Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Lecolion Washington: We are a better organization if we are more diverse. We are lacking when we’re not inclusive. That changes things because then you’re looking at yourself and saying, “I’m not perfect. I need to be better in my lifetime.”
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Lecolion Washington. He’s the CEO and Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston. Welcome to our program.
Lecolion Washington: Thanks for having me.
Anita Walker: Now I promised I would not call you the new executive director.
Anita Walker: But I’m afraid you’re going to have to live with that first name for a while, because you are walking into an organization that had a very, very long-standing leader and that’s a bit of a challenge in and of itself, isn’t it?
Lecolion Washington: It is. It’s always a challenge, I think that and because a person may have been there for, you know, decades, I would say that in many peoples’ from their perspective, it’s a founder. And so you’re– on some level you’re replacing and moving in and the next person after a founder, because most of the people who are connected to the organization they got connected most likely by that person, which is what would happen with a founder. So yeah, absolutely right. Yeah.
Anita Walker: Before you even hit the threshold of the organization however, a lot of work has to be done by the organization itself and particularly by the board of directors, in terms of imagining where they want to go with an organization when bringing a new person in. Talk a little bit about how you feel this organization prepared itself.
Lecolion Washington: To be honest, I feel like the organization did a really good job. When I think about a transition, if the environment isn’t ready for a transition, if the environment isn’t ready for change, then as a new executive director, you have to come in, you have to prep the environment, get it ready for change and then change, which will also take a lot of time. And so you may– if the organization isn’t ready then it could take you two, three years before you can actually become the new executive director, because you’re trying to prep the organization for the newness. But I think in the community’s inner Boston, in their case the board, they spent two years really looking for me, I think, looking for an executive director. They went through a strategic planning process. I had reports on the financial health of the organization. There were all these reports that were created over the course of two years so that when I arrived if I had a question, rather than having to ask a person, there was a report that I could just go to. I was given a large binder of things and a lot of the information was in there and was really helpful for me, too. There were personality assessments on the senior management. I mean all these things that made it easier for me as a leader to come in and at least have some grounding in what the organization was and where it was and whether or not it was ready for change. So I really feel like the Music Center did a really, really good job of not only providing me with the resources to be able to navigate the change, but also prepping the board and prepping the staff for the idea that there would be change. And you can never be assured of what that change is– the impact of the change will be on the individual, that’s all–because it depends on the new executive director. But as long as people are ready for change, I think that that’s the best– almost the best you can do. And I even– as I read my own evaluations, people were saying that. So you mean people– if there was a pain point that was hit on a person almost to a person the person also wrote, but I understand that’s a product to change. And so it would– it created a culture that was manageable.
Anita Walker: And change is hard for anybody. So as the person coming in, what’s the hardest part for you? Is it hard to sort of like hold the reins because you’re so excited, a new opportunity, you see all the possibilities? Pacing yourself?
Lecolion Washington: I would say that second piece, absolutely pace. Because I’m a person who, I love puzzles and so I start playing around with all the pieces and once I’ve gotten the puzzle to– I know where all the pieces go, I wanted to start placing the pieces in where they’re supposed to be on the board and that’s not people. And the pace, how an individual can manage being moved from one side of the table to where they fit in the puzzle can be a lot. And so I would say that one of the challenges and something that I have been working diligently on, I’m fortunate to have a really good team. It’s a group of people who are so committed to the Music Center that many of them will tell me, “Hey, slow down. We need to prep everyone for this.” Which actually, I feel like is a credit to the Music Center as well, that people do feel empowered to be able to share that with the executive director and knowing that their voice actually has some value. Because sometimes when I get that information I will slow my roll, as the kids say. <laughs> But sometimes you also have to understand that, you know, as you mentioned before, no one’s comfortable with change. Change is a difficult thing to manage so you’re trying to find a balance between a pace that equals change and a pace that’s manageable for the people who are changing.
Anita Walker: Now we’ve talked about you, the board, the staff, this is a community music organization. You have students, you have parents, you have adults who also have a feel– feeling of ownership in the organization.
Lecolion Washington: Right. The Music Center reaches 6,000 people a year. We’re one of the largest providers of arts education, Boston public schools, we’re in 15 neighborhoods, we’ve got 30– over 30 sites. So there are a lot of stakeholders that have to be thought of and thought– and bonded with, I think, especially as a new executive director. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. I think that one of the things that I think the Music Center has probably done throughout its history has been able to build relationships. You don’t go from an organization that exists in the South End to 15 neighborhoods without being able to build relationships. And so I do feel like the Music Center has always done a good job of that. So when I walked in it wasn’t as if people felt like they had to reconnect with the Music Center. They were just connecting with me, but their bond and love and spirit, as it related to the Music Center, it was always there, it stayed. And so that was really easy for me because when I was talking to people there was– they weren’t worried about me, everyone just shared how much they love the Music Center. And I really learned to love the Music Center from the people who were attached to it. They taught me how to do that because they love it so much.
