Out Of Crisis: Opportunity

Mike Lawson • • July 13, 2016

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Diversity, music education and where we go from here…

Early in May, I watched in pained horror as comments made by the now former CEO of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), Michael Butera, regarding the involvement of people of color in music education (or lack thereof ) created a firestorm across both social media and the education press. Not only did the commentary focus on the statements of one man (regardless of intent)… there were others who have called into question NAfME’s organizational commitment to diversity.

It pains me to see an organization I have admired and worked with for more than a quarter of century, be challenged about their commitment to diversity and to serving all children, based on the comments of one man. Diversity in music education is a serious issue that requires serious and thoughtful conversations. To somehow ascribe Butera’s comments to embody the attitudes of the entire field of more than 60,000 music educators in the United States is absurd. This defies both the reality and seriousness of this issue.

It is ironic that the insinuations projected upon NAfME are being made on the heels of arguably the organization’s greatest success in support of students and teachers of color: The Passage of the Every Students Succeeds Act. The passage of this law provides access to Title I (as well as other Titles) funding for use in music and arts education targeting disadvantaged students.

I am heartened by the thorough review the NAfME executive board conducted regarding the controversy and the swift action to appoint new leadership. I want to congratulate my long time colleague and friend Michael Blakeslee on his appointment as the new NAfME CEO. Given the circumstances, NAfME’s elected leadership acted in a professional manner and made sure the interests of all members were served.

However, this is not the end of the story. The larger issues remain.

The discussion about diversity within the broader music education field and the NAfME membership in particular is not a new conversation. These conversations have been going on for decades. Why are there fewer people of color in the music education field? Why doesn’t NAfME membership (and those of similar groups) reflect the limited diversity that exists in the music education community? Why is there a disconnect between music educators in many urban communities and their own state and national associations?

I have been a party to some of these conversations. When Willie Hill was elected as the President of NAfME (2002) he became the first person of color to hold the organization’s highest office. He helped elevate the dialog of the lack of diversity within music education but he also made it clear his tenure would be about more than diversity. I have seen in my work with Music for All the challenges that organization has faced in recruiting groups from majority and minority communities to be involved in various aspects of their programs. Eric Martin, Music for All CEO and one of the most prominent people of color in our field, has spoken passionately and eloquently about the need to address this problem. At Save the Music, diversity was a constant point of discussion as we worked to restore programs in major urban communities. In fact, I am aware of several organizations’ leadership who recognize the issue and are making independent and individual efforts to address it.

There is not a lack of interest or will… but there has not really been a cohesive plan of action to address diversity in our field either. Which brings us to today.

Out of crisis comes opportunity.

It is my hope that we will now engage in the meaningful dialog that leads to action steps to create systemic change. We need to ensure we are actively working to increase diversity, inclusion, and equity with an eye toward the ultimate goal of “music for all’ in all of our communities. We need to embrace the rich cultural diversity of our nation to inspire our students.

I do not pretend to have the solution to this most challenging issue facing our profession – although I do have a suggestion. I believe that with NAfME’s new leadership, now is the time to convene all the major stakeholder leaders in music education to begin to develop strategies and plans to address diversity in our profession. This is far more complex than one organization can take on alone. This will be difficult, uncomfortable and challenging… but it must be done. It is through a collective impact approach by the leaders, boards, and members of the many groups that make up the infrastructure of music education in our country that we can begin to hold ourselves accountable for making real, meaningful, and systemic change.

This is not solely a NAfME problem… it is a music education problem, an arts education problem, and indeed a problem that exists across many of our cultural organizations. Developing solutions requires the will and best thinking from everyone across the sector to come up with the strategies that will lead to change and then embody the change we are seeking.

Over the past 30 years, I have been able to witness first hand the tremendous amount of good NAfME has done on behalf of music education and the leadership it has provided for the field. The National Commission for Music Education (1991), the National Coalition for Music Education, The National Standards for Music Education (1994, 2014), the establishment of the arts as a core subject (1994), and the establishment of music as a stand alone content area (2015), as well as, major advocacy initiatives and partnerships with prominent organizations like NAMM, the GRAMMY’s, SupportMusic.com, Music for All, VH1 and many others. All of these accomplishments ensure greater opportunities for the students in the vast majority of schools in our country.

The opportunity now is for NAfME, and all of us, to seize this moment and lead as they have on other issues successfully in the past.

We know how this story started, it is time to write how it ends. We can write the ending in a way that will find historians looking back to find the seeds planted to eliminate diversity as an issue in our field – and for the students and communities we serve – that those seeds were cultivated, planted, watered and bloomed.

Robert B. Morrison is the founder of Quadrant Arts Education Research, an arts education research and intelligence organization. In addition to other related pursuits in the field of arts education advocacy, Mr. Morrison has helped create, found, and run Music for All, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation, and, along with Richard Dreyfuss and the late Michael Kaman, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. He may be reached directly at bobm@artsedresearch.org.

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