The Southern Pian Society, the Music Department affinity group for graduate students of color, was named after the two tenured women of color on the faculty of the music department: Eileen Southern (1920-2002) and Rulan Pian (1922-2013). It was the brainchild of ethnomusicology graduate student Krystal Klingenberg, who articulated the need for such a group in a letter co-written with fellow ethno grad student Matthew Leslie Santana in the spring of 2016 that addressed faculty diversity in the music department.
"We had two asks: one, that the next faculty member hired be a person of color and two, that the department support an affinity group for graduate students who self-identify as students of color. We knew the faculty couldn't legally promise that the next hire would be a scholar of color, but we were thrilled that Braxton Shelley was appointed Assistant Professor in the summer of 2017. The department gave us a budget to support the affinity group, and in the fall of 2016 we started programming."
The group gets together to share experiences, support, and information. They also arrange informal meetings with Harvard visiting professors of color--George Lewis, Alejandro Madrid, Jason Palme--and with current and former faculty, such as Shelley, Vijay Iyer, Yosvany Terry, Sindhumathi Revuluri, and Esperanza Spalding.
"We want to get to know these professors of color as models for how to navigate the academy," says Klingenberg. "One of the big points people make--in academia in general--about not diversifying faculty is that there are not enough worthy candidates in the pipeline. You can hear the same argument about women, and you have to wonder, did they look? This group is an opportunity for people who share an identity and affiliation to get together and chat, with a commitment to strengthening that pipeline by our support of each other."
Laurie Lee, Klingenberg's co-programmer this year, agreed that "generational change stands as much on strong peer networks as it does on student-advisor relationships. Aside from the work we do to reach up and make connections with professors, we also reach out to prospective students of color who are considering entering the PhD program at Harvard."
The Southern-Pian Society hosted their first public talk in April 2018. Will Cheng's (PhD Nov '12) "'His Music Was Not a Weapon': Black Noise, Breakable Skin, and the Plundered Voice of Jordan Davis," combined music scholarship and activism. The talk was inspiring and thought-provoking, and the group is looking to produce more talks next year.
"This is my 6th year in the PhD program," Klingenberg says. "I didn't fully understand the level of grit required for this journey at the outset. It takes a particular kind of emotional fortitude, and it's a little isolating, even more so for students of color. The goal of this group is to make it a little less so. It's been really wonderful to forge new relationships and feel a new camaraderie."
Klingenberg has found from talking with visiting professors that groups like theirs--formal groups that are endorsed and supported by their departments--do not exist in other universities.
"I try to get the idea out there, make it part of the conversation with visiting professors so that more groups will form. There are studies that document the large role social support plays in the successful completion of grad students of color and if departments want to support their POC students, encouraging the creation of affinity groups is a great way of doing so."