Creating a Culture of Belonging

An Interview with Nicole Robinson

Aiming to foster a more welcoming and connected choral community in the city of our 2019 Conference, Chorus America has been bringing representatives of Philadelphia-area choruses together since last October for a series of workshops and online learning activities called “Voices of Change: Building a More Inclusive Choral Community.” Led by Nicole R. Robinson, a music educator and the founder of the consulting firm Cultural Connections by Design, the project is intended to support choruses in considering diversity, equity, and inclusion in their work and to explore strategies for increased communication and collaboration between different kinds of choruses.

In advance of a panel discussion with “Voices of Change” participants at the Chorus America Conference in Philadelphia, Nicole Robinson spoke with Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about the difficulty and importance of starting conversations about diversity and about her unique approach, which emphasizes self-discovery.


CD: Conversations about diversity are everywhere in the corporate and nonprofit worlds, and also elsewhere. But on a personal level, many people find it a difficult thing to talk about. Why do you think that is?

NR: When we think about diversity, often the very first thing we think of is race. We need to— and we are starting to—broaden our concept to realize that diversity is not only about race or gender, and I think it is opening up space for more conversation. But when you talk about cultural diversity, there's a history that's attached to it and continued discrimination that makes it very challenging for people to have conversations around it. It’s such an emotional place. 

We went into a time, when it was like, as long as we didn't talk about it, that means that everything's fine. In a sense, we created this false sense of an inclusive culture because we were working together and seeing each other at work or on the corner and speaking and talking. But it never got past surface sorts of conversations. And now we are at a place where we're saying, we need to have deeper conversations. And you cannot have those conversations without addressing the very difficult, painful situations that created some of the challenges that we face now. It's the role of whoever is facilitating such conversations to put people in a place where they can feel comfortable to really share what they feel and do it in a way that's truly authentic and transparent.

CD: When it comes to the words we're using to talk about this work, you hear different terms, different sets of initials. There’s DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some say DEAI, adding the “a” for “access.” And there are others. From your perspective, why are each of these words important? Is there a particular set of initials that is bubbling to the top that somehow helps in framing the whole work?

NR: Initially it was all about diversity. If you think about the word diversity, it really is about the differences. And then it was like, well, just acknowledging differences is not enough. I think you're seeing a transition in how we are approaching the concept of inclusive practices in general. What I've been saying is that we can push past inclusion and create what I call cultures of belonging. If an organization is able to establish a culture of belonging, then it's not specifically about who makes up that organization. It's not just about access. You know, all the places where we are the most comfortable? We feel like we belong in those places—if it's our church, or our work settings, whatever. People can kind of resonate with that, so if we can get our organizations to create these cultures of belonging—“This is your workspace just as much as mine”—I really think it will move us to a different point.

CD: In your consulting, you’re working with nonprofits, corporations, and academic institutions, and now we’re pulling you into the world of choral music. Are you seeing differences in the different sectors? Where are they on this journey? What are they focusing on?

NR: The thing that gets everyone to say we need help [with diversity] sometimes looks a little bit different. In the academic sector, it really centers on [student retention], because a lot of universities do well with recruitment but then can't figure out why they have this revolving door. Corporations tend to look at it much more from a bottom-line perspective, and they have bought into the idea that companies that have more diversity have a healthier bottom line. I have found that the nonprofits I work with have much more push about relationship-building and a deeper push about developing the people.

The work I've been doing has been the same [in each sector]. First I want to develop the “personal person.” What I'm seeing across the spectrum is that people are starting to learn about identities, intersections, and oppressions, those sorts of things. There is an internal growth and development happening, which then spills out into the organization. >>>>>>>>> I do also find that results differ depending on age. I noticed that my younger participants and the students I work with—the millennials—tend to be very action-oriented once they learn this information. All of a sudden, they're like, “I want to go home and tell my father all about intersectionality.” People who are post-millennial tend to be more reflective, thinking about how they were raised and how that plays a role.

CD: What are the most common questions that you get from the people you work with?

In addition to learning about identities, they're learning a lot of vocabulary that they may not have heard. For example, “What is cisgender?” and questions like, “What's the difference between sex, gender, and sexual orientation?” Sometimes when we start getting into the spectrum of privilege, there are certain ideas that kind of throw people because they're fighting their own perception of what has been considered privilege. I find a lot of people, maybe for the first time, asking questions and not feeling like they're really stupid to ask.