Anita Walker: Now you love music.
Lecolion Washington: I do.
Lecolion Washington: I do.
Anita Walker: And I know that you fully understand the power of music, not just in terms of, you know, the technical skills of learning to play a particular instrument, but really as a transformational force for youth.
Lecolion Washington: It really is. I think about music, I think about my own story, my own experience. The first three words in the Music Center’s mission is, “To transform lives.” And when I first saw those words I thought whoa, that is a big, that’s a big one. If those are your first three words, to trans– transforming a life is very difficult, but providing opportunities, creating opportunities, those things are easy to do. <laughs> But transforming a life is a tall order. But as I then thought about what music can do and what it did for me from where I came from, to have come from, you know, a segregated area in a small town just north of Dallas and growing up in Dallas and, you know, matriculating through all these different programs, my life was transformed. And I’m a bassoonist. I’m a classical bassoonist of all things. And how could I have become that without my life being transformed? My family most of them don’t even know what the heck of a bassoon is. <laughs> So to have– to be able to then tap into that and have that be my life’s work up until now–
Anita Walker: How did you find your way to the bassoon?
Lecolion Washington: My sixth grade band director said, “You should play this.” And I said, “What is that?” And he said, “It’s a bassoon.” I said, “Okay.”
Lecolion Washington: It’s a short story but I actually wanted to be a drummer, my dad wanted me to play this sa– oh, no. I wanted to– no, right. I wanted to be a drummer and my dad wanted me to play the saxophone because he was a fan of jazz. But my band director said, “Listen, why don’t you play one of these?” And my older sister had been in band, she played clarinet. And so I just assumed when you got into middle school you played band, you were in band. So my– as I took the bassoon and went from there to have a– to go to, you know, the University of Texas and Manhattan School of Music and went to a conservatory and played all over the world and, you know, a 15 year career as a college professor, so all of those things were just from that- that sixth grade band director giving me this case and saying, “Here’s the case. Here’s a fingering chart. Good luck out there, kiddo.”
Lecolion Washington: And but it was– but it– I– there were opportunities that I had along the way that were created by organizations like the Music Center, like the Community Music Center of Boston. There were all these little things that happened along the way for me that helped me to stay on track that provided these chances for me to stay on a track and not fall off on one way or the other. And so I– when I think about my role and the responsibility of an organization like the Music Center, it’s a heavy one. Because some– and for some students we are the only access to the arts that they have and that is an awesome and an awesome honor to have for a young person to be able to say, “We’ve got this one.” And as an organization I think that it is something that we definitely take very seriously and we’re working to continue to be even more intentional about that work.
Anita Walker: You know, I think about the fact that so many people can go to a symphony concert, an orchestra concert and the orchestra doesn’t look a lot different today <laughs> than it did back in the 1950s when I went to my first orchestra concert. What do you see as the real barriers to seeing more diversity in our symphony orchestras across America? What are the challenges? What do we have to do?
Lecolion Washington: I think that there, I would say first off, I believe that there’s no one magic pill. I believe that there is– there has to be some version of systemic change. You can’t change a systemic problem with a tactic or two. So you have to have collaborations in order to– in order to make sys– make a systemic change, a systemic impact. And so I think that now I would imagine– and I’m excited to be in Boston because these are conversations that are happening throughout the arts in Boston and I’m absolutely positive that the Music Center as an organization is going to be part of those conversations where not only locally, as it relates to Boston, but the symphony orchestras as a national– as a national group, there are symphony orchestras everywhere and I think we’re going to be joining that national conversation around diversifying symphony orchestras and classical music stages, not only the stage but also back office as well and boards and, you know, CEOs where the decisions are made. Because I think that those sometimes are some of the barriers is the status quo. The status quo is the greatest enemy of change. And so I think that you have to navigate the status quo. And I do feel like the Music Center, one of the– I love my board. My board has been really good to me. I’ve come in and I am a person who’s very candid and very open and honest and I call things the way that I see them, respectfully, of course. But also it’s my job to speak the truth. And my– the board at the Music Center has been really behind me one hundred percent. And so as we’ve started to engage in these conversations about equity and about diversity and what does it mean to be a legitimately inclusive space, what are our blind spots, what are the areas in which we may be doing things that they look wonderful but their impact may be low? You know, being very honest and candid about that I think is something that we’re doing. And I think that the system will change when others do that as well. When we stop responding to grant reports and start responding to our integrity. Because that’s the real– that’s where the real change, it will- will come is when we’re not just saying we want to have a certain number so that we can share with foundation X, Y and Z, that we made this change but we’re actually looking at those things and saying, “In order– we are a better organization if we are more diverse. We’re lacking when we’re not inclusive.” That changes things because then you’re looking at yourself and saying, “I’m not perfect. I need to be better in my lifetime.” So I’m not just saying, “I want to get a little bit better, you know, hopefully in my lifetime but no, I want to see systemic change in my lifetime.”
