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Dissecting Privilege, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Traditional Orchestra World
Episode 45

Dissecting Privilege, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Traditional Orchestra World

CI to Eye with Jessica Schmidt

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In This Episode

In this episode, Erik and Jessica talk about her experience implementing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in orchestras and processing change in a world that is often steeped in tradition. They also discuss how to broach difficult conversations, and define “privilege,” “microaggressions,” and other important DEI terms.

Erik Gensler:Okay, great. So thank you so much for being here. I’m really excited to chat with you.

Jessica Schmidt: Thank you for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Erik Gensler: You worked in orchestras for 15 years. What did you learn at those organizations that motivated you now to offer consulting around diversity and inclusion?

Jessica Schmidt: I spent about 3 years at the Dallas Symphony, uh, six and a half years at the Pittsburgh Symphony, and then another just about six years at the Boston Symphony, all in education and community engagement staff capacities. And throughout each of those staff experiences I kept seeing a disconnect between what the orchestra that I was working for said it wanted to do in terms of creating meaningful reciprocal relationships with the community and what it was equipped to, and understanding of what those relationships looked like, how they proceeded, how they developed.

Jessica Schmidt: And so I also noticed over time the increased discussion around diversity, equity, and inclusion. And I saw very clearly the link between these authentic relationships, the ability of an orchestra to meet relationship standards and grow relationships over time and to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion work. I saw across the field my peers saying, “We care about this work, but we don’t know how to do it or where to begin.” And so when I left the Boston Symphony in 2000 … Gosh, it was two years ago … it was just the right place for me and the thing that I really had been wanting to do, in many ways unbeknownst to me for some time.

Erik Gensler: So let’s start with some definitions. What’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?

Jessica Schmidt: Sure and that’s a great question. I see a lot of orchestras struggling with language. One of the first things we do together is to sit down and talk about what language means within an organization. In my mind and the definition that I often start with is diversity being a measure. Diversity is about who and what and what identities are at the table. It’s a measure of difference. Difference can include everything from, of course, your racial identity, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your geography, your family status. Do you have children? Do you not have children? Where do you live? All of that plays into the pieces of identity that you bring to the table.

Jessica Schmidt: Inclusion is very much about the act of being sure that all of those identities are honored and a part of the decision-making at the table. It’s very possible to have diversity within an organization, without inclusion. And that’s where I see a lot of orchestras, a lot of organizations, struggling. How do we create an environment that is truly inclusive? How are we careful about everything we do to be sure that every action is inclusive? And being sure that that diversity is being honored.

Erik Gensler: Where have you seen organizations stumble with that?

Jessica Schmidt: I think that organizations, and people in- in arts organizations know this. In the non-profit world and in the orchestra world you are struggling to get from performance to performance. You’re focused on, “When is the load in for this concert? When is rehearsal? Do we have our guest artist here? Do we have enough money for this performance?” You’re so set in looking at what you’re doing from day to day. There’s very little time for reflection.

Jessica Schmidt: And really good diversity, inclusion, and equity work requires a lot of reflection, a lot of time spent sitting down and taking a look at the messages that are being sent. Most of the time we’re sending messages unintentionally. And orchestras can do this in many different ways. And if you think about the experience of a patron coming through the doors of a traditional hall, as soon as you’re walking up the steps to that hall you’re getting a message about whether you belong, whether your pieces of identity are things that you see in other people around you. As soon as you meet the front of house staff, you get a message about whether what you’re wearing makes sense. A look on your face. You might not know where the restrooms are when you come in. They might be hard to access. When you go and sit in the hall what happens when the patrons next to you are looking at you? What is it that they are sending to you in terms of messaging? Who do you see on the walls in the way of images, pictures?

Jessica Schmidt: I was just with a client, and, uh, very luckily we were having a meeting in a room filled with all the images of the individuals who had led that organization over time. And quite a wide number of people, but only two of them were women, and all of them were white. So walking into that room, what message does that send to me about my place and my ability to potentially come into leadership at that organization? It’s about being mindful, and frankly, it’s about empathy, taking a look at the whole experience from the perspective of somebody who’s walking through it, somebody that you might not know well yet.

Erik Gensler: There’s a lot of talk in the orchestra world about hiring musicians that are not white men. And there’s that famous study where they did the, I guess, blind auditions. I’m curious to how that impacts this experience. So when you- you know that is another message sending about who belongs and who doesn’t belong by who’s on stage. I’m curious your thoughts around that.

