Thursday at the League of American Orchestras virtual conference “Embracing a Changed World”, several leading figures in music held discussions in two sessions focused on racial equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). They focused on tangible solutions to barriers facing orchestras and organizations attempting to reckon with equity, diversity, and inclusion from within.

The speakers offered possible options that orchestras can consider for efficient and impactful action, instead of relying on performative displays of solidarity that often don’t amount to tangible change for staff, musicians, audiences, and their communities as a whole.

When We Don’t Give Up: Facing Resistance to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Work

Host Blake-Anthony Johnson, cellist, educator, and CEO of Chicago Sinfonietta, introduced Denise Barreto, Director of Equity and Inclusion for Cook County Government, and Co-founder and Executive Producer of Serget Productions for this presentation.

In a spirited and energetic delivery, Barreto outlined common resistance tactics to EDI and why organizations and individuals must foster emotional fortitude in the face of sensitive subjects to achieve honest results in EDI work.

Barreto led session participants through an exercise exploring personal identity, encouraging participants to understand how their varying identities make them who they are as individuals.

Our identities absolutely inform us,…so in order to have frank discussions about racial equity, we have to start with how our identities shape us,” she explained.

Barreto said thinking in terms of intersections (overlapping personal identities such as race, gender, sexuality, etc,) better allows an individual to reflect on their identity as a whole. In the context of white people’s identities, they may not as often think about their identities in such overlapping ways, because their racial identity as white is so often emphasized as the norm in global society.

Barreto offered five solutions for orgs and individuals looking to “build resilience and courage to buck the status quo” in EDI work.

1. Problem: Definition/semantic olympics

Looking for clear and precise definitions of racism or bigotry, brings things to a halt.

“They don’t have their own definitions, but they don’t like the definition you brought up, ” Barreto explains of people who try to gatekeep the definition of what equity, diversity, and inclusion means to BBIPOC.

Combat this by relying on credible sources for definitions when necessary, and be aware that some organizations never progress beyond the definition stage. Understand that sadly too often “oppressors are never going to agree to change the language, after the definitions are argued about.”

Solution: Drive alignment, not agreement. People are committed to never agree

2. Problem: Asking “Where are the ‘othered’?”

Wanting others to solve problems of EDI is passing responsibility to people of color. Some organizations believe the problem is simply “We don’t have enough Black people,” Barreto explains. This false assumption relies on marginalized people to do the work of EDI instead. The problem in this instance is that the people who are othered are sought out to solve it for the people doing the othering.

Barreto says orgs can recruit all the people of color they want, but if the environment is negative, they can’t expect people of color to want to stay. Orgs should also consider whether or not they’re engaging in harmful tokenization over representation of marginalized people.

“We have to take care of the people who are othered in our organizations, we do not have to put more emotional labor on (them).”, she says “It is not the job of marginalized peoples to save you or your organization.”

Solution: Own the work [of EDI] across identities of structure and power

3. Problem: Believing “It’s not about race” “Racism isn’t the problem, it’s economics” 

“People in this country will contort into so many pretzels to say that it’s not race,” Barreto says. Diversion tactics are an excuse to not deal with the problem. “Whenever we don’t deal with issues at a racial level, we are doing a disservice to whatever we’re talking about. And we’re centering other folks.”

“When you tell me it’s not about race, that tells me you’re not in this for real. You don’t really want to focus on equity, you don’t really want to do this work.” It’s focusing on the wrong people, she explains. “We have to talk about racial oppression first.”

Solution: Push for bravery and acknowledgement of racial trauma

4. Problem: Playing the game of “Find the racist”

Understand that racism doesn’t always look obvious. In fact, because of societal conditioning, often other POC uphold racist institutions. There isn’t a magic switch to being anti-racist for many Americans.

“How do you go from not talking about this at all, to BOOM, I’m going to be anti-racist.?” Barreto asks.

Solution: Acknowledge that we’re all socialized by racism, we all perpetuate racism.

5. Problem: Feeling Paralyzed by the “Pressure to Act or Slack”

Don’t compare your org to other orgs. Instead, bravely examine where you are and assess what you can do. Barreto advises orgs do away with “equity theater”. People love to sound anti-racist, she says, but ensure you are moving forward in anti-racist posture and actions.

