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Story of Impact: Aaron Shneyer

A Key to Peace

How a Social Entrepreneur Bridged a Violent Divide Through Music

Social Enterprise graduate Aaron Shneyer MA ’14, uses music as a tool for social change. His nonprofit, Heartbeat, brings together high-school musicians from Israel and Palestine to compose music, learn about each other, and reshape the otherwise divided world around them.

Aaron founded Heartbeat in 2007, and has since developed the organization into a global network.

“The youth we work with grew up in a very divided society with no opportunities to interact,” Aaron says. “Through Heartbeat, these youth form relationships based on equality — a sharp contrast to the inequality that exists outside our programs.”

The Power of Music — and Sustaining Change

Heartbeat began as a project under a Fulbright-mtvU fellowship. Aaron proposed going to Jerusalem to create a band with Israeli and Palestinian youth. He studied how music could build mutual understanding, particularly in violent societies.

“These kids lived within ten minutes of each other, but they’d never met. I wanted to do something to start to change that.”

However, after the first year, Heartbeat became a side project for Aaron, mostly due to financing. He experimented with different formats and partnerships, but by 2011, he had realized two things: 1) in order to have the impact he wanted, Heartbeat would need more sustained, regular programs, and 2) that he would need more funding.

“Music has this ability to build awareness among people, but it’s expensive to bring together enough people to reach a critical mass,” Aaron says. “If Heartbeat was going to last, I needed to develop my skills as a social entrepreneur and bring knowledge from the business and nonprofit worlds.”

Aaron decided to continue his education, and in 2012, he enrolled in Social Enterprise at SIS to drive his business toward financial stability.

Why SIS?

“SIS isn’t a political science school — it’s dedicated to service, and that resonated with me. I also liked that the master’s degree offered the chance to go deep on social enterprise; it wasn’t just a side segment within an MBA.”

Another critical piece for Aaron was that he was able to keep managing Heartbeat. He used the program as an incubator, taking Heartbeat through all of the case studies, business plans and social marketing.

“I learned financial literacy and how to align toward strategic goals. While in the program, I took our budget from $25K to $250K. It truly transformed my organization.”

Music and Dialogue

Today, Heartbeat has two chapters plus a graduate program, an audio/video production program, and an international presence through camps, overseas exchanges, and tours. Heartbeat musicians have reached over 15,000 people through live performances and millions through media.

Through its weekly meetings and retreats, Heartbeat fosters musical creation, but also creates the structures for facilitated — and difficult — discussions. Aaron trusts in music to lead this process.

“We’ve honed in on creating a balance between the music side and the dialogue side. Our students are united in their passion and always keep that at the center of their experience.”

Their musical connections necessitate mutual respect. With this, students can overcome the present-day realities that tear many groups apart.

“Not only do musicians discover their own voice, they also become aware of each other and develop a responsibility to use their music to change things.”

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