Thursday, March 24, 2022

Racial Equity and Social Impact Plan: Progress Report—Year One

“We are not custodians of the old order. We are not curators of establishment art. We must be oriented towards the future. It is our business to improve the quality of life. We had better become positive and not just stand by.”
–Glynn Ross, Founder of Seattle Opera, June 4, 1969

For nearly 60 years, Seattle Opera has used these words to guide creative innovations, to develop richer community partnerships, to increase access to the art form, and to enrich people’s lives. Today, these same words inspire our commitment to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in opera and the community that surrounds us. This report highlights Seattle Opera’s drive towards a more equitable art form and world.

Our Push Towards Equity

Seattle Opera’s Equity Team is a space for discussion on race, identity, community, and equity with a foundation of undoing systems of oppression in opera and the arts and culture sector. The team approaches its work through a lens that centers the voices and narratives of those who are most impacted by oppression and discrimination.

In 2019, Seattle Opera assessed the company’s understanding of racial equity, a methodology that included a survey, a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, interviews of key staff, and input from the staff-led Equity Team. The outcomes formed the basis for Seattle Opera’s three-year Racial Equity and Social Impact plan (RESI), which the company launched in October 2020.

The RESI plan established three strategic priorities and desired outcomes:

  • Formalize and implement racial equity + social impact practices and policies across all stakeholders and departments of the company.
  • Increase the percentage of stakeholders who understand and participate in Seattle Opera’s Racial Equity + Social Impact work.
  • Increase the company’s racial and ethnic diversity across all stakeholder groups to reflect the diversity of the Puget Sound region.

In 2021, Seattle Opera conducted a follow-up assessment to determine our progress and shortcomings on these initiatives. The staff and board were surveyed once again on their understanding of racial equity and were asked to evaluate the company's success fulfilling its goals. After one year, Seattle Opera reports the company’s progress towards accomplishing the strategic priorities instituted in the RESI plan.

Staff Participation

With the commitment of the both the executive and directors’ team, the company has participated in multiple equity training, implemented multiple analytical tools to measure of progress, and developed new community programs focused on racial equity.

SO Staff Training Completed

  • Leading with Racial Equity Lens for Structural Transformation
  • Operationalizing Racial Equity Practices
  • Bystander Intervention Training
  • Embodying I.D.E.A. (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Antiracism)

Additional Staff Projects

  • Launched racial equity budget tracking system
  • Instituted demographic artistic and production survey tools
  • Expanded Community Conversations and Opera Talks

“While we of course have a lot of work to do in this field, from my perspective, Seattle Opera seems to have made significant strides in making racial equity a priority. There's not only a growing awareness of the importance of this work and a support for these efforts across the staff and board, but an intentionality about following through on our racial equity initiatives. I have the sense that Seattle Opera is a leader in this area among the classical music organizations in our region, if not among the wider industry, and it makes me proud to be associated with Seattle Opera, especially during these times.”
–Seattle Opera Staff

2021 Key Findings: Seattle Opera Staff

The results compare 2021 vs. 2019 responses, assessing progress on strategic priorities #1 and #2. The first percentage is 2021 response, while the paratheses indicate change from 2019.

  • 82% (+7%) can identify examples of institutional racism, systemic racism, and intersectionality
  • 60% (+30%) Strongly agree that they have a basic understanding of Seattle Opera’s Racial Equity and Social Impact initiative
  • 37% (+20%) Strongly Agree that they have the tools to address institutional racism in their work with Seattle Opera
  • 79% (+1%) Strongly Agree that it is valuable to examine and discuss the impacts of race
  • 47% (+8%) Strongly Agree that they feel confident* in their interactions with other races/cultures
  • 48% (+15%) Strongly Agree that they feel confident* talking about race with their colleagues/peers at Seattle Opera
  • 80% (+46%) have had Racial Equity training in the past two year

*In 2019 this word was “competent” whereas in 2021 it was “confident”

Seattle Opera Staff


An Eight Percent Increase Since 2019

Board Participation

Nearly 50% of the Board of Directors has taken part in diversity, equity, and inclusion training with Seattle Opera in the past two years, and 72% reporting that they have received racial equity training at other organizations.

SO Board Training and Other Activities

  • Leading with Racial Equity Lens for Structural Transformation
  • Revising the company’s Long-Range Plan to incorporate Racial Equity goals (projected completion Summer 2022)
  • Established a Racial Equity and Social Impact reading and discussion group

Seattle Opera
Board of Directors


A Six Percent Increase Since 2019

“Members of the Board [of Director] are deeply involved the company’s racial equity and social justice. The board’s book club recently read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson, and we’ve had some interesting discussions. It’s a tremendous book, eye opening for people like me, who aren’t aware of the history of racial inequities in America. We’ve also read Decolonizing Wealth, which has split us a little bit—not everyone agreeing with the author. Our next book is Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement by Naomi Andre, Seattle Opera’s Scholar in Residence. We’re looking forward to discussing the book with her.”
–Gary Houlahan, Board of Directors

Developing Diverse Leadership

The Seattle Arts Fellowship program was launched in 2021 to increase racial and ethnic diversity in arts administration, strategic priority of the RESI. Seattle Opera is committed to training young professionals who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color for administrative careers in the arts. The first cohort, which started last summer, is making a tremendous difference at Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Seattle Symphony. As a part of their year-long fellowship, the fellows also participate in leadership training, networking opportunities, and meetings with many of the region’s top arts professionals. Other collaborators are KING FM and Seattle University.

