New Fellow appointed for Helen Carswell Chair in Community Engaged Research in the Arts

Before an audience of passionate educators, and celebrated with three stellar music performances, York University Professor Karen Burke was announced as the inaugural Fellow for the Helen Carswell Chair in Community Engaged Research in the Arts. The event took place on Thursday, Aug. 24 at York University’s Keele campus.

A group of people stand and smile at the camera
Above: From left, Karen Cyrus, Norma-Sue Fisher-Stitt, Ruth Carswell, Alan Carswell, Karen Burke, Richard Marsella, Jane O’Hare, Kristin Morrison and Bill Thomas

The Carswell Chair is a permanent endowed position within the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD) at York University.

As Fellow, Burke will facilitate and direct the research partnership in collaboration with a multi-disciplinary Advisory Working Group. The Chair and committee will encourage research projects from across the University that inform curriculum and programming at RPSM, while also making unique contributions to the peer-reviewed academic literature exploring the impact of music programs. Following her initial two-year appointment, future Chairs will be named for terms of three to five years.

Karen Burke
Karen Burke speaks to those gathered for the announcement

A renowned singer, choral director and composer, Burke is recognized as an authority on the history and performance practices of gospel music. She started the first curricular post-secondary gospel music courses in Canada including the 100-voice York University Gospel Choir. Her Juno-award winning Toronto Mass Choir has been touring and recording in Canada since 1988.

“Karen has already been hard at work over the last year, leading and collaborating with the members of the advisory group and working with RPSM to build its presence in the Jane and Finch community, said Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, AMPD interim dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design. “Over the next four years RPSM will continue to expand in the Jane-Finch area, providing access to music lessons and a wide range of performance opportunities, opening new avenues through which children can express themselves and develop their talents.”

a young man plays the piano
Thomas Francis

“Karen has a super human ability to electrify and bring a room to life,” said RPSM Executive Director Richard Marsella. “Our collaboration grows each and every week. We are reaching 250 local kids aged 3-18 and we will remain with them on their path, walking them right up the steps to York University or the post secondary education of their choice.”

The endowed Chair and related research activities are made possible through an exceptionally generous $2 million gift from the Carswell Family Foundation (CFF). York professor emeritus Allan Carswell announced the donation at an event held at York University on November 16, 2016 (read more about the announcement in YFile, Nov 17, 2016).

Charlotte Seigel

The gift also makes funds available for York graduate research projects that will ultimately inform best practices in community arts programs, and explore the benefits of community music programs and the links between music and learning. A call for research proposals will be released this fall and updates will be shared on

“For me this work is all about putting students first and the celebration of music in our lives,” said Burke. “Thank you Dr. Carswell and the Carswell Family Foundation for your generous gift that multiplies the impact of your vision in this community.

“York University is strategically located within a community that is rich with history, alive with culture and committed to expression through the arts,” said Burke. “Undoubtedly, we have yet to fully realize the full strength of this potential. The Carswell family, through their generous endowment, have provided an enduring pathway which will yield strong community music-making ties, encourage young people to realize their dreams of success and strengthen and expand York’s footprint in community arts.”

Jenna Cowans

Accompanying the heartfelt speeches were three inspiring musical performances by jazz pianist and York MFA candidate Thomas Francis (BFA ’12), RPSM alumna Charlotte Seigel and Jenna Cowans (BFA ’09).

The event was part of the Faculty of Education Summer Institute 2017.