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Charles Chip Mc Neal Helps SF Opera Open Its Doors a Little Wider

February 4, 2020

Talking about his role as head of the recently created Department of Diversity, Inclusion and Community at the San Francisco Opera, Charles Chip Mc Neal gets a little choked up, thinking of his colleagues’ willingness to try to change their own biases.

“There’s not a week that goes by that people don’t come to me — I’ve had meetings with hiring managers, people who hire hundreds of people a year who say, ‘Work with me one-on-one on antibias work so I can hire more effectively,’” he said. “The biggest and best and most amazing thing is that when you create a space for people to ask hard questions and to begin to think deeply about the kind of person they want to be, the kind of world they want to inhabit, and the kind of work they want to be involved in, when you create a space for people to ask these critically hard questions, they come forward.”

SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock has also noticed this, and it’s exactly what he hoped would happen when they created the department to make the organization welcoming for staff and audience members.

“It’s tremendous to see that since Chip took on this role, many members are going to him and seeking advice and bringing their questions and concerns,” he said. “He’s such a wonderful resource and many different pathways have opened up.”

Shilvock says he and board members had been talking for a while about how to make the company more diverse and inclusive, and they decided to make a formal commitment and created the department in August. That decision was made a lot easier since Mc Neal had already been working with the opera’s education department, developing curriculum and new programs, as well as mentoring artists and classroom teachers.

Mc Neal has done coaching with teachers and principals at the Alameda County Office of Education and headed the Center for Dance Education at the San Francisco Ballet, along with consulting for many organizations, including Harvard and Stanford universities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Kennedy Center. With his background in teaching social justice through arts education, and his degrees in psychology, sociology, and education, Mc Neal seems like a person expressly dreamed-up for this role.

Along with being the perfect person to help guide difficult conversations about race, Mc Neal was also familiar with the complexities of the organization, Shilvock says.

“As an opera company, we have so many different departments — we have musicians and singers and costume people and administrators,” Shilvock said. “We need someone who can look at all these different aspects.”

Mc Neal has loved opera since he was a little boy, and he says this is exactly where he wants to be.

“To me, where is the work to be done? Is it for me working for a small, arts-focused organization? I’d be spectacular there. But then who’s going to change these spaces? Who’s going to go into these very white, very privileged, Eurocentric spaces and create the pathway there?” Mc Neal said. “I pioneered this work when I was working at the San Francisco Ballet, creating opportunities and inroads for students of color and families to experience that Eurocentric art form. These are spaces in which people often don’t feel welcome or well-received for a host of reasons. Why can’t opera be another domain that anybody and everybody who has the talent and the interest can excel in or take part in? It seems to me not only should we not relegate ethnic dance to populations of culture, we should not think of Western Eurocentric art forms like opera as being only for elite populations. I feel like part of my job as a social-justice advocate is to create these bridges that create the civic connectivity that I think is possible across art forms.”

One of the first things he needs to do is establish a common language so they can have conversations about what it means to be equitable, Mc Neal says. He’s been meeting with different departments and they all define terms like “access” and “white privilege.” Mc Neal realizes these issues may not be easy for people to talk about, or to admit to their colleagues that they don’t understand certain expressions.

“The first thing we talk about is building trust,” he said. “I start with diversity and we unpack together what that means, and we talk about unconscious bias and we talk about the word “inclusion,” because diversity without inclusion is impotent.”

After meeting with people on staff, Mc Neal will have these conversations with board members. He is trying to get people to realize their personal stake in creating an inclusive organization.

“Some people don’t understand that this is not about others, this is about us. They just don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “That is probably my biggest challenge, to help some people understand why I’m here.”

Although there have been challenges, Shilvock says he is delighted by what’s happened in just the few months that Mc Neal has been head of this department. Because of all of Mc Neal’s background and training, he has an authoritative voice, Shilvock says.

“We’re having conversations about diversity in casting onstage and how do we use language and how do we use data and what are the right questions to ask to allow us to have these conversations with more rigor and purpose,” Shilvock said. “Chip’s a phenomenal communicator and listener, and he understands complexities and gets to the root of things. We had conversations about race in a rehearsal process, which is tremendous for the cast.”

Mc Neal also works on events to bring home the relevance of main productions through such ancillary events as conversations with community members about homeless families during the production of Hansel and Gretel and a planned conversation about incarceration when the company puts on Fidelio.  

This isn’t just about personal growth, Mc Neal says. It’s to keep the opera healthy and sustainable.

“We know we have older, dying, greying audiences,” he said. “So if you’re going to build audiences of the future, then you’ve got to build the company of the future and the art of future to engage the audiences of the future.”

Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She writes for radio, print, and the web, including Smithsonian.com, Daily Beast, 48 Hills, HyperallergicLatino USA, Women’s Media Center, California Magazine, and SF Weekly. She also teaches adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco.