Promoting diversity in American classical music

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Adina Ba

Aaron Dworkin is the founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic racial inequalities in the field of classical music.

Today we have the opportunity to learn about the underrepresentation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music and what Aaron’s organization has accomplished in its first 10 years. Also, if you are a public school teacher, check out the last question for tips that Aaron has given to inspire your students to become nationally competitive musicians.

In your experience as a performing musician, what have you noticed about diversity in classical music/orchestras?

Nationally, less than 4% of professional orchestras are comprised of Blacks and Latinos combined. This compares to over 15% within the population (for each group, with Hispanics now growing substantially). Additionally, growing up, I found myself to be either the only one or one in less than a handful of minorities playing in any orchestra, or in any musical setting (a classroom, concert hall as an audience member, a summer program, etc). This made me question why this is the case, and why there are no composers of color typically featured on any standard program, including ones I would perform myself.

It was not until my years at the University of Michigan that I discovered the substantial volumes of works by Black (and Latino) composers, and began to focus my degrees on the study of these tremendous works. I learned that there is a wealth of repertoire by minority composers, which merited attention, but hardly received any. I performed works by William Grant Still, David Baker, Noel da Costa, Roque Cordero, and others. I then began to look at what I can do in order to make others aware of this inequality and of what already exists in terms of the repertoire.

Thus was born the concept of a national competition for young Black and Latino string musicians, who would come together each year to showcase their talents and receive educational and professional development opportunities. I wanted this to be much more than a competition, as the building of a community was a very important aspect of the idea. I also wanted to bring to the forefront this incredible repertoire, to give it visibility and recognition, with the idea that some day, the repertoire by minority composers will become standard literature.

What is The Sphinx Organization and how has it developed diversity in American orchestras?

The Sphinx Organization is a national non-profit founded in 1996 to overcome the dramatic under representation of Blacks and Latinos in the field of classical music. As a violinist, I founded the organization to help overcome the cultural stereotype of classical music, and to encourage the participation of Blacks and Latinos in the field.

In the 10 year history of the organization, Sphinx has made the following impact:
-Over 45,000 students reached around the country
-Over 2 million individuals reached per year through national broadcasts
-Over $180,000 in quality instruments provided to young minority musicians
-Over $800,000 in prizes and scholarships
-Over 140 Laureate performances reaching over 150,000 in audiences

The name Sphinx was given to the organization to represent some of the founding principles that guided its conception. The Sphinx represents the historical and geographical source for many minorities and exemplifies the power, wisdom and persistence that we hope to instill in our participants. The Sphinx also constitutes a mystery, an enigma. Music shares this puzzling aspect, as it is born from the experiences and aspirations of the composer as well as the performer. Like the Sphinx, it is up to the beholder, the listener, to interpret and appreciate from the music what is ultimately a reflection of internal emotions and spiritual experiences. Continue Reading »

Recommended Reading

by Race in the Workplace special correspondent Erica

Minority Workers Less Likely to Say Promotions Are Based on Merit - HR.BLR.com (Business & Legal Reports)
61.4% of all employees, 56.6% of Hispanic respondents, and 58.2% of black respondents said they thought their job performance was the main reason for their professional advancement. That doesn’t seem significant to me and speaks to larger issues: it’s as much who you know as what you know and there’s a systemic issue of lack of trust in one’s employer. (via Strategic HR Lawyer)

Paradox of Inclusion - Management Craft
There are two kinds of inclusion. There’s the politically correct kind where you make a show of inviting along a “representative” group to your meeting du jour and you “listen” to what they have to say and then go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway. Then there’s the kind where you actually listen to the voices of the people around you, even (and especially) when you might not agree with them.

Where Delivery Is a Mainstay, a Rebellion Over Pay - New York Times
Deliverymen in NYC, mostly Chinese immigrants, are protesting their working conditions, long hours, and meager pay. Unions are organizing, workers are getting locked out, and lawsuits are being filed.

Is It a Mistake to Be a Stay-at-Home Mother? - The Monster Blog
“[T]he more pressing question is not whether mothers should work (more than 70 percent of mothers with school-age children do), but how we can structure our society in a way to allow us to meet our caregiving needs. We, as men and women, bear some responsibility in that mandate, both to instill change within our organizations and within our own lives.” I’d like to see a discussion actually address this statement and go beyond “I stayed at home and it worked out for us” which further perpetuates the concept that you have to make a choice (and a sacrifice). Flex time, anyone?

