Changing the Trajectory : An Interview with Arreon Harley - Emerson

Conductor, administrative leader, and scholar Arreon Harley Emerson’s personal and professional development weaves together many different strands into a singular story. As an equity coach and nonprofit strategist, he consults with arts and cultural organizations to center diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in their work. As the former director of music and operations at the Choir School of Delaware, Harley-Emerson led an organization with a legacy of serving Wilmington’s youth and families that dates back to 1883.

Harley-Emerson and his company Equity Sings are partnering with Chorus America to develop the Choral Executive Leadership Academy, a new program designed to create executive career pathways for early-to-mid career choral leaders who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. This fall, while still at the Choir School of Delaware and in advance of launching Leadership Academy program applications in January 2023, he spoke with Chorus America director of programs and member services Christie McKinney about evolving into an administrator, the inaugural Bent, But Not Broken conference hosted at the Choir School in April 2022, and how investing in leaders of color benefits the whole choral ecosystem.

Christie McKinney: Let's start with your journey at the Choir School. I can't believe you've been there since 2013—almost a decade! How has your role there evolved over time and what it's like now?

Arreon Harley-Emerson: I had done my masters in Delaware and then I was teaching in the school district of Philadelphia. I had a colleague and friend who sang at the Choir School as one of the adult members because the Choir School is an intergenerational ensemble. At that time, they were looking for a new artistic director and they were not really sure what was going to happen. The cathedral that the school was affiliated with [the Cathedral Church of Saint John] was closing and the organization was asking internally: What's the next chapter for us?

I saw the posting but thought ‘Well, they're looking for someone with a doctorate.’ So I didn't even really consider it as an option. But this friend of mine said, ‘You are perfect for this job. You love teaching in the inner city. You love working with Black and Brown populations. You should really apply.’ And so I sent my materials in and the rest was history.

CM: So you were hired as the artistic director. And now you are the director of music and operations. How did that evolution come about?

AHE: The staff was tiny—about two and a half people when I came. After about a year of being there, I was growing the program and just kind of living into that executive director role of attending meetings and representing the organization. The Choir School was an independent nonprofit before I came but, because of the structure of the church, it was more relaxed. It wasn't really a fully developed and fully functioning nonprofit. So when I came in I said, ‘Okay, we need to set up some structures,’ and I spearheaded that. And the board said, ‘Well, you're basically our executive director.’

But I didn't want to go through with the executive director title because I still wanted to stay in touch with the music. I came in through that artistic side and that is what fuels me. Fortunately, the board members were okay with that, and they then began to build out the organizational infrastructure that would support me.

We've grown a lot—there are eight of us now at the Choir School, which is huge! We basically have two divisions of staff. We've got our administrative arm of the organization: folks doing marketing and audience development and fundraising. I'm kind of both, as well as our deputy director. But then everyone else is on the social service side. We consider music to be part of the social service side because we feel that it is inherently a need. Everyone needs to engage with music.

We've built out the structure such that folks are engaging with music, but they're also doing social services, and are also parent advocates, and also do other sorts of trainings. We use something called the whole family approach, which acknowledges that social services have been fragmented. Our thought is that we don't have to be the experts in every area, but we can be this community center that just so happens to sing, and we can connect you to all of these critical social services, including music.

CM: I have to say, you strike me as a very natural administrator. But you didn't necessarily start in that space at the Choir School. How did that evolution go for you?

AHE: I would say that the evolution is still in process! My philosophy for my own musical professional growth and my administrative professional growth comes from a voice teacher that I had in college. Her name is Serafina Digiacomo, and she passed away within the last year.

She was about to retire and I was just distraught. And she said, ‘You know, Arreon, you have to go to different teachers. Because each teacher is going to give you a pearl, and it's your job to find these different teachers, so that you have all of these pearls such that you have this necklace at the end of your journey.’ It was a beautiful way of talking about how we need to collect and seek out experiences that are going to be additive to who we are and the work that we do in the community and self-fulfillment.

I've had many people who have provided mentoring, many people who have provided lessons. I have had many crises that have taught me a lot. Not every mentor is a person; sometimes a mentor is a crisis. Learn from that crisis and take that pearl of wisdom.

CM: I love that pearl necklace analogy. Those are the kinds of things from our mentors that we really remember. Were there other kinds of support or things that you experienced in your career building process that were helpful to you along the way?

AHE: Yes, I attended lots of workshops, lots of conferences, and lots of training sessions. We have a fairly robust offering for nonprofit executives here in Delaware. We also have a support system through the Delaware Division of the Arts, which is our state arts agency.

Quite frankly, I wish I had done more of that. I wish I would have had some intensive training on budget management and audience development very early on. I wish I knew more of the offerings that Chorus America had for choir administrators, and I think that I could have figured out things more quickly had I known. Because with a training that’s specifically for choir administrators you're going to get that nonprofit foundation that you need and you're going to get the contextualization of how that works in an artistic community. It's also automatically going to give you a network of folks who are already choral adjacent. Beginning to develop and build that social capital is also important.

CM: Now you're doing your PhD work at Temple University. Can you talk a little bit about your focus and your research there, and how it is benefiting your professional development?

AHE: At Temple University they do not offer a DMA [Doctor of Musical Arts] degree. The philosophy is that we all come to this work of choral conducting as an educator, whether we are working with students or whether we are working with adults or professionals. We have a responsibility to continue the educational growth of the singers in our ensembles.

Inclusion and diversity are at the core of what I’m doing. Many of my classes are not even music related at this point. I've earned a couple of certificates in facilitation and HR management, leading with an ADEI perspective and diversity, leadership, and higher education. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be able to learn from those non-musical content areas and bring that work over to what I'm doing. It has definitely informed my work here at the Choir School.

