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How a Reflective Dialogue Conversation Changed the City Lights Chorus

Creating a culture of inclusion and the needs of our membership in spaces that aren’t just ringing chords and financial support

GUEST BLOG: Cody Harrell, Chapter President of The Motor City Metro Chapter, City Lights Chorus, bass of Frontier (2018 NextGen Quartet Champion), shares his profound experience using a Reflective Dialogue tool. While human rights issues were at the top of his mind, and a training with Culture Shift Team at the Barbershop Harmony Society International Convention in Salt Lake City (2019), Cody found it necessary to use this training tool to engage his chorus in a deeper, more inclusive way.

Re-Vamping the City Lights Chorus

When my two best friends and I re-chartered the City Lights Chorus (Pioneer District) in May 2018, we set out to be the best competitive chorus in our district. After going back and forth with different options and models, we decided that the only way we could do that was by creating the only audition-based chorus in our district. We thought that if we set the bar for future City Lights members both in their singing and their performance, we would be able to create a culture from the beginning. We weren’t looking for just anyone on the risers—rather, we wanted to have a chorus that could be both musically sound and emotionally open with audiences. Having been in a quartet and youth chorus that thrived in the cross-section of musical excellence and vulnerability, we had a vision that we could apply a broader model to those who were willing to commit to being a member of the chorus.

Their audition process

To capitalize on this vision, a two-part audition process was born from the models of choruses we emulated. We chose a simple barbershop song as our audition song in the same vein as the Ambassadors of Harmony. We modeled the second part from the Parkside Harmony chapter—the interview. In that interview, we set the stage for what we believed to be the most important tenets of our chorus.

First, member hopefuls are asked why they want to be a member of City Lights. Then, they are asked to discuss their willingness to be emotionally vulnerable with the chorus.

For some of the men in our chorus, this is a particularly hard question. We aren’t just asking them to smile when the song was happy and squint through the sadness—we are asking them to hold themselves to a standard that every man on the risers next to them would rise to in every performance. We are asking them to let down the walls of masculinity and peer forth into a light of vulnerability that asked more of them than any other chorus before had. We ask for their stories—their real, beautiful, messy lives.

The Spirit of Vulnerability

That’s what I’ve always loved about this chorus. The spirit of vulnerability has permeated all facets of who we are and what we do—we intentionally choose music that has themes broad enough to appeal to our membership, which ranges from 16 years old to over 70. Because of the way we set up an emotionally vulnerable atmosphere, before every contest we’ll go around and encourage each member to share a story or tell other members how much they appreciate getting to share the stage with them.

For two years, that vulnerability often led us to challenge ourselves as singers and human beings to confront the realities inside ourselves and come out stronger on the other side.

Listening to our members

But nothing in our chorus culture prepared us for a guest presentation at our June 2020 board meeting from two chorus members, asking us to consider a response to the Black Lives Matter protests dotted throughout our country, state and zip codes. In that presentation, the chorus members approached our all-white board to ask us to consider how we as a chorus might respond to the killing of George Floyd and national calls to amplify Black voices in communities where they have been silenced for generations.

While they presented, I was called back to a conversation I had in a small ballroom nestled in the host convention hotel in Salt Lake City last July. Through the Culture Shift reflective dialogue method, the Barbershop Harmony Society gathered a variety of minds together to discuss Everyone in Harmony (EIH). Through this reflective dialogue, convention attendees from across boundaries of race, gender, sexual orientation were asked to speak to their experiences with EIH and inclusion in our society.

In my mind, this was the brilliance that spoke to me when I asked my chapter to consider the same tactic, but with the Black Lives Matter Movement.

I remember the faces at the board meeting-- no one was particularly excited by the gesture nor quick to the jump. I understand their fear--talking about race can be hard. But in my mind, the fear of talking about race as an organization could not overpower the fear that people of color live out in their daily lives in confronting the lived realities of systemic oppression. So, to assuage the board’s concerns, I guaranteed that a dialogue could be run in a closed chorus session so we wouldn’t be subject to outside pressures. I also volunteered to host it. They agreed.

