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The Barbershop Harmony Society and Culture Change: Impressions from HU 2018

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Harmony University 2018 facultyHarmony University 2018 faculty

I am just back from a week teaching at the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Harmony University, and I am sure nobody will be surprised to know I come home with a full notebook. Indeed, I had collected a goodly collection of notes before the event had even started, as they had me travel out early to take advantage of cheaper airfares, and so I arrived as the previous event on the campus, a leadership summit, was finishing. I thus had the chance to chat with the organisation’s staff and administrative leaders to get a picture of how life is on the ground at the moment in the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Some background for readers less familiar with barbershop’s institutional structures. The BHS (formally known as the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Singing in America – or TSfkaSPEBSQSA for short) is the body that galvanised nostalgic fans in the 1930s into organised evangelical hobbyism. Founded as an all-male, all-white fraternity, it has positioned itself as the global voice for the genre: the history of barbershop, as told by the BHS, is the history of the BHS.

The organisation hasn’t been segregated by race since the 1960s (though it remained largely white in practice until quite recently), but it remained all-male until it announced a few weeks ago that it is now open to female membership. It has also remained, organisationally, based in North America.

To an extent, you can tell the story of the foundation of other barbershop organisations as a series of responses to exclusion. Sweet Adelines was founded to foster women’s barbershop when the BHS would not; the various national and regional organisations around the world were founded to foster the genre in places the BHS weren’t interested in extending their organisation to cover.

That characterisation is at least moderately unfair – in particular because the BHS has been in many ways generous in its support to international barbershop over the years - but it nonetheless captures something of the historical process by which we find ourselves with the current set of institutional relationships.

And it provides the context to see why the strategic vision that the BHS announced last year is both a courageous and principled striking-out on a new path and a potentially imperialistic move. #everyoneinharmony is a recognition that if you want the story of barbershop and the story of the BHS to be one and the same, the BHS is going to have to change. Those who have carved out their own spaces before this welcome was extended, though, can be forgiven for feeling wary that their work may be in danger of being appropriated.

That was quite a lot of background, wasn’t it? Helped me clarify my thoughts at any rate. So, this is the state of affairs in which I got to chat with movers and shakers amongst the BHS, and I found myself pleasantly impressed that the conversations didn’t show the hubris that sometimes comes through official communications, but were instead cheerful, open and pragmatic.

I got the impression of an organisation that is in the middle of re-making itself, that is trying to shift away from the insularity of yesteryear, and is embracing the discomfort that cultural change entails. The move away from being a single-sex society is in part a means to protect the single-sex form of the genre in an era when the legitimacy of non-profit organisations with exclusionary structures is being increasingly questioned. And it is easier to trust the assurances that the intention is not to poach from the female and international associations but to widen the overall pool when you can look your interlocutor in the eye and find integrity and good faith there.

And here’s an observation about how change looks at this snapshot in time. I had mostly got used to how the gender balance of both BHS staff at all levels and Harmony University faculty looks like an organisation that has a genuine rather than tokenistic interest in the contributions of women. When deciding how I felt about coming to teach at HU, I found this comforting and encouraging.

On the Saturday night at the end of the leadership summit, I walked with a friend into the ice-cream social with which the BHS traditionally ends the evening at educational events and was struck that, apart from the campus staff member serving ice-cream, I was the only woman in the room.

Well, but of course, my brain said, two seconds later. They’ve only had female members a matter of weeks, they’ve not had much time to get into leadership positions yet. So I laughed at myself.

Then I noticed how white everyone was. And went back and looked at the staff and faculty lists and found those likewise disproportionately white in comparison to the delegate list. That’s something that could usefully change.

More impressions coming over the coming weeks – obviously far more happened than can fit in one post – but my notebook suggests I’m not yet done on the theme of Inclusion.

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