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Toward Genuine Board Diversity

Jul 22, 2019

Everyone agrees that orchestra boards of directors should represent the rich diversity of the communities theyserve. But most orchestra boards remain overwhelmingly white. In the last few years, North Carolina's Charlotte Symphony has aimed for--and achieved--a sharp increase in board diversity. League President and CEO Jesse Rosen interviews the president and a board member of the Charlotte Symphony to learn how they did it.

JESSE ROSEN: The boards of American orchestras are predominantly white--92 percent white, in fact. You have achieved a very substantial proportion of nonwhite board members in Charlotte, about 52 percent. What was the impetus for achieving that degree of diversity on your board?

MARY DEISSLER: When I arrived we were a typical symphony board, with some diversity but roughly 75 percent white--predominantly older affluent white individuals from one area of town. Two months after I arrived at the Charlotte Symphony in June 2016, the protests erupted after the fatal police shooting of an African American man. It makes you realize that Charlotte is a very segregated town.

To demonstrate the value and impact the symphony might have in the wider community, I've always believed that you start at the top with your leadership. If we didn't have voices around the table who are able to reflect the community and their views, we would never change. So I and my great VP of development, Michelle Hamilton, set out to deliberately broaden the board in a number of areas. Raquel Lynch was one of the first people who very kindly, at a time when we were still figuring out our way, agreed to join forces with us, and help lead that charge.

ROSEN: Raquel, you were not on the board at that point. Were you recruited?

RAQUEL LYNCH: Correct. The reason I joined--and I am not a typical classical music lover, I am not someone who typically they would have recruited-- is because I believe what Mary and what Michelle were telling me, which was that they understood the power of music, and they also recognized the need of the community. That convinced me that this was important. I am really interested in system change, and I come from a social justice lens. I think music should be democratically accessible to everyone in the community and not something that is for those few who can afford it.

I come from Venezuela, where El Sistema proved to the world that music could change the lives of children, in the poorest neighborhoods and countries. This is related to the work that I do daily. At that time, I was working for a nonprofit, where I met Michelle, in which we were helping people avoid homelessness. We were serving those who were the working poor, or those who were about to be evicted.

So to me, it was attractive to partner with people in the arts who understand poverty and also understand the power of art in the lives of people.

ROSEN: What were the conversations like with the rest of the board? Did you bring this new direction up in the nominating committee or your governance committee? And did people say, yes, let's go for it?

DEISSLER: We conducted a skills audit of the board when I arrived, and discovered we had a few holes, largely in community representation. The board governance committee allowed me to run with the idea of broadening our base, but I wouldn't say there was a ringing endorsement initially. Some board members believed it was the right thing to do; other board members are focused on producing the best Mahler performance possible from our fine orchestra. We collectively need to understand that this is part of the future. We are a minority-majority city. If we can't figure out a way to be relevant to a wider base of the citizenship, the CSO won't have the support it needs to be strong and resilient into the future.

LYNCH: This journey toward inclusion has just started. If we had been working on it for ten years, this would be a very different conversation. But for the past two years, the relevance of this conversation is in our face in Charlotte, so it's not something we could avoid, given the protests and that we are in the national news. That has propelled us into action, not just conversation.

When I hear about the conversations Mary is having about race and who should be represented, I think of her courage to bring them up as a white woman. I wonder how much more the board could be doing to support her. She shouldn't be doing that alone.

Read the interview from Symphony Magazine's Summer 2019 issue in its entirety here.