Broward Center CEO Acknowledges ‘Unconscious Bias’ During Panel Discussion on Race

Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center, made a remarkable admission of practicing what he called “unconscious bias” during a recent panel discussion at his venue, billed as “Arts For Action: Black Voices — Bridging the Gap.” 

“I think one of the biggest things we need to be concerned about — and what we’re trying to achieve — is people who don’t believe they are racist, but are still making decisions based on race and based on their own unconscious bias,” Mr. Shanley said. “And if you don’t know what unconscious bias is, you have it and I have it. We need to find out what it is and get at it.” 

The panel consisted of local, notable people of color who have made names for themselves in the performing arts: Kev Marcus and Wil Baptiste of the classical-meets-hip-hop duo Black Violin, Broadway actor and performance coach Syndee Winters and Darius Daughtry, founder and artistic director of Art Prevails Project. The moderator was Neki Mohan, an adjunct professor at Barry University who served as a broadcast journalist at WPLG for 16 years.

Mr. Shanley’s comments came toward the end of the evening, during a question-and-answer segment the panel engaged in with the audience. He said he was inspired to share his thoughts following remarks Ms. Winters made regarding a hashtag going around lately saying Broadway is racist. She contended it’s not so much that people are racist; rather their race is elitist, which contributes to what she referred to as “a separation of relatability.”

Broadway actor and Performance coach, Syndee Winters, who appeared on Broadway in such shows as Lion King and Hamilton.

“Art is the most effective way to influence people,” Ms. Winters said. “And if you liked ‘Hamilton’ just the slightest bit, you should go to your black friend and say thank you for bringing that music to me.”

When asked about the practice of so-called colorblind casting, Ms. Winters chose not to focus solely on that so much as how venue operators — whom the panel repeatedly referred to as “gatekeepers” — should offer people of color opportunities in all aspects of show business.

“I want to talk about just opening the door for people on stage and behind the stage,” she said.

Mr. Shanley particularly resonated with the idea of incorporating colorblindness into theater administration as well as in casting.

“[It’s] the things you’re saying about colorblind casting and how it needs to affect staffing,” he said. “It’s connected to that idea of unconscious bias so even a person like me, who doesn’t think of himself as racist, is still making decisions that aren’t allowing all the right people to come forward.”

Broadcast Journalist, Neki Mohan.

The evening began with Ms. Mohan stressing the need for “really uncomfortable conversations that we hope will lead to change in our arena and then spread to our little corner of the world.” She added discussions have begun at the Broward Center “for a pipeline to be set up for diverse talent so that the world of arts and equity begins to look different because of the work and the conversations people are having there.”

The panelists shared their experiences and obstacles with the goal of shining a light on how to better bridge the gap that has grown in the South Florida arts scene between the establishment and people of color. In responding to what the term “arts equity” meant to him, Mr. Daughtry said it evoked a church reference.

Founder and Artistic Director of Arts Prevail Project, Darius V. Daughtry.

“Everyone in [a church] is supposed to be in that space, on one accord, in there for the same purpose,” he said. “So when I think of equity within the arts arena, no matter where you come from or what you look like, what your experiences are, have been or will be, there is space for you.”

Messrs. Marcus and Baptiste felt it was the responsibility of performing arts centers, such as the Broward Center, to do a better job of providing programming that will appeal to a broader audience.

Will Baptiste and Kev Marcus, the acclaimed musicians known as Black Violin.

“I think at the end of the day the theater as it relates to classical music hasn’t always been a safe space for someone who looks like me,” Mr. Baptiste said. “Even playing in orchestras, there was always this unspoken ‘thing’ — this feeling — of not belonging. And we’ve got to kill that. It comes with representation and it comes from the top to the bottom, to make this theater mirror the community.”

Ms. Winters, a self-described Chinese Jamaican Cuban American, related the challenges she experienced in doing “urban outreach” (a term she found distasteful) to people of color in the greater New York City area to induce them to attend the Broadway production of “Motown the Musical.” She also shared the obstacle she encountered when she was younger, of exorbitant ticket prices, which not only discouraged her from seeing a production of “The Lion King,” it opened her eyes to what such an obstacle generally does to people of color.

“If I can’t afford to see my favorite show, I’m not going to come and see anything else,” she said. “I’m not interested. So as an arts lover, you’ve lost me. The system has lost me. And I am one of many, many people that this happens to.”

Mr. Daughtry added it’s important to provide theatergoing opportunities to kids.

“When you expose a young person to classical music or to theatre, in twenty years they may not become an artist,” he said, “but they’ll have an appreciation for it. And they’ll tell the Broward Center, hey, what do you have for me? So it’s important we directly invest in our young people, to make sure they have these opportunities.”

