Sharing the gift of harmony with the world
Those words -- “radical” and “inclusion” -- are challenging words. They signal to us that we’ll need to think about our basic assumptions, and to go forward with open minds and a ready handshake.
As the Society’s strategic vision, Everyone in Harmony, developed in 2016-2017, one theme kept calling out to us: the gift of harmony is too wonderful to keep to ourselves. We know that the entire world will be better if more people share the uplifting experience of singing together in harmony -- and we’re in a great position to make that happen.
When “Everyone in Harmony” premiered in June 2017, the Society committed itself to “radical inclusion,” our belief that every person who loves to harmonize has a place in our family. Everyone means EVERYONE – people of every age, of every background, every gender identity, every race, every sexual orientation, every political opinion or spiritual belief, ability and disability.
Those words in our strategic vision -- “radical” and “inclusion” -- are challenging words. They signal to us that we’ll need to think about our basic assumptions, and to go forward with open minds and a ready handshake.
The Barbershop Harmony Society will always value our all-male singing experience. It’s where we started, it has been our central belief, it’s the mighty hub that has spun the wheel for decades. By sheer size, it will continue to be central for a long time. Extending membership to include women does not decrease that, either, although that expansion is highly visible, highly energized, and has created the most buzz. Some existing BHS groups that already had women singers have jumped right in, and we’re glad to fully recognize them as BHS choruses. New groups have formed, as singers try new models for social and musical satisfaction. Among our 690 chapters, more than 70 BHS mixed harmony choruses have emerged, 60 mixed harmony quartets have registered, a growing number of all-women quartets and choruses have registered, and hundreds of women have joined as full members of the Society.
Believe it or not, this has been the easy part. No, really -- because there were already many eager barbershop lovers ready to jump in on day one. But Everyone in Harmony is about much more than gender. Let me say that again, because it’s so important. Everyone in Harmony is about much more than gender.
We like to believe that we’ve always been welcoming. We’ve said, “The only thing that matters is whether you want to sing along -- what part do you want to sing?” So why are we not more inclusive and diverse as an organization?
We chose the phrasing “radical inclusion” to challenge ourselves. I think sometimes people trip on the term “radical,” thinking it is a political signal, or a kind of condemnation of the past. Radical inclusion is first a journey of thought and attitude. For us, “radical” really means “thinking outside our habits.” It means seeing the abundance in what we can do, instead of the limitations of what we can’t or won’t do.
It’s easy to think that things that are familiar form the boundary of what is possible. So, a “radical mindset” for barbershop might mean stretching our mental image of barbershop beyond the exclusive realm of middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white, Christian men -- which, by the way, describes me precisely! Historically, the Society has often behaved as if all Barbershoppers fit that mold. Today, we look at our fellow BHS singers and see so much more variety which is a great start.
Stretching our mental image and self-reflection requires active thought and really looking at our own hearts to examine our attitudes. It’s part of what we do in our Everyone in Harmony Online Workshops. It leads me to ask myself, “How do the assumptions I make about the people around me turn into action and speech?” When we understand our own motivations, we can apply our fresh insights to our actions. The choice to be intentional in including people outside our customary circle of acquaintances is what is truly radical for us, and it’s not easy.
Inclusion is broader than “live and let live” -- but that would be a great start!
“Inclusion” can be an uncomfortable word for some people. It might sometimes feel like an instruction which must be obeyed. That’s certainly not the intention of Everyone in Harmony, which encourages all people to barbershop in the ways they love best.
I don’t think it’s ever a stretch for our community to respect other people’s differences. We’re a pretty friendly bunch of good-hearted folks. Our challenge -- our giant step outside our habits -- is to actively reach out to all segments of our communities, and get to know them, serve them and respond to them based on their needs, not ours.
The “radical” aspect lies not in simply accepting all people for what they are, but by consciously creating more opportunities for people of different backgrounds and experiences to sing together. Every time I see people singing together, I believe they’re building bridges among themselves in the same way I have with my quartets, my choruses, and with random folks in stairwells in the middle of the night. Barbershop is love multiplied by four.
Freedom to innovate, encourage -- and preserve
Being “radical” or “inclusive” doesn’t mean overturning or eliminating things we hold dear. I personally love the all-men’s experiences I’ve had as a Barbershopper, like competing with my dad and my son at International (2012) as part of the Great Northern Union Chorus. I expect to enjoy many more all-male singing experiences in the future. I’ve also loved singing alongside both my son and my daughter in the Everyone In Harmony Chorus at the International convention. I’m sure I’ll do more of this, too. It’s possible to do both, and love both, without diminishing either.
Our Everyone in Harmony Roadmap sets an audacious goal: by our 100th anniversary in 2038, the Barbershop Harmony Society will be a mirror of the communities in which we live. What will that look like? Many new kinds of ensembles... many new things... many things we might not even recognize… and much, much more of what we’ve always treasured, too.
Distinctive and unique experiences can be inclusive, too. New groups in Seneca Land District illustrate this so well. Harmonic Collective, which started as a youth group, has evolved to be a fantastic intergenerational experience. The Seneca Statesmen have defined a unique experience for seniors. An all-men’s experience or an all-women’s experience can also be inclusive. Both provide special kinds of social bonding, and distinct musical possibilities.
The radical part of all these experiences is doing them all in the setting of the same Barbershop Harmony Society. What hasn’t changed since our founding eight decades ago is the most important part -- being together, uplifting one another, and creating more joy and harmony.
Chief Executive Officer
Barbershop Harmony Society
Bringing people together in harmony and fellowship to enrich lives through singing