LinkedIn and the Art of Avoiding an Asshole Boss - How to Change the World
How to get references on a potential boss. Guy Kawasaki suggests finding him/her on LinkedIn, seeing who they’re connected to, then asking these potential references a few questions. I appreciate the idea that you need to check out a potential employer as much as they’re checking you out. The comments on Guy’s post are mostly useless, but there are a few good constructive criticisms.

Churners and Churning - Generations@Work
Kids these days, the “Millennials,” are increasingly open to more global job opportunities. Which is good because that’s where the jobs are. The conflict is that younger folks are also a lot more likely to change jobs more frequently while employers and the government are looking to improve retention, which may be unrealistic given the nature of the current job market.

Wisdom and a Helping Hand - Amy Joyce at washingtonpost.com
On the importance of being a good mentor. The very large company I used to work for had very well-developed mentorship programs serving a variety of populations within the company. I participated in the “new minority employees” program and the “new technical employees” program. Mentors were very carefully screened and a lot of attention was paid to the matching process. These programs were crucial in my development there, and in my ultimate decision to leave, which I consider a testament to a good mentor/mentee relationship in that the best decision for me as a person was to not stay with the company, and my mentors were supportive of that.

How to ask for mentoring - Brazen Careerist
On the flip side of the mentoring relationship. Penelope Trunk emphasizes that it’s all in the approach. Ask good questions of your potential mentor. More importantly, don’t be afraid to ask in the first place.

Georgetown Gets Grant for Workplace Flexibility - Workplace Prof Blog
“Workplace Flexibility 2010 believes that social change occurs best through a combination of voluntary action and government action. The American workplace is a complex, constantly changing, and rich human environment. We believe the best policy approach to workplace flexibility therefore combines thoughtful and creative government regulation, robust voluntary and individualized efforts by employers and employees, and governmental support of innovative employer and employee efforts.” Outstanding!

Fear Of Firing - BusinessWeek
“How the threat of litigation is making companies skittish about axing problem workers.” There are several issues: Whether the employee really is an underperformer, whether or not they really are being discriminated against, and whether the company retaliates when they get wind of the discrimination allegation. Even the largest companies with the most rigorous policies and review processes get caught up in seemingly frivolous lawsuits.

Recommended Reading is a weekly feature where we link to some of our favorite workplace-related blog posts and articles. If you would like to suggest a link to Erica, please email tips@raceintheworkplace.com

Watercooler: When the chair of the anti-racism committee is a racist

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from V:

I work for a government agency which is charged with promoting community harmony and working to increase our city’s level of interracial trust. While i am an employee of the agency, we also have an extension arm of volunteers from the community who serve on a committee and actually do much of the leg-work. The Chair of the committee is an older white man from Baltimore who is prone to saying things like “Illegal Alien” at community immigration discussions, “China-man” or “Oriental” when discussing Yao Ming’s athletic ability, and waxed nostalgic during a luncheon about how the “A-rabs” used to sell goods on the streets of Baltimore when he was a lad.

Anyway, one day at work i discussed with him finding possible funding sources to help sponsor a study abroad trip to learn Spanish in an immersion program. While grilling me, an African American female, on why it is necessary for me to learn Spanish since we already have one Spanish speaker on staff, he also pointed out that my country of choice (Dominican Republic) sounded like i was tyring to get a work funded beach vacation.

As I stood there like an idiot trying to convince him that I was serious and not looking for a free vacation, the discussion turned to the benefits of immersion studies in terms of the cultural experience. To which he stated “Well if you want to know what it’s like to be an immigrant, I can call homeland security and tell them you’re a terrorist and have you deported. Of course they would have to send you to Africa, because you clearly don’t look Hispanic.”

I don’t remember much after that. The red veil of rage lowered and I went to my office to fume.

The thing that kills me about this guy is everyone knows he’s racist but yet and still he is the Charmian of a committee created by our local government to fight racism and discrimination.

Now, when i deal with him, i am quick to cut him short and point out his racism. Oddly enough, his impromptu visits to my office have dwindled significantly. Coincidence…?

