Letter to the Opera Field from Black Administrators
Thursday, October 29, 2020
Dear Colleagues in the Opera Art Form:
As the opera field continues to grapple with the challenges of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the deeply rooted barriers stemming from racial injustice, we, the Black Administrators of Opera, call upon each of you to help make the necessary changes for greater equity in our field.
We are a group that formed in response to the pressing need to elevate the voices of Black administrators in the international dialogue on race and privilege currently unfolding in classical music. At 25 members strong, we represent a cross-section of companies from each budget classification. We work in the areas of diversity, education, community and civic engagement, artistic, production, operations, development, and company culture. Our perspective is distinct, yet coordinated with other similar initiatives.
We, the Black Administrators of Opera, share in the love, respect, and honoring of our art form. We share in the humanity inherently present in powerful storytelling. We share in the discipline and sacrifice necessary to create opera. While this letter comes in the wake of the recent deepening in commitment to bringing about change in the field, it is the industry’s long-standing, cyclical and destructive approach to change that serves as a catalyst for this letter.
The industry continues to call on our stories and experiences, our creativity, our communities, our expertise, and our networks without ceding power, demonstrating a reluctance to progress beyond a White-centered approach to opera. Building upon several calls to action within the arts, including the Pledge for Racial Equity and Systemic Change in Opera, presented to the field in September 2020 by the Black Opera Alliance, we present the following supplemental list of actionable solutions for racial equity for arts administrators in the opera field.
1. Commit to equity in salaries, wages, and promotion opportunities. Black administrators often face greater barriers to comparable salary and promotion opportunities due to implicit bias and systemic racism.
Take immediate action to allocate proper funding and resources to conduct an organizational assessment for pay equity. Make correcting pay inequities a priority for the organization without adding or forcefully removing responsibilities and tasks. Commit to ensuring Black administrators receive comparable wages for workload, skill, education, and experience. Actively seek opportunities to provide professional learning and development for Black employees. Establish a company-led professional development program to ensure Black employees can be identified and advanced to directorial, executive, and leadership positions.
2. Commit to company-wide racial equity education and professional development. Too often organizations neglect to ensure all staff, board, volunteers, and partnering entities actively support a commitment to racial equity.
Take immediate action to allocate proper funding and resources for regular anti-racism and implicit bias learning/training for staff and board members of all levels. Require additional anti-racism and anti-oppression training for managerial and supervisory staff. Ensure proper time, energy, and resources to establish the foundational support for ongoing engagement in anti-racism and anti-oppression work. This commitment and engagement should be present throughout the life of the organization. Single or multiple day events alone are not acceptable.
3. Commit to equitable hiring and recruitment practices. Systemic oppression creates barriers that prevent many from accessing resources through the “usual channels.” Organizations seeking to foster an equitable environment have an obligation to center racial equity in hiring and recruitment.
Commit to public and salary-transparent posting of all staff openings and the active recruitment of Black candidates. If working with a recruitment firm, ensure the firm centers racial equity in the selection process, engaging a racial equity consultant if necessary. All hiring managers must regularly engage in anti-racist hiring practices. Create measures of accountability to ensure comparable package offers and raises for Black administrators, including racial equity-informed evaluation processes.
4. Commit to company-wide intentional inclusion in the execution of mission and programs. Hiring Black staff members alone is not enough to combat exclusionary, discriminatory, and inhospitable elements of a company’s culture. These environments often lead to high turnover or unsustainable long-term hires as a result.
Adopt a company-wide commitment to intentional, inclusive practices, ensuring every entity that engages with the organization is aware of this commitment and adheres to expectations. Commit to engaging Black communities in an honest and mutually beneficial manner without the intention of solely profiting from their networks, donations, and ticket sales. Redefine the metrics for success to include non-financial values. Identify, adopt, and integrate non-financial goals and processes that measure engagement, innovation, and leadership of the art form. Develop a Code of Conduct for managing discriminatory or racist rhetoric/action from board members, patrons, donors, artists, or guests. Properly equip and support staff to uphold the values of anti-racist policies both in the opera house and beyond, including restructuring organizational power and decision-making.
5. Commit to adequately funding company Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives and working groups. It is demeaning, unfair, and inappropriate to create a working group to address systemic oppression without allocating the financial resources and agency necessary to fund activities, programs, and training.
Ensure DEI staff and working groups have adequate time, financial resources, ongoing professional development, and leadership support to properly develop substantive content and pathways for equity. We respectfully recommend that funds be managed by persons of color so that shared leadership becomes operationalized in business practices. Commit to developing decision-making practices that include input from DEI staff and working groups. Organizations should hire DEI specialists and active practitioners for this work. Refrain from hiring large firms with proven practices of White-dominant culture and/or forcing the responsibility of shaping an equitable culture on Black staff, board, and volunteers.
Current business practices in the opera field are built on structures of exclusion and cannot play a productive role in addressing the issues that plague our organizations. This letter is presented as an additional resource, and we encourage you to prioritize implementing these solutions to fulfill the commitment of honoring Black lives.
Share space with Black administrators.
Support Black administrators.
Invest in Black administrators.
Respect Black administrators.
The time for action is now. We urge you to set a thoughtful, thorough plan in motion immediately. There is a critical need to appropriately address the administrative support necessary to bring about significant and lasting change. We encourage you to devise an empowered, cross-functional team to address these priorities in administration, creating a shared vision of greater equity for our field.
Certain members of the Black Administrators of Opera elected to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, an unfortunate reality in a field that prides itself on creativity and storytelling — an unfortunate reality that we will end, together.
Michael E. Braxton
Quodesia D. Johnson
Charles Chip McNeal
LaRob K. Payton
Kristian S. Roberts
Tracy L. Wilson