After the Table

Bridging the Racial Divide Through the Arts

Pictured above: The Evanston Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Concert in 2016. The concert, which draws diverse performing arts groups and record diverse crowds, is a result of a collaboration of three members of the Enrich Evanston consortium, a 2016 Acting Up award recipient. Those groups are Evanston Symphony Orchestra, Evanston Dance Ensemble and North Shore Choral Society.

By Yolanda Harris

Penelope Sachs is an Evanston resident and British-American viola player on the board of the Evanston Symphony Orchestra, where she’s performed for 25 years. And though Evanston and some performing arts groups are largely racially segregated, she recognizes the power that the arts have to bring people together, no matter their racial background.

Pictured above: Penelope Sachs, Evanston Symphony Orchestra member and leader of Enrich Evanston, which was a 2016 Acting Up award recipient.

In fact, she led an initiative that did just that in 2016, with the help of diversity training and an Acting Up award, both funded by The Chicago Community Trust. Penelope is part of a consortium called Enrich Evanston, comprised of the Evanston Symphony Orchestra,  Active Gymnasium, Evanston Dance Ensemble and North Shore Choral Society, which took racial equity training in 2016 as a part of an initiative of The Chicago Community Trust.

“We’re all struggling with how to tackle lack of racial diversity in our organizations,” Penelope said.  “We said, ‘OK, if we got together, then maybe it would be a little better.’”

The consortium held an On the Table for its members in 2016 to talk about racial equity training, which was recommended to them by Enrich Chicago, a cohort of arts and philanthropic organizations committed to anti-racist organizing within the arts. Then shortly afterward,  Enrich Evanston received a $12,000 grant from The Chicago Community Trust’s Art Works Fund for Organizational Development to take four full days of racial equity training.

On top of that, Enrich Evanston received a $1,000 Acting Up award in 2016 to put on a community workshop called “Enrich Evanston through Art” to explore ways the arts can break down racial barriers in Evanston. The free workshop convened on Oct. 19, 2016 at the PM Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center in Evanston and featured Dr. Gilo Kewsi Logan, a diversity consultant, writer and Northeastern Illinois University professor; and Dino Robinson, a historian, author and graphic artist.

Some 150 people, including artists, performers, public officials and community residents, attended the workshop. Discussions focused on the history behind racial division in Evanston and how the arts could bring diverse people together.

“It put our individual work that we were doing with each of our organizations in a much bigger community context,” Penelope said. “And we really heard from the community just how important the issue was.  I think that really brought us into greater action.”

Putting on a workshop was just the beginning of the journey to break down racial barriers.  

“This really was an issue we had to tackle,” Penelope said. “It wasn’t just us thinking ‘Oh this sounds like a nice idea to do.’ This was important work.”

Pictured above: Enrich Evanston’s On the Table in May of 2016

That work yielded more good fruit in the winters of 2016 and 2017. In December of 2016, Evanston Symphony Orchestra put on its first racially diverse holiday concert. Several diverse groups, including Evanston Dance Ensemble, North Shore Choral Society, Evanston Children’s Choir and the Evanston Symphony Holiday Gospel Choir, performed to a record diverse crowd of 1,150 people.  A similarly large, diverse crowd attended the holiday concert again in 2017.

“We all came together and performed,” she said. “You get this incredible ‘aha’ moment when you do and you go, ‘Oh, this is great!”

Pictured above: The Evanston Symphony Orchestra’s Holiday Concert in 2017.