The murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 made many of the musicians in the Milwaukee Symphony realize that racism was a problem that could no longer be ignored by our orchestra. As a result, a number of orchestra musicians decided to form an EDI committee, which would help us share ideas and resources with the ultimate goal of determining what kind of change we might be able to effect within our institution. Initially, we led an organization-wide discussion of the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. After this, we kept the “book club” idea going, meeting six more times between summer of 2020 and fall of 2022.
Early in our efforts, we invited a longtime friend of mine, yelley Taylor, to work with small groups of musicians in an effort to raise awareness and understanding about racism, which had a crucial effect on our ability to think about and discuss unfamiliar and sometimes difficult issues. yelley shared with us some of their experiences as a Black musician —they play violin and viola. We ended up holding six sessions of two hours each, where we covered many topics, informed not only by history and culture but also by what yelley shared with us about their own lived experience. We really cannot thank yelley enough for being so open and willing to help us on our anti-racism journey. It was a transformative experience for the 20 musicians who participated.
The musician EDI committee no longer meets regularly, but we have been able to use the group to respond to a few issues in a coordinated and productive way, and I should not neglect to mention here that our management has been very receptive to our suggestions.
Last summer, musicians and management created an informative page on the MSO website for prospective auditionees, with information about Milwaukee and what it’s like to be a member of the MSO. Additionally, we have been a recipient of the League’s Catalyst Grant for the past two years and have had very strong orchestra participation in a set of discussions in the spring of 2021, facilitated by The Impact Seat, the MSO’s EDI consultants. These conversations involved many stakeholder groups—including Orchestra, Chorus, Board, Management, Volunteers, and Community Members—and were intended to brainstorm ideas that would eventually inform a longer term strategic plan for the MSO.
Impact Seat has also held organization-wide Learning Sessions which have not been mandatory for the musicians to attend but which have had very strong musician attendance nonetheless.
One challenge ahead is maintaining momentum. We want to work with our management to put more focus on getting BIPOC and LGBTQ members on the stage. I also hope that we as musicians can work on our narrative abilities. I believe it is important to be able to answer the question of why racism is a major hurdle to us as an institution and why anti-racism and inclusion work should be a priority for us at all times.
There seems to be an assumption that just because we as white people don’t see racism or violence in our hall or on our stage, that means it’s not there. My own position is that there is no way to escape being part of a system that perpetuates white supremacist values, and we have a lot more work to do in order to be truly welcoming and to be a place where all people can thrive.
Another valuable outcome of this musician-led EDI work is a “Recommended Reading” list (see above). This list is by no means exhaustive, but it addresses some key aspects of anti-racism, social justice, and inclusion work. All of these books have proved very valuable to me personally—helping me to understand context and history, reflect on my participation in white supremacist systems, and finally giving me some tools to address some of the problems that these systems have created. In particular, the book about philanthropy may help musicians understand an important aspect of American orchestras’ privileged position. I have found it helpful in general when reading books about anti-racism or other social justice issues to spend some time thinking about not if but how these issues implicate not just me personally but also the institution that I work for, and I am grateful for the musicians and management of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra for helping to further these ideals.
MSO Musicians’ Suggested Reading
- The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabelle Wilkerson
- Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women White Feminists Forgot., Mikki Kendall
- Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Michael Eric Dyson
- We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Beautiful Country: A Memoir, Qian Julie Wang
- Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo
- The End of Bias: A Beginning: The Science and Practice of Overcoming Unconscious Bias, Jessica Nordell
- Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City, Andrea Elliott
- Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West
- Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, Rob Reich
- Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond
- The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt