Diversity: Necessary, But Not Sufficient

Talking about diversity is nothing new to us in the arts and cultural world. But to realize the fruits of these conversations, we need to move beyond the idea of diversity to a deeper level of understanding and respect for ourselves and others. 

With the seismic shifts in the demographics of our nation, our cities and our communities, issues of diversity are ever important. Talking about diversity is nothing new to us in the arts and cultural world. Nevertheless, the fruits of our work around this issue have not been fully realized. 

As a field, we have been rightfully eager to diversify our organizations—our boards, our administrative and creative teams, our participants—as well as our audiences. I speak for the Boston Children’s Chorus when I say that we work tirelessly to reflect the rich diversity of our communities—as we should. But as an organization, we had not stopped to appreciate, understand, and address the complications of diversity. It’s as if we want to prize the beauty of the pearl without diving for the oyster!

Reflecting community in our organizations is hard work. While we’ve had some success at the Boston Children’s Chorus, we must figure out how to create a safe space for individuals in this now diverse environment. We are trying to better understand what that process looks like for us at BCC—and better understand the obstacles that prevent us from dealing respectfully with difference. 

Our organization was founded in 2003 by a social worker with the express intent of bringing together diverse singers and audiences to break down the silos that keep us apart. We assembled a diverse board of directors, hired a diverse staff, recruited diverse kids, and performed songs representing many cultures in venues all over the city, from Baptist churches, synagogues, and homeless shelters to the State House, galas, and Symphony Hall. Diversity was and still is a business imperative for our organization. While this work is tough, we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, especially in Boston. But we assumed that when we brought all these diverse groups together, there would be authentic social bridging and empathy, and it would all happen organically.

Perhaps we were naïve, or simply hopeful, but we have realized, in our eleven short years, that for us to achieve true social bridging and break down the barriers of race, religion, socio-economic status, and geography, we had to be more intentional in our work. We started by challenging the assumptions surrounding our work—and there were many. The one we want to focus on today is the assumption that diversity, in and of itself, is an effective tool to achieve social bridging. 

We’ve come to realize that diversity is necessary, but not sufficient. With that, we’d like to explore the idea of moving beyond diversity to a deeper level of understanding and respect for ourselves and for others. 

Anti-Bias Training through Music

We believe in the power of the arts to inspire, encourage, and bring us together as a community. We think that the art of singing together coupled with anti-bias training can lead to the much desired outcome of developing not only fine musicians, but—equally important—more empathetic, compassionate young singing citizens of the world. To that end, we have set out to re-imagine our work through fusing our robust music education program with an anti-bias program. 

We believe that empathy and compassion can be taught through taking the perspective of others through music. Simply put, we teach, discuss, and sing music that helps our young people see the world from the perspective of others.

To do this, we must first acknowledge and accept without shame and blame that we all have biases. Sometimes conscious but often unconscious, these biases influence how we perceive and interact with others and can create tension between us and those who are different from us. On occasion, our unconscious bias is in direct conflict with our strongly held, conscious values and beliefs.

Nothing reflects this more than the famous quote by civil rights leader the Reverend Jesse Jackson: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life, than to walk down a street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.” This raw honesty from the man who led national campaigns against discrimination is shocking—but perhaps you’ve had a similar experience. Our unconscious biases, buried comfortably deep within the recesses of our mind, can get the best of us. We want to unearth them so that we can begin to address them.

We are learning that the best way to address bias is through self-awareness. Self-awareness can be developed through self-study of our strengths and weaknesses, values and beliefs, and attitudes and biases. If not addressed, bias can lead to uncomfortable experiences, unsafe environments, and unexpected outcomes that are less than ideal for building mutual respect.

And this happens all the time without any ill intent. I think New York Times Op Ed columnist Charles Blow got it right when he said, “You don’t have to operate with a malicious spirit to do harm. Insensitivity and ignorance are sufficient. In fact, intolerance that is disarming is the most dangerous kind. It can masquerade as morality.” We must bear in mind the biases and stereotypes that should shape how we treat other people.

Fostering a Culture of Empathy

How does this all relate to singing? We hope to use our music to bring those biases to the surface and address them through a process called “perspective taking.” Of all the issues that seem to divide us in society, we at BCC have chosen to take a closer look at race. Race is not the only lens through which our young singers view the world, but we are finding that it is a good, though uncomfortable, place to start. We believe that a culture of empathy can be fostered in the rehearsal setting.

