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June 1, 2020 | Notes From Leadership, Race and Equity,

How A Statement Comes Together

A zoom screenshot of David C. Howse on the left and David Dower on the right.

This post was written as part of a larger series leading up to our fourth Town Hall on Wednesday, June 17th at 12 pm EDT. We encourage our audiences to read all of the posts in the series in preparation for the Town Hall. Information on the Town Hall and the remainder of the series can be found here.

Over the years, ArtsEmerson has made a series of statements from our stages, on our marquees, and in the press that express our dedication to addressing the systemic white supremacy that oppresses all Bostonians. And yet, the process of finding these words in moments of confusion, anger, and sadness never gets easier. 

Behind the branding and the buildings of our institution are people trying to navigate their emotional responses, our responsibilities to each other, and the responsibility that comes with a public platform. Shared leadership is not easy. Cross-racial shared leadership is not easy. Creating a unified response from different experiences is messy and necessary work. 

On Friday, David C. Howse found his voice for a powerful statement to our whole team. By Saturday morning, there was still more to be said and still more people to share it with. He shared a draft of a note he was preparing to send to his white friends. David Dower took the action step embedded in that note and began reaching out to his network of black friends and colleagues. By the afternoon, it was clear there was still the step of addressing our audience.

Below you’ll find the correspondence between Executive Director David C. Howse and Artistic Director David Dower as they find a way towards a response from ArtsEmerson that feels urgent and already too late. We share this because we know we are not alone in the struggle to find the words. We are not unique in our stumbling to know when to listen and when to lead. We’re leaning on each other and working our way through. You can view the final statement here.

David Howse – May 31, 1:03pm 

Do you have Ryan’s cell phone? I am eager to say something…

Did you want to say something, or is it better for me to send a tweaked version that I sent to the staff.

David Dower – May 31, 8:40pm 

I think this is better coming from you- a cross between what you wrote to the staff and what you wrote to your white friends.

I have another question/idea: What about a conversation with you, Daniel, Brian, Keith, Will, maybe others to talk about the range of responses with our artists? 

Howse – May 31, 10:55pm 

I can’t…not right now.

Our response is slow, I wish I had pushed to get it out on Friday. It feels cliché now.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

Dower – June 1, 5:15am 

I completely understand.

I also agree that the message now risks being cliché and ineffective as a true communication of what we mean— and what you need to say.

I am available to talk today, at any point. Let’s keep at this and come to the thing that
Is ours to do.

I also have a car this week. Maybe we can meet in person somewhere to do that?

Dower – June 1, 6:12am 

One more question:

Is it mine to do?

I am sitting here this morning stunned and uncertain. I was thinking all weekend that my job here was to reach out and to listen — and to make and hold space for my black friends to share what they wanted, if they wanted, with me. And I was feeling like that was an active response. And I have been writing my white friends, spurred on by your note to yours, to ask them to do the same— reach out, listen, engage where invited. And that, too, has felt like doing something.

But your sense that we are slow to respond, coupled by President Pelton’s two letters, has brought me up short. I was leaving the space for you to share, for ArtsEmerson, what you needed to share as ArtsEmerson’s Executive Director, even if it was not sharing anything publicly. The worst thing from us would be something pat and toothless.

But that also keeps me from having to step out as a white person and take responsibility for our response. And maybe the most authentic thing we could do here, at this point, is to put it on me.

In any event, I owe you an apology for the naive and casual way in which I ceded the job to you without first asking what you needed from me.

I can find my voice. Would it help you if I used it for this?

I am so sorry for your struggle and this world. 


Howse – June 1, 6:48am 

I don’t know. I just don’t know. 

I can appreciate how confusing this all is.I too am uncertain. At first I think I should be doing it, and then I am wondering why you haven’t done something. Is that fair? I don’t know.

I am frustrated with myself because I didn’t push Ryan to move faster on Friday. I shouldn’t have been so sensitive about protecting our “summer hours.”  

I could have said to you, “David, do something…” but I couldn’t.  

All that said. I woke up this morning feeling that the message that I sent to the staff is different from the many organizational messages that are going out, especially since we are sharing the word from the artist. Is that any less cliché? Many of the messages are “we stand with black people.” Our message says, I am the black man leading here, and I stand not “with,” but “in.” Not sure that I am making sense this morning, and maybe I am confused about that too.  

Can we work with Ryan this morning to send something out? 

This is exhausting, and it’s hard to keep moving, but we must. David, I see you and appreciate you.

PS.  The looting is unbelievable and incredibly distracting.

Dower – June 1, 6:57am 

I am walking the Neponset this morning if you want to talk it out further now.