I will be done in the spring of 2025. And I will be doing a triple study dissertation with three different studies. One is on creating and sustaining equitable choral communities. Another will be related to culturally relevant content being incorporated in teaching practices, particularly Music Learning Theory. How do we bring in relevant content, such as gospel and spirituals, and use that as a way to help singers develop and students develop as well? And then the final one is specifically on the professional development experiences of Black and Brown choral directors. What is the “BIPOC burden,” as I like to call it? How do we begin to measure in a quantitative way the additional weight that rests on the shoulders of music educators and choral executives of color?

CM: That's a beautiful transition to my next question, which is about Bent, But Not Broken. This is a fantastic first-of-its-kind gathering that amplified the musical contributions and accomplishments of Black and Brown choral artists. What were your goals for this event? What was it like watching them come to fruition?

AHE: It was so exciting, and I can’t wait to do it again. I think about all the different strands of my work over the years, and it felt like everything was coming together in this one conference. I had never been at a conference where there was this amount of Black excellence in one place. It was really the honor of a lifetime.

The title, I think, says a lot. This is an idiomatic expression from the Black church where people talk about palm trees and how strong palm trees are. One part of Blackness is that resilience. When storms come, even though you're being bent, you never actually break. One of the goals was to celebrate that resilience of the Black community. But it was also to show that this is just the beginning.

One of my colleagues says all the time that Bent, But Not Broken is not a conference—it's a movement. It's a new way of contextualizing Black art. It's a way of expanding what we think of as the choral ecosystem as well. It was about having spaces where we could have uncomfortable conversations. There was intercultural dialogue and intracultural dialogue.

I also wanted to bring folks to Wilmington specifically. Wilmington was one of the original Brown vs. Board of Education co-plaintiffs. This is the same ground that Harriet Tubman ran through and stopped in Wilmington on countless trips on the Underground Railroad. This is the same place where Thomas Garrett was helping to assist folks on the Underground Railroad. So there's a lot of rich history here in Wilmington that has to do with the Black experience.

CM: So version 2.0, you've got it coming up. How is it going to evolve?

AHE: We're expanding the Honor Choir experience. I feel that there is not enough emphasis on conferences for youth. We have the Honor Choir experience, but we don’t really have other educational opportunities for them.  

So at Bent, But Not Broken, that was one thing that we wanted to address. Why can't we have the Honor Choir experience, as well as pour into the students all this other great information that they need to have? They have an amazing openness when they are having these real artistic mountaintop kind of moments and it’s a great opportunity. So we've developed a track for students, a real conference track for students who are also part of the Honor Choir.

CM: You chair ACDA's National Diversity Initiatives Committee, and I know you've been doing that for a while. Where do you see opportunities for Chorus America and ACDA to intersect on ADEI work?

AHE: With ACDA, we’re looking at the choral experience of what's happening in the rehearsal room and performance space. What repertoire are we singing? Who is singing that repertoire?

I think where Chorus America is leading is around questions like: What do our chorus administrators look like? What do our policies and practices look like? And that's important work too. Both have to co-exist in order for us to have a healthy and thriving ecosystem. Both are really, really, really important, because we have to leave no stone unturned.

When it comes to inclusion, this is not a pivot like we spoke about during the pandemic. It's a migration. A new way of doing things, a new way of existing and engaging that we're called to. This time compels us and convicts us to do better.

CM: Yes, absolutely. I feel like we are living into that in our partnership with you and your company Equity Sings on the Choral Executive Leadership Academy. The program design for the Leadership Academy has really drawn on your experiences running Leaders of Promise, a program for nonprofit administrators in Delaware. Can you share a little bit about how that program came to be?

AHE: Leaders of Promise began in 2019 out of some conversations about how tough it is out there for Black executive directors, and for other executive directors of color, and for women executive directors as well. We began to think through: What are the skill sets needed? What resources do people need so that they can live into being executive directors?

What we learned was that most people, particularly people of color, become executive directors because they are leading successful programs or they are starting an organization. We have some folks who go through MBA programs or go through arts admin programs, but because of many other inequities a lot of Black and Brown folks are not enrolled in those programs.

So we created Leaders of Promise to talk about everything from how to write effective minutes for a meeting all the way through to budget management to HR. It has to be accessible to people.

This program that we're doing together with Chorus America is very much in that same vein. It uses what we call resource- or asset-based pedagogy, meaning that folks are not coming in as blank canvases. People are coming in with lived experiences—as leaders, as administrators, as artists, as fill in the blank. We are going to be looking at those strengths and that cultural identity first and foremost as an asset to inform all of these other areas where there's potential to continue to learn and grow

We want to have more leaders of color as administrators in the choral ecosystem. If we want to have different outcomes, if we want to have these metrics of diversity that we see as important, it can't only be that we have composers of color. It can't only be that we have conductors of color. We absolutely must have executives of color. We must have administrators of color. These people are going to bring a different perspective into their decision-making. If you don't change the decision-making mechanism, you cannot expect a different outcome.

When we make investments in diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, we are not just investing in leaders of color. We are investing in everyone. We are all going to reap the dividends of this investment. And that's going to be really transformative for the whole ecosystem.

CM: I wanted to end by asking you a personal question: As you go through the day-to-day grind of being the director of operations and doing your artistic magic, what brings you joy and inspires you?

AHE: Being part of an intergenerational community is magic. I feel like the greatest blessing of my work is having the opportunity to see people grow over a period of time. It brings me joy to see transformation, to see change. To know that we are changing the trajectory of lifelines and bloodlines is just magic.

Choral Executive Leadership Academy applications will open in January 2023. This program is supported in part by a gift from presenting partner Cathedral Choral Society.