Voices of Change: Building a More Inclusive Choral Community

A panel discussion at the 2019 Conference capped off Chorus America’s inaugural “Voices of Change” program—an effort to foster more collaboration and inclusiveness in the Philadelphia-area choral community and provide leaders with education on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Now the time has come to identify insights from this cohort that are relevant to choruses elsewhere. What might choral leaders expect when venturing into DEI discussions and attempting to build new connections in their choral communities? Voices of Change participants, facilitator Nicole Robinson, and Chorus America staff reflect on what was gained over the course of the year, as well as seeds planted that will take continued work to nurture.

On a brisk Friday morning last October, 22 individuals from Philadelphia’s vibrant choral community gathered downtown for the first in a series of workshops on diversity, equity, and inclusion in and across their choruses. Many represented institutions long considered pillars of the local arts community.

But for the most part, the group didn’t know each other.

“The choral community here is just so broken down into different segments and sections,” notes Waltier Blocker, artistic director of the St. Thomas Gospel Choir. “What truly excited me about this program was the opportunity to get to know the community at a much deeper and meaningful level,” says Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia executive director Flo Gardner. “I mean, I've been singing with the Mendelssohn Club since I was 19, but I've never actually met anyone from Singing City,” which, much like her organization, is a large, auditioned community chorus with decades of history. “We've been working in the same space, performing in the same venues for years.”

While participants in the Voices of Change cohort—who represented symphonic, professional, church-based, children and youth, and volunteer choruses from various distinct communities—came in with DEI goals for themselves and their organizations, they faced a common challenge of uniting disparate facets of the Philadelphia choral scene.


A Microcosm of a Growing Imperative

Philadelphia’s situation is not unique, explains Chorus America associate director of membership and programs Christie McKinney, who spearheaded the Voices of Change pilot. She has often observed similar fragmentation when facilitating local programs with Chorus America. “Choruses frequently get so wrapped in the grind of keeping their organization alive that they tend not to make time for building community among their colleagues in the area,” McKinney says.

The pilot aimed to address this isolation, as well as to emphasize a more fundamental need for choruses to broaden their communities. “There is a constant question from our membership about how to stay relevant, with so many ways that people can spend their time, and this question is often tied to how choruses can grow their audience,” McKinney says. “And I think inherent in audience-building is the question of who's in your community.” When choruses don’t know their peer institutions across town, it indicates that they may not be paying attention to segments of their community where they could form important relationships and expand their reach, McKinney adds.

Diversifying these relationships has never been more important for choruses, especially for those focusing on Western European musical traditions. North America’s increasingly diverse audiences are demanding that arts organizations reflect their communities and make room for voices of marginalized populations in their programming. “There is a growing outcry in this country to address long-standing inequities—barriers to participation and distribution of resources,” says Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney, “and increasing awareness in the last few years that we haven't made as much progress as we once thought.” Dehoney adds that choruses should be aware that leading arts funders are committed to investing in cultural equity, and organizations that want to make a case for this type of funding will be urged to show their impact on a wider community.

Another reason Gardner felt eager to join the cohort was that she had already noticed these shifting attitudes reflected in Mendelssohn Club audience surveys. “It wasn't uncommon for us to see comments to the effect of, ‘You shouldn't be singing that repertoire [e.g., gospel]—it feels weird,’ or ‘That’s a lot of white people up there.’” For Blocker, there was an opportunity to gain tools to help him interact with the members of his already quite diverse chorus. “I deal with individuals that are from so many different backgrounds, from ages to genders, to sexualities, to religions. This program is important to give me a different perspective from a leadership position.”

Chorus America faced a challenge of its own that became apparent as Dehoney and McKinney worked to assemble a racially and ethnically diverse Voices of Change cohort. They found Chorus America’s current Philadelphia-area membership to be heavily skewed toward predominantly white choruses—a result of the organization’s history of serving mostly choruses with the same independent 501(c)(3) model. It took targeted searches of the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance membership and the nonprofit database GuideStar to identify majority-minority choruses in the area.


“The Right Environment”

Identifying a diverse group of organizations was only one step in a deliberate process. Philadelphia was chosen as the inaugural location because of its proximity to Chorus America offices in D.C., because the 2019 Conference in Philadelphia provided a natural outlet to share outcomes, and because the city is home to a funding source interested in cultural equity and also new to choral music.

Much care was given to designing a welcoming space so that dialogue around potentially sensitive topics would not feel threatening. An essential ingredient was a trusting relationship with the facilitator of the program. Working with a facilitator who represents a minority group specific to the cohort city’s history—especially if the facilitator knows that city well—can help tremendously, advises McKinney. Chorus America connected with Nicole Robinson, a career music educator who happened to be launching her own DEI consulting company in Philadelphia. “I believe you have to start with understanding self,” Robinson says of her approach to diversity education. “We cannot start making transformative change until people individually start changing and developing.”

