From Ideal to Reality (diversity 3)

From Ideal to Reality
Understanding our similarities as well as our differences

by Allison Vulgamore President and Managing Director, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Graduate, Diversity Leadership Academy of The American Institute for Managing Diversity

From an organizational standpoint, diversity is a constant process. Our challenge is to make that strategic process work in the orchestra world. Orchestras are themselves very complex organizations. To incorporate diversity successfully, comfort and facility with complexity is required so we are good candidates for success.

The work of Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. and his American Institute for Managing Diversity has helped me to understand how diversity can be achieved in orchestras. Dr. Thomas suggests a definition of diversity that is a bit different from the norm. He suggests that diversity is any collective mixture--and "collective mixture" is a good description of an orchestra--of differences and similarities. Let's look at the orchestra's diversity more closely, beyond race and gender and age and sexual orientation.

At the Atlanta Symphony we have volunteers, and we have paid staff: That's a mixture of differences and similarities. We have administrative staff; we have union staff. We have volunteers who make money for the orchestra by creating great events, and we have trustees who expect to run the organization. We have professional musicians in the ASO, and we have amateur musicians in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, and we have student musicians in our youth orchestra. They all have different needs. It is therefore a complex community.

We have different audiences: classical audiences, education audiences, pops audiences. They're not the same group of people, most of the time. Besides all these audiences, each with its own expectations of the ASO, we have parents involved in long-range planning for the Atlanta Youth Symphony. And we have donors, who are involved as investors. The orchestra itself is an ensemble, an educator, and a presenter. These are all examples of diversity--collective mixtures of similarities and differences.

When you separate out racial or ethnic difference, it's important to start by recognizing that it's necessary to feed the talent identification system. There is a role for affirmative action, and there is a role for developing talent--an investment that takes time to mature. (At the Atlanta Symphony, our own Talent Development Program has taken nine years to produce our first full-time conservatory-bound graduate: Eric Thompson, a doublebass student who studied with our principal, Ralph Jones, is attending the Curtis Institute on full scholarship. We also have younger students in the program who have received scholarships for study, and our youth orchestra benefits from their talent.) As institutions, we have to feed the system--now, authentically and consistently. We must work to ensure representation, and that means focusing first on inclusion.

The second step is understanding our similarities. The people in any organization share certain values. In an orchestra, our first shared value must be excellence of performance. That's a similarity that we can build on. At the ASO, we also value being an educator, because that broadens the opportunities for involvement in our organization. We also want some sense of community ownership through partnerships.

The next focus is on getting minority talent through the door. By the way, this is not just what we want to do for the good of the orchestra. It's what our community is asking us to do. The community now expects its organizations, whether they are corporations or musical institutions, to understand that we live in a very diverse world, and everyone should be at the table. Our goal should be to establish that sense of ownership internally. In this way, your orchestra will benefit a hundredfold from any move you make toward diversity.

Achieving diversity onstage is a balancing act among some powerful ideas, and we must be careful how we proceed. In his adjacent comments, Aaron Dworkin mentions adjusting tenure. In Atlanta, when we tried to modify tenure in our union contract, the ASO audiences suffered a thirteen-week strike. So be thoughtful. Focus on the requirements set forth in your mission statement. I have to admit, the ASO leaves itself vulnerable in this regard. We have an inclusive planning process, so our mission statement is lengthy, in order to represent cross-constituent interests. "We are committed to a foundation of artistic excellence"--that's a standard we can all agree on. We also want to "serve and expand our audience through innovative programming, broader venues, and increased educational opportunities, while balancing artistic growth with financial stability. We share our passion for the heritage of the music and we embrace our responsibility to be a vigorous part of the cultural fabric of our community," and "we strive to reach national and international audiences"! Our challenge, of course, is that in stating all this, we have left ourselves vulnerable in our community to the interpretation that We Must Do It All, and Do It All Well. That's something we have to wrestle with.

Whatever your mission, make sure it is clear about your diversity requirements. This will help you free up and secure the assets that must be spent to bring diversity forward at your orchestra. Expand your work toward diversity strategically, working toward a broader understanding among all your organization's various parts. Dr. Roosevelt Thomas recommends a four-step approach*: 1. Focus on understanding differences; 2. Access talent; 3. Focus on all internal and external diversity mixtures that impact the business; and 4. Focus on inclusion. This is a cycle to be repeated again and again.

