What Does a White Person of Privilege Say?

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

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As I scrolled through social media this weekend, I wavered back and forth on wanting to add my voice to the outpouring of support (to be silent is to be complicit, right?), yet trying to reconcile the weight of coming up short (words fail right now, talk is cheap, and what’s one more white voice joining a chorus of people who are feeling a sadness that black Americans have been experiencing some version of their whole lives?). This is a turning point in our culture, I said to myself. Or is it, I hedged again, because after all, if there’s anything we’ve learned as the events of the last several weeks have unfolded, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to Chris Cooper to George Floyd, it’s that so much hasn’t changed at all.

All this is to mean, I may not fully know what to say, or how to say it, or if I’ll get it right, but I ultimately decided that all the hemming and hawing was annoyingly missing the mark anyway. Words alone aren’t enough; white people need to take action. I want action in my own life. So I got to work. This post is about the recent steps I’ve taken, personally, professionally, and what I plan to do when I’m back leading an orchestra again. Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful to others in the field who are serious about moving beyond stating our support and are committing to better living it.

Personal Actions

There are a few steps I’ve taken specifically in the last 48 hours:

Donated to Minnesota Freedom Fund, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Center for Economic Inclusion. Over the entire pandemic I’ve been frustrated that so many foundations and granting organizations are not spending their rainy day fund corpus during the worst existential downpour of our lifetime, and I realized that me sitting on a Donor Advised Fund — one my husband and I started a few years ago as a way to learn more about them (I do work in the nonprofit sector) as well as, like other DAF holders, to get the tax benefits — was no different than the foundation hoarding that was bothering me so much. Over the last two months, we decided to give away the majority of what our fund had accumulated to COVID relief charities, both locally and to some organizations doing important work nationally and in underserved communities. We intentionally had saved some of the funds thinking it might be helpful should the virus curve hit a second wave spike. By Saturday, we were giving a lot of that remainder away to the organizations above. I know that I’m fortunate to be employed during this time and to have a charitable fund to distribute, and that is precisely the point: it was a resource available to me, and now is the time to act on what I have to give.

Started reading How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Followers of this blog know that I’m always reading, usually a business book of some kind, and over the last week or so, my title du jour felt more and more hollow or irrelevant somehow. This week jolted me to do what I normally don’t do: quit a book midway through. I had already read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (in my 2019 book review roundup) and So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (in my 2018 roundup), and this book had been on my reading list for a few months now. As I considered what I can personally do now, without waiting another moment, continuing my personal journey exploring racism, how I’m a part of it, and what I can do to actively become anti-racist felt more important than whatever was on my nightstand before. Other titles are on my list for future reading too, including some from the Anti-racism resources doc that’s been circulating.

Also, in case it’s helpful to anyone, my goal in reading is always to not just consume, but to apply what I’ve learned. My process is to 1) highlight in my Kindle important passages and findings, 2) email those highlights to myself when finished reading, and 3) organize the notes in a document, adding my own thoughts and next steps along the way. I then try to incorporate what I can immediately into my life and work, and I’m so anally organized about it that I now come back to my archive of notes across all kinds of topics frequently as a pertinent question or need arises. Sometimes I still read a good ol’ paperback (for the hold-a-book-in-your-hands diehards out there, I get it), and I do the same thing with those; the process just takes a little longer to transcribe the highlights instead of using Amazon’s one click wonder. I will do the same with this book just as the others.

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“Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful to others in the field who are serious about moving beyond stating our support and are committing to better living it.”

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Listened…so I can find my words to speak out in the moments it matters. To every black friend, musician, administrator, or professional acquaintance I’m connected with online, I’ve tried to make a point to see you and hear you, more this week than ever before, and may it be an ongoing habit so I can be a positive ally. It’s one thing to write a post to say in broad strokes that I’m against systemic racism and injustice. It’s another to acknowledge that I am a part of that system unless I speak up with kindness to people close to me when I think something they say is a micro-aggression or uninformed. To do this productively means I am considering my words now to have them at the ready.

