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Listening to Perspectives on Cultural Equity and Belonging: Part Five

NEC's Cultural Equity & Belonging initiative will soon release a report and action steps, with recommendations informed by 140 listening sessions with NEC community members.

In advance of that report, join us in taking a look back at the first phase of this initiative.

Recapping Our Community Conversations: Part Five

In today's recap, four distinguished Black alumni share their vision of what NEC looks and feels like when it has lived up to its commitment of cultural equity and belonging. Our panelists are Carmen Johnson-Pájaro ’18 MM Violin Performance, deVon Russell Gray ’01 Composition, Darynn Dean ’18 Jazz Studies, and John Alexander Garner ’06 Vocal Performance.

New to this series? Visit Part One for an introduction


Darynn Dean smiles while speaking on a panel of Black alumni via Zoom
  • 06:32:  “There's still racism [where I’m from] in California, but being in Boston was the first time that I racism, like walking down the street and a truck goes by and screams the n-word.

    "And while NEC felt like a restorative place, it also felt like a place that I wanted to challenge. Because if I could be inside school and not experience that ... but then walk outside of school and experience that, and see my school not necessarily support me in ... being a Black woman, a Black singer—then these were kind of things that I really wanted to solution-build on.

    “So my time at NEC was doing coalition building, like creating the Initiative for Social Change and starting a social justice and music program at the YMCA, and just pushing the institution to wake up outside of the steps to Jordan Hall and 33G.”
  • deVon Russell Gray speaks in a Zoom panel
    17:47: “I've got issues with much of the superiority that comes with classical music education, and thinking that the highest, best art in the world has its roots in Europe only.”
  • 18:54: “Why weren't we taught George Walker and William Grant Still and Florence Price and Chevalier de Saint-Georges with equal weight to...the names that get programmed to death every season? In this 250th anniversary year of Beethoven, I was not mad that a lot of things had to be canceled this year. [...] We don't need many more performances of Beethoven. That's something I know.”
  • John Alexander Garner smiles and looks to the side while resting his hand on his chin and speaking on a panel via Zoom
    21:20: "Being a Black voice major, you had to be perfect. I heard the same white brother—this boy cracked ... my goodness, every time he sang. ... Now, I love this boy; he's great. But I crack one time—all of a sudden, I have “no technique.”

    "He's “learning;” he's “developing,” but I have “no technique.” Needless to say, I never cracked again. But ... it wasn't okay for me to develop. I already had to be perfect."
  • 40:59: “A teacher said something, and he had no idea. I know he didn't; he's got a good heart, but it was not okay; it was a little, inappropriate thing to say, and he made a lot of assumptions about me because of the color of my skin, and I didn't appreciate it. But I didn't have a space to say that.
  • Carmen Johnson-Pájaro speaks into the camera via a Zoom panel
    45:01: “If it was just once a month where it was mandatory—students have to come, and you have to talk about this, we need to talk about this and confront it. It's part of being in America; it's part of being in a country where it is a melting pot.

    I'm from Alabama, so there's a lot that comes with that. I went to school right down the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and for anyone who doesn't know, please look that up, if you didn't know about the bombing that happened there. [...]

    But there are people in this country, Americans, that have no idea. And then we're asking international students who are just trying to learn music to understand and be sensitive to all of these issues, and I think that kind of an unfair ask. [...] I think NEC has the responsibility to also teach that.”
  • News_Perspectives Forums Darynn Dean
    56:56: "Let's reclaim a space of uniqueness; let's not try to be like everybody else. If everybody's being racist let's not be racist! And let's actually do something that's constructive. That may mean free education, or that may mean tons of different creative solutions for building a future.

    "Because it's easy to follow and it's so much harder to lead, and I think NEC has a really unique opportunity to be leaders. And you have to have some fearlessness about that.”

This concludes our five-part series recapping the beginnings of the NEC Perspectives Forums. The first public report of the Cultural Equity & Belonging initiative will be released this month. Subscribe via email

Read parts one, two, three, and four