The Minnesota Orchestra is committed to using music to communicate and bridge cultures, guided by our three core values: Listen, Respect, Collaborate. We seek to create, develop and nurture connections that allow the Minnesota Orchestra to authentically contribute to making the Twin Cities a more equitable community. As Board, staff and musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, we are currently focused with great priority on anti-racism and actively working to disrupt our own role in systemic racism.
A fundamental step in moving toward a more just society is to recognize the inequities that are built into our social systems and the role that we have played in sustaining them. We are committed to recognizing inequities in our organization, industry and community, and to advancing the change that must happen.
We also acknowledge the pain felt throughout our home city of Minneapolis and beyond. We see the historical and ongoing injustices in the arts, housing, economic opportunity, education, health care, law enforcement, incarceration rates and other disparities that have especially impacted AMELIA (African, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, Asian)* people in the Twin Cities and throughout Minnesota. We are grateful to those who have been speaking out against injustice and inequity and we join them in this effort.
Music is at the heart of the orchestral experience, and the Minnesota Orchestra is intentionally building concert programs to feature more works by AMELIA composers and performances by AMELIA artists, exploring music both contemporary and historic. We acknowledge the abundance of musical voices that have been overlooked, and we are committed to learning, programming and centering these voices as we move forward.
Anti-Racist Learning Projects
In the 2020-21 season, the Minnesota Orchestra initiated a series of three concurrent Anti-Racist Learning Projects, intended to serve as important steps on the Minnesota Orchestra’s path to reduce its reliance on and reproduction of white privilege. The organization-wide projects focus on three topic areas: increasing literacy and critical thinking about anti-racism; growing the Orchestra’s engagement with AMELIA composers and diversifying our artistic programming and musical literacy; and shifting communications and marketing messages to identify and challenge dominant white racial frames. This work, guided by Justin Laing of Hillombo LLC, is a step towards deepening and making more mutually beneficial the Orchestra’s relationships with AMELIA individuals, organizations and communities.
Minnesota Orchestra Fellowship
In 2017, the Minnesota Orchestra began a residency program intended to mitigate disparities for African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to support greater diversity in the orchestral field. We are deeply grateful for the contributions of the 2022-2023 Fellows, cellist Esther Seitz and bass trombone player Lovrick Gary, and the Fellowship donors: Margee and William Bracken and Rosemary and David Good.
A Brief History: Working Towards Racial Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Following the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic tour to Cuba in 2015, a group of staff members and musicians began meeting as an ad hoc diversity committee, which quickly expanded to include several Board members, in an initiative supported by the Orchestra’s then-President and CEO Kevin Smith and then-Assistant Conductor Roderick Cox. The Orchestra also joined the Twin Cities Large Cultural Organizations Forum (TCLCOF), a consortium in Minnesota formed in response to public concerns about Minnesota’s arts programming and committed to “fostering ethnic, cultural and racial diversity and inclusion within our organizations and with the audiences we serve.”
In 2017, following a nationwide audition, the Minnesota Orchestra named Myles Blakemore, trombone, and Jason Tanksley, tuba, as the first recipients of the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship, a two-year program intended to reduce the disparity gap for African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field. Flutist Emilio Rutllant and bassoonist Kai Rocke were named as fellows in 2018 and 2019, respectively.
In 2018, the Orchestra began participating in the Sphinx Orchestral Partner Auditions and joined the National Alliance for Audition Support at the time of its foundation, supporting the goal of job placement for musicians of color in American orchestras.
The Orchestra initiated a series of diversity workshops for musicians, staff and Board members, focusing on the complexities of identity and facilitated by the YWCA’s Racial Equity Consulting Manager Alicia Sojourner, who now serves as the Racial Equity Manager for the city of St. Louis Park. In addition, a Racial Justice Learning Group was established as a recurring learning space for staff, musicians and Board members.
In 2019, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, comprising approximately equal numbers of musicians, Board and staff members, was named an official Minnesota Orchestra Board committee, charged with assisting the Orchestra in fulfilling the goals of the 2017-20 Strategic Plan. Justin Laing of Hillombo LLC was hired as a consultant to help create an organization-wide anti-racist leadership plan, with a focus on reducing the reliance on and reproduction of white privilege. A Racial Equity sub-committee, including CEO Michelle Miller Burns, was formed to begin this work.
The DEI Committee also sponsored an organization-wide conversation with Afa Dworkin, the President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization, who is at the forefront of innovative efforts to promote diversity in the world of classical music. Together, a collaborative week-long performance festival and residency was planned at Orchestra Hall for March 2020 with the Sphinx Virtuosi, Minnesota Orchestra and Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts and Diversity). This event was postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In January 2020, nearly 100 musicians, Board members and full-time staff attended a racial equity workshop led by Justin Laing, to develop a common language and knowledge base that would broaden discussions around how the Minnesota Orchestra could become a more collaborative partner and active member of our diverse community.
In the weeks following, the DEI Committee facilitated a series of small group meetings to enable musicians, staff and Board members to give feedback and offer ideas for pilot projects that the Orchestra would undertake as part of a long-term racial equity plan. In August 2020, the Committee approved and commenced three Learning Projects for the 2020-21 season designed to focus carefully on efforts to reduce the Minnesota Orchestra’s reliance on and reproduction of white privilege, in order to build more mutually beneficial relationships with AMELIA individuals, organization and communities.
Subsequent organization-wide workshops occurred throughout 2020 and now continue into 2021. The Orchestra also hosted a nine-person cohort from the Sphinx LEAD for a virtual retreat including sessions with CEO Michelle Miller Burns, other Minnesota Orchestra staff members and members of the DEI Committee.
Today, many of the aforementioned initiatives and learning environments continue, with guidance from Justin Laing and others at Hillombo Consulting. The three Anti-Racist Learning Projects are active and continually evolving, in the areas of organization-wide learning; artistic programming and musical literacy; and communications and marketing. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee meets monthly and currently comprises 28 representatives from the Board, staff and musicians.
*AMELIA = African, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous, Asian.
In our organization-wide anti-racism work, following input from colleagues, we have decided to use the acronym AMELIA, a term that reflects global heritage rather than skin color, instead of BIPOC or other common acronyms. We acknowledge that any term will be unsatisfactory as it groups people together on the basis of their non-whiteness and who they are not. We recognize that this is a profoundly imperfect social arrangement.