When the workshops began, Robinson set the tone for individual growth with activities that emphasized personal discovery along with collective responsibility. Her first reading assignment for the cohort illuminated the effort required to foster diversity through a memorable, parable-style story about a backyard pond, “The Right Environment,” which conveys the lesson that a healthy ecosystem where all inhabitants can thrive demands detailed preparation and follow-through.

The program was configured to include multiple leaders from each participating chorus, making it easier to break the ice early on. Participants began by pairing off with someone from another organization, learning about each other, and introducing their partner’s chorus to the full group. “Nicole immediately set us at ease—she is particularly humble and approachable, and has a really good sense of humor,” Gardner explains. “You just felt like you were in a safe place that allowed you to be vulnerable in a way that you're not given a chance to do very often.” “When I got to know everybody during the first gathering, it was almost like family,” says Charles Holloway, a singer with St. Thomas Gospel Choir. “If we trust each other, then we are free to open up and accept different ideas from every person and every type of organization. You have to build the foundation from the bottom up.”


Shared Vocabulary, Shared Experiences

With a supportive environment in place, Robinson was able to introduce new concepts and stimulate discussion. Though many of the participants had previously engaged in DEI work, they found it enlightening to frame the issues in a group setting. “I came in with the idea that I had a pretty good handle on the ‘isms’ or the oppressions that happen within our society,” says Veronica Chapman-Smith, who works with T-VOCE, a choral program for underserved youth founded by Opera Philadelphia. “I've learned that I'm not as well-versed as I thought I was.”

She and others appreciated the chance to unpack terminology that was perhaps familiar, yet not fully understood. A hallmark of Robinson’s teaching is the use of proprietary games she has developed, including a card game that illustrates a concept coined by UCLA law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw called “intersectionality”—how facets of one’s identity such as race, gender, and education level can “intersect” to create more privilege in some situations and, in others, more marginalization. For many participants, it flipped a switch. “I think I really understood intersectionality for the first time in its full sense because of the card game,” says Jonathan Bradley, executive director of The Crossing. 

Voices of Change participants learned about concepts of privilege and intersectionality through a card game designed by facilitator Nicole Robinson.


Bradley appreciated the emphasis on the functionality of key terms, which he feels allowed him to apply them in conversation. “For people to have a discussion, there need to be definitions,” he says. “We need tools to assess and understand each other's experiences so that we can build bridges between the worlds that we live in.” Chapman-Smith is trying to introduce these discussions to her group of teens, many of whom belong to minority groups, including the transgender community. “We're constantly trying to make sure we have the correct vocabulary, so that people don't feel isolated or excluded,” she says.

For some, it was helpful simply to know that they were in the same boat as other participants. “I'm always thinking it's just my choir—but others have the same challenges that I have,” says Blocker. Anthony Reisinger, diversity and inclusion chair and incoming president of the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC), feels the same way: “It's like, oh, wow, we're not alone.”

“I think that there's a lot of power in shared experience,” says Sister Cities Girlchoir artistic and executive director Alysia Lee. She recalls that the room was buzzing with conversation during lunch and in between sessions, as participants asked each other how the workshop content they’d just absorbed applied to their organizations. “I think there is definitely a greater sense of people feeling like they can reach out to each other about anything across the cohort, because we had this experience together,” she adds.

“What resonated the most with me in this particular program is not necessarily what I'm doing for my organization,” says Reisinger. “it taught me a lot about me.”


Points of Reflection

As with anything that takes time to process, several of the participants experienced their most valuable learning moments in situations where they faltered. “Even before we started this cohort, I shared with the chorus that we were participating in this program, and that this was a topic that we as an organization feel strongly that we need to explore,” Gardner says. “I was informed afterwards that one of our singers who is not white felt called out by me saying that diversity was an issue in our chorus. I really struggled with why that was.”

The situation was tricky to address, says Gardner, since the issue was brought to her indirectly and she did not want to risk further singling out the chorister by responding herself. Instead, the person who brought the concern to Gardner communicated with the hurt singer and acknowledged the chorus’s ongoing learning process with DEI work. In addition, when speaking about important DEI-related topics, she now scripts her remarks with extra help from volunteers on the Mendelssohn Club’s chorus management council. “In hindsight I realize that when I'm talking about something that can be sensitive, I should put more thought into the exact words I use and how I frame it,” she says.