CD: One way you make participants comfortable is by having them play unique games you’ve developed. Can you talk about how these games work? And what are the primary outcomes you've seen for the participants?

NR: This all got started when I was invited to go to a university to talk about urban education, which is my research area as a professor. If I had gone with my typical speech about how urban schools serve children who are primarily children of color, primarily poor, and they have low academic achievement, I felt like I would be putting a magnifying glass on the victims, and saying, “These are their problems and this is them.” I felt like I would be victimizing victims. I knew that the students I talked to were going to be predominantly white, middle-class students, and I said, “I have to figure out how to talk about racism, classism, and systems of oppression. How do I do that as a black woman?” So I then went on this quest to create some kind of medium that would allow me to step out of the teaching process and allow a self-discovery process for the students. That was the birth of the very first game.


Voices of Change participants playing the “Impact” board game developed by Cultural Connections by Design


There are two games, actually. The first one is a card game called “Matrix of Intersectionality.” Within that card game we're looking at identity and we're looking at power and privilege within identity, and then how these things intersect. The second one is a board game called “Impact.” It illuminates the impact of socioeconomic status on lived experience. [Participants] start realizing how people who are in different socioeconomic brackets have to make different decisions.

CD: In the past year, you've been working with this cohort of the Philadelphia-area chorus leaders in a pilot program exploring these topics. From your perspective, what are the desired outcomes of this special project?

NR: We have these wonderful choral organizations in Philadelphia, but it seemed like these people who are in the same community don't always have very much connection with one another. And so there first was this building of a relationship among people who are different, particularly in their music offerings. Our very first meeting was a get-to-know-you. They actually had to go and interview someone and do a portrait profile of someone from a different organization. And the feedback was, “I didn't know your choir sang that genre of music. You do gospel music and classical music?” I heard quite a bit from the participants: “I'm just so excited. Now I have colleagues that are in the city.” So now there's a feeling of moving to “Maybe we can do some cross-marketing, or maybe we could go to your rehearsal, you could go to our rehearsal, maybe share a concert.” I think that's where we're really trying to get to. We're not trying to take away the identity of the individual organizations, but maybe in partnering and coming together, they can create an even more enriched experience for the community and for themselves. That, for me, was one of the number-one goals.

CD: Is it realistic to think that out of this pilot project, the choruses themselves will start thinking about how to change their own practices internally?

NR: I think they're already doing that. I heard a couple of choirs say, “We have made a commitment to now always commission a piece from someone from a diverse background. We have made a commitment that we're going to make sure we have a women composers series in our lineup for the year.” The other one that was really amazing was, “We realized when we looked at our hiring processes, we had this component in there that was really eliminating people when we didn't realize it. So we changed our hiring policy.”

CD: Have there been challenges along the way?

NR: In terms of diversity work, there are challenges. When I'm walking in and I'm speaking about these things, I am really coming in disrupting what many people have always known and always kind of thought was the norm. And people may question what I call “challenging.” Sometimes you get pushback in the questioning. But I’ve found that if you're questioning, that means you're listening. That means you're growing. >>>>>>>>>>

CD: Okay, so here's a big one. When you think about an equitable and a diverse choral arts community, what would that look like?

NR: Well, I'm thinking about the conversation that we had during a recent session. We delved into the deepest conversation the group has had. I mean, we went 40 minutes into lunch. A question came up: “Do all organizations have to actually represent diversity?” If that organization’s genre of music [appeals] to a certain demographic, does that ensemble have to figure out how to create diversity?

There are choral ensembles that have a very specific identity, such as a gospel choir, for example. We don't want to lose the diversity of our different choral ensembles in Philadelphia, because that's what makes it such a rich choral community. I think it's striking the nice balance of not losing identity, but at the same time, creating inclusiveness. When someone comes in who is different from your demographic, you don't want to say, “Oh, no, you can't sing because this choir's for only fill in the blank.” Like a gay men's chorus saying you have to be gay or a man to sing. I really believe the true actualization of inclusiveness will come when they themselves as ensembles start figuring out ways to connect with one another. 

CD: What words of wisdom do you have for those who are starting, or those who have started and seem to be stuck or are getting frustrated that they don't see progress? 

NR: My words of wisdom would be that it is a journey. Because you're dealing with human beings, and it's a messy process. Is every single person developing individually along the spectrum? An organization is a collection of people. That’s the reason we start with individuals in our process. So as each individual shifts and changes, the organization collectively shifts and changes.