This sounds more like a business proposal rather than a philanthropic project.
Yes, but that’s also why it was so successful philanthropically. What philanthropists rarely get from the nonprofit world is, “This is a business model: It’s how your investment will transform what we do at our institution and do this much good in the community.” So we actually treated the Bowes Center, from the standpoint of a fundraising model, as an ROI. We’ll steward your resources in such a way as to give you that return. It’s much like how a hedge fund manager might pitch return, conjoined with someone who’s mission driven.
There’s been so much divisiveness in the US in recent years. Are those concerns part of the equation behind the school’s work?
Absolutely. If we’re not in the thick of the central challenges we face to our humanity, then we’re not doing our job as artists, creators, whether that’s working as teachers or performers or just advocates.
When we arrived at the threshold of Black Lives Matter, we had already been investing in a program at the historic Third Baptist Church, a wonderful collaboration between Temple Emmanuel, the wealthiest synagogue in the city; the Third Baptist Church, which is not as well-funded; the District Board of Supervisors; the Interfaith Council; us; and the Koret Foundation. All of those came together to start this program for children. We gave them free music lessons and it was combined with after school homework help. Yamaha donated the instruments for that program.
So with Black Lives Matter, we were able to build on some of that energy, and we started asking ourselves, how could we change the curriculum, change a program, change opportunity, to try and actually set forth lasting metamorphosis, relative to the inclusion of all people within our country in the experience of music?
That resulted in several initiatives, one of which was our Emerging Black Composers Project. Instead of saying, “Let’s commission a Black composer for one year,” it’s 10 years. We got the San Francisco Symphony involved. That spread out into how we thought about the programming of our concert series.
We also have an international community—40% of our students are not American. The history of race in America is something those students know only as an abstract concept. But they may have to deal with a whole range of other issues: What is it to grow up in a Communist regime, where if I wanted to write a song about my distaste for the leadership of my country, I could find myself in prison as an artist?
We have a number of artists from Russia. They’ve never been associated with Vladimir Putin, but they were expected to denounce Putin. Meanwhile they have people visiting their families in Russia saying, “Your son or daughter better not say anything against President Putin. And, oh, by the way, if they do, it’s now a 15-year jail term if they come back to Russia.” We’ve tried to stay in front of that. These individuals are victims of tyranny as much as anybody else.
So you see your role in part in a societal context?
I see this as central to addressing the world’s problems, and not ancillary to it. When I look at the future—how we deal with social division, geopolitical strife, climate change, the rise of CRISPR [gene-editing] technology, artificial intelligence, quantum computing—I suppose I see a convergence of these things coming, technology that could, in many respects, save our bacon, but also systems of government and human communication which are destined to defeat those solutions. No matter how quickly science is advancing, and even though it may reveal solutions to us about the challenges we face as a species, are we going to have the tools necessary among ourselves to make good decisions?
So I come back again to where I began, which is empathy, communication, community, trust, listening: All these things are engendered through music. It’s really important for kids to have that experience so they can retain those skills intrinsically.
Carlton Wilkinson is Managing Editor of the Brunswick Review based in New York and an award-winning journalist. He holds a Ph.D. in music.
Photographs: Courtesy of San Francisco Conservatory of Music