Jessica Schmidt: Yeah, that’s a great question. For a long time my personal belief was that we have in the orchestra field been looking at a limited bottom line as to positive change around diversity, equity, and inclusion. We traditionally look at the outputs of onstage representation and audience. I hear a lot of orchestras start with that. “Well, we aren’t diverse, and it’s because of who is on stage. It’s because of who’s in our hall. How do we change that?”

Jessica Schmidt: And that is a challenge for a number of reasons. One reason is that this takes so much time. True excellent diversity, equity, and inclusion work takes years and a years and years. And those outputs will take time to change. It is not something that the field is going to change overnight. Nor should it, because it wouldn’t be sustainable.

Jessica Schmidt: It’s also frustrating because orchestras really do want to make change. And so, with that limited bottom line, they are unable to see other areas that could contribute to that change over time. In my mind, the onstage element is unbelievably important, one major piece of the entire DEI puzzle over time, as is the audience. But there are so many other pieces that are often overlooked.

Jessica Schmidt: I talk with my clients about what messages are being sent around, for example, vendors and suppliers and contractors. Orchestras are creatures of tradition. They like to stick with someone or an organization that they’ve been working with for a long time. What about the power of an orchestra to use its name to work with a minority women-owned business and give some time and space to that business? What about the opportunity to take a look at hiring practices? Not just hiring, but retention practices for staff, being sure that there are practices in place to not only welcome people from a wide variety of backgrounds, but to be sure that they have a very positive work experience and stay at the organization.

Jessica Schmidt: What about board governance? What do governance by-laws say about, again, who is welcome, who wants to stay? When a board member chooses to leave the board, what does an organization do to try to figure out, maybe, what happened? What’s the story of that individual? Is there an exit interview? Is there an opportunity for them to be involved following?

Jessica Schmidt: So, each of these little areas is a pressure point for change within the organization. It’s only when all of them are looked at and considered and there’s a plan behind each of them for positive change that you start to see the … all of the ships rise with- with that rising tide. So I’m encouraged with the onstage piece. I think that we are making positive leaps in terms of talking about the need to address the pathway and to be sure that everyone from every background is welcomed, that this art form is something that everyone can own and has access to. And that within itself has multiple moments in time that need to be examined, from elementary school to middle school, choosing your activity, to family choices. What is and isn’t going to allow a young person to make a living? That’s a very real choice for many families. To college to pre-professional to professional. So it’s gonna take a lot of time. The onstage piece is definitely important, but certainly one piece of the greater whole.

Erik Gensler: So you’re saying it’s easy to point to the onstage piece. That’s not enough, or that’s just one small slice of the pie.

Jessica Schmidt: Absolutely. Yeah, I think we’re also in the orchestra field comfortable talking about the artistic piece, so we jump to the onstage element. I, in my work, have built a- a strong personal desire that I recognize to connect with professional musicians in advancing their orchestras’ DEI efforts. When we focus only on changing the onstage piece, which is, again, an important piece of the pie, an important piece of the puzzle that we have to take a look at, it can send a message if it’s done in a reactive way that the people onstage don’t belong there.

Jessica Schmidt: And I think that’s an interesting piece of this. How do we engage musicians, professional musicians who are onstage right now, in the process of looking at their entire organization, looking for opportunities to become more inclusive, to truly model equity? We’ve missed out, I think, on engaging many musicians because of the fear of, “Hold on. Does this mean we’re changing the entire audition structure? What does this mean for me? I got here 30 years ago. Does this mean that my position is invalid as principal oboe?” Coming from a place of fear versus a place of productivity.

Jessica Schmidt: And I think we have an army of musicians currently across the United States that are currently in orchestras who do care, who want to be a part of the process of both diversification and greater inclusion within their orchestras.

Erik Gensler: Something profound that you said when we last spoke was that humans process change as loss. And it’s interesting in the context of orchestras doing something one way for a very long time, deciding they’re gonna try to make some progress in this area, and then you bring up the oboe player. How does that statement relate in that scenario or in- in your work more broadly?

