Artists Form Juilliard Black Alumni Association to Stop Racist Practices at Conservatory

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Last fall, the students at the Juilliard School participated in a workshop where they were asked to imagine themselves as slaves while listening to an audio experience that included the sounds of chains, a slave auction, and an overseer singing a song that includes the “N” word. In the ensuing uproar and subsequent apology from Juilliard’s president, 25 alumnis from the institution have formed the Juilliard Black Alumni Association to help the school form a more equitable environment.

The alumni group includes Danielle Brooks, Corey Hawkins, Teyonah Parris, Joaquina Kalukango, and others.

“JBAA looks forward to collaborating with the Juilliard School leadership to help create a truly equitable conservatory, one where students can pursue their training in an environment free of bias,” said the founding members of JBAA in a statement. “Systemic change requires diligence, and with the commitment of an expanded network of dedicated alumni, our aim will be to demand institutional accountability in dismantling systems of oppression, and to provide additional resources for Black students at Juilliard through mentorship and community building.”

Juilliard had been undergoing anti-racism and equity work since last summer, including hosting a series of anti-racism workshops. One workshop—led by Michael McElroy, a Black performer and teacher—talked about slavery in America and participants were asked to imagine themselves as slaves. The Black students were given trigger warnings prior to the workshop but for second-year acting student Marion Grey, the experience was traumatizing. 

Grey posted about the workshop on Facebook and Instagram, where she said, “Black lives, in my opinion, they don’t matter here. At every opportunity for them to matter—for the Black life, for the Black experience, for the Black pain to be recognized, acknowledged, supported, protected, and prohibit that pain from existing—this school will fail to act.” She also emphasized that the school was “failing Black students.” 

In response to Grey’s post, other Juilliard alumni also came forward with their own experience with racism at the school. Playwright Lee Edward Colston II, also a member of JBAA, told CBS News about an incident where an instructor used the “N” word to provoke a reaction from students. 

Grey also complained to the president of Juilliard, Damian Woetzel, who released a public apology, saying the workshop was, “ill-conceived and should not have occurred in the manner that it did.” He also concluded by saying, “As an institution, we have worked hard to instill and practice the values of EDIB [equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging] and I believe in the collective effort and progress that has been made. This exercise and the manner in which it was handled was not in line with our collective belief in these principles. We will continue to address issues arising from this experience, examining our practices and learning from this mistake as an institution.”

JBAA has sent a letter to the Juilliard School saying that the issue is bigger than one event, it’s systemic at the school. “This horrific workshop is not an anomaly,” said the letter. “Rather, it is part of a longstanding tradition of harm caused to Black Juilliard students as a result of pedagogical and administrative decisions rooted in systemic racism.”

JBAA has also proposed measures the school can take, including diversifying its faculty, student body, and staff; instituting consequences for when faculty engage in bias or racist acts; diversifying the works taught to students so it’s not predominantly from white authors; and hiring a trauma specialist. The JBAA is also offering to partner Juilliard students with alumni mentors via its website.

The founding members of the JBAA are Maechi Aharanwa, Bobbi Baker, Jasmine Batchelor, Francois Battiste, Nicole Beharie, Brittany Bradford, Danielle Brooks, Jimonn Cole, Lee Edward Colston II, Danaya Esperanza, Brandon Hall, Corey Hawkins, Joaquina Kalukango, Brandon Gill, Jules Latimer, Vella Lovell, Chris Myers, Teyonah Parris, Johnny Lynn Ramey Jr., Medina Senghore, Stacey Scott, Austin Smith, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Desean Terry, and Sheldon N. Woodley.

Backstage has reached out to Juilliard for a comment but have not received a response.