DALANIE HARRIS, Marketing and Communications Fellow
Seattle Symphony

“It didn’t take long to get working. I was given assignments right from the start. I write radio ads, program notes, press releases, and other material. Writing program notes is especially difficult because they are for a broad audience. So—at the same time—they must be accessible to audience members who have little musical experience but detailed enough that patrons with extensive musical knowledge will so engage. It is a hard balance to strike. It helps that I get feedback and edits from my colleagues.”

KIERRA NGUYEN, Artistic Planning Fellow
Seattle Opera

“I started with a lot of listening, shadowing, and going to planning meetings and interviews. Then my role increased and I got more responsibility, contacting agents and helping with contracts for next season. I support the artists. I coordinate their access cards to the building and parking deck and make sure they have all that they need during their time in Seattle. I’ve read all the American Guild for Music Artists contracts to make sure that we’re meeting our contractual obligations. In such a short time, my confidence has grown. As a performer myself, I don’t think I will ever perform again without keeping in mind the details and challenges of staging a performance.”

GABRIELA PAEZ SHUTT, Community Engagement Fellow
Pacific Northwest Ballet

“My big project is planning and implementing our first Sensory Friendly performance of the Nutcracker. I’ve been working with Sensory Access, a local organization that helps provide sensory accessibility and friendly performances. Sensory Friendly is an effort to break down barriers that make attendance easier for people with special needs such as autism. The houselights remain on and patrons can talk. They may enter and exit the performance and use cell phones. We’ll also have a quiet room and fidget toys for people who experience sensory overload or have ADHD. I’m excited that the ballet can present this type of performance to Seattle.”

Meaningful Partnerships

Building meaningful partnerships throughout our community is a hallmark of Seattle Opera. We strive to develop relationships that uplift diversity, equity, and inclusion. Recent partners include*:

Bloodworks Northwest
Chihuly Garden and Glass
Creative Advantage
Crystal Springs CO-OP Pre-School
Entre Hermanos
Federal Way School District
Goethe Pop Up Seattle
Holocaust Center for Humanity
Japanese American Citizens League

Launch Enrichment
Live Aloha
Mary’s Place
Museum of Flight
Music Works 4 Veterans
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Pacific Science Center
Path With Art
Red Badge Project
Royal Room
Salvation Army School of Music

Seattle Art Museum
Seattle Center
Seattle International Film Festival
Seattle Public Schools District
Seattle Rep
Seattle Symphony
Seattle University
Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra
St. James Cathedral
The Downtown School
…Many More

*2020-21, 2021-22 Partners

Serving Diverse Schools

According to Seattle Times recent Diversity Index, Seattle Opera has had programs in 22 of Seattle’s 25 most diverse elementary schools in the last three years.

Fairmont Park Elementary
Morningside Academy
Bailey Gatzert Elementary School
Beacon Hill Elementary
Bright Horizons at South Lake Union
Cascadia Elementary
Concord International School
Dearborn Park International

Hawthorne Elementary
Highland Park Elementary
John Hay Elementary
Kimbal Elementary
Leschi Elementary
Lowell Elementary
Madrona Elementary
Maple Elementary

North Beach Elementary
Olympic Hills Elementary
Orca K-8 School
The Downtown School
Thornton Creek Elementary
Young Child Academy of Seattle

What Others Are Saying

“Thank you for having people of color as leads. Representation matters. And they were excellent!”
–Seattle Opera Patron

“Seattle Opera’s effort to remove barriers that historically oppressed and marginalized communities of color in American opera is paving the way for a new generation of artists and audience members.”
–Naomi Andre, Seattle Opera Scholar-in-Residence

“The [Creation Lab] program avoids the pitfalls of tokenization or ‘pedastalism’ that often mar the good intentions of initiatives like this. It doesn’t feel as though I’m being asked to single-handedly break open a historically insular art form or speak to the experiences of a vast group of people; I’m simply being invited to participate in bridge building.”
–Sheila Houlahan, Jane Davis Lang Creation Lab Participant

Looking Forward

We are honored to be working towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in opera and in Seattle. We pledge to move the industry forward, and in the years ahead, Seattle Opera will present productions that center stories of People of Color, such as Blue, A Thousand Suns, and X: The Life and Times of Malcolm. We also pledge increase opportunities for artists and backstage professionals from under represented groups and deepen our partnerships within the community.

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