Jessica Schmidt: Oh, that’s a great question, too. A lot of what I do in my work is sitting and listening and opening up space to have these discussions. I think that in the orchestra world, we need everybody on board in this work. And sometimes it takes a while to get individuals on board. As orchestra constituents, we rely a lot … Our art form in many ways is based on tradition. It’s based on history. It is definitely based in the stories of certain individuals from certain backgrounds.

Jessica Schmidt: And so when orchestra constituents are asked to broaden that, that can often signal very deep, very personal fear of, “What am I losing? What does this mean for me? Especially if I’m white, especially if I’m male. Am I a board member? Am I an executive director? What does this mean for me in terms of what I might have to give up?” And certainly, the process of walking through that is- is personal, but in this case it’s also professional. We’re looking at what this means for an organization going forward, the necessity of this change for the sustainability of an orchestra going forward.

Jessica Schmidt: So, much of what I do is sitting with individuals, sitting with small groups, and talking about that discomfort, talking about how our privilege plays into the discussion, how realities like systemic oppression play into what we’re talking about. This is big stuff and it requires time and space as human beings to digest and then make a decision to move forward to support and to advance.

Jessica Schmidt: As humans, I absolutely think … I heard this at a conference I remember sharing with you. It was just such a profound moment, because I think about myself and I think about how I process change, and, absolutely, I am the first to say, “I resist that. I don’t like that. Slow it down.” But, uh, when you step back and reframe positive work around DEI as value added versus loss, the conversation changes immensely. And I don’t think that’s something that happens overnight. I do think it takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of dedicated space. And it takes patience.

Jessica Schmidt: When I sit with constituents and sit with organizations, I often talk about continuum of understanding and dedication to this work. And organizations and individuals come into the continuum in different places. I’m working with clients that have staff members who are trained racial equity activists. (laughs) They are- they are unbelievably skilled in their knowledge of and practice of racial equity work. And then I’ve got folks who are brand new to this discussion, who might’ve been on a board or staff or in the orchestra for years and years or maybe are new, and they say, “Listen, I don’t see any of this. I don’t see privilege. I don’t see the need for us to be more inclusive than we already are. I think we already are inclusive.” And naming and identifying where people are on that continuum, where the organization is on that continuum, and just slowly moving the scale over time, I find, is the work that needs to be done.

Erik Gensler: Wow. So you’ll map … you’ll come in and you’ll map … you’ll talk to everybody and will you literally map where people are on that continuum?

Jessica Schmidt: (laughs) I- I will map it mentally. I have to say that I don’t- I don’t think I would put it on paper, but (laughing) I would … But, yes, a big part of what I do early in the process with most of my clients is stakeholder interviews, where what we’re doing is sitting down and having conversations, and the two questions I ask are, “What’s going well?” and “What do you wish to see around DEI?”

Jessica Schmidt: And- and then I sit back, and the gifts that come out in those conversations are immense. And in my head I’m plotting and I’m thinking about, “Okay, we’ve got this department is ready to roll.” They really are ready and are taking action around, for example, messaging strategy or marketing strategy. This department is really ready to go, but they’re- they’re hoping for more resources in this area. We could move them along the continuum if we looked at this particular way of reaching them. I’ve got a board member on the executive team who experienced something in 1970 in her own career that allows her to understand DEI in an unbelievably connected way. How do we allow her to be a champion in this process? So it is very much, in my own head, a lot of that mapping, and maybe there are more pictures in my head than I thought. I don’t know, Eric.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) I- I find this with my own conversations with my friends and colleagues, and there’s this concept colloquial of the word being woke.

Jessica Schmidt: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: And when people who are woke versus not woke. And the process of coming into that. So, how do you start a conversation with, say, a board member who’s a white, wealthy, 60-year-old, you know, very privileged person who has seen the world in a certain way and is on the other side of woke. How- how do you- how do you approach that?

Jessica Schmidt: Oh, I am still learning. (laughs) And that’s actually how I start the conversation. Admitting your own vulnerability and admitting, in my case, that I am a white woman, a privileged white woman coming into the room to have a conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Naming that starts the conversation in a way that says, “Hey, some vulnerability here is okay. And learning os okay. Mistakes are okay. I will make them with you as your consultant. That’s a part of this process. We’re gonna hold each other accountable in that learning.”

