It must qualify as some sort of pun that this article outlines the general state of inclusion and diversity today as a “mixed bag.”
Historically, Detroit musicians never had segregated white and black locals—a practice that was fairly common in large US cities until the 1960s when these locals merged. Often the members of the former black locals lost their treasuries and identity for the lack of a political champion and simply left the union. Local 5 (Detroit, MI) was fortunate to have no structural segregation; from the outset, we attempted to be musicians first, without other qualifiers.
It is worth noting that Detroit was one of the last “stops” on the Underground Railroad, allowing slaves to escape to Canada. Tours are regularly held at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church and First Congregational Church. Today, a number of Local 5 members point to these congregations with pride, calling them home.
In the October 2017 International Musician, both AFM Symphonic Services Director Rochelle Skolnick and ROPA Secretary Karen Sandene reported on the support shown by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) in furthering the cause of diversity and inclusion. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) has an African-American fellowship position for musicians who might otherwise find opportunities scarce.
Former fellow Joshua Jones says, “The program was what I needed to further my education in the field of orchestral performance. While school helps you grow as a student, the transition one must go through to become a professional is not really facilitated unless you are working in the field. Being a part of the DSO for that period of time was very influential in my personal transition from student to professional, and the people involved guided me through it every step of the way.”
Today, Local 5’s progress is undeniable. In addition to the full-time officers, the board comprises a globe-trotting former member of Mahavishnu Orchestra, also recognized as a Motown musician; a former member of DSO; a freelance drummer and teacher; a former music director for Anita Baker, Martha Reeves, and Etta James; theater musicians; a former member of Stan Kenton’s band; and a freelance oboist who works in cyber security for one of the Detroit “Big Three” automakers. It is fantastic to have that range of experience in our leadership. The other good news is that two women were recently elected—a first for us.
Looking ahead, we hope to achieve greater balanced involvement, especially from the young members and from sectors in our union’s cultural base that have rarely led our local. Indeed, at least 150 different languages are spoken in Detroit area homes—many of which are represented in our membership.
I’ve given you some of the “good stuff,” but let’s be clear: It has been 50 years since the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. There is palpable progress in the revitalization of Detroit’s metropolitan area that has brought about the beginning of a true expansion of neighborhood integration into the central city and suburbs. Still, the historical reality of this local musicians’ union is that it exists in an area that was torn apart by riots. It continues to have the reputation of being the most racially polarized metropolitan area in the US today.
At the beginning of 2018, we are sorely in need of an expanded appreciation for all of us. The fight for LGBT rights has scored substantial victories in the past 20 years; however, there is no federal antidiscrimination law, leaving some people without protection. Racism has reared its ugly head in a more open way than I can remember since my teen years in the 1960s. The 21st century chapter of the feminist movement is quickly gaining momentum. Hitting close to home for me: since 9/11, Americans of Middle Eastern descent (such as my husband, also a Local 5 member) have had to learn what it means to be FWL (flying while Lebanese), an expansion of the unfortunate but true DWB (driving while black) acronym.
Simply put: as a country, we are in danger of normalizing disrespect and suspicion of “the other” (political and otherwise), shrinking from the concept of nonviolent protest, and losing our free press. If we do not want to lose our rights and our ethics, we need to stand together as union brothers and sisters. We must protect the principles of humanity that we have all fought to obtain. It is the most powerful way to build trust. We cannot work together if we don’t value one another’s welfare.
It is my honor, as Detroit’s Secretary-Treasurer, to work on behalf of the entire membership of the AFM on its Diversity Committee.