By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Seattle is home to many well-known musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, etc. There is also a special place for classical musicians in the Emerald City.
Home to internationally acclaimed and one of America’s leading symphony orchestras, the Seattle Symphony is known for its masterful performances and musical programs. The organization also has extensive education and community engagement programs that reach over 65,000 children and adults each year.
Inside the Seattle Symphony
Rosalie Contreras, VP of Communications for the Seattle Symphony, said the Seattle Symphony is committed to diversity and inclusion. Their strategic plan states that they “embrace social and cultural inclusivity, diversity and access, and better integrate these values into our work.”
Their work involves all segments of the organization, and there are staff leaders who work on diversity and inclusion in all areas, from staff training and hiring practices to programming and making their community work more available to wider audiences.
Contreras also said, “We believe that having a variety of perspectives makes us a more vibrant, relevant, and resilient organization. In defining what a diverse organization means for us, we have looked at our culture and power structure along with how we compare to the community we serve, which in this case are the demographics of King County. We have committed to bringing in more voices on our stage, in our programming choices, among our staff and on our board. Diversity work is at the core of all our work, embedded in everything we do.”
According to Contreras and her team, the Symphony has an 11-point plan for increasing equity and understanding across the organization. So far, they’ve done baseline studies of their staff, orchestra, and board, and they have initiatives underway to bring them closer to our county demographics. They’ve held workshops with experts on racial equity that include stakeholders from all areas of the organization, and they’ve also held “in-reach” opportunities for experiential learning where the board, staff, and musicians strengthen their understanding of the people they’re serving. In addition, they are also intentionally recruiting diverse members at the board level.
As a top 20 major orchestra in the United States, they have musicians from all over the world auditioning to be a part of the ensemble and draw from a national and international talent pool.
Approximately 25 percent of Seattle Symphony members are immigrants to the United States. Fifteen percent of the orchestra is made up of minorities (Black, Asian, and Latino) compared to 34 percent of the King County minority population.
Contreras also explained that there are many people in the organization who identify as LGBTQ, and they support them with LGBTQ-friendly employee policies. In the past two years, they’ve brought more visibility to their LGBTQ family by participating in the annual Seattle Pride parade.
In fact, next season composer Alexandra Gardner will have a residency at the Symphony. In this residency, LGBTQ homeless youth will get the opportunity to create a new composition that will be performed by Seattle Symphony musicians.
Music education at an earlier age
“Unfortunately, there are many barriers to participation. We’re working to address this starting at the earliest ages with our Tiny Tots concerts (ages 0-5) through Link Up, which serves over 10,000 school children, and through side-by-side concerts that mentor youth. Over time, these activities help to diversify the talent pool from the earliest ages, and inspire and encourage those who are interested in music,” Contreras explained.
In Link Up, the Seattle Symphony’s school program for students in grades 3–5, students are invited to join the Symphony in an interactive and engaging program. Students learn to sing and play orchestral repertoire, then perform along with the Seattle Symphony from their seats in a highly participatory concert at Benaroya Hall.
Each season, participation in the program has grown — from two schools and 200 participants in the pilot year to 114 schools and 11,100 participants in the fifth year of the program. This is due to district-wide commitments and partnerships with the Seattle Public School district’s Creative Advantage program, Highline School District, and North Kitsap School District.
It’s important for the Symphony to work on the local level to increase diversity in access to music and music education.
Global and cultural inclusion
The Seattle Symphony doesn’t just serve the local community, but the organization supports global inclusion. When President Donald Trump announced the first executive order that banned visitors from seven countries from entering the United States, the Symphony reacted by hosting a free concert featuring the music from the banned countries, “Music Beyond Borders.”
Contreras said that the Symphony partners with representatives of Seattle’s Asian community to create an annual event celebrating the rich and exciting Asian cultures. They invite community groups to perform. This year’s Celebrate Asia event will take place on May 12 and will include a world premiere by A.R. Rahman.
Connecting with diverse communities
In addition to celebrating diverse cultures, the Symphony hosts Sensory Friendly Concerts, a new program designed specifically for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other disabilities. Families with children aged 5-8 can enjoy small chamber works and participatory group song in the Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Center. This year, they will highlight a different social skill at each concert, and offer opportunities for families to connect with one another. The next Sensory Friendly Concert performances will be on April 22 and April 23.
Contreras also described the Prison Project which began in October 2011 with the simple idea of performing a small concert at Monroe Correctional Complex. Ninety-seven percent of the offenders in Washington prisons will return to the community. Everyone that attended the event on Oct. 25, 2016 has a release date that is less than four years away.
“We learned that while the people in prison may be separate from the rest of the community now, they may not always be. Our work is helping to inspire hope and healing. Since 2011, we have continued to deepen our relationship with the Monroe Correctional Complex and the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor,” she added.
At a community level, Community Connections is the Symphony’s commitment to expanding relationships with our community. The organization builds bridges with diverse communities in the region through Symphony concerts, access to complimentary tickets, music making, and co-created community performances. Community Connections currently involves more than 60 local nonprofits representing youth, cultural groups, health services, military/veterans, senior citizens, and social service organizations.
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.