Jessica Schmidt: From there it’s, in my mind, very much about hearing the story of the individual. How did they get to the place that they’re at? What are the pieces of their privilege? What are the pieces that they are farthest away from seeing, the things that they’re close to being able to see? And then, in my mind, I start to think about ways to connect them with anecdotes, with people they know who are going to be able to, again, move them along that continuum.

Jessica Schmidt: There are some individuals, I will not lie, that I sit down with (laughs) and I think, “Oh my gosh. This is going to be a long journey.” But I do believe, again, in the power of every person having something to bring to the table. And I don’t want to leave anyone behind in this process because we need those privileged, well-off, older, white board members. They’re good people. And those pieces of their identity are there. And engaging them, allowing them the space to learn and the space to see themselves and their journey differently is extremely powerful in the end in terms of making organizational change.

Jessica Schmidt: So, I guess the answer to your question is a lot of patience. A lot of self-checking. I also have to do a lot of checking as I’m sitting in such conversations, uh, reminding myself of, again, how far I have to go and the things I need to learn, and trying to learn, and trying to take what could be some potentially frustration in not having the “woke” person in front of me, and turning it into excitement and a possibility to bring them along in the process.

Erik Gensler: So how do you define privilege to a person like that?

Jessica Schmidt: That’s a great question.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Jessica Schmidt: Oh, that’s a big question. Again, I think it depends on the person. Privilege, it’s so many things, but it is allowing an individual to see that the story they have in their lives, what they’ve walked through life with, is not necessarily what others have or haven’t had. I was in a … And maybe an anecdote could be most helpful for this. I was in a conversation with a client with a DEI committee this past week, and we were talking about the word ‘sanctuary.’ And we had a fantastic group of board, staff, and musicians in the room, and there was a comment from a number of people in the room that they want the symphony to be a sanctuary, a place that they can go to be safe and to have quiet and to remove themselves from the cares of the world. And we had an interesting discussion about what that means as different types of individuals coming from different places of privilege.

Jessica Schmidt: And my point was that sanctuary really in itself is a privilege. And I talked about, especially at the Pittsburgh Symphony, I remember having a specific conversation with musicians who were frustrated ’cause they were seeing young children coming into the hall during youth concerts, third, fourth graders. They would come into the hall for a youth concert, sit in these big plush red seats. And they would immediately fall asleep.

Jessica Schmidt: And I was talking with the musicians about the fact that they were frustrated by this. They said, “You know, we’re playing great music. Why aren’t these students listening? They should be rapt in attention. This is a great moment for them.” And we had a fantastic discussion about the fact that for many of these students, this might be the only moment that they can sleep safely throughout the day. That’s privilege.

Jessica Schmidt: For us to be able to go home at night and to be safe and to be able to walk into a hall and not be thinking about trauma. There’s so many different pieces of privilege that we carry throughout our lives. So, again, that piece of empathy is so very important, to look at those students and to say, “Hey, there’s something there. I recognize that for you, this is a safe place right now. And whatever you need to do to connect to this place with your own safety, with your own refuge, with your own sanctuary, that’s fine with me.” It was just a very interesting discussion, and a different way to frame it.

Jessica Schmidt: So I don’t think that answers your- your question about what privilege is. We could probably do an eight-hour podcast on that, but it’s definitely many different pieces of many different things, and it’s a building awareness over time.

Erik Gensler: I don’t want to assume that everybody listening to this podcast knows what it is though. So how can you break that down? So, we’re having a conversation. I don’t understand privilege. Tell me what that is.

Jessica Schmidt: Give me an example of a situation where we talked about privilege and you’re not sure what it is. Can you give me that?

Erik Gensler: Well …

Jessica Schmidt: Anecdotally.

Erik Gensler: I mean for me what made it clear was that privilege walk video.

Jessica Schmidt: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: Like, I just had no idea what the concept of that was until I saw you put 50 students on a line and you say, “If you never wondered where your next meal was coming from take a step forward. If you went to a private university take three steps forward. If you have parents that were not married take steps forward. If you are white take 20 steps forward.” (laughs) You know, do you use something like that?

Jessica Schmidt: It depends, again, on the client. The privilege walk is something that a lot of practitioners use. I find that, again, it can be somewhat jarring if it’s one of the first things that’s done. It has to be done in a way that doesn’t leave people behind. I’ve also heard stories, specifically here in Boston, about a colleague who did that walk at a university and was one of the people that was, in the end, standing literally in the trees. They did it outside. (laughs)

Jessica Schmidt: And all of her future colleagues in her program were standing ahead of her. And she talked about leaving that experience in tears. She said, “I … This was intended to be able to call out privilege and to identify pieces of privilege, but what it showed me was how little privilege I had and how I just didn’t belong in this class of people.”