Anita Walker: You know, sometimes it does take a fresh set of eyes to look at an organization and can see things that have become wallpaper to people who’ve been in it for a long time. So would you be willing to share maybe a couple of what you might have seen as unintended bias or unintended barriers to participation by a, you know, more inclusive group of young people?
Lecolion Washington: Well, I would say there’s a couple of examples. I think one, when you think about implicit bias because I– one of the things we share a lot is people are good. Organizations are good. Non-profits, you don’t go into that with malicious intent. And so I think it’s important to note that. But it’s also important to note that there’s the intent and there’s the impact. And so when you’re thinking about impact, does it match the intent? And sometimes it doesn’t. So for, example, when I tell people all the time, I have some– sometimes issues with Black History Month because I’m not only black in February, I’m black all year. And so to acknowledge my existence only in February, to acknowledge that I have a place in this– in this story in one month is actually offensive. Unless you’re saying– we have periods all year. There are black musicians and black artists and black composers and black conductors all year, but this month we– that’s what our focus area. Fine. But if you look at a concert calendar, like that’s the one month, well, then it’s offensive. It’s a micro aggression. And that’s something and if I see that in an organization I would not show up because that’s not being inclusive. What you’re– what that is doing is saying, “Hey, brown person this is your one moment to be able to come to one of our concerts,” and I just, you know, I’d prefer not. So that would be an example of something that the intent is absolutely there. The intent is to be inclusive. I absolutely get that. But then you look at the impact and it’s maybe a little, it can come across, if not done well, as been quite a bit disingenuous. And that’s why you have to have voices of people of color in the conversation. Because a person of color who is empowered to speak their truth would tell you that. And so if you don’t have people to be able to have those conversations then you won’t– then you will make mistakes like that. You will stumble on things like that.
Anita Walker: You know, speaking of how things have changed since the 1950s, if you would say community music school then, it would be a fairly narrow vision of what that amounts to.
Lecolion Washington: Mm-hm.
Anita Walker: Go to– go to the music school after school, when the school bell rings take your music lesson, come home, practice, go back to the school. But I think we see music opportunity for young people in a much, much larger way now.
Lecolion Washington: Mm-hm. I agree. And it’s funny you should say that because that’s one of the things that we’re at the Music Center as we’re trying to streamline our thinking. We’re really trying to focus on what are our intended outcomes for a young person who comes into the Music Center. Right now we’re having conversations around five key ones and I’ll share them, but noting that they’re still in draft phase right now. One of them is college and career readiness. So when every student comes in one of the things that where they’re social emotional skills or executive function or whatever, one of the things that we are doing and holding ourselves accountable for giving opportunities in for college and career readiness? And then if we have students who show an aptitude then we say, “Oh, maybe that’s a student who may want to major in some other music. Maybe music therapy or arts admin, music education.” And there’s another track for that. So we’re intentional about where that student may be going. Oh, well, this student’s showing even more aptitude so they may want to be a performance major, and then we move them that way, but being very intentional about what are those pivot points for a young person?
Anita Walker: And for many young people they wouldn’t even know that all those opportunities existed. I’m either in the orchestra or I’m not.
Lecolion Washington: Right. And that is another opportunity. That’s a great opportunity for a community music school. The way it typically works is we– and a lot of music schools, I wouldn’t say that we did this, but I’ve seen it quite a bit, a student comes in, they– we want and we train everyone as if they’re going to be a professional musician. All the training is around the mechanics of playing really, really well and listening to whatever the repertoire is for that. And then if the student shows less of an aptitude, we might say, “Okay, well, let’s see,” you know, it’s almost like a deficit model. “So if you’re not at this level then let’s lower you a level. And now oh, well, let’s just lower you another level and maybe you’ll minor. Oh, let’s lower you. Maybe you’ll play at your concert. Oh, let’s lower you and maybe you’ll go to concerts.”
Lecolion Washington: You know.
Anita Walker: You’d be great in the audience. <laughs>
Lecolion Washington: Which I think is one of those things where it does– it operates from a deficit mindset. The only thing that causes a pivot is a deficit. But if you flip that around and try to find the space in which everyone is successful or a larger percent are successful and then you move up based on success, that’s a different culture. That’s a different culture for a community music school and I think a different culture for a conversation around the arts. Because if your key goal is engagement, because we want people to learn certain skills that are extra musical skills, well, then you can say where are there spaces for popular music? Where are there spaces for improvisation? And that’s where you start. That’s the beginning of it, which is what would at that look like if every student who was becoming a professional musician had some background in how their musical related to popular music, related to improvisation, they had that skillset, what would that look like? And I think it would look beautiful.
Anita Walker: And transformational. <laughs>
Lecolion Washington: And transformational. That’s right. I agree.
Anita Walker: Lecolion Washington, CEO and Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit Creative Minds Out Loud.org.