From Desire to Reality
In connecting our desire for diversity with the realities we face daily, we must keep that standard of excellence in front of us as our shared value. It's also important to stay curious when it comes to programming. That means not just repertoire, but concert formats, too. Last summer, our music director, Robert Spano, explored the theme "What is Praise?" in a concert. He started with the Messiaen Trois Petites Liturgies with our symphony chorus, and then he brought on our all-Atlanta African-American chorus to do some popular gospel. That program had a connection in the element of Praise--and for us, in the South, for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and our city, it worked. That's community ownership.

However, we must be careful that we're not in it for the revenues. We're not "doing something diverse" for the funding or the ticket sales. If our communities don't believe we do it with our heart and soul, then it's a game. We're working toward real diversity because our community has said to us that they want this from us, and we want to represent the community and receive its support.

To move forward, you have to have a strategic diversity plan and a sense of how, financially, you will proportion that obligation to your operating bottom line. Consider how much money you are spending on diversity, and how you will spend it. Spending on orchestra membership may not be your first priority. Instead, your priority may be a training program, or an education program. Or it may be a consultant to help you think these things through, if you don't have someone in your own orchestra family who can serve this purpose.

Be sure you have your local community firmly in mind. What works in Atlanta, Georgia is not going to be what works in New York City; what works in Akron, Ohio is not going to work in California. Know your community very well and start with what they think your requirements are. Not preferences, by the way. The preference may be that your orchestra membership onstage would be 50 percent people of color, to reflect your community's population. The requirement may be that we have a great orchestra that has an excellent sound. If the preference were an immediate requirement, it would take quite a lot of money to obtain access to--and recruit away--the best talent worldwide. More importantly, it would take time to meet this requirement, given limited annual position openings.

Time and resources are actually the biggest obstacle to putting diversity into place. Aaron Dworkin's work through The Sphinx Organization is crucial, because it helps us access talent. The fact that he's doing it means we, as orchestras, can be sharing information among one another and with Sphinx, and that will help us all toward this goal.

Getting to this talent requires a thoughtful process and the right connections. And I don't think it should simply be relegated to a community-engagement staff member, or the personnel office. The whole institution, musicians and management together, must step forward to make a difference. Together, we have to make the calls that will lead us to the talent. Equality does not necessarily mean equity. And therefore getting a great black or Latino candidate to that audition may require an extra investment, both in time and money, from our organization.

Many, and probably most, orchestras are trying to increase the number of black and Latino players in their ranks. Much of this is in behind-the-scenes efforts, and in information-sharing. Beyond that, among current initiatives I would mention not only our Talent Development Program at the ASO, but also Detroit's fellowships and various initiatives in Chicago. These include training and youth programs as well as apprenticeships. If you're looking for programs to emulate, get on the Web [see "Paths to Diversity," page 41]. Check the programs of the orchestras you admire. Those of us who are working on this are probably talking about it because, quite honestly, we want to get credit for it.


A word about youth orchestras: They are full of potential in this area. They seem to be totally, wonderfully open to representing their community. By nature they are more diverse, because the population is becoming more diverse. They also want to socialize and have the chance to do things together. They're uninhibited in their music making. And, because they're still students, they're uninhibited by the notion of making a living from playing. (When it becomes necessary to make a living--for the individual or the organization as a whole--that's when it becomes more difficult to address this issue.)

For the benefit of all your student musicians, be sure your youth orchestra has a bring-a-friend program, so there's a chance for kids in the community to come and hear the youth orchestra free, and frequently. Get your youth-orchestra players socializing with your professional players. Get them talking about what it means to make a career in an orchestra. Make it easy for them to hear your orchestra in concert. And encourage them to make donations to your orchestra. Whether it's 50 cents or five dollars, I don't care. What matters is commitment--the notion of commitment, established early on.

With your promising youth orchestra musicians who are black or Latino, your best way to feed the system is to teach them the next steps beyond the youth orchestra, whether it's getting them into conservatory or clued into opportunities like the Sphinx Competition, for instance. And let Sphinx and the conservatories feed your orchestra with information, too. Let's get the networking stitched up so that we can help young, highly gifted minority players move through the process.

We can do this. Orchestras do not exist for themselves, and our diversity makes an important statement about us as community organizations. It's time to get started.