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The statements, on their face, are utterly startling. “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field.” “I don’t have to take this. Yes, my board is all white, and they are one of the most diverse boards of any organization – more than any arts organization at this table.” It was implied that musical theory is too difficult for black and Latinos as an area of study.

These remarks were attributed to Michael Butera, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for Music Education, as being made by him at a National Endowment for the Arts meeting for service organizations, at which equity, diversity and inclusion were the primary topic. Butera’s comments were reported by Keryl McCord, operations director of Alternate ROOTS, in a widely disseminated blog post dated May 4, entitled Why We Must Have Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity and in the Arts: A Response to the National Association for Music Education. It read, in part:

What most roiled my spirit was his belief that blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills and ability to grasp music theory needed for this field. If Mr. Butera had not left the room after making his remarks, this written response would not be necessary. But he did leave the room, depriving me and everyone else at the table a chance to respond, to try to engage in a dialog. What was said was said publicly, and was so deeply disturbing and has remained with me since our meeting, that I could not, not respond.

The late Dr. Maya Angelou tells us that when someone tells you who they are, you should believe them. I believe Mr. Butera said what he meant, and meant what he said. So I am not raising this issue publicly because I think he should apologize. No apology needed, not to me at least. The challenge is not that he said out loud what he believes to be true. But it is the substance of what he believes that is the central issue and that can’t be resolved with an apology. No. The more critical challenge is that Mr. Butera leads an organization dedicated to music education in our schools, to being “resources for teachers, parents, administrators” and providing “opportunities for students and teachers nationwide.”

An image circulating on Facebook, attributed to Deejay Robinson

An image circulating on Facebook, attributed to Deejay Robinson

In a phone interview with the Arts Integrity Initiative on May 8, Michael Butera flatly denied both of the statements about blacks and Latinos attributed to him. As to the issue of board diversity, Butera confirmed that the board of NAfME doesn’t current have any board members of color. He pointed out, in reference to his recollection of the meeting, “I did indicate that the board is elected from the membership and that we have in the past had members of minority and ethnic groups. But the statement is, in my personal judgment, a total misrepresentation of the dialogue.”

The situation was reported, based on McCord’s post and social media response to it, on the Education Week site on May 9. The social media response was extremely negative towards Butera and the statements attributed to him, questioning whether he should or could continue in his role with NAfME.

The conversation in question took place on April 26 at the NEA was during what was essentially a breakout session during the main meeting, in which the attendees were divided into eight groups of eight for smaller conversations regarding EDI within their organizations. McCord and Butera were at the same table, as was a member of the NEA staff. Only those eight people were fully party to what transpired.

As of midday today, May 10, another one of the eight people at McCord and Butera’s table has issued a statement about what happened and what was said. Jesse Rosen, President and CEO of the League of American Symphony Orchestras, wrote, in part:

I can attest to the accuracy of Keryl McCord’s account of what was said and what took place. Mr. Butera indeed said that he could not take action to diversify his board, and that African Americans and Latinos lacked keyboard skills needed to advance in the music education profession — two statements which many of us around the table challenged. The group was unable to further pursue the meaning of his comments as Mr. Butera abruptly and angrily walked out of the room, well in advance of the meeting’s scheduled end time.

One other person at the table, communicating to Arts Integrity through a third party, said that they did not wish to be publicly involved with the developing issue. The NEA staff member at the table, Jessamyn Sarmiento, Director of Public Affairs, told Arts Integrity that she would not share her recollection of the events, saying, in reference to the people at the table, “It is up to them. It is their conversation to be had.”

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From the website of the National Association for Music Education:

National Association for Music Education (NAfME), among the world’s largest arts education organizations, is the only association that addresses all aspects of music education. NAfME advocates at the local, state, and national levels; provides resources for teachers, parents, and administrators; hosts professional development events; and offers a variety of opportunities for students and teachers. The Association orchestrates success for millions of students nationwide and has supported music educators at all teaching levels for more than a century.

From the website of Alternate ROOTS:

Alternate ROOTS is an organization based in the Southern USA whose mission is to support the creation and presentation of original art, in all its forms, which is rooted in a particular community of place, tradition or spirit. As a coalition of cultural workers we strive to be allies in the elimination of all forms of oppression. ROOTS is committed to social and economic justice and the protection of the natural world and addresses these concerns through its programs and services.

