“Probably the most important thing that we do is that we talk,” Antonio Cuyler reflects. An arts administrator, scholar, and consultant, Cuyler is lead faculty member for the ADEI Learning Lab, a Chorus America program for White-identifying choral leaders who seek to familiarize themselves with core issues related to access, diversity, equity, and inclusion (ADEI); support their colleagues of color; and take action to combat structural racism within their organizations. To take on this work, Cuyler believes, first requires that we “normalize having conversations about race.” Conversation and education, when rooted in a willingness to sit with discomfort and think hard about how best to catalyze change, provide the groundwork for meaningful social transformation.
To that end, the Learning Lab’s curriculum, which Cuyler designed in partnership with the social scientist and educator Kumea Shorter-Gooden, emphasizes discussion and collaboration. Conducted online over a four-week period, the program welcomed its first cohort of 32 participants in 2021, and it has since engaged 54 additional participants. The goal is for participants to come away equipped with the necessary knowledge to initiate conversations about ADEI issues within their organizations, and ready to implement constructive change.
The program involves a continual effort, says Cuyler, to “find the right balance between theory and practice,” linking abstract concepts to specific plans of action. Cuyler encourages participants to draw upon their own expertise in the choral field, while also providing tools they can use to assess their organizations’ current status with respect to ADEI (for example, by creating charts which consider how the organization enables access, representation, equity, and inclusion for audiences, artists, and staff who are members of different marginalized racial groups). The kicker: “What will happen if you don’t change?” In answering this question, participants might realize that while improved ADEI practices have clear social and moral benefits, they can also improve an organization’s long-term financial health and standing in the community. Fundamentally, Cuyler wants participants to grasp that the enduring impact of White supremacy prevents liberation for all people, including White people who ostensibly benefit from it: “We’re better off joining together and pushing back and fighting against” the violence that racism perpetuates.
As its name suggests, the Learning Lab emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning with a clear potential impact. Learning is real work: difficult and often messy, especially when it reaches the juncture where theory and practice meet. Cuyler’s hope is that participants are “compelled enough by what they're learning that they keep up the work.” In what follows, three Learning Lab participants reflect on how that work has unfolded since they completed the program, and how they are approaching the process of reckoning with structural racism and pursuing a more equitable future.
Kara Dwyer, The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay
For Kara Dwyer, Managing Director of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, the Learning Lab elucidated both the “overwhelming” nature of the “problems in society” that White supremacy creates, and the necessity of taking tangible steps to address those problems regardless. Dwyer attended the program in fall 2021, in partnership with the board chair of the Master Chorale, Tate Garrett. (The Learning Lab encourages participants to attend in groups of two or three, so that ADEI work within their organizations does not end up falling upon a single person’s shoulders.) Like many of her colleagues at arts organizations across the nation, Dwyer was motivated to address ADEI issues with increased urgency after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 and the national outcry over systemic racism that ensued.
On the one hand, the experience validated her sense that “I can’t fix everything. It’s not going to be possible overnight with one seminar, and that’s okay.” A single organization has a limited ability to combat systemic problems. On the other hand, though, the program empowered Dwyer to “listen better, ask better questions, and lift up voices not heard enough.” By focusing on “taking care of our house,” she was able to remain focused on taking concrete actions which were both feasible and impactful.
These actions encompass administrative and artistic shifts. For example, the Master Chorale has allocated funding to ADEI-related training for staff and consulted with an ADEI expert on strategic planning. Dwyer has also collaborated with artistic director Matthew Abernathy to program more music by women and composers of color—and, importantly, to incorporate this music into various concerts, rather than keeping it siloed within themed events.
Other changes are smaller in scale, but potentially just as meaningful. The group, for example, no longer requires members to appear onstage with a “natural” hair color (“it’s something that that we feel is not necessary to police anymore,” Dwyer says), and the dress code uses gender-neutral guidance rather than specifying what men or women should wear. Future plans include adding pronouns to singers’ nametags, adopting concert attire that is less gendered in appearance, and referring to different vocal sections with non-gendered terminology.
