Liz Ciavolino’s harp career started at 7 years old, when a professor at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore told her she had “perfect harp fingers.”
Today, the young Philadelphia musician is combining her love of music with activism. Teamed with CADBI, the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, Ciavolino is hosting a series of three benefit shows at W/N W/N Coffee Bar to raise money and awareness for the coalition, whose mission is to rework Pennsylvania law so prisoners with life sentences can have the possibility of parole.
The benefit series, which started on Jan. 17, will continue with its second show Feb. 21 and a final show March 20. The shows feature presentations from representatives of CADBI alongside various musicians, including Ciavolino’s band Liz & the Lost Boys.
A musician since childhood, Ciavolino moved to Philadelphia in 2011 after studying harp at the University of Maryland, College Park. She hosts shows in her backyard and plays at local venues with her band.
“She’s just a real go-getter, she likes bringing people together,” said Anthony Coppa, a friend of Ciavolino’s and a local musician. “She’s very positive and open to celebrating other people’s work and sharing her own.”
Ciavolino’s involvement with activism started in college, where she joined the group Feminism Without Borders, among other activist organizations.
“I have all these dreams about art making the world a better place,” she said. “But it’s taken me a long time to find a way to actualize those ideas, so this is sort of like my first step in trying to do that and I hope to do more of it.”
Ciavolino was drawn to the political uproar of the 1960s and the artists who helped contribute, like Bob Marley and Bob Dylan, as well as more recent cross sections of art and activism—specifically, in the Black Lives Matter movement, she said, like British artist Blood Orange.
Ciavolino said she hopes the benefit series will help raise awareness for CADBI’s mission to end death by incarceration, a phrase referring to the 5,100 prisoners in Pennsylvania serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. CADBI believes sentencing people to life without parole is cruel and unconstitutional, and hopes to have the law changed so prisoners can have a fair chance at parole, according to the organization’s website.
Ciavolino approached the organization about the benefit series idea, admiring the initiative’s local approach to helping the community.
“I think a lot of people, including myself, get caught up trying to solve the entire world or solve all of mass incarceration,” she said. “We have to work on each individual state and each individual law and CADBI’s an organization that’s doing really awesome work and it’s doing it very locally and it’s work that could have a really lasting influence.”
Ciavolino said the benefits shows are not only to raise money for CADBI, but also to provide a stepping stone for people to “feel more easily engaged … with new ideas.”
“One thing that’s important to me is helping people feel invited to participate in local music but also local activism,” Ciavolino said. “I think the arts can really make politics accessible in a way that just talking about politics doesn’t.”
Coppa believes combining activism with Ciavolino’s music and community organizing abilities helps engage the young people that come to her shows.
“I think 20-somethings are so inundated with pop culture and media,” Coppa said. “I feel a pulse that people want something that goes a level deeper and has some sort of real substance. I think the shows work because it’s cool to sit and listen to a thoughtful musician and Liz’s music really shines in an intimate setting.”
“I think her music and her style go hand in hand with serious social and political conversation,” he added. “These shows are more like listening parties and there’s a feeling of thoughtfulness and introspection in her music and also in the community gatherings that she’s putting on, it really lends itself well to a discussion about serious social issues and also finding ways to effectuate change.”
For Ciavolino, it’s far too easy for musicians to “cocoon” themselves away and focus on individualistic goals.
“But if you have something that you’re excited to do that could benefit someone besides just you, I think that’s a really cool thing to do,” she said. “It’s easy for me, and probably everyone in the world, to forget how big the world is sometimes.”
Emily Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.