The Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner
Diversity, Inclusion & Representation in the Arts
By Susan J. Erenrich and Ariel Shelton
Listen to Episode 57: Remembering Black Troubadours Of Conscience From the 1960s
Susan (Susie) J. Erenrich is a social movement history documentarian. She uses the arts for social change to tell stories about transformational leadership, resilience, and societal shifts as a result of mobilization efforts by ordinary citizens. Susie holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University and is the founder/executive director of the Cultural Center for Social Change. She has more than four decades of experience in nonprofit/arts administration, civic engagement, community service, and community organizing and has taught at universities, public schools, and community-based programs for at-risk, low-income populations. Currently a professor at American University, she is the editor of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change (a volume in ILA's BLB series). She is the producer/host of Wasn't That A Time: Stories & Songs That Moved The Nation, a live community radio broadcast on WERA.FM. Listen on-demand or live every Friday from 1:00 - 2:00 PM Eastern time.
Ariel Shelton is dedicated to inclusivity and equity in the arts through community and artist led programming. She is currently Program Manager for the Performing Arts for Everyone & Community Engagement team at the Kennedy Center. Prior to joining the Kennedy Center, Ariel worked for National Arts Strategies, Washington Performing Arts, The Washington Women in Jazz Festival, The MusicianShip, and Flashband. She has also worked as a consultant for several emerging projects including a fellowship program for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, which was recently funded by the Mellon Foundation. She has served as a guest speaker for organizations including Georgetown University and Chamber Music America, and has contributed as a grants panelist for the Department of Education, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. Ariel’s passion for the arts began onstage. As a classically trained french horn player, she has had the opportunity to perform with ensembles across the world, from an international festival in Guadeloupe celebrating the work of composer Chevalier de Saint George to a Disneyland performing band. She takes as many opportunities to visit her hometown of Detroit, Michigan as she can, and is a graduate of Howard University, where she obtained her degree in Music Business.
Welcome! This issue of the Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change Corner features Ariel Shelton. Ariel is a Program Manager for the Performing Arts for Everyone and Community Engagement team at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Much of her career has been devoted to issues of diversity and inclusion within the creative class. The topic of racial and social inequities in the arts is not new. Within recent years, however, it has been gaining a lot of traction.
Ariel starts her guest column by telling her personal story about playing the french horn in a predominantly white environment as a young girl. As she grew up, her experiences catapulted her into a bottom-up leadership role where she is now on the front lines of change within the arts administration community.
It is no secret that arts organizations representing marginalized demographics are financially struggling. In spite of the ever-present vulnerability, however, these groups still manage to produce meaningful work that debunks racial stereotypes and provides access, educational opportunities, and training.
A special thanks to Ariel for shining the light on this important and timely subject. I hope you enjoy Ariel’s column along with the attached episode of the Wasn’t That A Time radio broadcast that aired on February 16, 2018: Remembering Some Of The Black Troubadours Of Conscience From The 1960s. These folks helped pave the way for generations of performing artists and arts administrators like Ariel.
The Importance of Representation
By Ariel Shelton
My Introduction to the Arts
I’ll never forget the day I was first introduced to the french horn. I was sitting in Mr. Scott’s class — anxious, excited, and eleven years old. The room was filled with excitable sixth graders practically jumping off the walls, chatting loudly and happily about the new year, their first at a new school. I was nervous, and elated, to finally get my hands on an instrument. At that point in my life, I had felt a barrier to full creative expression and I was ready to get my hands on something, anything, that could help me express that creativity in an ongoing manner.
I was really lucky to start a school program with such a robust music curriculum. The director of that program was really smart about the way he got kids interested in picking up instruments that were a bit under the radar, instruments that had not quite reached the lexicon of instruments known by the general public. He walked into my sixth-grade class and shared with the students that we were to sit quietly and remain attentive as instruments were performed by some of the students in the seventh and eighth grades. He explained that the instruments we were going to see performed were not well known and that he really needed students to pick them up in order for us to have as complete a band ensemble as possible, with a full range of sound and nuance of color.
The first instrument he showed us was the one that would go on to change my life forever. I remember seeing it for the first time, and, although it sounds a bit over the top to say, I distinctly recall that feeling of shock and excitement wave through me. The big bell, the glimmering brass, the circular, complicated tubes. It looked like a sculpture, like a trumpet on steroids. Mr. Scott let the class know that this was one of the most challenging instruments out there, and internally I said, “challenge accepted.”
What I didn’t realize was important then, but deeply recognize now, was that the girl that demonstrated it was someone I could relate to. She grew up in my neighborhood, had brown skin, and was a young girl. Although the instrument looked complicated, it was less intimidating to grab because I saw a version of myself playing it. For years, I truly didn’t realize how much of an anomaly it was for me to pick it up, nor did I realize how big a deal it was to not take traditional lessons outside of that school band class that took place three days a week. In a world in which brown girls and women were (and continue to be) portrayed in media doing so many things that rarely include brass instruments, my teacher’s smart attempt at getting more horn players was a simple, yet revolutionary step in the direction of imbuing representation, and one that I took (and continue to take) in contextualizing the work I do today.