Jessica Schmidt: And class is another piece of this I don’t think is spoken a lot about, and also a very obtused concept that takes some time to pull back away from. Class, socioeconomic status. But the privilege piece that you’re talking about, again, it can manifest in many different ways. I- I love the examples you gave. One of my favorites is, “How many books did you have access to as a kid?” Right? I mean the concept of being able to go into your room and read a book and have access to information. It’s very much about access.

Jessica Schmidt: So there are all these different little pieces. I actually just pulled up just now, but I’m gonna call out my dear colleague and mentor, Carmen Morgan, too at Art Equity. In Art Equity’s work, they’ve defined privilege as, “Operating on a personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional level. Privilege is something that gives advantages, access, favors, and benefits to a member of dominant groups at the expense of members of marginalized groups.”

Jessica Schmidt: So to be able to understand privilege you have to understand, and you have to be able to say, “Yes, I am a part of a dominant group. Part of my identity is a part of a dominant group, and there is a group that is marginalized.” And I think for … at least for many of my clients, for many people in the orchestra world, that is the first step. Like, “Hold on, I- I had no concept. I had no knowing that I might be a part of a group that had a dominant identity.”

Jessica Schmidt: So it’s a different way of speaking. Again, I think it takes a lot of time to process. And then you add the layer of orchestras on top of it, (laughs) and it’s even more complex. But it is very much about these things that can be invisible, things that are taken for granted by those of us who do have it. All of those different pieces of access and connection. Social capital is one that’s often not discussed.

Jessica Schmidt: If I wanted to right now, if I wanted to move to Chicago, would I have the ability to do that from here in Boston? And it’s due to many things, but much due to my own social capital that I could say yes, that that would be a possibility, when for many people that would not be a possibility.

Jessica Schmidt: So taking stock of all of those pieces that give you advantage and looking around and being sure that you have an understanding of how that fits into the context of where you’re working, playing, living.

Erik Gensler: That’s a great definition, and super helpful, and- and super clear. You know, orchestras are arts organizations, but they’re so seeped in traditions. I just imagine that creates such an interesting sandbox to do this kind of work.

Jessica Schmidt: Yes. More like a mud pit sometimes. (laughing) I say that with great love as somebody who comes from that world. I’ve never been happier in the work I’ve been doing because I know this world. It’s a funky little world of orchestras and the people that are connected to them and artists. And I think that we have a special need to take a look at our field. And we- we constantly as a field look inward and say, “Oh, no, we’re dying. We’re in trouble. What about the future?” And if we’re really serious about that, we need to be talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in a very authentic way, beyond just representation. Representation is certainly a first piece in diversity, but it’s- it’s not the only piece. It’s about those messages that are sent.

Jessica Schmidt: There’s a great story of Chicago Symphony about Paul Freeman who of course is deeply … Was deeply … He passed away. Wonderful, amazing man at the Chicago Symphony conductor. In the 60s, the story is he ran into Martin Luther King Jr. at the Chicago Airport, and he came up to him and said, “Oh, you know, Dr. King, I can’t believe I’m meeting you.” And he said, “Oh, well, what do you do?” And he said, “Well, I’m a conductor.” And Dr. King looked at him and said, “Ah, orchestras, the last great holdout of racism.” (laughs)

Jessica Schmidt: And I think about that and I think about, frankly, how orchestras appear to the general public, the messages, again, and I will be very blatant in saying much of the community, many people outside of the orchestra field look in and say, “I don’t know that I do belong there. It seems like you need to be a certain kind of person. It feels elitist to me.” All of those things that we don’t want to speak about our field, it’s so important that we speak that. It’s so important that we take the time to acknowledge that and to acknowledge the fear that goes along with that and to say, “Well, that’s gonna take time to change.”

Jessica Schmidt: We can still hold on to all of the things that make us great. And I think, again, a lot of the work that I’m doing with orchestras is allowing orchestras to see that this is a both/and proposition, versus, again, a loss proposition. You can still come out and play the most beautiful Beethoven 7 in the world and play it at the highest level of artistic excellence, and you can be committed as an organization to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And the exciting part is, your commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion will only raise the artistic excellence of that Beethoven 7.

