Merit Can Be More Easily Inherited Than Earned

There was an article on San Francisco Classical Voice website on September 1 about racism in classical music titled “The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music.” The last water fountain phrase was coined by Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC.

The narrative of the article orbits around Pringle and includes numerous anecdotes about the direct racist experiences different Black artists and professionals have experienced throughout their careers as well as ways in which the general framework of the classical music industry inhibits their careers. (e.g. don’t get offered many opportunities, but union membership prevents participation in non-union events organized to amplify the talents of musicians of color.)

There were many aspects of the article that grabbed my attention, but a statement made by the articles author, Robert Macnamara, early on really illustrated how the concept of meritocracy resulting in the best ensemble is undermined by the lack of access many Black musicians in particular have to “farm system” that begins to channel musicians on a career path at a young age.

In the system, support is assumed, and when the question arises, the answer is predetermined: “Oh honey, $1,800 seems like an awful lot of money for an oboe, but I guess, if you really want this, we can always find the money somewhere.”

And so begins the march; the route is fixed. White people and some ethnic groups follow a progression of youth orchestras and schools of the arts and then are often paired with principal musicians in local professional orchestras. Meanwhile, young Black musicians inevitably draw attention to their raw talent but can’t afford the coaching and mentoring to help develop technical expertise and to help direct the way through the audition maze. Having little or no experience in a youth orchestra, they arrive in college music departments with, as one musician put it, “a lot of heart and personality but may not catch every note.”

The effect of this closed system is that it’s pervasive, ingrained, and needlessly exclusive, a monoculture that white audiences often don’t know much about or, frankly, seem to care much about.

I have posted about this before in regard to internships. Studies have shown that internships tend to be valuable when it comes to getting a first job and establishing a career. However, those who benefit most from internships are those whose families support them financially and reinforce their choices through their expectations.

This idea that meritocracy isn’t the value neutral measure we think it is has been around for a few years, but in the last few months, and apparently few days as I searched for links to articles I recalled reading, it has come to the fore again and is something to consider as we examine the composition of our organizations their relationships to those being served.

Do They Know Its Covid Time At All?

I am guessing it isn’t any news that a lot of arts and cultural organizations are struggling financially and grappling with the challenges presented by Covid-19. I mean, there is a lobbying effort to have Congress provide relief specifically aimed at helping both for and not-for-profit arts and events organizations and spaces. A lot of service and trade organizations have partnered up to advocate in this area.

But you wouldn’t know it isn’t business as usual from the job postings out there. I am hardly the first to notice this. I saw someone tweet about it a couple weeks ago†. While I had noticed an increase in job listings over the last few months and took that as a positive sign, I didn’t read any of them because I am not currently seeking a position.

After that tweet, I started paying closer attention.  I have to say, they are right. I have looked at about 40 listings that were posted since mid-July for everything from executive director for state arts councils and major cultural centers to part time jobs in rural communities. With one exception, none of them acknowledged that there was an epidemic going on and how that might impact job duties, or even more helpfully, how the board of directors had resolved to respond.

Honestly, it looks like people pulled out the job description file they used for their last search. The Opportunities & Challenges heading of one description listed delays due to jurisdictional issues between government entities, but apparently the epidemic won’t hinder anything.

By the way, the one group that did acknowledge the operating environment had changed was Children’s Theatre of Charlotte which wrote:

CTC is facing the current economic challenge with resiliency and innovation. In 2020-21, CTC will mount an entirely virtual season with four productions: The Velveteen Rabbit, GRIMMZ Fairy Tales, My Wonderful Birthday Suit and Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. In addition, CTC will provide week-long mini-camps as a resource for families looking for creative solutions this school year, along with a combination of in-person and virtual theatre education classes in the evenings.

Nothing complicated about this. Hundreds of organizations have sent out this sort of messaging in press releases and social media posts the last few months. However, no one else seems to see the need to even awkwardly cut and paste out of a press release and into a job description.

I seems like right now, if you are looking to hire quality people, a job listing should implicitly, if not explicitly carry a message which acknowledges regardless of whether you are looking to get a job or transfer from another one, there is even more stress and anxiety associated with that process than usual. However, not only has our organization developed a plan which frankly acknowledges what is viable over the next two years, we are looking to add someone to a supportive team which will translate this plan into action.

Even if I were out of a job and extremely anxious to find another, I would question my potential career with an organization that failed to give a nod to overwhelming reality.