“My aha moment was hearing Nicole say that those of us who are in a privileged class need to stand up, because we have the power to help those that are marginalized,” says Reisinger. The words hit him particularly hard because a close friend who is differently abled told Reisinger that he stayed home from this year’s Pride festival when he couldn’t find a way that he could participate with the chorus. “It was really important to him—it was the 50th anniversary of the events of Stonewall Inn, the biggest Pride festival we ever had. Nobody came to him and said, ‘How can we accommodate you to make sure that you get to enjoy this with us?’ I felt horrible.”

Reisinger took that painful exchange as a call to improve. “We talked this week about putting together a checklist for next season of things to think about that we can share with our events committee—to take everybody into consideration as they're planning activities. It felt really good that out of a lesson that I learned, we had a conversation and now we have an action.”


Immediate Actions and Longer Journeys

From the outset, Robinson guided the cohort to think ahead to outcomes. At the first meeting, every represented chorus decided on one big-picture issue that it wanted to address within the organization, so that by the program’s end, each group would formulate concrete action steps.

Bradley wants to focus first on board development and, though detailed announcements were not ready to be made public right away, cultivating a broader range of collaborations with communities that The Crossing has not engaged with. Other participants named these same issues as priorities. In addition, at the Mendelssohn Club, Gardner aims to update hiring practices. “Through this process we realized that the way in which we approached our artistic director search created barriers for people that didn't have a doctorate, for example,” she says.


Some actions are small. “One of the very first things we did is put a sign on the restrooms in our rehearsal space to make them gender-neutral,” says Reisinger. “It was quick, but it showed that we were aware.” Bradley is looking forward to holding open rehearsals and proactively inviting students of color and a wider range of students in general. Continued education is another way to get started—Reisinger says he invited Robinson to speak at PGMC’s summer board retreat. 

And while visible first steps provide momentum, grappling with these issues and seeing lasting progress requires patience. Reisinger tries to foster an atmosphere where people are comfortable making mistakes and learning from them. He says his greatest sense of accomplishment came when a senior member of the chorus asked if he was using the correct gender pronouns with auditionees. To foster that atmosphere, he advises trying to avoid publicly calling people out when they make well-intentioned errors—such as using those pronouns incorrectly.

Lee’s reflections center on spirited conversations among the cohort about big-picture questions that didn’t result in clear answers. Should increasing racial and ethnic diversity be a priority for every chorus? Particularly if inclusivity efforts have paid off with some populations—such as the transgender community—but have not been as successful at attracting people of color? Based on her experience, Lee imagines there will be predominantly white organizations that do all the right things but still don’t see a change in their composition for some time. 

As many wrestle with how best to overcome historical obstacles to diversifying their organizations, Robinson reassures leaders that it’s okay to have a specific artistic identity, whether it be gospel, early music, or any genre—the wide range of musical traditions is something she greatly appreciates about Philadelphia’s choral scene. At the same time, she encourages every chorus to take whatever steps it can to be as inclusive as possible. The real key, as Bradley articulates, may be questioning who choruses are serving and what needs their programming fulfills in the lives of others. “To be relevant,” he says, “art always has to answer the question, why should anybody care? I think challenging ourselves in that way is healthy for the development of choral music.”

Debates like the ones that Bradley and Lee highlight will challenge the field for years to come. Fortunately, it seems these discussions will continue. Early returns suggest the pilot has succeeded in forging connections across the Philadelphia choral community that will last beyond the program’s end. The feeling that the conversation has just begun was a prevailing theme—and the cohort felt it has many areas of potential collaboration it can explore.  

“I think that there is an opportunity to build and expand audiences, now that we have this network that we've built,” says Gardner. “I know that I'm committed to trying to make that happen, whether that means attending more of my colleagues’ performances, perhaps sharing resources, marketing—it can be pretty grassroots.” Adds Lee, “There was a strong sense of wanting to capitalize on the sheer number of folks that are involved in choirs in Philadelphia and the high level of expertise in the room. That's something that could be explored further, outside of DEI. If we met four times for eight hours for this program, people could make time for a semi-annual meeting.”

Voices of Change also brought valuable insights for Chorus America as it prepares to continue its work on these issues. “We're planning to start building a DEI component into every program we offer,” says McKinney. She also stresses the importance of continuing to offer future standalone cohort programs like the one in Philadelphia and a sense of further clarity on Chorus America’s role as the convener. “What Chorus America provided was an opportunity for the people in the room to establish a sense of trust and let them have the hard conversations,” says McKinney, "which inevitably leads to more questions.”

Those future iterations will aim to strike the same balance of self-discovery and communal action that Robinson instilled in the Philadelphia participants. “I think it's up to us now, collectively, to figure out how we're going to move forward,” says Gardner.

Mike Rowan is associate director of communications at Chorus America. He also sings with a number of ensembles in Washington DC and directs The Capital Hearings.