Picture our young men’s ensemble in rehearsal: a group of young men aged 12-18. Some lanky, some athletic; some rich, some poor; some urban and some suburban—a rich reflection of our community, all coming together to sing. The conductor walks into the room and announces that they will be preparing a song entitled the “The Death of Emmett Till.” 

Many of you know the remarkable story of young Emmett—a 14-year-old African-American kid visiting his relatives in Mississippi whose life was cut short when he was brutally murdered after reportedly flirting with a white woman in a corner store. But many of our young men didn’t know this story until it was introduced in rehearsal. It was important for us in this and all rehearsals to create a safe space to discuss these uncomfortable issues. 

They very quickly understood the relevance of this 60-year-old story to the present day. It all began to sound quite familiar. In the lively and engaging dialogue that ensued, the young men began to bring up Trayvon Martin and the movie Fruitvale Station. The young men of color began to reflect on their personal experiences growing up in today’s society. Would the outcomes have been different if Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant were not black? The singers’ question—not ours.

This honest and intimate dialogue allowed many of our white singers to understand the perspective of their peers of color, glimpsing—even if for a moment—into the lives of their fellow singers. Empathy and compassion can be learned through self-awareness and perspective taking, which is made possible through the music that we sing.

There are those who will disagree with our approach and argue that we are drudging up emotional baggage. But we think the great southern writer William Faulkner said it best when he said, “The past is not dead, it isn’t even past.” Our inability to talk about these issues only prevents us from moving forward. Our inability to talk about these issues only prevents us from understanding the complications of diversity.

We don’t think we can get rid of our singers’ biases. But we hope that through our music and through age-appropriate discussions, our singers can begin to reflect and analyze and interrogate their own biases. Self-awareness and self-reflection can help with bias.

Moments of Transformation

Stanford researchers posit that “social connections spark interest in another culture and engaging in behaviors associated with that culture may reduce implicit bias.” This is certainly not new news. Like many of you, we have witnessed moments of extraordinary transformation through our many performances locally, nationally, and around the world.

One evening in the spring of 2008, we met King Abdullah of Jordan. He was visiting Boston for an event and we were invited to perform. That evening sparked a remarkable relationship with the King and a year later, we found ourselves—all 60 of our singers—in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for a 12-day cultural diplomacy tour. I am not sure who was more excited, our hosts in Jordan or the singers and staff—but on we went.

On that tour was Naomi: sixteen, curious, and very proud of her Jewish heritage. Traveling in a place that served as a safe haven for Palestinian refugees created serious inner conflict for Naomi and her family. All her life she had been taught to dislike Palestinians, but during a tender moment of public self-reflection, this young lady was transformed. “My whole life people have been like, ‘oh my gosh, I hate Palestinians, they hurt our people.’ And I’ve never even met one and I had such a bad opinion of them,” she told our group. “And now I’ve met one and it’s like ‘wow, how could I be thinking things like that.’”

Naomi stepped into an uncomfortable situation. Her bias against the Palestinians was conscious and strong—and then she realized she had never met a Palestinian until she sang with one on this tour. In getting to know a few Palestinians, Naomi realized that, despite their religious and cultural differences, they had so much in common just as teenagers. Naomi will never think about the Palestinians in the same way.

Just like Naomi, sometimes we as individuals and as organizations have to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. This is hard work. Understanding the issues that prevent us from building, maintaining, and sustaining diverse organizations is complicated and uncomfortable—but it is so necessary.

Tackling these issues as a children’s chorus is challenging and ambitious. Our organization must reflect the diversity that we want to see in our audiences and we must be prepared to model empathy for our singers. We must also create a safe environment for our singers to explore themselves and others through music.

We are not only teaching musical skills; we want to teach empathy, compassion, and self-awareness. These are the qualities of a well-developed mind. These are the qualities that are sometimes hard to see and measure, but have a profound impact both on the individual and the community, the singer and the chorus, the self and other.

According to Chorus America’s Chorus Impact Study, choral singing is in the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for children and adults, with over 42 million Americans singing in choruses. Imagine the movement that would emerge if we used the art of group singing to not only make beautiful music but also as a tool to voice our own values and perspectives and to understand the values and perspectives of those who are different from us.

This is the idea that inspires us. We believe that a more peaceful, empathetic, compassionate world can emerge if we make the choice to get to know ourselves and to get to know others. Perhaps then our arts organizations will be true reflections of our diverse communities.

Singing together may not be the only solution to the problem, but we think it’s a great place to start.

This article is adapted from a presentation by Howse and Ben Hires of the Boston Children’s Chorus at the 2014 SphinxCon, a conference about diversity in the arts. A video archive is below; their presentation starts at the 40 minute mark.