Eastman School moves to prioritize racial equity with new hire 

click to enlarge Crystal Sellers Battle is Eastman School of Music's first associate dean of equity and inclusion. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • PHOTO PROVIDED
  • Crystal Sellers Battle is Eastman School of Music's first associate dean of equity and inclusion.
Amid a national reckoning around racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Eastman School of Music — a predominantly white institution — looked within at its own shortcomings in promoting a diverse educational community.

Led by Dean Jamal Rossi, Eastman made a public commitment to enacting lasting changes that would make it a “fully anti-racist institution.” One of those changes has recently come to fruition: In March the renowned music school appointed Crystal Sellers Battle to two new positions: associate dean of equity and inclusion and director of the George Walker Center for Equity and Inclusion in Music. The Walker Center will serve as a meeting place for students as well as groups such as the Black Students Union at Eastman.

“It's going to be a learning pattern in the first year, for me to learn the culture of Eastman very well, but also for Eastman to learn about where we need to move forward and how we can be truly inclusive of all and not just stop at anti-racism,” says Sellers Battle, who begins her role as associate dean on June 1. “We need to go to anti-bias, we need to go to anti-misogyny, we've got to go to all of these different areas and make sure that we're truly inclusive of all in all these areas. That's my number one goal.”

Sellers Battle was previously the music department chair at Bluffton University in Ohio, where she also chaired the school’s anti-racism task force and was the founding director of Project H.O.M.E., the institution’s mentorship program for any new students who have been historically underrepresented in the academic community. Most recently, Sellers Battle served as dean of equity, diversity, and inclusion at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. She was there for one school year.

“I missed music a little bit more than I thought I would and being immersed in that environment was really important to me,” Sellers Battle said of her decision to join the senior leadership team at Eastman.

Sellers Battle’s extensive experience in steering academic institutions toward social justice also includes DIEMA Consulting, a company she co-founded with Jackson State’s music department chair Lisa Beckley Roberts. The pair wanted to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion at music schools. With that in mind, Eastman School of Music was “the perfect place” to combine her enthusiasm for DEI and music, says Sellers Battle.

She was one of more than 20 candidates considered for the associate dean position, in a search that began last fall and concluded in March 2022.

Rossi created the Eastman Action Commission on Racial Justice in June 2020 to investigate the music school’s systemic inequities of the past and present and prescribe short-term and long-term goals for changes in the admissions process, curriculum, musical repertoire, cultural life, and other areas.

Four months later, the commission — comprising Eastman students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community leaders — issued its final report with a total of 205 recommendations. Among the nine recommendations of “highest importance,” which the commission suggested be implemented within a year, was the hiring of a dean who would specialize in “Diversity, Equity, Access, and Belonging.”

click to enlarge Black Students Union President Brianna Garçon was a pivotal member of the Eastman Action Commission for Racial Justice. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Black Students Union President Brianna Garçon was a pivotal member of the Eastman Action Commission for Racial Justice.
Brianna Garçon, a senior horn performance major and the president of the Black Students Union at Eastman, was a key member of both the Eastman Action Commission for Racial Justice (EACRJ) and the search committee that helped to select Sellers Battle as associate dean.

“Diversity and inclusion isn't just something you start doing,” Garçon says. “And I think a lot of applicants were so recent. After the summer of 2020, they wanted to start getting involved in this, whereas she has continually just done this, like, this is her life. This is what she does.”

Garçon and other executive board members of the Black Students Union also met with Rossi last summer to provide input for the creation of the George Walker Center for Equity and Inclusion.

As the school has taken steps toward anti-racism and diversity, it has also dealt with recent controversy, including allegations of racial profiling. In May 2021, Eastman flute major and Rochester native Jahshanti Henry posted an Instagram video in which a school security guard repeatedly asked him to show ID after a fellow student reported him as “suspicious.”

Garçon says that the incident demonstrated that the EACRJ report itself is not enough to solve the underlying problems. “I think Jahshanti really showed this is embedded into the system,” she says. “We have a full, 200-page report about these instances, and they’re still happening? It’s still not ok.”

Garçon says that in order for Black musicians to achieve success in classical music, they are typically expected to change the way they talk, what they wear, or the music to which they listen. She says that as a freshman, she was similarly reported by a fellow student, after failing to produce her ID. She also recalls receiving a noise complaint for rap music she had on in her dorm room, while a neighbor playing traditional classical music loudly wasn’t admonished.

“I feel as if I have to convert — to assimilate in a way — to the culture here at Eastman in order to not be perceived as other. And if you go outside of that grain and try to truly be your full Black self, it is perceived as dangerous.”
click to enlarge Staff and students from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester and family members of composer George Walker gathered on Apr. 16 for the dedication of the George Walker Center for Equity and Inclusion. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY EASTMAN SCHOOL OF MUSIC
  • PHOTO PROVIDED BY EASTMAN SCHOOL OF MUSIC
  • Staff and students from the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester and family members of composer George Walker gathered on Apr. 16 for the dedication of the George Walker Center for Equity and Inclusion.
For Sellers Battle, creating an environment in which students feel they truly belong is essential. She sees the George Walker Center as a key component.

“I think the George Walker Center and the place that students of color will have, just to be, is going to be a wonderful opportunity,” Sellers Battle says. “Because that is a place that is really sometimes lacking at our institutions, is that we assume that the place to be for all students works the same way for all students and it doesn't. Sometimes there's a place where you gotta let your hair down. And it needs to be a safe space and a space that isn't being embodied by people who are trying to tell them how their journey is supposed to go.”


Daniel J. Kushner is CITY's arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].
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