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Music therapy professor starts journey to greater inclusivity with listening

Melita Belgrave is new associate dean for culture and access in Herberger Institute

Opening the door to inclusivity starts with a lot of listening, according to Melita Belgrave, an associate professor of music therapy who has been named associate dean for culture and access for the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“The thing I tell everyone is that there were so many bullet points in the job description, and really, it’s turned into listening sessions,” Belgrave said of the new position.

“Every school and unit has different needs. It’s a lot of listening to the students.”

As part of her role, Belgrave is working with Race Forward, a national organization that provides research and training to advance racial equity.

She’ll continue teaching and providing music therapy, which she’s currently doing through the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. Belgrave also wrote a chapter and co-edited the text for “Music Therapy in a Multicultural Context: A Handbook for Music Therapy Students and Professionals,” released Sept. 21.

In addition to the new associate dean’s position, the institute has named Dontá McGilvery, PhD candidate in the theater for youth program, as dean’s fellow and coordinator for culture and access. He’ll help integrate students into the work of Race Forward and advise the dean on actions to support students.

Belgrave answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: What are you working to accomplish in this new role?

Answer:  I’m hoping to build a culture of empathy and equity.

A lot of people say, “I don’t know what it’s like to be Black.” You don’t have to know what it’s like to be Black. You just have to have empathy. If this was happening to you, how would you feel?

The other thing that happens a lot as we are moving and changing the culture and changing the systems is that sometimes, fear sticks in. You have to be vocal in a way you haven’t been vocal before. You have to stand up in a way that you haven’t before. I want to empower everyone to be a change agent while decreasing the power of fear.

In this role, I get to do so many things. I’m building a core equity team in (the Herberger Institute) across five schools and the ASU Art Museum made up of faculty and staff with myself as well as Dontá McGilvery. What’s new is that group will work on developing policies and processes around equity. We’re working with the Race Forward team on strategy sessions and training sessions.

I’ll get to work on events. When we say “culture,” we want people to belong and feel welcome. It is all of the different parts of us. While you’re here, what do you do?

Q: How do you promote inclusivity?

A: When you think about diversity, it can be, “OK, there are 10 brown people here.”

You got them here, but what do they do while they’re here? Are there systems in place that support them?

Q: How do you promote empathy and reduce fear?

A: One, by being myself. Clearly, I laugh a lot. There’s the ability to bring joy and humor.

It’s about building relationships and slowing down. That is the thing. If an issue comes up, it’s, “Oh my gosh, I have to come up with an answer.” But there’s always two sides to a story. There’s always perception. So if we slow it down, it allows everyone the chance to be vulnerable. You have to build vulnerability and trust in these experiences.

That doesn’t mean it pushes me away from ever getting it wrong. You’re always growing, always trying to do better.

Q: What are some obstacles to inclusivity?

A: Any time you’re a large institution, it’s really hard.

If you think you’re getting it right but you’re not, that’s a problem. You have to make sure you have the right people at the table that are giving you advice.

Make sure you’re using the right tools. I tell everybody, "Get a framework you’re operating out of."

It’s the idea of a checklist vs. integration. A checklist means you ask me to show up at the meeting. Integration means you share an agenda, tell me how long to talk, what you want me to do.

No one wants to get it wrong.

Q: How do you listen?

A: Knowing how to listen to people is a hard spot. The framework we started using within (Herberger) is the social change ecosystem by Deepa Iyer.

We’ve used it at our trainings and retreats and huddles that we have.

It gives roles that people play. People are weavers or storytellers or the front-line responders, the ones who respond immediately, or disrupters or healers.

When you start thinking in that lens, you listen differently. You notice who’s missing. There are nine roles. It centers on equity, liberation, justice and solidarity.

It helps us understand that we’re all trying to do the same thing. We’re not pitted against each other. We understand, “This is what you bring. This is what I bring.”

Q: What about ASU’s Charter?

A: The charter is beautiful. It is a good first step. The charter is lacking action steps.

So for example, “… measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed …” means we have all these beautiful people here.

The protest a few weeks ago and the change.org petitions are for a multicultural center, and this is not the first year that students, faculty, staff and alumni have been asking for a multicultural center. It’s not enough to include BIPOC students and faculty. You must work toward listening, hearing and providing what they need to feel safe. Asking for a multicultural center is asking for safety.

If you want people to thrive and be their best selves and be creative and strive to be No. 1 in innovation, you must listen to what they need when they get here.

Q: What else does the position entail?

A: It’s events. The way we think about commencement. The way we think about any welcome ceremony. It’s HIDA Day, which will probably get pushed into the spring. How do we make sure we are weaving all of everyone’s humanity into that?

Another part of my job is connecting people when I hear things. “This group is doing XYZ; you should connect for your research project.” The more we can find those connection points, the better it is.

Q: You have a new book chapter out. What’s it about?

A: I’ve gotten to be involved in the national office of the American Music Therapy Association as we’ve been deepening our work in multiculturalism and diversity. The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee presented at a conference a few years ago and was contacted by a publisher. We thought the book could be a project for the committee to do.

It’s a handbook meant to be used in the classroom. I used my chapter, about music therapy in aging, in class two weeks ago.

One of the things that’s neat is when we think about the different categories of diversity and culture. In my work with aging, we always have to think about that. Aging has a lot of loss, so we have to make sure everyone has access.

I used to work in a retirement center, getting information out to older adults. Not everyone could read because of the small print, so we had a call-in line and I read the newsletter aloud every week. I would blow it up and post it in the elevator. There was also an in-house TV system so I would type it in there.

So this idea of putting information into multiple places in multiple ways so people have access is a thing for me. As I continue doing music therapy virtually with the MIM we’re always thinking about that. Who’s not here? To do this over Zoom you need a certain level of technology, and not everyone has access.

How can we make this look different?

Top image: Melita Belgrave, associate professor of music therapy, leads the School of Music's Wind Ensemble during the first Herberger Institute Day at Tempe campus in 2017. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

marybeth.faller@asu.edu