Building an Antiracist Music School


JUNE 16, 2020

Merit School of Music mourns the loss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Nina Pop, David McAtee, and the many precious lives lost to racist violence and brutality. Black students, musicians, staff, and families are vital to our community. We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and join those who are speaking out against racism and hate.

As we reflect on the systemic racism that pervades our city and beyond, we recognize that statements are not enough. Action is what is needed by us all. That is why we at Merit School of Music are holding up the mirror to our organization. We know that we have not done enough as an organization to fight racism. We can and must do more and better.

In the book “How to Be an Antiracist,” the scholar Ibram X. Kendi explains that to be “not racist,” means to do nothing in the face of racism. To do nothing, writes Kendi, is an act of racism itself. Inspired by Kendi, the Merit School of Music strives to become an antiracist organization.

Antiracism, says Kendi, requires individuals to actively identify and fight against racist ideas, behavior, and policies wherever and whenever they occur. An important step in antiracist behavior is learning to recognize how systemic racism impacts all members of a community. Antiracist organizations make an intentional commitment to identify and dismantle racism.

Merit’s journey towards becoming an antiracist school of music has been an ongoing learning process that our organization first embarked on explicitly in 2019.

For the sake of transparency and our own accountability, below we’ve outlined the steps we’ve taken toward becoming an antiracist organization. We’ve also used this space to outline the work we need to do in the coming months and year. We know we still have a long way to go, and we are prepared to transform our school to better serve our Black students, faculty, musicians, and staff.

Steps Taken

  • Joining Enrich Chicago

In early 2019, Merit School of Music began partnering with Enrich Chicago and formally joined the Enrich Chicago cohort, a cohort of more than 30 organizations actively learning to recognize and dismantle racism and systemic oppression in Chicago’s arts sector, this past December. Committed to advancing institutional change, Enrich Chicago’s vision is to “irrevocably change the racist systems in the arts so that African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) arts, ALAANA arts organizations, and ALAANA people thrive.” Through our partnership with Enrich Chicago, Merit School of Music’s staff, faculty, and board have begun the work of acknowledging and unlearning our own biases (conscious and unconscious) to work together toward goals of antiracism. To date, 16 cross-departmental administrators, two board members, and four faculty members have attended multi-day workshops designed to help arts organizations recognize white supremacy and embark on a path to becoming an antiracist organization. This work is far from over, and Merit will continue to provide faculty and staff with antiracism training through Enrich Chicago’s workshops.

  • Launching a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative (DEI)

Since partnering with Enrich Chicago, we’ve launched an organization-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative (DEI). This DEI initiative has given us a chance to collectively examine and begin to rework our organizational policies around vendor procurement, hiring, program offerings, and faculty professional development. Our DEI initiative has inspired some of our staff to create an in-school lending library of antiracist texts that staff and faculty can read, reference, and contribute to as they reflect on Merit’s role in taking a stand against racism. While our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative has been foundational in our journey to becoming an antiracist music school, it must be seen as a launching point for more expansive work. Conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion have allowed us to set our intentions as an organization. Now it’s time for us to focus on achieving meaningful results. 

  • Reimagining Merit’s Hiring Process

Spurred by conversations that came out of Merit’s DEI initiative, a subcommittee of staff reimagined our hiring process to be more inclusive and accessible. Merit is continually working toward becoming an organization that is truly reflective of the demographics of the city and the students we serve. We strive to model this ideal by creating and sustaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment for all our employees. However, we know that we must attract and hire more people of color to achieve our goal. We strongly believe that diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and ideas is essential to our success. Every day, we actively work toward fulfilling our commitment by:

  1. Welcoming all voices to the table—all abilities, ages, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths, gender identities, immigration statuses, incomes, national origins, races, and sexual orientations—and listening, considering, and incorporating their perspectives in our work.
  2. Identifying and appreciating the unique identities, talents, experiences, skills, and knowledge of each member of our team, and conscientiously seeking to recruit and retain diverse faculty and staff by expanding our job postings and recruitment efforts.
  3. Recognizing that the classical music world has historically been deliberately white and elitist, and that reducing racial inequities is necessary in achieving greater representation in the classroom and onstage – locally and nationally.
  4. Striving to be aware of and sensitive to different experiences and perspectives in all forms of communication, both with each other and with the public. The way we operate internally and externally, how we talk to each other and about our work, how we make decisions, how we run meetings, and how we request, and weigh feedback and ideas are all critical elements for building an inclusive organization.
  5. Continuously reviewing and improving our internal and external operations and practices, including convening an internal taskforce dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging and ensuring that our work continuously reflects those values.

The lessons we are learning continue to inform our policies, practices, and development as an organization in advancing greater equity and inclusion in the deep, meaningful, and sustained music education Merit is committed to providing. We recognize that becoming an antiracist organization is a journey that requires discourse, collaboration, and an openness to change. We understand that this journey may not always be comfortable, but we are fully committed to engaging in the process.

While Merit School of Music has benefited from significant organizational growth and change over the past few years, we know we still have work to do in our journey toward becoming an antiracist music school. We’ve outlined a few of our initial projects below.

Work To Be Done

  • Expanding Merit’s Curriculum and Repertoire

Merit School of Music has a robust, celebrated Jazz program in which students receive intensive training in playing, studying, and listening to a genre forever indebted to and shaped by African American artists and the Black experience. We’re proud that our Suzuki-Alegre Strings ensemble is grounded in performing a diverse range of repertoire, including numerous works by Latinx composers. Going forward, we need to make sure that all of Merit’s classical musicians also have the privilege of studying and playing music by Black artists and other artists of color. We are inspired by the Manhattan School of Music’s recent pledge that all 2020-2021 performances will include one work created by a Black artist. At the time of writing this article, we are unsure of what our 2020-2021 school year might look like amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but we commit to expanding our repertoire and the guest artists we present to our students to celebrate diverse range of composers and musical genres. We will share more about developments in Merit’s curriculum and repertoire in the coming months.

  • Cultivating a More Diverse Board and Group of Merit Leaders

Merit understands that it is not enough to merely appreciate and have a diversity of abilities, ages, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths, gender identities, immigration statuses, incomes, national origins, races, and sexual orientations reflected in our staff, faculty and student body. It is also vital that the diversity of our student body be reflected in the leadership of our organization – our Board of Trustees and other leadership groups. Through specific efforts over the past few years, we are proud to have welcomed new Trustees who are better reflective of our student body, including Merit alumni and Merit parents. We have begun to make progress in this important area, and we are committed to continuing to increase representation and the diversity of experiences and perspectives of Merit’s leadership.

  • Organization-wide Participation in Enrich Training and Caucusing

As we build our FY 2021 budget, Merit School of Music is dedicating increased funds so that all staff and faculty members have the opportunity to participate in antiracism training through Enrich Chicago. Once our staff and faculty members have had the opportunity to participate in Enrich Chicago’s training, Merit School of Music will facilitate a series of formal caucuses to help us thoughtfully tackle the work outlined above. As defined by Enrich Chicago, a racial identity caucus is “a tool used to collectively grow our antiracist, anti-oppressive, multicultural identities. The goal of the caucus is to identify and move beyond the ways we have been racially socialized, and claim and celebrate antiracist, re-humanizing ways of being together in community.” We believe that the learning and unlearning undertaken in these caucuses will benefit both the Merit School of Music and our communities at large.

With becoming an antiracist organization as our goal, the Merit School of Music welcomes feedback from our community. Please reach out to our team by emailing if you have questions, feedback, or ideas about this critical area of intensified focus for our school.

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