Solution: Be unwaveringly anti-racist

Finally, Barreto says having “emotional fortitude” is the key to productive outcomes. She offers these tips to build courage in the face of honest discussions.

  • Stay curious, not defensive

  • Ask questions such as “Where did you learn that?” “Where did you hear that?”

  • You may shut down negative or harmful comments people say, but don’t shut down people themselves

  • Own and acknowledge your own emotional triggers

  • Read more about change, and work to “unlearn” bias and misinformation.

Creating Pathways for Meaningful Action in the Face of Racial Injustice

Moderated by Blake-Anthony Johnson, cellist, educator, and Chief Executive Officer of Chicago Sinfonietta. Six industry figures in orchestras and EDI spoke about meaningful action and community accountability to dismantle harmful white supremacy culture. Below are highlights from the discussion.

Speakers for this panel included:

  • Harold Brown, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

  • Dr. Akuoma Nwadike, Founder & Lead Strategist, Inclusivity Education, LLC

  • Doris Parent, Vice President of IDEAS & Strategic Partnerships, The Philadelphia Orchestra

  • Jessica Schmidt, Principal Consultant, Orchestrate Inclusion

  • Leslie Wu Foley, Helaine B. Allen Director of Education and Community Engagement at Boston Symphony Orchestra

  • Randy Wong, President, Hawaii Youth Symphony

Akuoma Nwadike:

  • “My idea is never splitting the world into oppressed vs. oppressor, we have a mutual responsibility to do the work we need to.”

  • “I, as a Black woman, can uphold racism. I’m not immune to this. And once people really understand that word, that automatically makes it easy to be inclusive. I’m not trying to make someone feel guilty, it’s not your responsibility any more than it’s mine. What world do we want the next generations to live in?”

  • As far as reverse engineering that. One of the fundamental things I learned.. was backwards planning. I apply that to what I do now.

  • There’s three steps fundamentally to backwards planning: The first is identifying your desired results. What’s the identifiable evidence that we would have? What experiences, what learning, what resources do we need to be able to do this work?

Harold Brown:

  • “Success should be measured by what we accomplish, not just what we do”

  • Ask, does it get us closer to our goal, representing our entire community?

  • Does it get us closer to being a truly inclusive organization?

  • Does it remove barriers?

  • Does it seek and welcome contributions from everyone?

  • Does it help our diverse audience members have an authentic and engaging experience?

  • Does the investment and partnership help us improve the quality of life in the broader community?

  • Drill down into developing benchmarks and measures to assess our progress, and ultimately our success,

  • I always ask our grantees: “How much, by when?”

  • Go beyond the description, and find the expectation, usual framework for building accountability and measuring outcomes

  • Articulate goals – look to have hard, definitive goals

Randy Wong:

  • In educating and training the next generation, ask what tools of resilience, if any, do you believe are critical?

  • Encourage optimism

  • “Understand that music is a right, not a privilege.”

  • Empower students to be stakeholders in their own experience

  • Draw students into the conversation

  • Consider access, specifically:

    • Equity of access

    • How economic diversity affects access

    • Provide resources to ensure access

Leslie Wu Foley:

  • Consider how you involve people within your organization? How do you start conversations?

  • Everyone within the organization has a sphere of influence.

  • “You don’t have to wait for leadership to address issues. It starts with you.”

  • It helps to establish a common framework of questions that are universally relevant.

  • “What voices are missing? What am I afraid of? What steps can I take to make room for these voices?”

  • It’s important to identify achievable goals.

  • “We can build a bigger table and include more voices, and not lose anything.”

  • Build a relationship FIRST before setting goals.

Jesica Schmidt:

  • “This work is about empathy. This work is about how we love and care for each other.”

  • “Make space and listen and create a space where you can come to the table and really hear each other.”

  • Continually invite people to the table and the conversation, keep inviting them in.

  • Keep the focus on what matters: those that have been historically marginalized.

  • Make this about learning.

  • “Move past naming the symptoms, and get to the systems.”

  • Be explicit in the work you are doing, for accountability

  • Find a colleague to learn with.

Doris Parent:

  • “Equity is a process, not a product.”

  • “Reimagining how the orchestra thinks about programming and community outreach doesn’t really diminish the long standing traditions of musical excellence.”

For related resources for orchestras and orchestral musicians, visit The League’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Resource Center here.