NAfME’s New CEO: A Recommitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Music and the Arts

Mike Lawson • • June 14, 2016

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Correction: Last month in SBO we published the wrong title of Michael Blakeslee in a story named “NAfME’s New President”.  Michael Blakeslee is the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of NAfME. We regret the error.

You were likely buried under a pile of spring programs and progress reports if you’re a music educator who missed out on the social media storm raining down on NAfME headquarters in early May.

A Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in the Arts meeting was assembled by the National Endowment for the Arts April 26. An array of national arts service organizations were in attendance; Alternate ROOTS, National Associate for Music Education, American League of Orchestras, Chamber Music America, U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, and others.

On Wednesday, May 4, Keryl McCord, the director of operations for the nonprofit arts advocacy organization, Alternate ROOTS, challenged comments spoken by NAfME’s executive director and CEO, Michael Butera, during a smaller break-out discussion group at the meeting. The objection to Butera’s remarks came in the form of a blogpost uploaded to the Alternate ROOTS website entitled, “Why We Must Have Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity In the Arts: A Response to the National Association for Music Education.” The post went viral.

Butera responded publically to the accusations via his Facebook page. On May 6, he mentions that during the conversation in question he did draw attention to the fact that NAfME’s board has no African-American members and that it was not directly his fault because the “board is elected by the membership.” He further admitted, “I also mentioned that the field of music educators, much like the general population of educators, is skewed toward white individuals.”

On May 9, McCord issued a follow-up response elaborating on the events in question entitled, “Update On Why We Must Have Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in The Arts.” On the Alternate ROOTS website, McCord wrote, “Mr. Butera told us that his board was all white and that he couldn’t diversify his board because they aren’t appointed but, rather, they are elected by the membership. Further, his membership isn’t diverse because, ‘Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.’ He also intimated that music theory is too difficult for them as an area of study.” McCord further describes the discussion saying, “When another member of our table, who said that her organization is struggling with this issue but that they are working on it, pushed back to ask him, again, why he wouldn’t even entertain the idea of trying to diversify his board and membership, Mr. Butera got extremely defensive. So much so that he refused to engage any further and said, ‘I don’t have to take this. Yes, my board is all white, and they are one of the most diverse boards of any organization – more than any arts organization at this table.’ Then he stormed out of the room.”

Social media was set alight with provocative responses and dialogue around diversity (or lack thereof) in music education. One notable example was a Facebook post made May 6, by NAfME member Deejay Robinson, a music educator who shared an image of his NAfME membership card on fire and encouraged others to speak out.

The American League of Orchestras president and CEO, Jesse Rosen, joined the conversation when he corroborated McCord’s account of what took place. Rosen writes, “I can attest to the accuracy of Keryl McCord’s account of what was said and what took place. Mr. Butera indeed said that he could not take action to diversify his board, and that African-American and Latinos lacked keyboard skills needed to advance in the music education profession — two statements which many of us around the table challenged. The group was unable to further pursue the meaning of his comments as Mr. Butera abruptly and angrily walked out of the room, well in advance of the meeting’s scheduled end time.”

Michael BlakesleeNAfME initially responded by issuing a statement reassuring its members of their commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity, and promised that they were conducting a thorough investigation. With swift action NAfME followed up on Wednesday, May 11. The organization released the following final statement: “After a thorough review process, the National Executive Board of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and Michael Butera have agreed that he will not be returning to the association. Additionally, we are announcing that Michael Blakeslee will serve as the new executive director and chief executive officer for NAfME, effective immediately…These last few days highlight the need for real, substantive conversation about what must be done to provide access and opportunity to all students no matter where they live. This is an ongoing journey and we are ready to play an increasingly important role in convening and facilitating a dialogue and prompting action around how all of us can increase diversity, inclusion, and equity in music and the arts.”

On June 3, 2016, NAfME showed evidence that they are still in “the conversation” through a featured article posted on their website. The article written by NAfME Member, Taniesha Hines, is entitled, “Colorless Teaching: A Guide to Breaking Cultural Barriers in Today’s Orchestra Classroom.” Through this difficult and eye-opening period in the history of the organization, it appears that they have approached this sensitive and important subject of inclusion, diversity, and equity in the arts, with a greater awareness of where they are and where they need to go. Blakeslee released the following statement “Our mission statement is ‘music for all,’ and we take that very seriously.”


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