Jessica Schmidt: So, it takes time to get there. It takes time to pull back and see that. And it takes time to make change. In all of my roles within orchestras we talked a lot about moving the rudder on the ship slowly enough that it won’t break off, (laughs) because it’s such a large ship. And I think that’s a part of this as well. We really do want to make change. We want to make it quickly. But this is work that’s a practice. It’s not something that will change overnight. It’s not something that has an outcome that we will see tomorrow. It is a daily practice. It’s about culture of our institutions.

Erik Gensler: I think you compare that to learning an instrument, right?

Jessica Schmidt: Yeah, I do. And I think that actually bridges the gap, especially for my musician colleagues. When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, a lot of the times when I first sit down with an orchestra they’ll say, “Well, what are our goals? Should we set some metrics in terms of representation?” And like, “Okay, yes, I- I see that we want to get to the end here, but this isn’t a goal-driven piece of work. This is a culture-driven piece of work, which means that it’s similar to when you and how you continue to teach, how you continue to play your violin, that you go into the practice room and you work. You work so hard. You keep playing the same étude over and over. You stop and you analyze and you are self-critical, and you say, “What could we do better?” realizing that it’s a lifelong journey, that there will always be work to be done, that this work is changing with every day, and taking the time to really think of it that way versus thinking about checking the box off and being done with it.”

Erik Gensler: How do you feel about making public goals, even if they’re small goals? Just the idea of being held accountable to goals.

Jessica Schmidt: I think goals are absolutely important when accompanied by strategies and vision. The piece that I see orchestras missing a lot of the times, and a piece that we spend a lot of time on is, again, the why. Generally, again, out of need, out of the pace of what we do, we jump to the how. How do we make this happen? But without a unified statement and understanding as to, “Shat is it that we’re talking about and why is it important? And also what are the pieces of the value added?” this work doesn’t stick.

Jessica Schmidt: And I would say that that’s been a challenge in our field. We look at the past hundred years of our field and we say, “Why hasn’t there been change?” We’ve been looking at only a few things, and in my opinion, we’ve been looking at them incorrectly in that we’ve said, “Here is a measure of progress. Now, let’s do it,” versus, “Why does this matter? What does this mean to us as an organization and as a field? How will this look and feel when it really does start to change quantifiably?” You know, certainly in the way of specific measurable goals, but also in the way of culture. And what is that piece of inclusion that we’ve been missing? Why is it that we have been unable to sustain the diversity piece in many ways?

Jessica Schmidt: And so the inclusion piece really jumps out in all of that, making sure that an organization truly understands what that is, how it looks, and how it feels before goals are set. Because those goals will not stick. For example, I’m assuming you’re thinking, Erik, with terms of representation or staff demographics, orchestra demographics. All of that is certainly a piece of the puzzle, but, again, it won’t stick. It is not sustainable without culture change.

Erik Gensler: Have you seen ED&I initiatives work without the executive director and board fully embracing it?

Jessica Schmidt: Oh, wow. (laughs) Work is a key word there. (laughing) In many cases I have seen them start. And a part of this work is understanding that arts organizations and arts leadership is cyclical. Right? That people do move. They come and go. And, so, what we’re aiming to do within our organizations is to, again, build out enough ownership, enough participation that if one or two people who are key figureheads do leave, the work will continue. And I think that goes for the better and the worse. Right? We’ve got some leadership that maybe isn’t on board, but you’ve got a team that is. And what can we do within that model, understanding that that will change over time?

Jessica Schmidt: In a perfect scenario, of course, what you’ve got is an executive director that deeply believes in, understands, and frankly, the most important piece, wishes to learn more about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and how their organization can continue to model practices, best practices in- in DEI. You’ve got a board chair that is, again, the woke board chair (laughs) that understands and will carry the flag for this work. And you’ve got, then, a music director who sees the possibility in DEI efforts, not only artistically, but again, from an organizational sustainability standpoint. That’s the trifecta. That’s the dream. Is it present in all organizations? No. Is it present in the majority of organizations when I come in to work with them? Honestly, probably not. So, again, that’s part of what I do is- is coming in and taking a read as to where everyone’s at and how we can, again, move each of those individuals along on their own path while moving the organization along.