In the longer term, Dwyer hopes that the group can reduce or eliminate member dues, which can be a barrier to participation. While the Master Chorale, like many choral organizations, is disproportionately White in relation to the region in which it’s located, Dwyer eventually hopes to see “the makeup of our membership be very similar, if not the same, as the makeup of our community that we live in.” But she notes that an organization that serves adult singers and is affiliated with a symphony orchestra is unlikely to be at the forefront of change in this regard; given the educational background and training that participation typically requires, change may occur more slowly than in a group which caters to children or to singers with a wider range of musical backgrounds.
While some of the changes the Master Chorale has made are straightforward to implement, others require a more nuanced, incremental approach. Given the Learning Lab’s focus on productive conversation, Dwyer has taken particular care to recognize that well-intentioned individuals may be new to talking about race. “For a lot of White people, they don’t know that they don’t know” how to have these conversations, she reflects. She has also considered her own role in workplace power dynamics—something that she’d previously thought about primarily in terms of gender rather than race. “These are really important things for a White leader such as myself to know about,” she reflects, “so that I can consciously work on building trust in an authentic way.”
The group also must consider the social and community context in which it operates. Given the “complex community, politically, religiously, and a lot of other ways” in Florida, Dwyer strikes a balance between addressing contentious issues head-on and trying “not to push it in people’s faces.” For instance, the group might emphasize how music can offer a “common ground” through which audiences and singers “can experience songs that are written about the trials or tribulations or experiences by human beings that are different from you.” The goal is to both acknowledge the specificity of a newly programmed work – honoring how a composer’s lived experience and experience of social marginalization might inform their work – while also finding ways to highlight universally meaningful concepts within the music.
The overarching impact of these shifts remains difficult to ascertain. Dwyer notes that while “there are some quantitative things that you can measure,” and that tools like audience surveys offer useful (if imperfect) metrics, a lot of “how people are feeling” can be more difficult to capture through data, which can’t always convey what it takes to “make sure that people feel welcome, included, and seen.” That intangible quality, though, is at the heart of Dwyer’s approach to change. Her aspiration with respect to ADEI is that “we’re weaving these topics into everything we do,” so that it’s “not just an agenda item on the board meeting,” but rather “part of the fabric” of the organization.
Keri Butkevich, Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir
Before attending the Learning Lab in 2021, Keri Butkevich reflects, “I felt like this work was important, but I didn’t know how to engage with it.” As executive director of the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir, she was motivated to take part in the program by a “deep desire to do the work to become a more inclusive organization.” The experience – and especially its focus on the relationship between race and power, which denaturalizes the assumption that Whiteness is a neutral or default identity – empowered her to “be part of the conversation,” and also to know “when I needed to step back and let other people with more lived experience lead the conversation.”
To Butkevich, ADEI work is less about “transforming things overnight” than it is about embarking on a process of “intentional and deeply rooted” change. In partnership with Colibrí Collaborative, an Oakland-based consultancy, the choir has facilitated workshops, listening sessions, and other ADEI-focused endeavors; participants have included board members, faculty, and staff. Guided by the board’s insistence that the choir “not just put out a statement and then not be able to live up to it,” Butkevich says, “We’re taking the time. We’re examining all of our systems”—finances, administration, development, programming, and even fundamentals like the group’s name and location—in order to chart a path forward.
Thus far, the process has raised complex questions about the relationship among race, power, and history: for instance, how should the choir contend with the fact that it was founded in a town that owes its very existence to redlining, and how can it create a sense of belonging among members within that context? As it grapples with these big questions, the choir is also taking immediate steps. The group is leaning into its longstanding tradition of commissioning diverse composers by engaging them more deeply in partnerships around the commissioning process, and it has made a concerted effort to create welcoming spaces in which members’ families can feel connected to the organization.
