These are the remarks I intended to share this past Sunday as a part of the Power, Privilege, & Perception: Voices on Race and Dance series of panels. I sat on the final panel, Making Change: Artist Voices alongside Alice Sheppard, Independent Dancer and Choreographer, Virginia Johnson, Artistic Director, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Richard Toda, Artistic Coordinator of Educational Outreach, American Ballet Theatre, Eduardo Vilaro, Artistic Director, Ballet Hispanico, and moderated by Carlton Turner, Executive Director, Alternate ROOTS.
Framed by this prompt --
What is already being done to realize a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable sector? Hear from a panel of Dance/USA members and Dance/NYC committee leaders and partners already doing work in the field. How can you institute change within your organization and how can we work together to advance a more equitable art form.
I prepared the following --
Good Afternoon. My name is Sydnie Mosley. As a member of the New York City dance community I wear many hats, but this afternoon I am speaking from two places: as Vice Chair of the Dance NYC Junior Committee (or JCOMM as we affectionately call it) and also, as an emerging artist in the field, with my company Sydnie L. Mosley Dances celebrating its fifth year of dancing in New York City in 2015. As an artist, it has been my prerogative to center the stories of black women and organize for gender and racial equity through my art making process. This prerogative has developed parallel to my four-year tenure on JCOMM.
Last year, at the Dance/NYC Symposium I stood with my fellow committee members and led a session called, “Diversity! We Did It/We Didn’t.” In that session we walked participants through our process for starting to build a more multi-cultural organization.
In the moment of that presentation, I had not been prepared for how emotionally open telling the JCOMM story would leave me. I felt raw when we were finished, because in truth - as much as it was a group story - it has also been my personal story. Telling the JCOMM story required me to discuss my tokenism: often being the smart articulate black girl in spaces where rarely anyone looks like me. Although I had not been prepared in that moment, our transparency – my transparency especially - was real and necessary to encourage honest dialogue about race as it applies to institutions and practices in the dance field.
So in the spirit of that productive transparency, I offer you two ideas from both the work of the Junior Committee and myself as an individual artist to realize more equity in our functioning: 1. TAKE NOTE 2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK/APPRENTICE
1. TAKE NOTE
JCOMM’s deep dive into understanding equity within our committee was prompted by our 2010 census data of dance workers between the ages 21-35, which showed that the average dance worker was a 28 year old, white woman who identified most closely with ballet and modern dance forms and lived in Brooklyn. That census provided an entry point for the larger committee to take notice of what I knew about JCOMM from the first day I walked in the room: that the committee was only connected to and serving the needs of that particular demographic.
As a response, I encourage every one in the space right now to do what we did -- Take note of who is in the room and who is not. Who is afforded the opportunity to be in this space and hold this conversation? And who is not?
2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK/APPRENTICE
We identified our application process as an entry point to change what we discovered. After drafting language and consulting with trusted mentors for revisions, we added application questions that asked for experience and ideas around multicultural organization building. We explicitly asked for people of color to apply, and I volunteered to actively recruit persons of color – knowing & understanding that changing the make up of the committee was only one layer of addressing diversity and equity.
As a result, we are in our second year of bringing folks onto the committee who are not only of diverse racial backgrounds, but also who are already committed to and in the process of learning to organize for equity. We are a committee of individuals doing our homework, learning about our privileges and systematic inequities, and bringing those discoveries to the table. And we are brokering long term partnerships with organizations like the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to continue to deepen and unpack our understanding of race. The JCOMM culture has changed from one where I felt like my voice was not valued as one of few persons of color in the room, to a culture where we are committed to having difficult conversations about race and do so in all of our regular convenings.
I deeply respect my colleagues on the Junior Committee who are continuing to push and do this work. One of our former members, Erica Frankel always describes JCOMM as a “Learning Community.” I would further that currently, we are a learning community who are consistently working to understand our privileges and be better at recognizing them. Who see ourselves as cultural organizers. Who keep our ears to the ground and bring to the table the work our communities across the 21-30 age bracket to which we are accountable deem necessary.
We know that we are not experts in this work and we do not claim to be. But we are open. And we are seeking to learn more. We are apprenticing.
I was at a conversation last weekend at BAX’s Artist Services Day facilitated by Dancing While Black, an artist-led initiative that supports the diverse work of Black dance artists, and in my small break out group one of the participants talked about this idea of “Who got next?” Meaning who is going to organize and facilitate the next conversation, opening it up to more folks who are not already thinking deeply and acting in this work.
I encourage you to connect with one another in the room today. Meet some one new, debrief and digest what you’ve taken in, and maybe you will build together and organize what’s next. There are a number of persons in the room already for whom organizing for equity is paramount in their art making practice, as it is mine.
At Camille Brown’s “The Gathering,” a space created during APAP week to dive into inequities for black women dance artists, Paloma McGregor offered that this sort of community building is not tangential to her art making, but rather it creates the container that facilitates the creation of her work. I fully feel that in my art making practice. It is why showing up (and bringing members of my dance company along as a “field trip”) to as many conversations and convenings and lectures and panels and performances that address race in dance has become a regular part of my artistic practice. It is why I keep diving deeper into working as an organizer through my art. And it is certainly why being an instigator on the Junior Committee has been so important to me over the past four years.
More to Say: Reflections on the 2015 Dance/NYC Symposium (part 3)