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Lecolion Washington is the Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston, an organization aiming to transform lives by providing equitable access to excellent music education and arts experiences. Lecolion has long been an advocate for music as a means for social change, previously serving as co-founder and Executive Director of the PRIZM Ensemble, a Memphis-based organization that builds diverse community through chamber music education, youth development, and performance. He has also served on the faculty of the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival in South Africa, and has coached chamber music, performed concerts, and conducted masterclasses all over the world.
Zoe Dobuler: What is your background, and how did you find your way to the Community Music Center of Boston?
Lecolion Washington: I was born and raised in the Dallas area. I went to the University of Texas at Austin, where I started off as a chemical engineering major and then I switched to music education and went to bassoon performance from there. I then went to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and then I started working soon after that — I taught bassoon at the University of Missouri and at the University of Memphis.
While I was in Memphis, my wife and I founded a non-profit called the PRIZM Ensemble. That project really started to grow and became much larger than we ever expected it would. Right around 2014–15, I started thinking that maybe there was something else for me outside of the performance space and academia, so I started to look around. I really enjoyed what I was doing in Memphis — I was also working with an organization called the Memphis Music Initiative and I was really enjoying how broad the work was that I was doing.
But then I saw this job posting at the Community Music Center of Boston and it was an opportunity for me to do everything that I was doing, but all in one place, for one organization, rather than having a performance career and separately teaching at a university and running my own non-profit, and working for the Memphis Music Initiative, and doing some consulting — I could do everything I knew how to do toward the benefit of one organization. So, that really spoke to me.
ZD: You joined the Community Music Center in late 2017. What were your goals for your first year, and what are you hoping to accomplish in 2019?
LW: We’re a large organization: We have programs all over the city, in 15 different neighborhoods and we work with 5,000 students in multiple different types of programs. We have a teaching artist program, on-site programming, after-school programming, music therapy. So, we have all these programs, and not only do we have a lot of programs, but we also have an almost 110-year history, and just trying to digest all of that in the first year was a lot! And so I really just wanted to understand what the place was, what our work was, start the early stages of developing a vision and planting some seeds that would lead to a much more robust understanding of the organization so that I could create a vision for it. I would say that a lot of the first year was centered around learning.
One of the things that we at CMCB are working on — as we’re preparing for the future —is really creating a culture of learning. Making it a space in which people feel like they can learn, but also that also means being a more inclusive space and a more diverse space. And when I say diverse, I mean on some level specifically racially diverse. And I think that CMCB is really a place that’s openly and honestly having conversations around racial diversity, particularly as it relates to the arts. Having open and honest and candid conversations around being inclusive and being relevant in our city. Not only in our programming, but in who we are, and not just as it relates to optics — not just what we look like — but we think about it from the perspective of power as well. Who are the people making decisions, and who are the people who are empowered — not just who is in the room when decisions are made, but who has power in the room when decisions are made? And are we thinking about that from an equity perspective? And I do think that’s something we’re looking at accomplishing in 2019, really being a leader in that space, particularly as it relates to the arts in Boston.
When I think about CMCB as an organization, though, I think that our role in the city in the future is going to be very strong and very important and very relevant. I think there was a period of time in which, as an organization, we were the best kept secret in town, but I think we’re moving past that. We really want people to know the vast impact we have on the city of Boston, because we really want to learn what the best way is that we can support everything happening here.
Because Boston seems like it’s going through a transformation as well — it’s evolving. So, I think it’s a good time for an organization like CMCB — and every organization that has a new leader — it’s a good time for them to evolve as well, and to evolve along with the city. It’s really exciting for me to be a new leader here, now, because there’s so much vibrancy that on some level you can get caught up in the current of change that’s happening now. And that’s unique; it’s not something that’s happening elsewhere in the country.
ZD: You’ve written that you see music as a powerful agent of social change. Can you speak a bit more about that, and how you see music positively impacting communities, particularly in Boston?
LW: I think a lot of things have the possibility for enacting social change, but I’m not someone who believes that just because you gave a student a violin that you have engaged in social justice work. There’s a lot more to it. If you give a violin to a student in an underserved community — a lot of people think about things solely from an access and opportunity perspective, and I think that’s important, but there also has to be quite a bit of intention in the work. So, when I think about music as a tool for social change, it’s really getting a young person, or someone who is potentially with special needs, giving them an opportunity to see that they can do more than they ever thought they could do. That’s one thing. But outside of what it does for an individual, also thinking about what it does for a community, however one defines a community. Getting a group of people to see things the same way, getting people to come together who may never come together outside your involvement with them — I think that’s when you start engaging in social change.
And in a city like Boston that can exist in a lot of silos, creating opportunities — and consistent opportunities — to break down the silos is important. What I notice about CMCB is that we have an opportunity and the potential to do really well, just because of the sheer fact that we have so much programming, and deeply embedded programming, in so many different communities. We can strengthen our relationships in those communities, but really move on to bridging relationships between communities. I think that we’re an organization that can really do that in a unique way.
ZD: Having made the move to Boston relatively recently, what are your impressions of Boston’s music universe?
One of the things that’s been eye-opening to me about being in Boston is that it’s not just a music city. I think it’s an arts city. It’s a city that really heavily values the arts in multiple different forms — the performing arts, visual arts, and literary arts as well. It’s an amazing city overall for the arts. But about the music scene, it’s pretty broad: You can experience a lot of different kinds of music here. Of course, there’s the classical-leaning things, but then you also have lots of things that are very culturally specific. You have African drumming and an organization called Castle of Our Skins that plays great music by black composers. You can go to things at the PAO Arts Center in Chinatown for performances there. So, definitely it’s been fun to be out and see just how much music there is here. Because you’ve got the New England Conservatory and Berklee, too. There’s a lot going on, and it seems to me that whatever genre of music you’re looking for, you can find it here.
But the city is not just a music city like a New Orleans or a Memphis. Boston is a city that’s got really robust arts programming across the board, and that’s been a really great thing for me to notice, not just as a new Bostonian but also as a parent. My wife and I have two sons, and they have access to all that programming too, which is really great.
This Change Maker interview was originally published May 2019 on the HubWeek blog.
The HubWeek Change Maker series showcases the most innovative minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world. Know a change maker you think should be interviewed for this series? Nominate them here.