Additionally, the choir has made efforts to increase the diversity of its younger classes of singers, thus building a foundation for a more diverse choir overall in the future. An advantage of this approach, Butkevich observes, is that younger singers tend not to be as “cliquey” as middle-schoolers and teenagers, among whom the work of fostering inclusion can get more complicated. “It’s one thing to say that everybody belongs, and that everyone is welcome,” she notes. “It’s another thing entirely for a 13-year-old to feel it.”
As Butkevich plans for future changes at the organization, she has embraced a concept which derives her experience at the Learning Lab: that of being part of a “cadre of gentle disrupters.” Focused on “quiet change that accumulates,” rather than reactive or sudden shifts, this approach places its faith in the value of long-term progress: “Over time, all of those little pieces add up. Maybe not as fast as we’d like, but hopefully in a more meaningful and lasting way.”
Rebecca Seeman, Sacred and Profane Chamber Choir
ADEI issues are a mainstay of Rebecca Seeman’s work. She attended the Learning Lab in 2021, while also pursuing a master’s degree in nonprofit administration (her research focused on equity in the choral sector) and teaching in the Performing Arts and Social Justice program at the University of San Francisco – all experiences which have informed her work as director of the Bay Area chamber chorus Sacred and Profane. The Learning Lab’s particular focus on “self-investigation” proved especially fruitful: Seeman reflects that as a self-identified “California progressive Jew” used to “going after people whose views I found to be prejudicial,” she found herself thinking critically about positionality and power and becoming more aware of when to lead a conversation and when to listen. At the same time, Seeman observes that as conversations around ADEI become more prevalent across the arts and culture sector, it’s vital to recognize that fluent discussion of topical issues doesn’t always translate into meaningful change. “We can talk about these things in nice little, pretty ways,” she observes, “but there are concrete and real things that happen along the way that are very complicated.”
At Sacred and Profane, one major area of change was programming. Seeman’s work at USF had ensured that “a focus on social justice had for years really influenced the way I think about programming,” but in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, she made more dramatic shifts: She signed the Black Voices Matter pledge and reoriented the season to focus on music by Black and Brown composers, as well as music “focused on community and well-being and health.” Since then, the group has commissioned several works by composers of color and LGBTQ composers; this past season, for example, they premiered a new work by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm about her experience of gender transition.
Yet as meaningful as such experiences have been, Seeman cautions that “programming is the easy place” to make change, given its relative ease of implementation. Sacred and Profane has also created an extensive action plan with goals and benchmarks for future work. “It’s easy to put out statements,” she says, “but I think action plans hold you to the fire.” For example, the group has committed to holding concerts in public spaces where people already gather, rather than singing exclusively in dedicated venues; to holding concerts in accessible, free spaces that welcome young children; and to reducing or eliminating ticket prices whenever possible. Seeman has also sought out opportunities for the chorus to take part in “non-musical things to participate in the community”; for instance, by delivering food and volunteering during the pandemic.
As an “advanced non-professional ensemble that is really advocating for these ideas,” Sacred and Profane occupies a unique position. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the past few years’ changes have prompted a variety of responses among the group’s members. Seeman notes that while some are eager to take part in community engagement, others have joined the group primarily because of its artistic merits. Similarly, in seeking to foster a more racially diverse chorus, Seeman has learned that this process is intertwined with, but not identical to, diversifying the group’s repertoire and policies (for instance, she notes that a Black singer with conservative political views might be less interested in singing music by a composer whose work reflects an overtly progressive viewpoint). Yet this observational information goes only so far; in the future, Seeman is interested in collecting additional qualitative and quantitative data to assess the group’s progress. Most fundamental, she says, is “continuing to reference back to the action plan and to our values, and make sure that the decisions that we make are rooted there.”
Lucy Caplan is a writer and scholar based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches at Harvard University.