From the Director's Desk

December 17, 2020

by Martin Jean

Several months have passed since we announced our commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion in July. Since then, wave after wave of the global pandemic has crashed over our homes; an election has come and gone; and we look together with hope to a vaccine, a new Federal administration, and eventual emergence from our isolated lives. For those celebrating Advent, the practice of waiting has taken on a whole new meaning this year.

The brutal killings this past summer of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks and the subsequent protests have reawakened a passion in people to stand with those who have been marginalized and abused through age-old systems of racism and bias. As the ISM recommits itself to be a more just and equitable place of learning at Yale, we must confront our own complicity in maintaining these old patterns, and change our methodologies and practices to better serve our students and constituencies. To this end, we are reviewing our work in curriculum, resource development, and community engagement.

Above all, we are an educational institution; therefore, the curriculum is central to our mission. Our faculty have been participating in the rigorous curricular reviews that YDS has begun. Prof. Willie Jennings’s book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging has shone light on the many ways our teaching has supported a system of exclusivity by silencing the voices of many people and communities that make up the Christian communion. All our faculty members in every one of our teaching areas are re-examining their syllabi and methods to grapple with questions of inclusion and exclusion. This will call into question a host of issues including the books we read, the music we listen to and program, the art we exhibit, the ways we pray, the guest artists and scholars we invite to campus, and, most importantly, how we address and relate to one another. All of these conversations confirm the value of the ISM’s focus on the worship and devotional practices of religious communities and how how they provide insights into mutual understanding and cooperation.

With five open faculty positions, the ISM has a rare opportunity to welcome new colleagues who teach in areas that have not been centered in our programs. As I write, we are polling current and past students to ask how we might enhance teaching, with a particular eye toward the sacred musical practices of Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people. In addition to offering classes on such theologies and histories, we seek to expand our offerings in applied forms of music, art, drama, and more. 

The ISM Fellows have been a blessing to us for over ten years. Well over three quarters of the people this program have brought to campus work in traditions that extend beyond the white, Western, and Christian ones that have been our specialties. Now with over eighty alumni of the fellowship program, you will also hear more about the work of these scholars and artists through our social media and website, as well as the Fellows’ Bookshelf. Equally importantly, in the near term, we have committed to offering extended fellowships (beyond one year) to postdoctoral associates in the fields of African, African-American, Latinx, and Indigenous studies.

In addition, we have begun several music resource-building efforts. First, we are doing a thorough examination of the University’s collections of organ, choral, and vocal chamber sacred music. Our students have taken the lead on these efforts and have assembled impressive bibliographies of music by BIPOC composers, which will be used to help build out these collections. Likewise, we have begun a major commissioning effort to support the creation of new sacred works from these communities.

Several new large-scale initiatives will have a strong focus on anti-racism. We will be building web presences for these in the coming months.

First, the Initiative in Religion, Ecology, and Expressive Cultures will have three focal points, each designed to traverse religious, geographical, and disciplinary borders and speak strongly to issues of climate change and how they affect marginalized communities. The first area of focus will look at the broader thought-worlds or cosmologies that undergird these practices. The second will consider ways in which objects in the natural world play a part in shaping the ritual and expressive practices of religious communities. The third will seek to expose and mitigate the violent ways in which societies, communities, and individuals extract goods from the earth for self-serving and destructive ends.

The second large initiative will create a series of annual conferences to study forms of Black sacred music, ritual, and the related arts. A steering committee of six eminent scholars has been formed to oversee this initiative by identifying broad themes of exploration to bring into conversation scholars, artists, and other practitioners from multiple traditions and geographies. The first conference is set for spring of 2022.

Third, we are close to finishing a feasibility study for a new and potentially sizeable initiative, very much inspired by YSM’s Music in Schools program. Ultimately, we hope to foster a collaboration between Yale students, neighborhood congregations in New Haven, and the New Haven Public Schools. This might take any number of forms, ranging from after-school programs in the arts to summer camps. We hope students from YSM, YDS, and ISM would be involved, in addition to others from Yale College, the graduate school, and the other arts programs.

I have been moved and inspired by the conversations I have had around these many new directions. Equally, I am grateful to the dozens of students and alumni of our programs who challenged us to action, and to the over fifty people who are joining us in these efforts from all around campus and beyond. Our initial conversations have only amplified the urgency of these important matters and confirmed the responsibility we have to congregations and other communities.  The work will evolve over time, though we are committed to see significant fruits already in the next academic year. This is only a beginning and will be made all the more powerful through your prayers and input. Please feel free to email me directly with any thoughts or questions.

In the meantime, I want to extend heartfelt thanks for the blessing of the faculty, students, alumni, fellows, and staff of the ISM, and extend to all our PRISM readers my warmest wishes for the holiday season and a bright new beginning for us all in 2021.