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Cheryl McCord

Keryl McCord

Speaking on May 6, Keryl McCord said that in the wake of her post, there has been no response to her or Alternate ROOTS regarding her assertions from Butera or NAfME. She said, “I haven’t seen an e-mail, I haven’t received a phone call, I haven’t seen anything on our Facebook page.”

Asked whether there was any additional conversation with Butera that took place at the NEA session which she had not reported, McCord said, “I remember him saying something about quotas when he was talking about his board being all white and I kind of raised my eyebrows. ‘Well what do quotas have to do with it? We’re not talking about quotas.’ But that’s the only other thing and I really don’t remember where that came, early in the conversation.”

Reiterating points made in her piece, McCord concluded by saying that among the things that really stood out for her was, “That the executive director and CEO of the National Association for Music Education literally got up and said, ‘I don’t have to take this,’ and literally stormed out of the meeting. I’m still floored. We were at the National Endowment for the Arts because the discussion was about inclusion, diversity and equity in the arts. Before he left I tried to say to him, ‘Michael, this is the work. It’s hard, but this is the work, don’t leave.’ I don’t know if he’ll remember that, but that’s what I said to him. As I said in my piece, it was as if he dropped this bomb on the table and then he left.”

McCord does acknowledge that Butera had said something about a prior appointment that required him to leave early, and Butera is emphatic on that, saying “I had another commitment and had to leave at maybe 3:30, which I had advised the organizers of the meeting that I had no time. I had to leave at 3:30 no matter what and I did. Clearly that caused some consternation.”

Asked whether she had any counsel for Butera or for NAfME in the wake of his statements, McCord said, “I’m not going to take a position that his board should let him go. I think it’s a come to Jesus moment for the board to figure out, ‘Does he represent them well at this point?’ They’re governance. It’s their job to do. If you were to say, ‘Keryl, what outcome would you like to see happen,’ I think that they need to do some serious, serious training around issues of equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Further, McCord said, “I think that bringing in an organization like The People’s Institute who did great training with Grantmakers in the Arts, to really make a commitment to not trying to do this on their own, not trying to sit around the table and figure it out, but to really understand, to get a deeper understanding of the issues and how to address them and get some language, and some framework and context and understanding of what the issues are. If they would do that, that would be huge. My sense is that they are operating in kind of a vacuum, maybe, and I don’t really know this organization. I responded as someone sitting at the table who was appalled at the behavior of this person. I think it’s a learning opportunity, a huge learning opportunity for the board and for Mr. Butera.”

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Michael Butera (photo by Becky Spray)

Michael Butera (photo by Becky Spray)

Having directly denied the statements made by McCord, but prior to Rosen’s corroboration of her account, Michael Butera spoke about the conversation regarding board make-up as he recalled it.

Were there discussions about minorities, keyboard skills, theory and so forth in the broadest sense, not about minorities keyboard skills as a link? The answer to that is yes. Now let me follow up. What the conversation was about was whether or not minorities, particularly in the school systems of this nation, have sequential programs of music instruction that will enable them to have the same opportunity and the same chances that children who are not in those zip codes have. And the answer to that question is no, not currently.

Currently far too many of our urban centers do not have deep sequential programs of music instruction and where would it be more important to do that than in our urban centers. These are complicated and profoundly difficult conversations to have and we have to have them in an open, honest and direct manner. So when we talk about the skills that one needs to be admitted to a college or university in order to study to be a music educator, keyboard skills are important, as are theory skills. If you are in an educational system where it does not provide that opportunity then you are less likely to have the opportunity to be admitted.

It is not because of you or your ethnicity that that’s the case, but that it’s the direct problem that we face in multiple areas in American society. We have underfunded, under cared for, under thought through the ways in which multiple elements make it more difficult for minority people to have the same opportunities that majority people do. And they’re really difficult conversations. So there’s a big difference in terms of talking about the opportunities that people have and making a statement that is attributed to me that minorities do not have the skills. That’s simply not true.