Jessica Schmidt: It is an absolute dream when you do get the three individuals together. It’s a- it’s a powerhouse. But, again, even with those three individuals on board it’s so important to be sure that the entire organization is offered the opportunity to participate. You’re modeling inclusion when you do that, and you’re setting up a pathway to sustainability.

Erik Gensler: Think about a big mistake you’ve made in this work, either when you were within an organization or in your consulting.

Jessica Schmidt: Oh, so many. Again, we should have an eight-hour podcast.

Erik Gensler: (laughs) I heard today that … There’s actually a podcast about this. But someone talked about a mistake resume. We make our resumes of all our achievements, but we should make mistake resumes ’cause we learn so much from them.

Jessica Schmidt: I’m still aiming for that at national conferences. I would love to have mistake sessions, especially around DEI, because we’re so afraid of talking about mistakes because, honestly, when mistakes are made in this work, it’s pretty bad. It feels horrible. There- there’s the- the theory of as human beings our greatest fear is being bad people. And I think a lot of that comes through in this work, where if you make a mistake, it’s not just, “Oh, well, I screwed up a balance sheet for January.” It’s, “I personally offended a colleague/friend/artistic partner. What do I do?”

Jessica Schmidt: And I (laughs) have so many individuals that come to me sort of on a sidebar basis and say, “I’m sitting next to this person in the orchestra and I don’t know what to do or how to advance this conversation,” or “I screwed up this conversation that I had with a board member. Can I fix it? What do I do?” And I- I have so many stories, uh, for myself, things that I wish I would’ve done differently, things I wish I would’ve done better. One specific example, actually more of a community engagement example, that I use a lot is a story of one of my favorite communities in the world in Pittsburgh, the Hill District. August Wilson’s from the Hill District. It’s a phenomenal neighborhood that has seen extraordinary change, uh, for better and through great challenge over the last 50 years. And the Pittsburgh Symphony was thinking about building a new community engagement relationship with the Hill District, and my job was to start that process, to walk into the community, to do a lot of listening, to learn about who it was that we needed to be working with to engage over time.

Jessica Schmidt: And I will say her name because she’s one of my heroes, Terry Baltimore of Hill House, and Hill Consensus Group, she was taking me around the Hill District and she gave me this fantastic tour. It’s also where Hill Street Blues was based. And she was giving the me history.

Jessica Schmidt: And then she brought me into their performance hall, and she just sat with me for a second. It was quiet in the hall. And she looked at me and she said, “Jessica,” she said, “If the Pittsburgh Symphony is gonna come in here, we need to know that you’re here for good, that you’re not just gonna come in and leave. Because in our neighborhood, over and over again, we have organizations come in, they get some grant money, they take that grant money, they do a project, and they leave. And it’s not helping us. So, if you’re going to build this with us we need to know that you’re in it for the long haul.”

Jessica Schmidt: And I tell that story with partners, with clients, a lot, because I so appreciated how clear she was about her expectations as a representative of the community. I was so appreciative that she talked immediately to me as a new partner about what we do, frankly, in our positions of privilege. And oftentimes as Orchestras, where we’re driven in this work by money, versus, again, the long-term, the relationship, reciprocal versus transaction. And I was very struck by Terry and I remember thinking, “How do I promise on behalf of my organization that this is the case?”

Jessica Schmidt: So, it took many months and actually years for that relationship to continue and for us to model it. There’s no way to show that commitment other than to show up all the time and to be there. And I remember other members of the community engagement committee that we had asking me pointed questions about how long I was gonna stay there. You know, “What does this mean to you personally? Are you really in this for the right reasons?”

Jessica Schmidt: And I wouldn’t say that that falls into mistakes so much as huge learning for me in a moment of that’s how we need to be positioning all of this work, again, as deeply relational, as deeply long-term. And, you know, you think about a- a young musician or a board member or a staff member, especially somebody who does represent difference in some way, and I think a lot about their paths and about, again, all the messages we’ve sent for better or for worse.