Let’s fast forward now, twenty years later. Today, there are no black women playing the french horn in major symphony orchestras. There are about 10-20 that play regularly/semi regularly as freelancers (including myself). We all know, or are acquainted with, one another. Why is this? Where does this come from? How can we collectively work, on a grassroots level (like Mr. Scott and so many others), to gain equity in the performing arts, a field in which the representation of musicians partakes of and contributes to how women are represented in the world at large?
Providing a Platform for Diverse Staff Members in Arts Organizations
About two years ago, I sat down with a former classmate of mine named Quanice Floyd. We had crossed paths at a networking event for nonprofit professionals in Washington, DC, and the atmosphere was light, but strangely ridden with undertones of anxiety. This was the summer before the election of 2016, and tensions were higher than normal. We were coming to the collective realization that many people’s voices were being left out in the arts and culture sector, and, as Quanice and I talked, we discovered that we were both finding ourselves surrounded by arts professionals who were unhappy with the lack of inclusiveness in arts programming. Countless nonprofit arts organizations were being questioned about the homogenous nature of their teams, and many were (and continue to be) challenged on verifying the impact they have had on their constituents and community members. They were being scrutinized for the artists that they were neglecting to support and uplift, and many stakeholders were beginning to examine the nature of the narratives that were being provided to community members. Were these institutions reflecting a diaspora of communities or were programming decisions being made from a narrowed cultural lens?
The evening wore on, and as Quanice and I continued talking, we were joined in conversation by colleagues from throughout the DC region that were also interested in working towards diversifying the work programmed by arts organizations. Repeatedly, we came back to the topic of hiring practices and brainstormed on what it would take to aid organizations in onboarding staff members with diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences. We discussed a shared recognition that all organizations, both in and outside of the arts sector, benefit greatly from hiring staff members who have backgrounds and interests that reflect — in nuanced and intuitive ways — the diverse communities being served. Creating an environment filled with diverse voices provides cultural organizations with the opportunity to better reflect the different individuals and interests that lie in our shared communities, whether local, national, or global.
We took this macro vision on the arts and culture nonprofit sector and began to narrow it to recognize the actionable steps that could be taken. As emerging administrators, what resources could we provide to build a platform and support the voices of people that come from communities that are traditionally not represented in the staff of arts organizations? What were our options in addressing these issues?
This conversation led to Quanice’s visionary approach in creating the Arts Administrators of Color (AAC) networking organization. This organization was built as a direct response to the need for arts organizations to more authentically and adequately reflect the various cultures of the people they serve and to create a space in which to engage with arts administrators of diverse cultural backgrounds. Many of the members of the organization recognize that America is great because it is a mixing bowl, not a melting pot, and we work to support that. If we collectively neglect to work towards providing opportunities for individuals with diverse backgrounds and interests, and if support is not given by the entire sector to smaller grassroots and startup organizations (which tend to uplift niche cultural work and therefore help us all move towards a more inclusive sector), we’ll be stuck having the same conversations time and time again. I am delighted to join Quanice as a member of the AAC Board of Directors and work alongside a group of arts administrators in the DMV that are excited to help support and guide this vision. By providing mentorship, networking, and professional development opportunities for people in the DMV that have been doing this work for years as well as for those emerging leaders that are looking to join the arts and culture sector, we have already seen great impact. Myriad participants and allies have told us that this work is viable and necessary for the continued growth and strength of the arts sector as a whole.
Cultivating Greater Representation - Grassroots Leadership in the Arts
The two events, detailed briefly above, have been cornerstones for me in the importance of working at the nexus of grassroots leadership and the arts. If the sector is to continue to cultivate positive social change, it must be harnessed in a way that provides platforms for people of all backgrounds. Furthermore, the creative world must pay attention to people doing this work at all levels, both within institutions and outside of them. One of the first steps towards increasing the cultivation of that frame of work is to create more open spaces for people working in the arts, especially those that have not historically been included in the sector, or defined as being a good fit for the work. I have encountered so many leaders working out of their basements, churches, community centers, and in conjunction with small businesses, who are passionate about creating a space in which citizens can share their artistry and fully express themselves. They’ve been doing it for years. How active are they in the larger sector? Do they have the time or capacity to be a part of these networks, and have they been targeted for recruitment in an ongoing manner?
It is my hope that the arts sector continues to shift to embrace those who have not traditionally been defined as being a part of the arts world and that we regain responsibility over reframing what we ask for out of the sector as a whole. Ultimately, I do believe that it is our collective goal to ensure that people feel more welcome and can see their own lives represented on stage. That will not begin unless we embrace and welcome more people of various backgrounds and work with them at all levels. Then, when people enter these organizations from nontraditional backgrounds, our first goal should be to ensure that their voices are encouraged, welcomed, embraced, and nurtured. We could learn so much more if we listened more and if we redefined our work to better fit the culture.
I see the sector moving in the right direction, especially in creating safer, more equitable spaces for people working in the arts. I am excited to see movements emerging that are giving a greater call to action around the representation and stories told by and about women and/or people of various ethnic backgrounds. But to make it stick, we’ve got to open our doors even wider, push forward, and embrace the transformative changes necessary in these times to lead to a more creative, nuanced, and colorful space.
* Portions of this article originally appeared in the Emerging Arts Leaders DC blog and are reprinted here with their permission.