Opening the Great Doors of Diversity
I’ve just been in Detroit for three days attending Sphinx’s inaugural convocation about diversity in the performing arts. It was an impressive and imposing rolling structure of creative planning: One lecture space. One networking room. One theme. One inspiring memorial lecture (Jawole Willa Jo Zollar receiving the Arthur L. Johnson award.). And 31 speakers with 15 minutes each on their chosen subject leading out of the theme empowering diversity in the performing arts. Few questions, no break outs, no multiple sessions, no trying to curate a joined up narrative. Brave stuff. And in the end the ‘con’ in Sphinxcon turned out not to be the dreaded conference, or even a convening, but a ‘conversation’, people simply listening to each other talk about diversity. Next time – and I’m sure there will be a next time – it will be different, but this was at least a heady beginning for lots of people who have been battling both severally and separately in the diversity wilderness for many, many years.
So how was it?
Well there was a wondrous pot-pouri feel about it. From Horst Abraham talking about leadership in turbulent times, to Shirley Stancato on dealing with race, Farai Chideya on the global and historical context of diversity, David DiChiera a treasure of a storyteller, María Rosario Jackson on cultural kitchens, Ken Fischer being very successfully practical, and the greatest solo spoken word dance narrative I’ve ever witnessed (Maria Bauman of Urban Bush Women). There was generosity, there was whimsy, and and a sort of home spun mid Western laid back amiability in spades.
And what did I learn? Well it was three days of reminders: I was reminded that Aaron Dworkin is not only a charismatic leader and a great speaker, he is even cleverer than you might have thought before. His last words were the key ones: ‘this may only be the beginning of the conversation, but the conversation has no sense unless it is translated into action’. And to be more precise, he quoted Picasso: “Action is the foundational key to all success”. As for the reminders, near the top of the list were a series of easily forgotten truisms; that prejudice is born of ignorance, that diversity begins with knowing who you are (thank you Delroy Lindo), that in order to persuade people you must first listen, and that – here is perhaps the most interesting – if only the lots of people doing good in their own projects could come together, then the quiet getting on with it ‘doing’ majority could change the world in quite a small period of time. As it is however the chips suggest that we are definitely in it for the long haul.
Another gain it gave me was the catalyst to deconstruct the word. Otherwise ‘diversity’ can sit down on us a little too squately and heavily as if trained by one of Larkin’s Toads. On the one hand there is ‘power’: the need to redistribute resources, money, platforms and opportunities from the ugly indefensible unjust excesses and over concentrations of power present in the status quo. Then there is ‘voice’, something which all the contributors of color seem to have a powerful handle on (and particularly the idea that they really know and value who they are) rather than the personas and amnesia of self that those who make it over the money parapet often seem to fall prey to. There is also plenty to talk about here regarding fear: fear of difference, fear of giving a platform to people who come from different traditions, fear of the unknown if we are to let in diverse rather than known entities, whatever it is that we do. So in all of this, difference therefore emerges as not only a personal positive and a group challenge, but a simple brute necessity. Boredom and unknowingness are the probable alternatives.
But really the most important potential gains in sight are the cornucopic and seemingly infinite fruits of difference on offer – a matter I did not have time to riff on in my 15 minute presentation in Detroit on the lessons for diversity in the recent globalisation of El Sistema – if we have the courage and commitment to really open the doors to diversity. As a journeyman in the world of El Sistema in the last few years, this, if nothing else, has struck me time and time again. And now back in Europe as CEO of the European Union Youth Orchestra (an orchestra of young players currently auditioned from 28 countries) I am only just beginning to see some new opportunities and challenges of working with diversity.
I am buoyed up however by the experience of the last 18 months, in which I have had the luxury to be able to watch, teach and listen to diverse groups of young musicians from about 18 countries in 4 continents in dozens of projects, together showing me exactly what that diversity gives us in practice when it flows untamped into the concert hall. Whether I have been in New York or Tbilisi, Caracas or Stirling, Salvador Bahia or Stockholm, Los Angeles or Moldova, or now Detroit with the Sphinx orchestra, the absolute raw driving energy that is humanity at its very best has been almost continually on show to remind me that when race, gender, poverty and class are not allowed in as restraints on trade or creativity, humanity has seemingly limitless and inspirational achievements as its trophies. And the alternative – allowing those doors to close shut – means only one thing: a new Dark Age. You know your duty.
Postscript: below you can find a link to the presentation El Sistema: Lessons in Diversity & Globalisation given in Detroit Michigan, USA on Saturday 16 February 2013 as part of Sphinx’s Inaugural Convening on Diversity in the Performing Arts plus a couple of photos of suggested Characteristics and Program for a Diversity Network made by the conference delegates during the talk on El Sistema.