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.

The business of selling and consuming blackness

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Hadji Williams has spent over 15 years in the advertising and marketing worlds at Chicago and New York agencies great and small, including BBDO and FootSteps Group. Williams is also an educator, having taught over 20 introductory and advanced advertising courses at Columbia College Chicago.

A recent Californian, Williams is also the author of the controversial Knock The Hustle: How to Save Your Job and Your Life From Corporate America (2006), KTH: VoL. 2 (Fall 2007) and C.R.E.A.M. (Winter 2007). Currently Williams has launched ProdigalPen, Inc. Publishing, which is dedicated to sharing the stories of multicultural life.

One of the most interesting chapters in your book is titled “Crop Circles and Alarm Clocks: Pride and Prejudice in Corporate America.” How do crop circles and alarm clocks relate to race in the workplace today?

While writing KTH I wanted to come with a way to explain the patterns of bigotry and bias that exist in corporate America to people who may not have had the experiences that I’ve had. So I settled on “crop circles” and “alarm clocks.”

As you know crop circles are these wildly bizarre geometric patterns that mysteriously appear in fields in rural America. The first time we see photos of ‘em or network coverage of them, we scream “hoax” or “fraud” because they’re just too blatant and specific to have been anything else, right?

That’s how instances of bigotry and bias go down in business—when someone shares an instance, it must be a hoax, a fraud, an exaggeration, or some sort of scheme to get money or sympathy. It can possibly be true. And since most of corporate life involves sophisticated liberal whites and not the so-called backwards thinking rural whites that we often blame racism on, any reported instances of mistreatment must be simple misunderstandings, right?

Alarm clocks are the result of believing said hype. They’re random wake up calls that remind you that the world isn’t as liberal or inclusive as you’ve been suckered into believing. For example, I’ve worked with numerous white colleagues and bosses who’ve told that because I can speak in complete sentences and don’t have an over-the-top swag, that I “wasn’t like the ‘regular black people’” they knew. Regular. Hmmm… Or some of the times I’ve been called N-word at work. Or have been paraded around a client’s offices because they couldn’t believe that a black guy was developing their campaigns.

Those are some of the random wake up calls that I’ve received over the years. Just reminders that bigotry exists in many places and many forms and the worst thing you can do is believe people who benefit from it when they say “oh no, we treat everyone equal.” Continue Reading »

Watercooler: a multicultural celebration gone wrong

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Watercooler is the section of the blog in which we share with you real-life horror stories from the frontlines of race in the workplace. :) This week, we have a story from M:

I work for a government human services agency and we have a diversity council here at work. I served on it for a few years, but I got so frustrated and pissed off most of the time that I didn’t serve on it anymore.

One time, this group of people decided that they wanted to develop “cultural competency” guidelines for human services work. I do honestly think these people were well intentioned, but I think some of these guidelines tend to stereotype groups and lump them into the same category. For example, the implication that there is a “Pan-Asian view” of things or “Hispanic view” of things when in fact there are people in these groups that come from different countries which may have very different beliefs.

Also, a few years ago, the assistant commissioner had this big interest in diversity so she started to go to our diversity council meetings. (She seemed like one of those touchy feely 1960s flower type children.)

Anyway, so I’m at work one day and the assistant commissioner sends an email to everyone on the diversity council about this great idea she has: that all of us people of color can dress up in “traditional dress” and people can come around and we can describe our culture to them. <big eye roll> I suppose since I’m 1/2 Peruvian I’m supposed to dress up like one of the indigenous people of Peru and bake a potato dish for them.

It never happened at work, but the fact that our assistant commissioner — someone who thinks she’s so “diversified” and “informed” and “liberal” thought that this would be a good idea just killed me!

I mean, if part of the mission of the so-called diversity council was suppose to dispel stereotypes, I don’t know anything more stereotypical than having people of color (a term I hate by the way) dress up in “traditional dress” and share our traditions with all the white folks.

Aren’t “people of color” part of America too? When are “people of color” going to stop being perceived as “the other” or “foreign?”

Please email team@raceintheworkplace.com if you’d like to send in a story, put “watercooler” in the subject line, and let us know what name we should use for you. Pseudonyms and first names are totally fine. You can read more Watercooler stories here.