So how does that comport with what two people say Butera said at the NEA convening? “Clearly, I have to admit,” said Butera, “I didn’t do a good job or I wouldn’t be seeing the blog. Obviously that’s true, you can’t be blind to what other people interpret. But it’s an interpretation and it’s not the fact. I am deeply and profoundly personally and organizationally committed to social justice in every way you can imagine.”

The NAfME’s five year strategic plan, slated to begin in 2017, shows efforts at equity, diversity and inclusion as one of its five core values (the subject was not part of the prior five year plan). In response to a question about any EDI initiatives or training to date, for staff, board or membership, Butera said:

This plan that you’re looking at, this plan was only adopted in the last few months I believe. So you can see that in the newer plan to make a significant effort to make a statement of our belief that this is an area we have to work on. So now we are in the process of developing initiatives that will move us in that direction. You know these things don’t happen – the plan passes and the next day you have 25 different plans. I’m not trying to be light about your question. So the answer is yes we’re trying to build a series of initiatives that would be appropriate to each of the planks in our strategic plan, and of course this is one of them.

Asked to clarify his statement on the diversity of the board, Butera once again disagreed with McCord’s portrayal, saying, “What I really said was not about my board at all, but a different part of the conversation saying the issue of diversity is not a matter of counting numbers and color and ethnicity on the board. The issue of diversity is whether or not there’s a firm, solid, meaningful commitment to the principles of diversity and inclusion and in that context I believe our board is firmly committed or they would not have changed the strategic plan to move in that direction.”

Butera went on to say that while the board doesn’t have any members of color, he said that people of color were on subcomittees, task forces and research entities of the organization, and noted there would be a new board member of color come June. He remarked, “Yes, we would surely have a better conversation when minorities are sitting there, but you know it’s not true that there aren’t any minorities in the organization.”

Butera said he could not provide any statistics on the diversity of his board or committees, or the racial or ethnic make-up of NAfME’s members, saying the organization doesn’t collect that data. He also said that he had no influence whatsoever over the election of board members, not even the ability to make suggestions, and that only a by-laws amendment would permit his participation.

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The board president of NAfME, Glenn Nierman, who is the Chair of Music (Music Education) at the University of Nebraska, responded to inquiries from Arts Integrity twice, briefly both times. In his first e-mailed response on May 6, he simply acknowledged that the board was aware of the situation and would be looking into it at an executive committee meeting on May 7. Following the meeting, he followed up on May 8, again by e-mail, writing, “The NAfME National Executive Board has been advised by legal counsel to proceed prudently and cautiously in gathering information about this matter.  That is what we are doing. We have been advised not to comment about the situation at this time.”

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At one point in conversation with Arts Integrity, Butera commented,” The facilitator said we should consider this – and you’ve facilitated meetings yourself – see this as a safe environment. A safe environment to me means that we should all let our hair down and tell each other as best we can and as respectfully as we can that we think about, feel about, can do about these kind of issues.

On the subject of safe spaces, Sarmiento of the NEA noted, “We are a government agency. Every meeting, unless we were having a closed session with the National Council on the Arts, any time a government agency convenes a meeting, it’s always open. When we have our meetings, they are always open to the public.” That suggests that everything is ‘on the record.’

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The irony in this situation is that all parties seem to agree on the necessity of music education and the lack of proper arts education in our schools. (A separate open letter about the state of music education, prompted by this situation at the NEA service organization meeting, has been jointly issued by Grantmakers in the Arts and The New School College for Performing Arts.) McCord, Rosen and Butera all speak to the need for equity, diversity and inclusion work as part of that effort. However, while Butera denies the specific statements attributed to him, two other professionals in the field directly contradict him, suggesting that his statements and behavior at the NEA convening are inconsistent with that mission.

Specifically in Butera’s case, the implications for his role as the head of NAfME are serious. Can he continue to lead the organization if indeed he harbors the beliefs that McCord and Rosen say he voiced? Can he effectively function to initiate and pursue EDI work if he fundamentally believes – although he said in an interview that he does not – that blacks and Latinos lack skills that are central to music study, a statement that is absurd to anyone with a knowledge of music nationally or internationally? If his communication around these issues results in accounts like those of McCord and Rosen, can Butera be an effective advocate for music education for all, regardless of race? Will investigation by the board of NAfME include conversations with the people who are currently unwilling to go on the record about what took place, or the three who are as of yet unidentified to Arts Integrity?