But yes— it is totally fair. I am sorry I needed to have you ask that.

Howse – June 1, 7:07am 

Enjoy the walk, let’s connect later this morning or afternoon.

Here’s what I want to ask: Can you take the first step to piece together my note to the staff and the note to my friends? If so, we can then work on it this morning together in google docs with the plan to get it out before noon. You up for that?

We had planned a blog, but perhaps what’s needed and what our patrons are likely expecting from us is an e-blast.

Dower – June 1, 7:22am 

Yes, I can take that step. Oh and—

I think the blog is this series of emails— is trying to find our response together.

Howse – June 1, 7:26am 

And yes to this.

Dower – June 1, 11:25am

This draft comes out very long. And it should! I wouldn’t edit out any of this.

And it’s in your voice. The I voice. Which I also feel it should. I think that’s the most direct way to say what we all mean together and how we avoid sounding clichéd.

Feel free to drop it into Google docs if you want to keep working on it.

Howse – June 1, 11:30am 

That’s what I mean. Thank you for pulling this together – – no edits.  Let it roll!

4 responses to “How A Statement Comes Together”

  1. Ann Teixeira says:

    The way the two of you are so transparent is…….and I don’t know the right word because it’s unprecedented……so revealing of your struggles together as you are honest with each other and then with us in your constituency. The message has such raw emotion that it causes a physical reaction. As David knows, I’ve been struggling with how to fully understand how vulnerable all black people feel in this country. The current experiences are bringing me closer but there is a long way to go for me, and for our country. It all started here with the arrival of he pilgrims and how they treated the native indians whose land it was.

  2. Cheryl Weber says:

    Thank you David Howse – for being brave in sharing your personal voice and fears with a larger community, and for reminding us that the arts can soothe, call to action, and heal when we are troubled. The poem “Hello Future Ancestor” was powerful and a promise. Thank you. Let’s all remember to breathe.

  3. Wei-wei Chang says:

    It was important to hear from you.
    I could not bear to look at the George Floyd videos as they are too painful. My heart cries at the injustice.
    Racist attitudes are so ingrained in some (or many) that they are not even aware that they are racist. I have racists in my own family and among my close colleagues, who would proclaim themselves to be the most liberal. My sharp awareness of the subtle, and some not so subtle racism, has been honed by being married to a black man for 20 years until his death. I had the opportunity to observe what he had to go through, and the subtle racism on the part of my family and some (former) friends, and not so subtle racism on the part of others.
    There has to be a change. It starts with dialog and understanding from both parties.
    Most people subconsciously feel more comfortable and in control if they can pidgeonhole the other person. Mind you, there is a tendency to do this regardless of race. The non-blacks need to stop pidegeonhole the blacks as one group, and treat each one as an individual. At the same level. They need to stop and consider fairness and justice of their actions, thoughts, and perceptions.
    Conversely the blacks need to confront with dialog instead of retreating to where it is comfortable. Christian Cooper did the right thing. I saw so many times when blacks don’t want to “make trouble”. If you want change, you need to go to an uncomfortable place.
    If each of us do our part we may move a mountain. I realize that there are fringe groups that can never be reached. However we have opportunities to move a significant core population.
    From the point of government, law enforcement is an identifiable group that should be a first place to implement changes. Why did Minneapolis police department not implement recommended changes over the course of years since 2012 when it was known to be necessary?
    We must use this opportunity to keep the subject in view and channel constructive changes, personally, and at the governing level.

  4. Dan Powers says:

    I find that the one thing missing in our world is that respect for others.
    I don’t care that people are different from me, but it does to many.
    It is too easy not to say anything about discrimination, or worse yet talk about it.
    Most do not care.
    It’s not my problem, and no one can fix it.
    I know that discrimination is wrong yet I grew up learning that it was appreciated by my parents.
    They learned from their parents.
    I was getting the message that this is not an important thing to try to change, My parents feared retaliation if they spoke about it or if they sided with a cause for change.
    They did mothing, so im my world nothing changed.
    It was just accepted and as time went by, excuses were made up to cover up not doing anything.
    Black people are different.
    Foriegners are different.
    And because they are different, we blame them and we fear them.
    We arm ourselves and expect that our protectors do anything they feel neccessary to give us that protection.
    We just don’t care.
    We allow bad things to happen.
    We have never solved warfare addiction, poverty healthcare, and equal rights, because we still fall back on what we learned as children, mot to do anything and not to bring it up for discussion.
    We will give a few dollars for the cause, but that’s all.
    I can talk about change but umless we all step up will things change?
    We can support protest, but not violence or accept blame.

    Those people are different than us.


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