Professional Actions

Worked this weekend with the President and senior leadership team at SFCM on what our public response should be. We had students grieving online, looking for their school to say something. Like America, organizations and their boards are made up of members who lean in all directions. To be fair, this is what we want: a multitude of voices and viewpoints governing our organization. Add to that a topic that’s heated, emotional, raw, and political, and it’s a challenge to message a single sentiment of what we stand for — and against — without compromising on any values and remaining substantive. Ultimately, in partnership with Black students, alums, and faculty we arrived at an action plan with funding behind it.

I am committed to not be satisfied solely with an organizational social media post, but to do what I can in my role to support continued organizational inclusion. As the person responsible for overseeing marketing efforts for next season, for example, I’m raising the question about what composers we program. How do we balance teaching the canon (i.e. predominantly white, western music — pieces that are currently on every audition list for every orchestra or opera audition these students will take) with a duty to program composers that reflect the makeup of not only an already diverse student body, but the kind of inclusion we want to champion? While I am not the decision-maker on this issue in this role, I have already raised my voice to push forward the conversation and will continue to do so. Update: I’ve already used some of the thoughts I’d prepared (from the Listening above) in various meetings with colleagues. Things like voicing that it’s not our black students’ job to tell us how to solve the problem.

Re-evaluating my hiring practices. Over the last several years, I have completely changed my approach to recruiting and hiring, and have talked more vocally in recent speaking engagements about committing to diversity across all facets of my organization (Adobe, May 2019), how American orchestras over-index on white people compared to the demographics of our country (Carnegie Mellon, October 2019), and doing the cognitive work necessary to challenge the status quo (Vanderbilt, January 2020). Now is an inflection point for all of us in managerial roles to study research-based best practices (yes, I’ll be revisiting all those notes from past books I’ve read). Although many arts organizations may not be hiring right now due to the economic turmoil in which the pandemic has left our institutions, someday we will recover, fill those roles that were frozen or eliminated, and build back our staffs. We have an incredible opportunity before us to make a choice to hire exceptionally talented people that enrich and expand our collective experiences and thoughts because they are different than our own, to challenge our own unintentional biases that are inadvertently holding back our own industry’s talent pool, and to build teams that look like the community around us, which in turn help us serve and remain relevant to that community.

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“This is what we want: a multitude of voices and viewpoints governing our organization.”

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Actions for Orchestras

Quite often when I read the news inside and outside the arts, I think about what I would do in that situation if I were leading that orchestra, or if that thing happened in my community. It’s an exercise in building my own professional wheelhouse. These last few days are no different, and I have been thinking about what I will do when I’m at the helm of an orchestra again:

  • Work with the players to have the screen up to the end of the audition.
  • Question the idea of trial weeks and who they’re serving.
  • Build out and hire a sub list of people of color, as that is often a pipeline to hiring them as permanent players later.
  • Program black composers throughout the season, not just in February.
  • Commission composers of color.
  • Hire POC on my staff, including the senior leadership team, because they bring viewpoints to the table that my white place of privilege simply cannot bring no matter how effective a leader I am.
  • Think vehemently about how to create an inclusive environment, on stage and off, because it’s not enough to hire people of color; people need to feel welcomed and valued in order to stay. That’s true for all of us as employees. It’s true for our audiences as well.

This list is not complete. None of the actions in this post are. And while I hope that these thoughts are helpful to anyone trying to consider their own way forward, enough writing, enough talking. What else can I say: actions speak louder than words.

About the Author

Credited by Southwest Magazine with “redefining the classical concert experience as we know it,” Aubrey Bergauer defies trends and then makes her own. Hailed by San Francisco Chronicle as a “dynamic and innovative administrator,” her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to double the size of its audience and nearly quadruple the donor base.

Praised by Wall Street Journal for leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” and which drove the California Symphony to become “the most forward-looking music organization around” (San Jose Mercury News), Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically examine and advance every facet of the organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across what are usually siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments creates a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, and in the community.

A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, classical music is Bergauer’s vehicle to make the world around her better, through programs that champion social justice and equality, through marketing and audience development tactics on the forefront of trends and technology, and through delivering revenue and results in the rapidly changing landscape of funding, philanthropy, and consumer behavior. Bergauer now shares these ideas as founding executive director for the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in addition to her consulting work and speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras.

Working to change the narrative for symphony orchestras.

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