Update on Why We Must Have Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in the Arts

By Keryl McCord, Operations Director, Alternate ROOTS | May 9, 2016

This article elaborates on “Why We Must Have Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity In the Arts: A Response to the National Association for Music Education,” posted on this blog on May 4. 

Since the writing of this article, Jesse Rosen, President & CEO of the League of American Orchestras, has joined Keryl McCord in speaking out on this matter. Read his statement here

Since my original post was published I have received numerous emails and phone calls from music educators, artists, and arts organizations. I have been heartened by the enormous outcry against Mr. Butera’s statements and his behavior, and the strong commitment expressed by many to ensure that NAfME take action toward more inclusive organizational structures and practices.

Let me also add that before the meeting at the NEA I’d never met Michael Butera, nor had I heard of NAfME. I stand to gain absolutely nothing from speaking up. I have no ax to grind. The reason I wrote the article, and write this follow up piece, is to point out, again, why we must have diversity, inclusion, and equity in the arts field. In order to achieve it though, we sometimes have to take a risk, take an unpopular position, or to speak up.

I’ve read Mr. Butera’s reply. I can only say that if during the meeting, instead of being defensive, confrontational, and inflammatory,  he had displayed the same temperament demonstrated in his response, there probably would have been no need for me to write the article. That being said, even in his response Mr. Butera did not refute the points I shared in my post. If he really thinks my piece was “deeply inaccurate,” I ask that he tell me which parts exactly.  

In fielding a great number of phone calls and emails, I have come to realize that I need to share a little more information in order to answer some questions that have arisen from the initial article. There were three things that occurred on April 26 that I would like to clarify:

  1. The room was set with eight tables, and we were seated at tables of eight. At our table, in addition to Alternate ROOTS and the National Association for Music Education, there were representatives from: Chamber Music America, the League of Symphony Orchestras, U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and an organization representing architects (whose name I can’t remember), plus two NEA staff members. It is worth noting that I was the only person of color at our table, representing an organization that is extraordinarily diverse, a diversity that is being achieved because of the hard work and commitment to change that has become a part of our organizational DNA.
  2. Michael Butera was responding, as everyone at the meeting was, to a prompt about the challenges our organizations face in terms of diversity, inclusion, and equity in our fields. It was within this context, while explaining that his board wasn’t diverse because his membership wasn’t diverse, that he stated his membership wasn’t diverse because, “blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.” Until that moment, I didn’t know that keyboard/piano was a requirement to be a music educator. My background is in theater, I am not a musician. Therefore, this statement about keyboard skills could only be made by someone with knowledge of the field of music education.
  3. From my vantage point, of everything that occurred that afternoon, most egregious was that Mr. Butera stormed out of the meeting rather than engage in a conversation. And I must reiterate, it wasn’t his interaction with me that was the flashpoint for his departure. I wasn’t the one he stood and yelled at before leaving. That came about because another member of our group basically asked him to not just accept that his organization couldn’t change to become more diverse or inclusive.

Let me add that I don’t doubt that others at the table may have interpreted or responded differently than I did to the various things that were said and done. For instance, I was most struck and bothered by Michael Butera’s comments about black and Latino students. I was also deeply upset at the way he responded to participants asking questions, pushing back about statements he made. Whereas for others, his unwillingness to even consider the idea that his organization could change was an issue. Some may have known him prior to this meeting and were able to “fill in the gaps,” between what he said and what he may have been trying to say.

Regardless, we never got the opportunity to have the conversation, to more fully explore and understand what we all were struggling with, or to clarify what was said because it was all cut short when Mr. Butera left the meeting – a meeting the National Endowment for the Arts convened expressly to discuss inclusion, diversity, and equity. Typically one doesn’t expect this kind of behavior from the head of a national arts service organization, representing their field at a national gathering. Nor do I believe that, as colleagues at the table, it should be expected that we would find it acceptable. I do not.   

I’ve been asked what I would like to see happen, to see as an outcome from making this matter public. Over the past few days, numerous NAfME members have expressed great concern over Mr. Butera’s statements and his behavior, as well as their desire to see the organization take serious, actionable steps in addressing these issues. I would like to see this public outcry serve as a springboard for NAfME’s governing board and membership to engage in authentic dialogue and real, structural changes that bring about real diversity, inclusion, and equity within the organization and the field. I also hope this serves as a clarion call to the arts field to continue to take on the challenge of change.

Having said that, I’m very clear that when you’re dealing with structural, systemic issues such as NAfME is, change will take time. As someone said to me a couple days ago, NAfME is like a big, big ship. Indeed it is. But you first have to choose the destination and plot the course, before you can set sail.

Thus the critical question here is, is NAfME willing to address this, or not? Choosing to stay as they are is an option, and sends a clear message. At least then everyone is clear about the mission, vision and values of NAfME.  

In terms of Mr. Butera, I cannot in good conscience call for his being fired. That’s not what this is about, nor is it my place to do so as I am not a member of the board, nor a member of the organization. I must say that as of this writing, no one from the board of NAfME has reached out to me to discuss the events at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mr. Butera is the leader of his organization, and a strong voice within his field. On April 26 he did not represent either well.

My major concern is about the good this organization can do for the millions of students in our schools, especially in urban and rural communities, if NAfME chooses to fully engage and embrace a more diverse future. If they do, there are some excellent organizations and experts who can provide the training, framework, context, and skills needed to help guide them. I’d also offer that they reach out to Grantmakers in the Arts and talk with them about their experience with the People’s Institute.

I truly hope NAfME chooses the way forward rather than status quo.  



One comment on “Update on Why We Must Have Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in the Arts
  1. kerrigan@mindspring.com says:

    Keryl, we ROOTers are lucky to have you representing us the way you do.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.