Preparing for the Reflective Dialogue

After that, I developed questions that reflected the purpose of the conversation. My goal was not to create an action plan--our goal was to understand how we could best serve the diverse needs of our membership while still being sensitive to the experiences that affect the comfortability of our members. We only have two Black members in the chorus, and hearing their voices was crucial to understanding the impact we could and needed to make in our community.

So, I called together four chorus members into the conversation. I intentionally selected members who were particularly vocal about their beliefs and identities with the hope they would feel comfortable in the discussion. Our four participants were a Black man who posted on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, a young white man who organized Black Lives Matter protests in his hometown, a mid-40s white man who identified as an ally of the movement and an older white man who served as a Baptist minister and police chaplain in his hometown. To me, this was the most diverse and well-rounded group of individuals that make up the City Lights Chorus.

I called them all a few weeks beforehand to float the idea to them. I made sure to assert to them that they would not be called in to defend their beliefs or ideas or lived experiences. Rather, they would be called in to tell their stories and represent their lives through a series of questions. No one would be allowed to challenge anyone else’s answers. They could only speak for themselves. By doing this, the members felt secure in knowing that they wouldn’t be engaging in debate, but they would be participating in a dialogue.

In the days leading up to the dialogue, I wrote out the four questions that would guide our discussion. Each of the questions identified the meaningful ways I wanted each member to be represented. They were asked to speak about their own personal intersections with the Black Lives Matter movement, the ways in which their own race is representative of the life they have lived and the ways in which our chorus and barbershop music play a role in bringing people together based on their identities. I sent the questions to each of the participants in advance by their request.

Sharing Openly and Listening Respectfully

Immediately before the conversation, I reminded the participants about our social norms—no one would interrupt or question others in the conversation, and each would listen with an open mind to learn, rather than a critical eye toward opinion. While some might have come in with a preconceived notion that they were going to have to defend themselves with facts and figures, I reminded them they were only there to represent themselves and not an entire community like them. Ultimately, this is what proved to be most successful about our reflective dialogue exercise. If anyone entered with any misgivings about the other’s ability to be rational and human, every question was answered with honesty and a desire for change in the world. They all acknowledged legitimacy in the Black Lives Matter movement and a need for our chorus to do more work to educate our membership about the Black roots of barbershop music. Furthermore, they found themselves agreeing more often than not about what their lived experiences taught them about how to navigate the world around them. There were rarely moments of tension--rather, there were many more moments of growth and bridge-building. It was uncomfortable for some, but that’s something I’ve always learned from tough conversations. Growth only happens in a place where you have something to learn from someone else, especially in a place that would normally cause discomfort.

At the end of the discussion, I reminded the participants and chorus members in attendance that this wasn’t an exercise in putting together an agenda. We would not be able to adequately create an entire sweeping agenda after just one conversation. Rather, it was the first step in creating a culture of inclusion and paying attention to the needs of our membership in spaces that aren’t just ringing chords and financial support.

Creating a Plan of Action

From here, I put together a loose action plan for the chorus based on the conversation that initiated change in three ways: more education, targeted outreach and selective music choices. While every part of the proposal wasn’t a direct outcome of just the conversation, the members showcased the need for sweeping change and stronger inclusion throughout the reflective dialogue. Our leaders and members have always believed that we are the kind of chorus that can and will welcome everyone—now, we can say that we’re being active in that change.

If anyone wanted to host a conversation just like ours, I recommend being intentional about your membership selection—if you only get one side or create an imbalance of perspectives, members can feel unheard or drowned out by other voices. Furthermore, I would think about the goals of your discussion before framing the questions. We wanted to make sure we were positioning our chorus for longevity in our district and our society by creating a space for members to come forward about social issues that can ultimately help the chorus in our mission: to bring about the highest character in our brotherhood and our singing.

Now, we can strive to add another to that mission--brotherhood, singing and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Cody Harrell is currently a Journalism and English teacher at East Lansing High School in East Lansing, Michigan. He has been a member of the Barbershop Harmony Society for 11 years and is the bass of the 2018 Next Generation International Quartet Champion Quartet Frontier.

If you need help in initiating these conversations in your chapter or planning a reflective dialogue, email inclusion@barbershop.org.