Jessica Schmidt: There’s … I’m sure, Erik, you’ve read the 40 Years of Fellowship study that came from the league that talked about African-American and LatinX young pre-professional musicians and fellowships and orchestras with the idea that these fellowships were things and are things that are helping to increase diversity over time in orchestras. And the key finding that came back from this report was that these individuals, these young pre-professional musicians were having horrible experiences at their orchestras because the environments they were entering were not inclusive. They would feel like they were the only people there that were having their journey. They would have these micro-aggressions taking place from their peers on a day-to-day basis. And it was a real wake-up call I think for our field and a learning for our field of mistakes that we’ve all made. In an attempt to get to diversity we’ve forgotten about the inclusion piece.

Jessica Schmidt: So, again, we really should do a mistake podcast. (laughs) And I can come up with a list of so many things that I wish I would’ve said differently or done differently, but it really is about taking the time, I think, to step back and say, “Yep, this is gonna happen again. And it when it does how am I gonna handle it differently? How do I wish to approach it differently?”

Erik Gensler: Well, I also think the fear of making mistakes makes people not want to engage in this kind of work because the stakes seem so high.

Jessica Schmidt: Yeah. It’s person to person stakes. It’s fear, again, around language. Am I using the wrong term? Am I going to offend someone? Am I leaving someone out? And to get people on board and on the bus in terms of moving them along on that continuum, you have to create a space. We often talk about safe space. “Let’s create a safe space.” And someone pointed out in a session I was in that for, again, marginalized individuals or oppressed individuals, there is no such thing as a safe space. There never has been. And it’s gonna be a long time likely before they do feel that. So it really is about creating courageous spaces. And hopefully that’s what we’re doing in this work over time.

Erik Gensler: You mentioned microaggressions. Just back to term definition. Can you hit us with what that is?

Jessica Schmidt: Again, I’m going to dear Art Equity, who I’m gonna give them another plug here. They define microaggression as, “A small act of mostly non-physical aggression.” This is a 2007 definition from psychologist, Dr. Sue, which is “A brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward marginalized groups.”

Jessica Schmidt: So, that could be everything from language that’s used, biased language, jokes in the workplace, assumptions of inferiority, denial of experiences. It can manifest in many different ways. Again, I use the non-physical microaggression that I think many orchestras are dealing with, which, again, their space.

Jessica Schmidt: If I am an individual who uses a wheelchair and I’m unable to use my wheelchair in the most nearby bathroom comfortably, what does that say to me about my experience there, about whether I’m welcome? If I walk in the hall as a young African-American boy and I see pictures of all these old white people on the wall, while I acknowledge that tradition, what does that say about my possibility in the organization and where I fit in? If I am a mother of three children and I walk into work and my supervisor says, “Well, you know, thanks for coming in today. I know that it’s tough at home with your kids, and we didn’t invite you to this meeting because we knew you were already busy.” That’s a microaggression in terms of my identity as a parent.

Jessica Schmidt: There are many ways that microaggressions come to be. And again, it- it takes some time to pick that apart in the context of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Erik Gensler: That’s a great definition. And the adding up of microaggressions for marginalized people is just, you know, can be devastating.

Jessica Schmidt: It’s massive. And, again, think about fellowship situations and the work that I did on staff at several of my orchestras, sitting with fellows. And I remember very clearly sitting in the room with one fellow who was crying, and he was talking about his experience. He said, “I just … ” He- he was receiving … on the receiving end of so many of these behaviors on a daily basis from his colleagues, from his peers. It was a matter of us making the time and space to be sure that the people surrounding him were modeling inclusion. The diversity was there, but we had forgotten the inclusion piece.

Erik Gensler: So we’ve come to your final question, and this is your CI to Eye moment. And the question is if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Jessica Schmidt: Start from a place of empathy. Everything we do in our field is about relationships. It’s about a love of our art form, and it’s about love of creating together. Start from a place of looking around at your own team, your community, your artistic partners as human beings first, and their roles second. I think that makes all the difference. Connect with individuals and listen. Start with listening. Start with empathy.

Erik Gensler: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, and thank you for all the important work that you’re doing.

Jessica Schmidt: Thank you so much, Erik. Thanks for having me. I so appreciate it.

About Our Guests
Jessica Schmidt
Jessica Schmidt
Principal Consultant, Orchestrate Inclusion

Jessica Schmidt is the Principal Consultant at Orchestrate Inclusion. Before her work as a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant to arts organizations, she led education and community engagement work at Boston, Pittsburgh, and Dallas Symphony Orchestras.

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