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Article Published: 23 Apr 2022

Preparing for Change

The cultural revolution of the last two years has sparked heightened awareness and demand for action around equity and inclusion in the opera field. To meet these demands, many opera companies have expressed a commitment to creating and implementing comprehensive EDI plans — but much like any change that addresses deeply rooted structures, opera companies must first take on the challenging task of self-reflection in order to develop realistic, shared expectations for equity plans. No one truly knows what this work requires until they are in the throes of it. Equity cannot be achieved through a neatly packaged manual, complete with comfortable instructions, comprehensive summaries, and a checklist. However, there are substantial steps to begin this work. OPERA America Social Justice Advisor Quodesia Johnson met with Andrea Joy Pearson, director of belonging and inclusion at Opera Omaha; Alina Santillan, director of Seattle Arts & Culture for Anti-Racism; and Marta Torres, manager of partnerships and transformation at Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation, to discuss the successful practices for engaging in the radical nature of social and racial equity work.

Johnson: What should companies do before creating an equity plan?

Santillan: Before we do the external and internal work to create an equity plan, we’ve got to put racial equity as a pillar in the organization’s strategic plan. We may have no idea what that’s going to mean yet, but we’ve got to put it in there. When I’ve seen many organizations set out to create these equity plans, there hasn’t been any foundational groundwork laid at all, and they’re usually centered on the education of White folks. They’re not centered on the liberation or leadership or safety or needs and desires of the Black, Indigenous, Folks of Color that work in those organizations. We’ve got to do some foundational work and get everyone on the same page.

Pearson: It needs to start with centering historically marginalized and oppressed voices. It shouldn’t just be talking to these groups, but looking at who we are putting in leadership spaces to make decisions and what systems we are putting in place to hold ourselves accountable to what it is that we’ve heard once we’ve talked to these groups. An organization needs to be specific about its goals. They cannot be too obtuse. There has to be a clear mission, vision, and values.

Andrea Joy Pearson
Andrea Joy Pearson (photo: Joshua Foo)

Johnson: What should company leadership, staff, trustees, and others expect when committing to equity?

Torres: When organizational leaders make a commitment to equity, they should consider the implications of that commitment. When you’re bringing racial equity or equity period into your organization, it’s going to change the culture of your organization. It’s going to change the way people look at you from the outside, and it may change the way people want to do business with you. It means committing to the beautiful doors that will open up because there are so many people who want to be a part of your journey and help you on your way. But there are also people who will not want to be associated with you due to where we are currently in our country. And you have to be ready for pushback from within your own organization. Adaptive leadership and servant leadership look at change, and some people don’t like change.

Santillan: In this process, we are decentering Whiteness, and we’ve got to be willing to get into an uncomfortable space. Does everyone have an understanding that when I say White supremacy culture, I’m not just talking about the Proud Boys and KKK, and that many people are part of a White supremacy culture? That’s important because we really have to be willing to hold the mirror up to ourselves and think about “How am I complicit within this White supremacy culture that our institutions uphold in the United States?” White organizations cannot be operating from a place of fear, of “I don’t want to get called out” or “How do I make myself feel comfortable?” or “We might lose donors.” When that is the conversation, who are we actually centering? Instead, we’ve got to think about, what are we risking? What are we letting go of? How are we shifting power? When harm happens, how do we repair that?

Johnson: Equity certainly requires effort and accountability from everyone. What can staff members expect, and how can we navigate these spaces together given our different identities and lived experiences?

Torres: If you are part of the global majority — and the global majority is people of color — you do not need to take this process within yourself. You are not the person who needs to take the weight of the equity commitment of your organization. Use your voice because it is your lived experience. That’s going to bring up a lot of conversations with your colleagues that puts them in a place of discomfort. But that’s not on you. This is where staff and leadership need to work together to listen to the people of the global majority. To those who are not people of the global majority or people of color, sit in your discomfort. Remember that where there is discomfort, there’s growth, and there is learning, and there is change.

Marta Torres
Marta Torres

Santillan: We have to be willing to look at ourselves, get into those uncomfortable places, decenter Whiteness, and center Black, Indigenous, folks of color. We have to be sure that the decisions we are making to become an equitable organization — or, specifically, an antiracist organization that is intersectional — prioritize their voices. If we’re not willing to do that, I guarantee you that your work is going to be at the expense of your BIPOC colleagues.

Johnson: How do you know your company is ready to start creating an equity plan?

Santillan: This is not going to happen overnight, and we shouldn’t expect it to. Learning and listening is a given as a human being. Do not put that in your equity plan. Instead, we should be talking about, “How is our solidarity actionable?” And if we’re not willing to do that, we need to reevaluate why we are even saying that we’re prioritizing this work.

Pearson: I believe a company is adequately prepared to create an equity plan when it is ready to engage in real transformation. People have to understand that that transformation may not look how they currently think it will look, but they are really ready for something different. If you want something different, you have to do something different. You have to be ready to look at your processes, your policies, who the decision-makers are, and let new voices into the mix. Things should not look anything like they currently look if you actually want transformative change.

Johnson: Many organizations are committing to equity for various reasons, including wanting to strengthen their engagement with the community. Where should equity plans start — inside the organization or with the community?

Torres: Ideally the approach should be two-fold, but I suggest folks start internally because your house has to be ready to accept change. If your internal environment is not healthy or needs to be worked on, you’ve got to do that first before you go out. There is a direct relationship between an equity plan and engaging the community. Once you’re ready to develop an external equity plan, it’s important to get to know the nuances of your community. Don’t create a bias that some groups have everything in common with each other. Start to understand and embrace the different traditions, cultures, history, stories, and voices that are part of the community. When you do an equity plan, you open up the doors to the communities you serve. You are creating a space of true collaboration that will bring a lot more people to your organization because it changes the conversation and gives the community more space and more agency as well.

 Alina Santillan
Alina Santillan

Johnson: How can organizations ensure meaningful and productive engagement with equity specialists or EDI staff?

Pearson: Organizations need to listen to what the equity specialist says and figure out how to create plans and goals that get behind everything the person says — not just what the organization thinks is right. Remember that you hired someone who has a particular expertise in this area. Sometimes that means leaning in, even when it’s something that is unfamiliar to you. You need to have a budget for the equity specialist. If you want change, you have to put money behind it, right? And this can’t be an isolated venture. The organization’s leader has the role of fully getting behind this work as a visionary and supporting the people who are actually doing the work. There should be people dedicated to this work with resources. There will be conflict, so prepare yourself ahead of time for conflict resolution because conflict can be positive.

Johnson: What should opera companies remember in this complex, necessary, and transformational work?

Santillan: There’s an activist in Seattle named Vu Le who talks about how the courage to be unfair is equity. An equity plan may look unfair to people on the outside. But when we really start peeling back the layers of this onion, of the history of White supremacy and systemic racism in our country, we can see that we cannot just recreate something in a system that is already unfair. That’s why we have to center anti-racism in all our work, and why our organizations cannot remain as they are with these equity plans. Leaders at the organization have to be willing to accept that as part of their anti-racism work. Torres: Avoid a savior complex and thinking that you have all the answers. You are going to be wrong a lot of times in your journey. Listen to the people who are around you and the voices in your organizations. Lean into your community. Remember that you can’t check a box on an equity plan. In a truly equitable organization, you can’t say, “We did that, that, that, and we’re done.” Equity is a continuous conversation. Plans are very dynamic and living, just like an organization.

This article was published in the Spring 2022 issue of Opera America Magazine.