my cultural understanding, educate myself and others around me, and made me believe that I, too, can impact the world around me.

Website: heartbeatsaz.org
Instagram: @heartbeatsaz
Facebook: @heartbeatsaz
Youtube: HeartBEATS AZ

Image Credits
Sabine Thompson (just for the bike photo)

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