Aaron-Raheim White was one of three guest choreographers at Evanston Dance Ensemble this past year. Photos from Evanston Dance Ensemble

Four Evanston arts organizations heard some unsettling statistics at a statewide arts conference in 2015. Representatives from the Evanston Symphony, Actors Gymnasium, the North Shore Choral Society (NSCS) and Evanston Dance Ensemble (EDE) learned that just 2% of all cultural institutions in the United States receive nearly 60% of all contributed revenue – and that grants significantly favor large urban organizations or artists representing White culture.    

The conference presenter’s provocative speech about inequity and systemic racism in the arts struck a chord with the Evanston attendees and led to the 2015 founding of the not-for-profit Enrich Evanston.  

Enrich Evanston is an organization of community arts collaborators focused on breaking down barriers and inequities and increasing access to and inclusion in the arts.  

 Embedded in the mission of Enrich Evanston is the goal of changing a system that has often been unfair to artists or groups outside White European culture.   

Penelope Sachs, Enrich Evanston Chairwoman and a viola player in the Evanston Symphony, said, “Since we ourselves come from that White culture, we thought a sensible place to start the work of increasing diversity and inclusiveness in our member organizations would be for us to engage in equity training.”

Generous community funding in 2015 enabled 13 members to participate in a series of half-day equity workshops that inspired four well-established Evanston arts organizations to tackle systemic change.

The group selected as their trainer and mentor Dr. Gilo Kwesi Logan, a diversity consultant, musician and longtime Evanstonian. The interactive workshops provided a multi-cultural lens for looking at the arts in Evanston.   

In the workshop sessions with Dr. Logan, participants engaged in discussion and activities about personal and group identity, oppression, stereotyping and unconscious bias, forging community partnerships, leadership development and institutional commitment.  

“In our final session, we concentrated on work plans,” said Dr. Logan, “and I asked, ‘How will each of your organizations revise its mission statement? How will all of you communicate this work you’ve done to your stakeholders? How will you sustain this work and the institutional changes you are trying to make?’ This kind of work needs to be ongoing.”

Members of Enrich Evanston continue to share ideas and discuss their organizations’ goals and work plans at quarterly get-togethers. Action plans have included scheduling community arts outreach programs, inviting guest artists of diverse ethnicities, expanding programming to reflect the diversity of Evanston and removing gender as a barrier or entry point.   

Members said they realize it is also important to include images in their literature and websites that look welcoming and familiar to all ages, genders and ethnicities. 
For organizations that have traditionally included and performed for mostly White audiences, change means “holding each other’s feet to the fire as we learn and try to grow,” Ms. Sachs said.

Murphy Monroe, Executive Director of Actor’s Gymnasium, said he thinks arts organizations should consider making application processes and registration systems simpler immediately. “Points of entry should be efficient and easier than they often are, and more scholarships to our programs should be available,” Mr. Monroe said. “But one of the harder changes we need to be working on is finding passionate, energetic, qualified people with time to volunteer serving on our boards – even without the qualification of diversity under our lens. “

Many Enrich Evanston members echoed Mr. Monroe’s admission of inadequacy in inclusion and equity.

Christina Ernst is co-Artistic Director for Evanston Dance Ensemble, a performing dance company established as a not-for-profit in 1998 and cast with high school dancers who audition for membership.  

She said the equity training sessions with Dr. Logan were meaningful to her for several reasons. “I became so much more aware [of inequities]. I have better listening skills now and am more comfortable opening up and not being afraid to talk about things related to race and culture.“

Ms. Ernst’s colleague Béa Rashid is Founder and co-Artistic Director of EDE, as well as Founder and Artistic Director of Evanston Dance Center, a successful for-profit dance school that produces the accomplished dancers who move on to the EDE.  

Ms. Rashid’s formula for more inclusion and diversity has included locating her program in Evanston Plaza, in a neighborhood accessible to minority populations. EDE also provides scholarships, invites guest choreographers of color and shows images of diversity that enable others to imagine themselves as dancers.  

It was at the 2016 Enrich Evanston equity workshop series that Karen Rigotti, a choral singer and General Manager of the 140-member Evanston-based North Shore Choral Society, began to understand how arts funding and sustainability issues are influenced by “a playing field that isn’t level,” she said.  

She and the other Choral Society participants have engaged their Board in an equity assessment survey and a re-examination of the organization’s mission statement.   

The focus on equity led them to expand the scope of the Chorus through community outreach at Fleetwood-Jourdain’s after-school programs, as well as with less traditional concert offerings.

This 82nd season of the Choral Society reflects the influence of Enrich Evanston. The current three-concert season celebrates the universality of music and its ability to break down cultural barriers.

The winter concert included “forbidden music” of various homelands, music that celebrates civil and human rights activism and music that pays tribute to the environment. A highlight of the program was guest conductor and Black South African music expert Molly Stone. She led the Hyde Park Ensemble of the Chicago Children’s Choir in spirited singing of South African songs with Zulu lyrics and movements.

Ms. Sachs acknowledged that the Evanston Symphony Orchestra is still learning and evolving and has welcomed the mutual support of other Enrich Evanston members.  

“The ESO has taken a multi-faceted approach that has, first of all, included making conversations about equity central and ongoing within our organization,” said Ms. Sachs. “We invited Dr. Logan to lead an equity workshop, and it helped us bond as a Board and learn a mutual language.”

Diversifying their audience is one of many ESO goals. The Symphony has already taken steps to attract more minorities. Their annual Christmas concert, which traditionally draws their biggest audience, featured a gospel choir, youth dance performances, and both adult and youth chorus music.

The December 2017 holiday show filled 1,000 seats in the Evanston Township High School auditorium with a more diverse audience than had attended previously. Next season’s concert series will include three guest soloists from different minority backgrounds.
On April 12, ESO musicians and District 65 orchestral students performed in a free community concert with middle-schoolers and adult Symphony musicians playing side-by-side. The Symphony also launched a fundraising drive that evening to ensure that instrument rental and repair costs will not deter Evanston students from playing in their school orchestras.  

The ESO and District 65 teachers have long known that one significant reason for dwindling orchestra participation at the high school level is a financial one.  The ESO Board is committed to providing instrument rental and repair scholarships to eligible students. They welcome community donations.

At a recent Enrich Evanston meeting at Curt’s Café, members shared accomplishments and plans. Several months ago, Susan Demaree, a beloved and recently deceased member of Enrich Evanston and of the North Shore Choral Society, encapsulated the group’s work in progress: “Awareness is tied to responsibility, isn’t it?”

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....