Harking back to the “bridging” theme of the evening, Ms. Mohan asked the panel what they’re currently doing to empower newly emerging artists of color.

“We try to let them understand it’s important to educate yourself not only with the business and understanding what publishing is, but with ownership,” Mr. Baptiste said. “Ownership is crucial. You’ve got to understand this is your art. This is something you created. You should own that. That comes with experience.”

Mr. Marcus added it’s important for an artist to be true to himself.

“We are completely ourselves on stage and do whatever we want,” he said. “We’re unapologetic. And we have a message about breaking stereotypes, thinking differently and being a black man who does things you didn’t think he could do. We do that every night and get paid to do it all around the country. This type of breakthrough will provide the representation for young audiences to come, which is a big part of our mission.”

A question came from the audience for Ms. Winters about whether or not there are more opportunities these days for black performers or show creators for people of color.

“There’s an entire movement going on right now,” she said. “It’s like a reconstruction of Broadway and a lot of conversations that are being had, particularly within the Black Lives Matter movement and as a result of the assassination of George Floyd.”

Another question from the audience addressed the racial imbalance in people running performing arts centers. Should there be more black representation in the areas of arts administration, production and programming? 

Mr. Daughtry stressed the importance of people of color to hold those positions in order to give black artists the same room to fail as white artists.

“Not everything is going to be a ‘Hamilton,’” he said. “Because there aren’t people in key positions to give more opportunities to shows that don’t turn out to be blockbusters, we don’t see as many black shows getting produced. It’s just as important to groom administrators and artistic directors as it is to groom young artists.”

That’s when Mr. Shanley exposed unconscious bias through a “Hamilton” reference.

“Until you can say Thomas Jefferson doesn’t have to be a white man,” he said, “you’re probably not going to be making all the best decisions you can make about personnel in your organization, about people who are influencing what you are doing, about who you’re going to have around you to make the right decisions about how all of this is going to go.”

Ms. Mohan agreed.

“If you’re sitting in a room and the room looks all the same, something needs to change,” she said. “You’re not getting the full benefit of what it could be.”

The final set of questions for the panel centered on what they would recommend as metrics for success to venues that are looking to reflect the demographics of their community. In particular, how should they think about programming and how do they become more relevant to our diverse community when it comes to producing shows portraying issues of race and ethnicity?

Mr. Marcus said there ought to be a litmus test that venues should pass, offering the same diversity that exists in the surrounding areas.

“When I think of a really socio-economically diverse place in South Florida — you know, rich, poor, black, white, everybody — I think Sawgrass Mall,” he said. “I would love to walk into a theater here, look around and see the folks I see at Sawgrass Mall. We just want what happens in the walls of these theaters to look like what happens in the malls.”

Mr. Baptiste added venues also need to expand their marketing outreach.

“Whether it’s collaborating with local churches or whatever, we really have to be intentional about reaching out to a more inclusive audience,” he said. “We’ve got to keep pushing and be intentional. We’ll get there.”

Mr. Daughtry stressed the importance of finding out what the community’s audience actually wants to see.

“Have conversations with community leaders, with artists in the community,” he said. “Connect with them. Don’t let it just be a one-off experience.”

Ms. Winters noted the importance of having people of color in a venue’s marketing department.

“You need to have people with access to a community of folks who will support the work you’re doing,” she said. “Specifically, something the people will want. Then let’s talk about when that’s going to roll out.” 

After the event, Mr. Shanley confessed to a sense of urgency to add his feelings to the topics discussed by the panel — particularly unconscious bias.

“It’s something we’ve been examining here at the Broward Center for a long time,” he said. “Certainly before everything we all went through last summer with the Black Lives Matter movement nationwide. We’ve revisited that notion in earnest, because I believe it’s at the foundation of overcoming a lot of the issues we face regarding equity and social justice.”

Mr. Shanley added the Broward Center’s staff has undergone the same unconscious bias training taken by the Broadway League, which is the national trade association for the Broadway industry whose 700-plus members include theatre owners and operators, producers, presenters and general managers in North American cities as well as suppliers of goods and services to the commercial theatre industry.

“With that training as a first step, we’re going to then try to start moving deliberately into areas like governance, leadership, hiring and recruitment, and programming,” he said. “From there we’ll see where we can make a difference in those areas. That result would be having a staff and leadership that are more reflective of our entire community, programming that has relevance to our entire community and built-out relationships and collaborations with groups throughout our community that represent different constituencies. They’ll become more a part of what’s going on around here at the Broward Center and in their own community, through the arts.”

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