Likewise, the shifting expectations and activity associated with diversity/equity/inclusion (DEI) didn’t seem to be present other than generic statements about the applicant needing to be committed to DEI. These may be new additions to some of the descriptions, but they read as boilerplate from the past. There were a couple exceptions like Burlington, VT’s Flynn Center which included:

“Address systemic racism with thoughtful programmatic vision, embedded governance structures, dynamic staffing, equitable vendor interactions, and intentional audience experiences.”

and Dance/USA:

Recognize, acknowledge and address power imbalances and privilege within a membership that is diverse with regard to a role (e.g., dancer, choreographer, artistic director, arts administrator, presenter, agent) and locale, as well as broader diversity dimensions such as race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, disability status, gender expression, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion.

† N.B. – Nina Simon was the person who mentioned generic job descriptions in a Medium post she made. My recollection was that I saw it on Twitter and my gut told me Nina wrote it, but I couldn’t find the Twitter post–because I saw it elsewhere.

Always Wear Clean Underwear Theory of Management

Collen Dilenschneider most a recent post about the factors that influence a cultural organization’s reputation. In order they are: Favorability, Mission Execution, Onsite Experience, Stability, Social Impact, Leadership, Testimonials, Business Results and Contributions to Education.

Dilenschneider starts out saying it isn’t about the Yelp/Trip Advisory reviews so I knew testimonials wouldn’t be listed near the top. I was really surprised to see that Mission Execution came in second and before Onsite Experience. My first thought was that we would need to rethinks the types of questions we were using on surveys because so few are oriented toward mission execution.

Now to be clear, Dilenschneider says this isn’t about your ability to recite your mission statement on command, but how well you have internalized and manifest your mission.

“But this measurement and its rank suggest that knowing what you stand for matters – and knowing that you take action surrounding what you stand for matters, too.”

As you might anticipate, she says many of these categories are inter-related. The perception of organizational stability is shaped by leadership and business results, the latter of which is basically financial stability.

Two of the significant observations Dilenschneider made speak to the need to always be working on cultivating a good reputation as a hedge against times of crisis. Or to metaphorically employ my grandmother’s advice – “Always wear clean underwear because you never know if you will be in an accident.”

The entities with better reputational equities prior to the pandemic seem to be faring better during it. … it seems those that had better reputation-related metrics prior to the pandemic are doing a better job keeping them for now. This may be because those institutions had already made investments in social media, for instance, and had established a reputation for engaging audiences digitally before they had to… Entities with better reputations may have similarly already been promulgating educational resources, also resulting in their coming to mind compared to entities that may be only really starting this effort now.

The web may now play an even bigger role in maintaining a positive reputation that inspires attendance. …The web – and social media, in particular – played a critical role in motivating attendance and shaping reputation prior to that pandemic. With more time spent online and fewer folks out and about, digital engagement and seeing stories from others may influence the perceptions of all of these factors influencing reputation to an even greater extent.

What’s This Soft Landing Thing You Speak Of?

This week Vu Le at the Nonprofit AF wrote a pretty thought provoking post about the way the left-leaning non-profit sector consumes, rather than supports, its leaders as more conservative focused groups do. Le had recently left his job when someone reached out to ask if he had a “soft landing.”

I got to understand what Angie meant by “soft landing.” This is what conservatives do for their leaders. They provide them with support to ensure that their work continues….They understand that their most effective leaders are their greatest weapon, so they do everything they can to protect and invest in them and their ideas.

The progressive side, meanwhile, treats people like batteries. Batteries are only as valuable when they have any juice left to power machines. As soon as they are empty, they are worthless and you toss them and you get fresh batteries. People burn out, they leave and are sometimes never heard from again, and we are OK with it, because we just find new people/batteries to replace them with…As Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute said, “The right invests in people and ideas; the left invests in projects and programs.”

Le goes on to enumerate how this manifests. It isn’t just that arrangements might be made for a conservative to get a book deal, a job with a think tank, or a seat on a company’s board of directors where a progressive won’t. He notes that if organizational leadership transitions, funders will take a wait and see attitude before continuing to support them as if the good work the organization had done was inseparable from the leader.

Le speaks of his own experience working with foundation program officers for decades and having them tell him an innovative idea he has to expand the impact of his organization work doesn’t align with the foundation priorities. He says if funders sincerely want to make the difference they profess they do, they need to at least trust those with whom they have a long relationship to execute what is needed.

He provides a good number of other examples that are worth reading and considering. He ends his post with a bright bit of hope. The woman who had contacted him about his soft landing came through with a grant that will support Vu Le during a time when his speaking engagements were cancelling.

“What’s the catch?” I asked Angie skeptically. Funders had reached out with encouraging words, but almost none had offered financial assistance. “Are there metrics, outcomes? Do I need to pay it back?” I asked. “No,” she said, “just keep writing or working on your sketch comedy show or whatever. Your voice is important, and for everyone who wants to see the nonprofit sector and its funders change, we need you.”

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