Relationships: A Bridge Between Communities

by Tyler M. Secor

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra adopted a new 10-year strategic plan in 2019. At the core of this plan is a set of goals and objectives to further the CSO’s existing Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. In 2020, following the racial unrest and society’s desperate need to change the systemic inequity, injustice and racism of our culture, the CSO accelerated and prioritized its DE&I work.

Community engagement is about developing relationships for the sake of the relationship…it’s about creating a space where we can coexist together to the mutual benefit of all of us.”
—Tiffany Cooper

This work is not a centralized effort by one department, but an organization-wide effort to change the status quo. The creators of the 2019 strategic plan and the 2020 DE&I Action Plan recognized that the CSO could not engage in this work without the support of dedicated community partners who would advise at all levels of the Organization, to ensure that the Orchestra would meet its vision of being the most relevant orchestra in America.

Central to the Orchestra’s work in the community is the dedicated staff of the community engagement team. When the Director of Community Engagement and Diversity, Tiffany Cooper, and the Community Engagement Manager, Amanda Franklin, met with me to discuss the CSO’s ongoing efforts to engage with various community organizations for this story, the conversation quickly turned to developing a better understanding of what “community engagement” means and how that work manifests.

“Community engagement is about developing relationships for the sake of the relationship,” stated Cooper. “It should never be transactional. But it’s about creating a space where we can coexist together to the mutual benefit of all of us.”

Engagement with the community is not a new phenomenon at the CSO; instead, it stretches back to the 1989–90 season with the formation of the CSO Outreach Initiative Committee, which was soon renamed the Multicultural Awareness Council (MAC). MAC’s founding and ongoing mission is to increase participation of African-American and Latine communities into all facets of the CSO.

MAC has established and advised on numerous new programs and initiatives that continue to this day, many of which are based on relationships developed by MAC members. MAC’s relationship with African-American churches resulted in the creation of Classical Roots: Linking Cultures through Music, a CSO Sound Discoveries: Music for the Community program best known today as “Classical Roots.” The Nouveau Program, founded in 2007 and co-presented by MAC, formed a partnership between young African American string students and area African American churches.

“Our current community engagement efforts were not developed in a bubble,” remarked Cooper. “MAC has been building relationships with the African American community for 30-plus years; what we do now is an extension of those relationships.”

Over the last several seasons, the community engagement team has nurtured new relationships with organizations such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Elementz.

Members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra performing at the National Underground Freedom Center in November 2022. Credit: Tyler Secor

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (NURFC) opened in August 2004 on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, the great natural barrier that separated the slave states of the South from the free states of the North. The NURFC illuminates the true meaning of inclusive freedom by presenting permanent and special exhibits that inspire, public programming that provokes dialogue and action, and educational resources that equip modern abolitionists.

“The NURFC serves as the Black cultural hub of the city and the incubator where everyone goes for important cultural events,” stated Cooper. A relationship with a cultural hub organization provides a lens into what other events are happening throughout the city and ensures that the CSO is amplifying and working with community members, and not having competing events or programs.

“Christopher Miller, senior director of education and community engagement at NURFC, and I became close colleagues,” stated Cooper (Miller also serves on the CSO’s Community Advisory Council). “We were talking about how the CSO and NURFC could find a regular cadence by which to collaborate that would be mutually beneficial.”

The CSO and NURFC have collaborated on numerous events, but most recently for NURFC’s Fifth Third Community Days. The Fifth Third Foundation has made possible free admission to the Freedom Center on the fifth and third Sundays of each month. To help amplify these free days, the CSO musicians have played free concerts in the Harriet Tubman Theater on several of these Sundays.

DJ Sherman DJ-ing before the Cincinnati Pops concert featuring Hip Hop artist Common. Credit: JP Leong

Elementz is Cincinnati’s premier Hip Hop Cultural Arts Center. The Center was founded in 2002 as a direct response to the killing of Timothy Thomas, a young black man, and the social unrest in Over-the-Rhine that followed. Elementz was created to give voice to young people in the urban core and to disrupt the status quo, encouraging positive change in the community through civic engagement. Elementz embraces and leverages the richness of Hip Hop Culture to continue to help young people be catalysts of change and to engage in creative futures. They work to intentionally Preserve, Protect and Advance Hip Hop as art, culture and a global economic and creative force, while helping young people prepare for the creative workforce by providing academic and social-emotional support as well as exposures to generate opportunities for future success.

Elementz provides educational opportunities around DJ-ing, poetry and creative writing, music production and dance. Members also have the ability to book studio time for creative projects.

Members of Elementz have been part of a number of CSO events, but Hip Hop artist Common’s appearance with the Cincinnati Pops in October 2022 provided a natural opportunity to collaborate with Elementz.

Before the concert, an Elementz dance crew, along with DJ Sherman, turned the foyer of Music Hall into a Hip Hop performance space, which set the tone for the entire concert and also showcased the enormous talent of Cincinnati’s Hip Hop community.

These types of ongoing collaborations help to “build relationships with very important cultural organizations in our city that continue to help us think in more meaningful ways about the relevancy of our work,” said Cooper.