The board and perhaps membership of NAfME will make the final decision as to whether Butera is the person to lead them forward on their new strategic plan and the implementation of EDI work for the organization overall. In the wake of McCord’s post and Rosen’s affirmation, they have a lot to consider. But even if one accepts Butera’s assertion about that implementation requiring time and consideration before disseminating to their extensive membership, it seems there are two essential steps to be taken.

First, the staff of NAfME must go through its own EDI training immediately and must be held to account for it by the existing board, because even if Butera merely communicated poorly instead of actually making statements which can be construed as racist, he and the people working for him need to learn how to meaningfully discuss the issues of equity and diversity throughout the field of music education. Based on what has transpired, regardless of which account one accepts, there is essential, immediate work to be done.

Secondly, the board of NAfME and its executive staff cannot simply say that it would be helpful to have people of color in the room as decisions about diversity and inclusion are made. People of color must be present, they must be central to the planning, and one board member of color simply isn’t enough in this day and age.

Equity, diversity and inclusion aren’t, to use a loaded phrase from the days when these topics weren’t even discussed, the white man’s burden. They are the job of everyone and everyone has the capacity to do the work. But participants have to work towards believing in EDI as essential for music, for the arts, for society, if they do not already, and they have to give voice to it, truthfully and meaningfully, at every opportunity if that is truly part of their values.

Update, May 10, 2016, 8 pm: As of this evening, the following statement appears on the NAfME website, as “A Message From The National Executive Board”:

Last week, we were made aware of a situation involving remarks made by NAfME’s CEO, Michael Butera. We take this issue very seriously and, understandably, have heard from many in our community in recent days. Diversity, inclusion and equity in music and the arts are at the core of what we do at NAfME and we are committed to taking the appropriate actions to ensure that remains true. To that end, Mr. Butera has been placed on administrative leave while we conduct an objective investigation, which is nearing conclusion, into the matter. We have reached out to participants in last week’s discussion, including Keryl McCord of Alternate ROOTS, to fully understand what happened and assess the situation. We appreciate the dialogue that has taken place over the course of the last week and look forward to continuing this important conversation.

Update, May 11, 4:00 pm: Michael Butera is no longer the leader of NAfME.  A statement on the organization’s website reads as follows:

After a thorough review process, the National Executive Board of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) and Michael Butera have agreed that he will not be returning to the association. We wish him well and thank him for his service to our purpose and mission.

Additionally, we are announcing that Michael Blakeslee will serve as the new Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer for NAfME, effective immediately. Mr. Blakeslee’s vast experience and knowledge of our organization, fostered over nearly 30 years of dedicated service to NAfME and the music education profession, best position us to move forward and advocate for and provide opportunities to students and teachers.

These last few days highlight the need for real, substantive conversation about what must be done to provide access and opportunity to all students no matter where they live. This is an ongoing journey and we are ready to play an increasingly important role in convening and facilitating a dialogue and prompting action around how all of us can increase diversity, inclusion, and equity in music and the arts.

Update, May 11 7:30 pm: Members of NAfME received an e-mail with much the same message this afternoon, but with an additional final paragraph not on the organization’s site:

While not in the manner we would have preferred, we believe this incident granted an opportunity to address an issue facing too many students and educators. Moving forward, we will be reaching out to a number of organizations, members, and partners to continue the much-needed dialogue regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity in the music and arts. We are committed to upholding our mission, achieving real solutions, and bringing about substantive change that impacts the future of our work and provides access to music for all Americans.

This post will be updated as warranted.


Note: There is a growing conversation around the term ‘people of color,’ with some entities advocating for the use of ‘African, Arab and Native American (ALAANA),’ in addition to white, Asian and Latin@. Because the remarks in question herein speak of ‘black’ and ‘Latino,’ and attributed quotes include the term ‘minority,’ Arts Integrity has elected to utilize the broad term ‘people of color’ for the purpose of this essay and will be taking the new language under advisement for the future.

Howard Sherman is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College for Performing Arts and interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.